Table of Contents


Key Contemporary Thinkers

Title page

Copyright page


List of Abbreviations

Introduction: Towards a Sexuate Philosophy

1 Approaching Irigaray: Feminism, Philosophy, Feminist Philosophy

The Importance of Style

Irigaray and Philosophy

Transforming Philosophy as a Feminist Project

Irigaray and Feminist Philosophies: Equality and Difference

Irigaray and the History of Philosophy

Thinking Other-Wise

2 Re-Visiting Plato’s Cave: Orientation and Origins


Returning to Plato’s Cave

A Cave like a Womb

Forgetting We Have Forgotten

Back to Front and Upside-Down

Origin and Offspring: A Disorienting Mimicry

The Wall Face that ‘Works All Too Well’

The Artistry of Mirrors

3 The Way Out of the Cave: A Likely Story . . .

The Prisoner and his Shadow

More Mirrors

The Maternal–Material: Blindspot of Metaphysics

Metaphysical/Metaphorical Resources

The Forgotten Passage

Contact and Contiguity

Reclaiming Diotima: The Wisdom of Love

4 Woman as Other: Variations on an Old Theme

Irigaray on Aristotle: Woman as a ‘Mutilated Male’

Plotinus: Freezing over the Mother-Matter

Irigaray Reading Descartes

The Self-Sufficient Meditator

The Need For An Other: God

Nature without Gaps

Thus Was I Reborn in Wonder

Kantian Reversals

Earthquakes and the Anxiety of Inversion

An Unanalysed Remainder

Re-Framing the World

5 Freud, Lacan, and Speaking (as a) Woman

Freud on Femininity

Mirroring Plato

The Mute and the Melancholic

Mothers and Others: Lacan and the Non-Existence of ‘Woman’

The Other of the Other

Speaking in the Feminine/Speaking (as) Woman

6 The Status of Sexuate Difference

When Our Lips Speak Together

Appealing to the Body: The Risk of Essentialism

From Strategic Essentialism to Symbolic Transformation

Refiguring the Female Body and the Form/Matter Distinction

Ethics and/as Poetics: Recalling Being (as) Two

The Sexuate, the Sexual, and the Heterosexist

Gender/Genre and the Ontological Status of Sexuate Difference

Displacing (Hetero)Sexism through the Sexuate

7 An Ethics of Sexuate Difference

Irigaray and Antigone: Disrupting a Hegelian Dream

Hegel versus Lacan: Doubling Dialectics for a Female Subject

Antigone’s Call

Cultivating Alterity

Refounding Ethics on Sexuate Difference

Irigaray, Cultural Difference, and Race


The Incalculable Being of Being Between



Key Contemporary Thinkers

Jeremy Ahearne, Michel de Certeau

Michael Caesar, Umberto Eco

M. J. Cain, Fodor

Rosemary Cowan, Cornel West

George Crowder, Isaiah Berlin

Maximilian de Gaynesford, John McDowell

Oliver Davis, Rancière

Reidar Andreas Due, Deleuze

Chris Fleming, Rene Girard

Andrew Gamble, Hayek

Neil Gascoigne, Richard Rorty

Nigel Gibson, Fanon

Graeme Gilloch, Walter Benjamin

Karen Green, Dummett

Espen Hammer, Stanley Cavell

Christina Howells, Derrida

Fred Inglis, Clifford Geertz

Simon Jarvis, Adorno

Sarah Kay, Žižek

Valerie Kennedy, Edward Said

Moya Lloyd, Judith Butler

James McGilvray, Chomsky

Lois McNay, Foucault

Dermot Moran, Edmund Husserl

Stephen Morton, Gayatri Spivak

Harold W. Noonan, Frege

James O’Shea, Wilfrid Sellars

William Outhwaite, Habermas, 2nd Edition

Kari Palonen, Quentin Skinner

John Preston, Feyerabend

Chris Rojek, Stuart Hall

William Scheuerman, Morgenthau

Severin Schroeder, Wittgenstein

Susan Sellers, Helene Cixous

Wes Sharrock and Rupert Read, Kuhn

David Silverman, Harvey Sacks

Dennis Smith, Zygmunt Bauman

James Smith, Terry Eagleton

Felix Stalder Manuel Castells

Geoffrey Stokes, Popper

Georgia Warnke, Gadamer

James Williams, Lyotard

Jonathan Wolff, Robert Nozick

Ed Pluth, Badiou

Stacy K. Keltner, Kristeva

Title page


I would like to thank my colleagues in Philosophy and the ‘Women, Culture and Society’ Programme at Dundee; the students from those programmes who took the time to read and discuss Irigaray with me; and Nicholas Davey and Stephen Houlgate, who provided valuable encouragement and perspective at key stages of the project.

The feedback from the anonymous readers was invaluable in the development of this book; I would like to thank them for their comments and hope I have responded adequately to their thoughtful suggestions here. My thanks also to Oneworld for the impetus that led to this publication and to Mike Harpley in particular for his generous advice. My editor at Polity, Emma Hutchinson, provided excellent and timely guidance, particularly during the final stages of writing. David Winter’s patient editorial assistance and support was greatly appreciated.

Special thanks to Christine Battersby, who first introduced me to Irigaray’s work and who has taught me so much about reading (and writing about) philosophical texts; and to my friends – who were often my readers – for their philosophical insight and generosity with their time and support, especially Tina Chanter, Catherine Constable, Beth Lord, Aislinn O’Donnell, Johanna Oksala, Andrea Rehberg, Fanny Söderbäck, and Alison Stone.

With thanks to my mother, June, and my sisters, Beki and Naomi, for their constant love and support; and to Kurt, for reading and commenting on multiple drafts, for thinking with me, and for helping me to think further.

The publishers wish to acknowledge permission to reprint the following copyright material:

Material reprinted from Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, translated by Gillian C. Gill. Translation copyright © 1985 by Cornell University Press. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

Material reprinted from Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, translated by Catherine Porter & Carolyn Burke. Translation copyright © 1985 by Cornell University Press. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

List of Abbreviations


Between East and West: From Singularity to Community, trans. S. Pluháx10D_TimesNewRomanPSMT_12n_000100ek (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). First published as Entre Orient et Occident: De la singularité à la communauté (Paris: Grasset, 1999).


Democracy Begins Between Two, trans. K. Anderson (London: Athlone, 2000).


Elemental Passions, trans. J. Collie and J. Still (London: Athlone, 1992). First published as Passions élémentaires (Paris: Minuit, 1982).


An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. C. Burke and G. C. Gill (London: Athlone, 1993). First published as Éthique de la différence sexuelle (Paris: Minuit, 1984).


I Love to You: Sketch for a Felicity Within History, trans. A. Martin (London: Routledge, 1996). First published as J’aime à toi: Esquisse d’une félicité dans l’histoire (Paris: Grasset, 1992).


Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. G. C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985). First published as Speculum de l’autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974).


Speculum de l’autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974).


This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. C. Porter with C. Burke (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985). First published as Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un (Paris: Minuit, 1977).

Introduction: Towards a Sexuate Philosophy

This book seeks to guide the reader through Luce Irigaray’s transformation of western thought, showing how her project – at once critical and creative – generates the terms for a sexuate philosophy. The approach taken thus involves positioning Irigaray primarily as a feminist philosopher.1 This immediately raises numerous questions: what kind of feminist is Irigaray? What makes her work specifically philosophical? Why does it matter to position her as a philosopher? Indeed, given the patriarchal bias that her own work locates at the very heart of western philosophical thought, why should feminists have anything to do with philosophy? Conversely, why should philosophers not particularly concerned with feminism have anything to do with Irigaray?

In response, one of the aims of this book is to show that Irigaray’s sustained, if profoundly critical, engagement with western thought has much to contribute to key philosophical debates concerning metaphysics and ontology (questions about reality and being) as well as epistemology and ethics (questions about knowledge and value) – not least because she challenges the very terms in which these debates are traditionally framed. At the same time, the book aims to provide an in-depth guide to the philosophical grounding of Irigaray’s project for those drawing on her work to address specifically feminist concerns or issues of sex and gender. Such readers may approach Irigaray from a range of diverse fields including gender and women’s studies, queer theory, social and political thought, geography, history, film, art, literature, or architecture, as well as philosophy. The book seeks to offer an opening onto aspects of Irigaray’s work that may be less readily accessible for those without a prior training in the history of western philosophical thought. But perhaps more importantly, it hopes to show why it is worth undertaking the intensive philosophical work Irigaray demands of us, if our aim is to challenge and transform the inequitable gendered structures – as well as the gender blindness – that inform western thought and culture.

The reason for foregrounding Irigaray’s work as a philosopher is not because feminist philosophy has priority over other areas of feminist thought and praxis. Irigaray herself has conducted her theoretical work alongside her ongoing practice as a psychoanalyst and teacher, as well as her involvement in the realm of practical politics. Nor should the importance of other discourses to Irigaray’s own work be underestimated, most notably those of psychoanalysis and linguistics. Rather than a question of priority, the issue is one of specificity: this book aims to introduce readers to the specifically philosophical dimensions of Irigaray’s feminist project along with the ways in which she transforms the terms of both traditional and contemporary philosophical debate.

In keeping with this aim, the book’s guiding thread is Irigaray’s groundbreaking analysis of the history of western thought, Speculum of the Other Woman. In many ways, Speculum is feminist philosophy’s first critique. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant famously displaces sceptical doubts about whether our knowledge conforms to the reality of objects by showing how objects necessarily conform to our cognitive faculties.2 He thereby revolutionizes thought by grounding knowledge in the human subject rather than the objects known. In Speculum, Irigaray sceptically re-examines the philosophical subject’s dependence on the object and introduces new doubts about the supposed self-sufficiency and universality of that subject. She does so by showing how the subject’s identity is typically secured against a material, sensible realm aligned with the figure of woman. The supposedly ‘universal’ rational subject thus turns out to be implicitly male, while woman is mapped onto the position of object and ‘other’. This pattern of oppositional thinking means that woman is defined against a male subject, rather than in terms of her sexed specificity or as a subject in her own right. Despite his revolutionary approach, Kant is seen as repeating and reinforcing this pattern, together with the forgetting of sexual difference it implies. Indeed, according to Irigaray, western philosophy since Plato has failed to think sexual difference, in that it has failed to think this difference positively. Instead, it has reduced the difference between men and women to a specular structure in which woman is always the ‘other’ or mirror-image of the self-same (male) subject. By reminding philosophy that each human being is born from a mother who is also a woman, Irigaray asks us to remember that a human being is two: western thought must therefore make space for two (different) subjects by attending to the irreducible sexual difference between them. She thereby seeks a revolution in thought no less significant or transformative than Kant’s.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the details of Irigaray’s analyses, what matters more is the dramatic shift in perspective Speculum endeavours to produce, re-attuning philosophy to sexual difference and opening the way towards a culture of two, irreducibly different, subjects. While Speculum is thus a key text for understanding Irigaray’s project, it demands a familiarity with philosophy that some readers may initially find off-putting. Thus, a central aim of this book is to aid readers in engaging directly with Speculum itself; in turn, Speculum will serve as a frame through which to trace key aspects of Irigaray’s critical and transformative encounter with the philosophical tradition. The following chapters thus offer in-depth analyses of specific sections of Speculum, while pointing ahead to connections with Irigaray’s later work.

These connections will be particularly foregrounded in Chapters 6 and 7; however, the purpose of this book is not to give a descriptive summary of Irigaray’s extensive body of work, nor even of all her key texts. Rather, its aim is to provide readers with a way of approaching Irigaray – of ‘following her trajectory’, as one commentator puts it – that will aid them in reading and engaging with her texts for themselves.3 In particular, it seeks to equip readers to approach Irigaray’s writings with an attunement to their philosophical dimensions as well as to the ways in which philosophy is transformed via what Irigaray calls the ‘interpretive lever’ of sexual difference (TS, 72). This lever operates not only by drawing critical attention to the specific claims western philosophers have made about women, but by revealing the gendering that marks the fundamental conceptual structures of their thought. As Irigaray shows, this gendering is paradoxically dependent on a blindspot regarding sexual difference. It is this blindspot that her work seeks to expose and to overcome.

Sexuate Subjects, Sexuate Others

A further key aim of this book is to show that, right from the start, Irigaray’s project is never merely critical. While the intricate textual fabric of Speculum undoubtedly seeks to reveal and displace the blindspots of the tradition, it also contains many of the ideas which Irigaray will go on to elaborate more fully in her later works so as to cultivate ways of thinking, writing and living which are attentive to sexual difference. Among the keys to this project is Irigaray’s notion of the ‘sexuate’, a neologism used in English translations of her work (for the French sexué) as well as by Irigaray herself when writing and speaking in English. Although it already appears in the English translation of Speculum, this term becomes increasingly prominent in Irigaray’s later texts where she writes of the need for sexuate rights, sexuate identity, and a sexuate culture characterized by two (sexuate) subjects. In many ways, the notion of the sexuate captures Irigaray’s distinctive approach to the question of sexual difference; thus, one of the central tasks of this book is to unfold its significance. For now, however, it is worth noting that the ‘sexuate’ refers neither to a mode of being determined by biological sex nor to a cultural overlay of gendered meanings inscribed on a ‘tabula rasa’ of passively receptive matter. The ‘sexuate’ does not separate the becomings that shape our bodily being from the production of social and cultural meanings or behavioural dispositions. Rather, it signals the way that sexual difference is articulated through our different modes of being and becoming, that is, in bodily, social, linguistic, aesthetic, erotic, and political forms. In this book, I will move fairly fluidly between the ‘sexuate’ and ‘sexual difference’ (as does Irigaray). Broadly speaking, however, I understand sexual difference to be that which western culture has forgotten and which Irigaray seeks to recover, while the sexuate involves taking up a positive relation to sexual difference by acknowledging it as the irreducible difference which inflects every aspect of our being.

One reason why it is important to emphasize that the ‘sexuate’ maps neither onto pre-discursive biological differences nor onto gender understood as a purely discursive construct is because of the pervasiveness (and importance) of this kind of sex/gender distinction in much Anglo-American feminist debate. According to this distinction, ‘sex’ is generally understood as referring to our bodily existence as male or female, that is, as a matter of biology and anatomy, while ‘gender’ is used to refer to masculinity and femininity as cultural and social constructions. Many feminist thinkers have – for good reason – sought to privilege the (changeable) cultural constructions of gender and been suspicious of attempts to root social and political structures in appeals to the body: such appeals illegitimately make human structures seem ‘natural’ and hence un-changeable in ways that have all too often been used to legitimate discrimination against women. At the same time, others have been more suspicious of the normative power invested in the sex/gender distinction itself, and hence the supposed ‘naturalness’ of this very distinction has in turn been called into question, notably via the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.4 Indeed, part of the subversiveness and originality of Butler’s position lies in the way she so thoroughly problematizes any sustainable distinction between (biological) ‘sex’ and (socially constructed) ‘gender’. However, for the purposes of reading Irigaray, the most important point is that the sex/gender distinction which has been so important to Anglo-American feminist debates does not map neatly onto direct French equivalents:5 the terms ‘masculin’ and ‘féminin’ have a broader significance than their English counterparts, while ‘mâle’ and ‘femelle’ are used in a much narrower, more strictly biological sense (e.g. when determining the sex of animals). For this reason, the work of thinkers like Irigaray, as well as others who came to be aligned with the ‘new French feminisms’, is not structured around a clear sex/gender divide.6 Thus, when Irigaray uses the French ‘féminin’, this needs to be heard not as a direct equivalent to the English concept of the ‘feminine’ (understood as a culturally scripted set of attitudes, gestures and roles), but as encompassing women’s bodily existence as female, as well as the social and cultural significances of that bodily mode of being.

As others have noted, this absence of a clear-cut sex/gender distinction is to some extent an advantage, given the ways in which this distinction can trap feminist theory back into a mind/body or nature/culture divide that it typically seeks to escape.7 Moreover, one of the unfortunate effects of re-imposing a sex/gender distinction onto Irigaray’s work is that this tends to lead to the charge of ‘essentialism’: read through this frame, Irigaray’s appeals to female specificity are reduced to references to an unchanging and unchangeable body (women’s ‘sex’) that determines what women are as well as how they act and think. I agree with many other readers of Irigaray that the charge of essentialism is misplaced, an issue I return to more fully in Chapter 6. For Irigaray, while biological features undoubtedly set certain limits on our modes of being, this is far from saying that we are simply determined by our biology. On the contrary, Irigaray makes it repeatedly clear that what is at stake is how biological differences are represented and what kinds of social and cultural value they are given. Indeed, the best evidence that biological differences are defined through their social and cultural representations is found in the historically pervasive image of women’s sex as the inverse, lack or absence of a male sex organ. However, as will be shown in later chapters, it is crucial to Irigaray’s position that we not only recognize the ways in which bodies are informed by their cultural representations. This needs to be matched with an acknowledgement of the active power of matter to shape and give form: the female body cannot simply determine women’s being because bodies themselves are not unchanging and fixed, but active, animate, and generative. Thus, while the issue of Irigaray’s supposed essentialism is by now well-trodden ground in Irigaray scholarship,8 I have risked returning to it because I hope to add to the arguments against this reading by emphasizing the link between Irigaray’s deployment of images of the female body and her re-working of philosophical understandings of form and matter.

The absence of a clear-cut sex/gender distinction in Irigaray’s work is thus not merely a linguistic accident, but reflects a deep commitment to undoing the traditional oppositions between mind and body, nature and culture, form and matter, in ways that are central to Irigaray’s project. Instead of the sex/gender distinction then, we need to sensitize ourselves to the notion of ‘sexuate difference’ which is neither grounded in nature nor imposed by culture, but articulates both nature and culture, and the relations between them. The question Irigaray poses is whether – as individuals or collectively – we seek modes of being which cultivate the sexuate, or whether we obliterate the articulations of sexual difference under the demand of sameness. This book will show why Irigaray thinks that the history of western philosophy is one of obliteration (what she calls ‘dereliction’) that has been especially damaging for women; at the same time, it will seek to show how Irigaray begins to elaborate the terms for a philosophy of difference that would allow women to become subjects themselves, without sacrificing their sexuate specificity.

Given her critique of the way the subject has traditionally been constituted via the exclusion of a (female) other, Irigaray also has to allay the concern that any notion of the subject, sexuate or not, risks reinscribing a logic of identity that inevitably depends on the exclusion of difference. Thus, just as important as the question of how women can become subjects is the question of how to think men as ‘other’ to women without defining male otherness as the negation of female subjectivity – that is, without positioning men as lacking something women have or are. Such a reductive definition would repeat the very logic of the same which Irigaray is seeking to displace. This is where Irigaray’s distinctive approach to the question of irreducible otherness (or alterity) plays a crucial role. The claim that the so-called ‘universal’ subject is in fact implicitly male is well established in feminist philosophy (not least due to Irigaray’s own work), as is the idea that this subject has been constituted against woman who has historically been ascribed the position of man’s ‘other’. However, it is less often noted that this means that the project of undoing the supposed neutrality of the subject must be accompanied by undoing the supposed neutrality of the ‘other’. If the subject is never neutral, neither is the ‘other’. In place of the myth of undetermined, amorphous otherness, Irigaray seeks to recover the specificity of singular and always sexuate others, for it is by attending to the specificity of an other’s alterity that I prevent myself from judging them only on my own terms, as ‘more’ or ‘less’ different from me. Such modes of judging continue to adhere to an ideal of sameness and cover over the possibility of relating to the other as other: that is, as irreducible to my terms. Hence, in addition to a culture of two sexuate subjects, we need to recognize the sexuate specificity of ‘the other’, so that instead of being defined in relation to a single male subject, otherness can be approached by both sexuate subjects, male or female. It is the ethical responsibility of each of these subjects to cultivate ways of relating to others without negating or assimilating their differences. Thus, if finding a positive account of sexual difference is ‘one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age’ (ESD, 5), then ‘to positively construct alterity between [the sexes] is a task for our time’ (ILTY, 62).

Reading Irigaray: Shifts, Continuities, Criticisms

It is worth noting (as Irigaray herself does) that the concern with alterity between the sexes is already present in Speculum (see DBT, 137). This is important because of the way Irigaray’s work is often characterized as falling into three broad periods – indeed, Irigaray herself often describes her work in these terms. Thus, her early writings (including Speculum, first published in French in 1974) tend to be seen as primarily offering a critical deconstruction of the tradition, and as leading into a second phase that focuses more positively on the elaboration of a distinctively female identity; this in turn is seen as preceding a further shift in the essays of the late 1980s and 1990s, away from female subjectivity per se and towards a greater emphasis on the political as well as the relation between the sexes. This emphasis on the cultivation of a sexuate social and political world continues into Irigaray’s most recent work, though some of her key texts from 2000 onwards have also been marked by a return to a more extended engagement with philosophical texts and thinkers.

Such divisions are a helpful working guide to the development of Irigaray’s thought; nonetheless, they tend to obscure the continuities which run through her work and, in particular, the extent to which the issues that occupy her later writings are already prefigured in the earlier texts, where her engagement with them is often well underway. Thus it is worth noting that when Irigaray describes her own work in terms of three distinct phases, her descriptions often highlight the continuity of concern underlying these phases as much as the shifts in emphasis. In ‘The Question of the Other’, for example, the first phase of her project, which critiques woman’s reduction to the ‘other’ of man, is also described in terms of ‘free[ing] the two from the one’; the second, which foregrounds the cultivation of a female subject, is described as returning to ‘the reality of the two’; while the third, which attends to how this feminine subject might relate to her other, explores the alterity between the sexes required for a genuine culture of two (DBT, 129; 131; 137–9). Thus, through the shifts in emphasis, there is a continued focus on the need to substitute ‘the two for the one in sexual difference’. This organizing thread is, for Irigaray, the ‘decisive philosophical and political gesture’, a gesture ‘in favour of being-two as the necessary foundation of a new ontology, a new ethics and a new politics in which the other is recognized as other and not as the same’ (DBT, 141).

In keeping with this, my overall approach in this book will be to read Irigaray’s work against the backdrop of this continued concern with creating a culture of sexuate difference, or of ‘being-two’. The latter has itself been the subject of criticism in recent debates. Thinkers sympathetic to Irigaray’s project of recognizing female specificity have nonetheless been uneasy with her emphasis on ‘being-two’ because of the way this can seem to reinforce the normative heterosexism of the very culture she critiques. Others are equally uneasy about Irigaray’s explicit privileging of sexuate difference above other kinds of difference (including race), at least in terms of its metaphysical and ontological significance: the worry is that while Irigaray may not be a biological essentialist, she seems close to being an ontological one. I will return to these criticisms in the final two chapters of this book. However, for now I wish to situate my approach in relation to that taken by Maria Cimitile and Elaine Miller in the introduction to their co-edited volume, Returning to Irigaray. While taking seriously the suggestion that there is a conceptual break or ‘turn’ between Irigaray’s earlier and later writings, Cimitile and Miller also argue that ‘although the shifts in Irigaray’s later works may be more immediately striking to readers than their continuities, as scholars of Irigaray’s thought we cannot read these writings out of context, but must foster a dialogue around the question of just how the political focus of Irigaray’s recent thought emerges.’9 This echoes a view already expressed in Margaret Whitford’s Irigaray Reader, that the meaning of Irigaray’s later texts ‘depends on the complex analysis and infrastructure of the earlier work’.10 Along similar lines, I would suggest both that the philosophical dimensions of Irigaray’s thinking remain as important to her later work as its political focus, and that we cannot fully understand her later texts without taking into account the philosophical work already undertaken which informs and sustains them – work which some of her most recent texts, such as The Way of Love or Sharing the World, explicitly extend. As Whitford and others have also noted, the more direct style of some of Irigaray’s later essays poses its own challenges: their apparent straightforwardness can belie the complexity of thought which has led to such distilled arguments, and which means that familiar terms (such as ‘nature’) are often being used in quite unfamiliar ways.11

Like Cimitile and Miller, I do not seek to take up a position on the question of the ‘turn’ as such; instead, this book aims to equip readers to approach Irigaray’s later writings in ways that are more informed by an understanding of the key claims and commitments of her earlier work. In turn, my own approach has been centrally informed by the work of other interpreters who have explored the philosophical dimensions of Irigaray’s project, particularly Tina Chanter, Elizabeth Grosz, Cathryn Vasseleu, and Margaret Whitford. As Carolyn Burke observes, it is thanks to the in-depth analyses offered by such thinkers that ‘[Irigaray’s] rethinking of philosophy could be seen as the ground of her other forms of critique.’12 Indeed, in many ways, this book seeks to take up a space opened by Whitford’s Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine and expanded by texts such as Chanter’s Ethics of Eros. Together these works fulfil Whitford’s aim of enabling us to see Irigaray not only as a philosopher, but ‘as a feminist philosopher with the emphasis on both terms’.13 Whitford’s monograph also provides an initial answer to my opening questions: the specificity of Irigaray’s approach lies in the way she does philosophy ‘in the feminine’. In this book, I seek to expand our understanding of this distinctive mode of philosophizing and thereby to make a further contribution to the shared project of delineating ‘the philosophical import of Irigaray’s rereading of both philosophy and feminism.’14

This project has recently been expanded by the important – and very different – interpretations of Irigaray’s later work offered by Penelope Deutscher, in A Politics of Impossible Difference, and Alison Stone, in Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference. These texts are exemplary insofar as they each show how Irigaray’s thought can productively be taken forward in ways that are both generous and critically nuanced. My approach is influenced by both readings, though it also differs from both in some key respects. Thus, I agree with Stone that Irigaray’s project involves a thorough-going rethinking of the form/matter distinction such that matter actively participates in a fluid generation of forms.15 However, Stone argues that this rethinking of matter results in the emergence of a (more consistent) realist essentialism in Irigaray’s later work; by contrast, in Chapter 6, I suggest that Irigaray’s conception of active matter more fully displaces the essentialist charge, in ways that are connected to her claims about the ontological status of sexuate difference. Equally, I agree with Deutscher that sexual difference for Irigaray is that which has been foreclosed by the tradition and thus, is a difference which we are called on to anticipate, rather than to recognize as if it were something already in existence. However, where Deutscher suggests that Irigaray is at her best when she leaves both the ontological status and the specific content of the term ‘sexual difference’ completely open, such that it operates as a pair of ‘empty brackets’,16 I would argue that sexuate difference for Irigaray is that which brackets our existence, insofar as it is the condition of possibility of our (coming into) being. The significance of sexuate difference can therefore be specified without treating it as a determinate object or thing. Thus, while I agree that a culture of sexuate difference is as yet only an anticipated possibility, I think Irigaray’s philosophy positions this possibility as both less hypothetical and more realizable than Deutscher might allow.

By drawing on the philosophically informed readings offered by previous interpreters, I hope this book will take others to their work, as well as to the illuminating essays in both Returning to Irigaray and the earlier collection, Engaging with Irigaray, co-edited by Whitford, Carolyn Burke, and Naomi Schor.17 As many of these readings show, the more explicitly philosophical aspects of Irigaray’s work remain inextricable from her concerns with psychoanalysis, politics, language, religion, and pedagogy. Thus, along the way, I will also refer to theorists who put Irigaray’s thought to work in these and other fields – including architecture, art, queer theory, literature, film, and theology. Finally, however, this book aims not only to offer a guide to Irigaray’s work as a feminist philosopher, but also to show why her work should be of particular interest to those engaged with the history of philosophy – whether from a specifically feminist perspective or not. Irigaray’s relation to this history is complex: on the one hand, her readings of thinkers such as Plato, Descartes, and Kant provide support for her identification of a general pattern in western thought whereby woman has been treated as object and ‘other’ for a male subject, while her female specificity has been erased through a logic of sexual indifference. On the other, she does not claim that this pattern, powerful though it is, constitutes a complete account of the history of philosophy and is attentive to the potential within the tradition for approaching difference otherwise, as her readings of Plato and Descartes also show. Moreover, Irigaray never claims that her own readings are themselves ‘indifferent’. They begin from the presumption that sexuate difference is worth cultivating. Her dialogues with the key figures in the western tradition should thus not be read as seeking to offer the ‘true’ interpretation of their texts; indeed, it is worth remembering that Irigaray’s main aim is to find ways of rethinking sexual difference, not to add to the existing scholarship on canonical figures. Nonetheless, what is exciting is the fresh philosophical perspective that often emerges by re-reading canonical texts through the lens of sexual difference. Such readings tell us as much about the limits and possibilities for thinking sexuate difference as they do about the philosophies of Plato, Descartes, and Kant – but they also open up new possibilities for approaching central philosophical questions about human beings, our values, and the world we inhabit.

Chapter Outline

The first chapter of this book offers an expanded frame for approaching Irigaray, paying particular attention to her relation to the history of philosophy as well as to feminist philosophy and the challenges of doing philosophy as a woman. The emphasis will be on the transformative aspects of her approach, as well as on the crucial issue of her style for, as Burke notes, we should read Irigaray’s work ‘not only as thought about sexual difference but an attempt to bring that difference into language.’18

As indicated above, this book takes Speculum of the Other Woman as its guiding thread. Chapter 2 thus begins with a more specific introduction to Speculum, as well as to the Platonic roots of western thought which are so thoroughly and critically investigated in that text. The chapter focuses in particular on Irigaray’s extended re-reading of Plato’s Myth of the Cave. For Irigaray, this myth reveals the fundamental repression and appropriation of the maternal that lies at the origins of western metaphysics. The chapter shows how her reading both justifies this claim and works to destabilize Plato’s grounding myth from within, opening the way towards a philosophy more capable of valuing both mothers and women.

Chapter 3 continues the analysis of Irigaray’s engagement with Plato, drawing on her readings of other Platonic texts, such as Timaeus and Symposium. A key aim of this chapter is to show the extent of the transformation Irigaray is seeking, and why for her, the project of generating a philosophy of sexual difference is inseparable from transforming the fundamental terms of western metaphysical thought, particularly those concerning the relation between form and matter. I show how Irigaray re-appropriates some of the terms for this transformative project from Plato’s own texts, not only in Speculum but also in her later analysis of Diotima’s speech from Plato’s Symposium. In contrast to the Platonic privileging of the eternal sameness of unchanging Forms, Irigaray re-assesses Diotima’s speech to recover a fecund becoming nurtured in the relation between two who are irreducibly different. Whereas the Forms are only accessible through the death of the body, this relational becoming acts as an affirmative repetition of birth.

In Chapter 4, I show how Irigaray’s critical analysis extends beyond Plato and across the western tradition via the work of Aristotle, Plotinus, and – in particular – Descartes and Kant. The chapter explores the ways in which Irigaray deploys the perspective of sexual difference to generate original and deepened critical readings of these well-known figures. Her analyses show how, in different ways, both the Cartesian self and the Kantian subject remain dependent on a female other while simultaneously disavowing that dependence. In contrast, Irigaray’s writing continually makes visible her own project’s dependence on her male forefathers, whose voices she explicitly draws upon and transformatively contests. She is thus able to acknowledge her debt to them without allowing them to determine her own project. It is in this spirit that, in her later text An Ethics of Sexual Difference, she takes up Descartes’ notion of wonder. As Chapter 4 shows, for Irigaray, wonder allows for a non-appropriative relation to the other, and hence holds open a space in which the sexes might encounter one other in their irreducible difference.

Chapter 5 addresses the significance of Irigaray’s engagement with psychoanalysis for her approach to philosophy. It focuses on the role of Freud and Lacan in her project, showing how she simultaneously deploys psychoanalysis to help reveal the gendering of western philosophy, while criticizing Freud and Lacan themselves for repeating and reinforcing woman’s traditional position as ‘other’. Contra Lacan, Irigaray seeks a space for an other woman, irreducible to the other of the male subject, and instead affirmed in her difference and specificity. Such a figure emerges as a possible subject when the (traditional) ‘object’ of male desire refuses her allocated role of passive complicity and begins to speak. Hence, this chapter also returns to the key issue of Irigaray’s style, to explore both the risks it involves and the critical transformations it enables her to generate.

These issues are taken up again in Chapter 6, in the context of Irigaray’s textual appeals to the female body in figures such as the two lips and the placental economy. These figures play a key role in Irigaray’s quest for a female subject who is neither the same as, nor defined against, her male counterpart, but articulated in her own terms. In this chapter, I argue that such figural appeals to the female body are not reductively ‘essentialist’ as some critics have claimed. Far from positioning women as passively determined by their bodies and biology, these figures contribute to the project of articulating woman as a sexuate subject for whom materiality and agency are no longer opposed. The chapter suggests that for the transformative force of such figures to be fully appreciated, they need to be read in the context of Irigaray’s thoroughgoing challenge to the traditional form/matter distinction as well as her re-working of the self–other relation.

Instead of reading her textual appeals to the female body as attempts to find ‘true’ representations of woman, I suggest that they are better understood in terms of an ethical relation; more specifically, drawing on Irigaray’s relation to Heidegger, I position such appeals as an instantiation of an ethical poetics – or rather, of poetics as the potential site of a feminist ethics. The chapter concludes by examining the claim that Irigaray’s later work betrays her emphasis on female specificity by succumbing to a form of heterosexism. While I suggest this criticism is largely (though not wholly) misplaced, there are important lessons to be learned from this debate. In the course of addressing it, I seek to clarify both Irigaray’s notion of genre and her claims about the ontological status of sexuate difference. In turn, however, these claims lead to further concerns about the privileging of the sexuate over other kinds of difference, especially those of race, to which I return in the next and final chapter.

Chapter 7 takes up Irigaray’s concern with the ethical, and in particular, with establishing an ethics of sexual difference. In a final reading of Speculum, the chapter begins by examining Irigaray’s engagement with Hegel. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which she plays Hegel’s reading of Antigone off against Lacan’s so as to release woman from her entombment in the figure of the m/other of the male subject. This generative response leads to Irigaray’s notion of a ‘double dialectic’ as well as her rethinking of the role of the negative. The chapter goes on to outline the continued significance of Antigone across Irigaray’s later writings before pursuing the question of ethics via the critical yet fecund dialogue that Irigaray conducts with the work of Immanuel Levinas, whose notion of alterity becomes a key thread in Irigaray’s later writings. I argue that, for Irigaray, rethinking woman’s relation to herself in ways that acknowledge the irreducibility of sexual difference is a condition for acknowledging the irreducible alterity of others. In other words, according to Irigaray, an ethics of sexual difference is the condition of ethical relations in general. The implications of this view are critically examined in relation to both Irigaray’s own comments on race and cultural difference, and the question of how an ethics of sexual difference that seeks to release woman from her role as man’s ‘other’ might remain open – and hence, ethically responsive – to other ‘others’ in the western tradition.

The book concludes by returning to Irigaray’s understanding of being (as) two. Far from trapping us within a fixed binary of male–female relations, I suggest that Irigaray’s account of ‘being two’ opens onto a thinking of difference and sexuate specificity that cannot be captured in any dualism or opposition. The thought that (human) being is two makes it impossible to quantify (human) being(s) as two, and instead calls on us to nurture and protect an incalculable difference.

Note on Translation

As this book is designed for those working in an English-speaking context, I have used the standard English translations of Irigaray’s work. While I have occasionally amended these to foreground a particular philosophical nuance, I am nonetheless indebted to the original translators, and in particular, to Gillian Gill for translating Speculum. Given the linguistic inventiveness of Irigaray’s writings, some nuances are inevitably lost in translation, although others are often gained.19 I hope that this book will encourage those who can to turn to the original French (or sometimes Italian) texts to rediscover Irigaray’s words for themselves.


1 While Irigaray has emphasized the philosophical grounding of her project, she is uneasy about any simple identification of her work as ‘feminist’ (see the interview, ‘Je – Luce Irigaray’, 97, 100).

2 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 22 [Bxvi–xvii].

3 Burke, ‘Translation Modified’, 257. For a perceptive essay on the different kinds of reading relationship invited by Irigaray’s texts, see Still, ‘Poetic Nuptials’.

4 Foucault argues that ‘sex’ is itself a construction, a ‘fictitous unity’ which operates to regulate behaviour, while Butler develops his ideas to position both ‘sex’ and gendered identity as retroactive effects, ‘illusions of substance’ fabricated via repeated gendered performances. See Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, 154; Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 186.

5 On this point, see Gatens, Feminism and Philosophy: Perspectives on Difference and Equality, 115; Stone, Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference, 9–10; Battersby, The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity, 18–23.

6 The rubric ‘New French Feminisms’ derives from Marks and Courtivron’s 1981 collection of the same name. While problematic because of its homogenizing effects, this label does carry historical significance insofar as it marks the moment when the work of a number of French feminist thinkers impacted on Anglo-American feminist thought. Alongside Irigaray, the two thinkers most commonly invoked under this rubric are Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva.

7 See Gatens’ critique of the sex/gender distinction in Imaginary Bodies, 3–20.

8 See Chanter, Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s rewriting of the Philosophers, preface and ch. 1; Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference, ch. 4; Gatens, Feminism and Philosophy, ch. 6; Grosz, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists, ch. 4; Schor, ‘This Essentialism Which is Not One’; Stone, Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference, chs 1 and 3; Whitford, Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, and ‘Reading Irigaray in the Nineties’.

9 Cimitile and Miller, Returning to Irigaray, 1–2; 4.

10 Whitford’s introduction in The Irigaray Reader, 12.

11 Ibid., 11; see also Burke, ‘Translation Modified’, 257.

12 Burke, ‘Translation Modified’, 250.

13 Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 3.

14 Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 9.

15 Stone’s original and productive interpretation explores Irigaray’s relation to the German Romantic philosophers (particularly Hölderlin and Schelling) in ways that allow her to read Irigaray in terms of a philosophy of self-differentiating nature which demands expression in a self-critical sexuate culture.

16 Deutscher, A Politics of Impossible Difference: The Later Work of Luce Irigaray, 29.

17 Both of these collections include essays reflecting on the state of play within Irigaray scholarship: see Schor’s ‘Previous Engagements: The Receptions of Irigaray’ and Whitford’s ‘Reading Irigaray in the Nineties’ in Engaging with Irigaray, and Cimitile and Miller’s introduction to Returning to Irigaray, along with Gail Schwab’s essay ‘Reading Irigaray (and her Readers) in the Twenty-First Century’. Taken together, these provide a helpful picture of key developments in Anglo-American readings of Irigaray over the past 30 years.

18 Burke, ‘Translation Modified’, 251.

19 On the challenges of translating Irigaray, see Burke’s ‘Translation Modified’.