Literary and Critical Theory Luce Irigaray
Claire Colebrook
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0028


Luce Irigaray (1932–) is a Belgian-born philosopher (holding a 1955 master’s degree from the University of Louvain) who moved to Paris to complete her education at the University of Paris (VIII), with a doctoral degree in linguistics and a later doctoral dissertation in philosophy. Her work engages with the major texts of the Western philosophical tradition, from the Presocratics to Martin Heidegger. Trained in philosophy, linguistics (with a dissertation on language and madness published in 1973), and psychoanalysis, Irigaray reads the entire tradition of Western thought as symptomatic of a failure to address its corporeal debt, and in this respect her work is a diagnosis of the desires and repressions that constitute the philosophical subject as a negation of a femininity that it can imagine only as an unrepresentable lack. She remains a practicing analyst, writer, researcher, and advocate of sexed rights. She has often been accused of essentialism, especially in the 1980s, when philosophy and theory were focused on the ways in which textuality mediated reality. In the early 21st century, when that textualism is being rejected and there are now positive ways of thinking about life, bodies, and matter, Irigaray’s work is being reread and reinterpreted. The description of Western philosophy as a phallogocentrism that has assumed a specific morphology of unified and solid beings and subjects, and that could be countered by a philosophy that contemplated fluidity, the elemental, touch, the in-between, and the multiple both earned her criticism for being an essentialist and tied her to a broader movement of écriture féminine, a phrase coined by Hélène Cixous, whose work was initially and ultimately quite different from Irigaray’s but whose general critique of a Western culture of binaries that privileged disembodied reason did provide some (if misleading) common ground. Écriture féminine was often used broadly to refer to the movement of French feminism that questioned the supposedly neutral-speaking subject at the heart of philosophy. Irigaray’s work first entered the Anglo-American scene of feminist thought alongside the writings of Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Sarah Kofman, Christine Delphy, Michèle Le Doeuff, and others. Irigaray was interpreted as one voice in “French feminism” that differed from Anglo-American feminism because of the emphasis on positive sexual difference.

Primary Texts

In addition to providing a psychoanalysis of Western metaphysics, Irigaray provides a rigorous philosophical and phenomenological critique of the framing narrative of psychoanalysis, especially as it is articulated in her teacher Jacques Lacan’s “return to Freud.” Irigaray’s relation to Lacanian psychoanalysis was never that of a dutiful daughter; she was famously expelled from the École Freudienne in Paris and was removed from her teaching duties at the University of Paris. She continued to work as a researcher at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris but has progressively moved away from philosophical and psychoanalytic projects to questions of more immediate political theory, including an argument for a conception of human rights that takes account of sexual difference, and—even more recently—an articulation of a political theory that would embrace sexually differentiated humans’ relationships to nature in a manner that breaks with centuries of what she originally referred to as “phallogocentrism.” Although there is a clear shift from her early work, written as a playful, literary, and highly complex reading of the philosophical tradition, to a more activist style of constructing a future by way of thinking of practices such as yoga and relationships between mothers and daughters and men and women, one strand is continuous: sexual difference for Irigaray offers a way of thinking beyond Western patriarchy’s self-enclosure and logic of the same. Her early-21st-century work reflects on her early exclusion from the institutions of psychoanalysis and philosophy; she is quite clear that her rejection by the École Freudienne demonstrates a nihilistic tendency in Western thought that her own work has sought to overcome. Here is Irigaray in 2016, quoting an earlier text she wrote regarding her exclusion; this testifies to the profound impact that her earlier career has sustained on her sense of place in Western thought: “As I write in the text ‘Between Myth and History: The Tragedy of Antigone’: ‘Fortunately, if I have been excluded from society—from universities, psychoanalytical institutions, circles of scientists and even friends, in part from publishing houses and, more recently, from my house itself—I have not been deprived of my relation to the natural world. Expelled from public organizations, enclosed or shrouded with a silence that I sometimes felt to be the opaque wall of a tomb, I have not been deprived of my relation to air, to the sun, to the plant and animal worlds. I have been expelled from the polis, the city, the human society to which I belonged and sent back to the natural world that my contemporaries no longer appreciate or consider of much value, and hence something of which it was unnecessary to deprive me. Being sent to the natural world in this way has allowed me to survive or, better, to rediscover what life itself is.’” This quotation is taken from a coauthored volume with the philosopher Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being (see Irigaray and Marder 2016, cited under Plants and Animals, p. 32). Here she reiterates the effect that the response to her first book had to her subsequent writing trajectory: “Through the event that Speculum provoked, I have been sent back to the thing that my tradition neglected: life itself” (Irigaray and Marder 2016, p. 32). This moment of reflection and self-definition helps us negotiate our way through the decades and volumes of Irigaray’s corpus.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.