A Culture of ‘Two’: Irigaray’s Rethinking of Philosophy

by David Fan

Luce Irigaray’s relation to philosophy is complex. Regarding her own project, Irigaray writes that “criticizing patriarchy or phallocracy does not suffice… it has to be accompanied by the construction of another culture.”[i] In other words, Irigaray not only critiques the phallocentric biases inherent to Western philosophy, she also seeks to provide an alternative account of philosophy which respects sexual difference and the specificity of the feminine. Another key aspect of her project entails a radical rethinking of philosophy as an intersubjective endeavour. This essay will argue that for Irigaray, the question of sexual difference is the foundation from which philosophy can be radically transformed. Firstly, I will discuss the ways in which Irigaray critiques the phallocentrism and sexual indifference present within Western philosophy. Secondly, I will discuss Irigaray’s notion of speaking (as) woman as an alternative gesture towards recognising feminine subjectivity. And lastly, I will discuss how, through her strategic construction of a culture of “Two” which recognises sexual difference, Irigaray reimagines philosophy as an intersubjective wisdom of love.

I. Sexual Indifference: Irigaray’s Critique of Philosophy

For Irigaray, Western philosophy is an implicitly masculine discourse which excludes the feminine. She writes, “any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine.’”[ii] In other words, Western philosophy fails in its theorisation of subjectivity to recognise the specificity of sexed subjects and the differences between masculine and feminine subjects. Within philosophical discourse, man creates an asymmetry of power and representation by positioning himself as the central, universal subject. On this point, Irigaray writes, “[t]o specularize and to speculate… where the greatest power lies, he thus becomes the ‘sun’ if it is around him that things turn, a pole of attraction stronger than the ‘earth.’”[iii] Her metaphor of the sun and the earth illustrates the phallocentric worldview in which everything (including woman) is defined in relation to man. By occupying the central position as the subject, man denies woman her specific subjectivity and relegates her to the position of the “object.” In addition, Irigaray describes through her notion of specularization (in reference to Jacque Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of the Mirror Stage) how the masculine subject projects his ego onto the world outside of him, which creates a narcissistic mirror-like structure in which he could only see himself.[iv] Metaphorically, for Irigaray, woman is the body/material of the mirror which remains unacknowledged and never reflected to herself.[v] Feminine subjectivity is thus erased in this structure under the so-called universal subject, which is always already masculine. The result of this erasure is that the seemingly universal or neutral subject in Western philosophy is a mode of representation only suitable for the masculine subject.

Given the phallocentric discourse in philosophy’s theory of subjectivity, Irigaray argues that philosophy becomes a primary site of appropriation which reduces the other to the “Same” or to the “One,” which then leads to sexual indifference in broader culture. In This Sex Which Is Not One, she writes that philosophy is the “discourse [which] sets forth the law for all others” with its “power to reduce all others to the economy of the Same…to eradicate the difference between the sexes.”[vi] For Irigaray, because male philosophers set up a subject-object dichotomy in Western metaphysics, the subject’s appropriative domination over objects becomes the only relation that is represented in philosophy. With man assuming the subject position which relegates woman to the object position, a monosexual culture is created through subordination of woman to man. This monosexual culture celebrates the Same or the One which is implicitly masculine. Irigaray explains this further: “[A]ll Western discourse presents a certain isomorphism with the masculine sex: the privilege of unity, form of the self, of the visible, of the specularisable, of the erection… there is not ‘a’ female sex.”[vii] In other words, Western philosophy as a path towards the Truth or the Absolute is only a narcissistic reflection of man’s sexual morphology: his visible phallus (the One). His self-obsession occurs at the expense of the female sex, which is either silenced, or represented only in relation to man. Since philosophy sets the theoretical framework for other discourses, this domination/appropriation in philosophy results in an under-representation of feminine sexuality and, therefore, sexual indifference in Western culture in general.

It is clear from the above discussion that Irigaray offers a critique of the phallocentrism and sexual indifference in Western philosophy. Such a critique opens up a space in which Irigaray provides an account of feminine subjectivity as a challenge to the monosexual, masculine economy in philosophy, from which a transformation of philosophy is then possible. This account is the notion of speaking (as) woman (parler-femme). As an alternative to the dominating masculine discourse, one may be tempted to interpret Irigaray’s notion of speaking (as) woman as a new language specific for “woman” and femininity. However, Elizabeth Grosz claims that such interpretation is a misconception of Irigaray’s work.[viii] To justify Grosz’s view, I will now discuss Irigaray’s intention in her account of speaking (as) woman.

II. Speaking (as) Woman: Irigaray’s Gesture towards Feminine Subjectivity

Indeed, one aspect of Irigaray’s account of speaking (as) woman (parler-femme) is to make space for feminine subjectivity. She writes, “[s]peaking (as) woman is not speaking of woman. It is not a matter of producing a discourse of which woman would be the object, or the subject.”[ix] Speaking of woman implies that woman is still trapped in an object position, appropriated by the phallocentric logic in dominant discourses. Instead, one needs to challenge the repression of feminine specificity within language itself. As Margaret Whitford argues, what is at stake is feminine enunciation (the position of the speaking subject) rather than énoncé (the content of the statement).[x] In other words, speaking (as) woman is a woman’s way of expressing feminine specificity by occupying the subject position in her own right while subverting the existing masculine modes of representation (that is, the logic of universality or of the Same). On this point (and as an example of parler-femme), Irigaray writes, “[w]e haven’t been taught, nor allowed, to express multiplicity. To do that is to speak improperly… Truth’s other side – its complement? its remainder? – stayed hidden… we were not supposed to be the same.”[xi] While deliberately breaking syntactical conventions of writing, Irigaray champions parler-femme as a gesture towards “an other” in relation to the universal Truth in masculine discourses. This feminine other is not an alternative universal Truth specific to the feminine, but is rather an open gesture towards plurality and differences, in comparison to universality and sameness. By disrupting the economy of the Same, this open gesture towards multiplicity creates the condition for feminine subjectivity to emerge.

Importantly for Irigaray, although the categories of “woman” and the “feminine” remain ontologically distinct from those of “man” and the “masculine,” they cannot be adequately defined in the representational systems currently available to us. Irigaray claims that within the dominating masculine syntax, “the feminine finds itself defined as lack, deficiency, or as imitation and negative image of the subject.”[xii] In other words, to theorise the feminine using the existing syntax (i.e., the division of man/woman, subject/object) is to inevitably reduce and appropriate feminine sexuality for the sake of the masculine universal (i.e., woman as not man, feminine as not masculine). Therefore, rather than a definitive account of feminine subjectivity, Irigaray’s parler-femme is an opening towards the feminine which “resists and explodes every firmly established form, figure, idea or concept.”[xiii] It is a defiant gesture that privileges fluidity and proximity, always projecting itself towards the feminine: the pluralistic, irreducible “other” that is historically excluded from the masculine economy of the One. Rather than defining femininity within a masculine discourse, Irigaray’s notion of parler-femme situates the feminine outside the dominant modes of representation and, in this process, subverts the masculine logic (of universality, Sameness and dichotomised subject/object relations) in symbolic representation.

Thus, Irigaray does not seek to form a new feminine language, since to define the feminine is to restrict its meaning to a singular category and engage in the phallocentric, reductive mode of representation. Rather, her notion of speaking (as) woman opens up the possibility for plurality and sexual difference within the existing symbolic order, by disrupting the masculine system of representation. Her intention is of “jamming the theoretical machinery itself”[xiv] and of reversing the domination of masculine syntax in language and discourses. By suggesting an alternative gesture which bypasses the masculine logic of universality and Sameness, her notion of speaking (as) woman provides a site of feminine enunciation from which recognition of the “other” becomes possible. As Rachel Jones points out, importantly, such an other has a sexual specificity (masculine or feminine) which is never neutral.[xv] In other words, she (or he) as a sexually embodied other, cannot be reduced to an object in relation to one’s own subjectivity.This strategic transition from a culture of the One (a monosexual economy) to that of “Two” (indicating a recognition of masculine and feminine subjectivities) paves the way to another radical aspect of Irigaray’s project: the transformation of philosophy into an intersubjective endeavour.

III. Wisdom of Love: Irigaray’s Transformation of Philosophy

Given the narcissistic, specularising, phallocentric notion of subjectivity in Western metaphysics (as discussed in Part I), philosophy becomes a solipsistic practice which, with its logic of Sameness, fails to engage with the other as an(other) subject. While, according to the history of Western philosophy, philosophy’s goal is to attain wisdom in the form of the universal, absolute truth, for Irigaray this goal needs to be questioned and reformulated. What she calls for is “a culture of proximity or closeness which has to accompany the discovery of the other as other.”[xvi] In this view, philosophy becomes an inquiry relating to one’s relation with other subjects in which sexual difference and the notion of alterity can be maintained rather than erased. This is only possible in a culture of Two rather than that of the One.

An important aspect of this transformation of philosophy is Irigaray’s reconfiguration of love as an intermediary between subjects. In her reading of Plato’s Symposium, Irigaray writes, “[p]hilosophy is not a formal learning, fixed and rigid, abstracted from all feeling. It is a quest of love… seeking an encounter with reality, the embrace, the knowledge or perhaps a shared birth.”[xvii] In this conception of philosophy as a quest of love, love becomes a space between the self and the other from which knowledge emerges. In other words, it is an interval between subjects in which genuine encounter and exchange can occur. Similarly to the notion of parler-femme (discussed in Part II), philosophy as love is an open gesture towards the other, always dynamic but never complete.[xviii] Instead of producing a fixed and rigid discourse, love is a becoming with the other which jams the machine of theoretical production, a possibility for discourse to circulate differently through intersubjective dialogue.[xix] It is through this reconfiguration of love that a new kind of relational philosophy emerges: one that dissolves the oppositions set up by masculine reasoning (i.e., object/subject, nature/culture, and so forth). Reciprocity and dialogue between two replaces the one-way discourse of secularisation and appropriation.

However, it is also important to note that while such an intersubjective relation privileges proximity (that is, infinite nearness) between subjects, it does not sacrifice the autonomy of the self or that of the other. For Irigaray, genuine encounter with the other is possible “only in the recognition of the irreducible difference between the one and the other.”[xx] Failing to approach the other as other risks nullification of the other’s alterity. This inevitably leads to fusion of the self and the other into the Same/the One/the Absolute, and thus, an appropriation of the other. It is therefore necessary for both subjects to recognise each other as irreducible subjects in order for an intersubjective relation to be established. In the context of philosophical practice, this implies that one must accept that “the other remains unknowable to us, that the other illuminates us in some way.”[xxi] Acknowledging the unknowability of the other means that one must resist the temptation to grasp, to analyse, to judge, or to reduce the other through concepts or schemata that are already familiar to oneself. Instead, one must “listen-to in the present, to enter into dialogue with a thought, with a way of speaking.”[xxii] Listening and dialogue allow us to ethically encounter the other, whose world remains foreign and unknowable to us, without coercively assimilating his or her world into our own. Philosophy, when conceived in this way, is only possible between at least two autonomous subjects (rather than one) in which difference, plurality and alterity are preserved.


In this essay, I have argued that Irigaray’s question of sexual difference offers a strategic lever from which she radically transforms philosophy into an intersubjective endeavor. Her critique of phallocentrism in Western philosophy and its privileging of the Same/the One reveals its narcissistic structure, which centres masculine logic as the universal–the only proper mode of representation at the expense of feminine subjectivity. In response to this form of theoretical domination, Irigaray’s notion of parler-femme outlines an open gesture towards the feminine other, which resists masculine definition, assimilation, and appropriation. From this fundamental urgency to recognise the other as a subject and to develop a strategic construction of a culture of Two, Irigaray reconceives philosophy as a wisdom of love: an ethical exchange between two irreducible subjects, which is engaged through listening and dialogue.

David Fan is a part-time Bachelor of Arts student majoring in Philosophy. His main interest lies in French Continental philosophy, especially in the works of Luce Irigaray and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.


[i] Luce Irigaray, Luce Irigaray: Key Writings (London: Continuum, 2004), viii.

[ii] Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornwell University Press, 1985), 133.

[iii] Irigaray, Speculum, 134.

[iv] Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (London: Routledge, 1991), 34.

[v] Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 34.

[vi] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornwell University Press, 1985), 74.

[vii] Luce Irigaray, “Women’s Exile: Interview with Luce Irigaray,” trans. Couze Venn. Ideology and Consciousness 1 (1977): 64.

[viii] Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989), 127.

[ix] Irigaray, This Sex, 135.

[x] Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 41-42.

[xi] Irigaray, This Sex, 210.

[xii] Irigaray, This Sex, 78.

[xiii] Irigaray, This Sex, 79.

[xiv] Irigaray, This Sex, 78.

[xv] Rachel Jones, Irigaray: Towards a Sexuate Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 7.

[xvi] Irigaray, Key Writings, 6.

[xvii] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornwell University Press, 1993), 24.

[xviii] Michelle Boulous Walker, Slow Philosophy: Reading against the Institution (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 79.

[xix] Sarah Tyson, “Reclamation from Absence? Luce Irigaray and Women in the History of Philosophy,” Hypatia 28, no. 3 (2013): 493.

[xx] Irigaray, Key Writings, 30.

[xxi] Irigaray, Key Writings, 24.

[xxii] Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, trans. Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluháček (London: Continuum, 2002), x.


Boulous Walker, Michelle. Slow Philosophy: Reading against the Institution. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989.

Irigaray, Luce. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Translated by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornwell University Press, 1993.

Irigaray, Luce. Luce Irigaray: Key Writings. London: Continuum, 2004.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornwell University Press, 1985.

Irigaray, Luce. The Way of Love. Translated by Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluháček. London: Continuum, 2002.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornwell University Press, 1985.

Irigaray, Luce.  “Women’s Exile: Interview with Luce Irigaray.” Translated by Couze Venn. Ideology and Consciousness 1 (1977): 62-76.

Jones, Rachel. Irigaray: Towards a Sexuate Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.

Tyson, Sarah. “Reclamation from Absence? Luce Irigaray and Women in the History of Philosophy.” Hypatia 28, no. 3 (2013): 483-498.

Whitford, Margaret. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine. London: Routledge, 1991.

Featured photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

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