Nathalie Tornéus-Ek — Epistemology of the Negative: The Not-Knowing of the Other

In analytic philosophy, not to know something, to remain without knowledge about something, is often seen as a mere negation of possible knowledge due to insufficient epistemological   competence. This not-knowing is generally considered an undesirable condition that ought to be overcome, often by more exact measuring or more penetrating methods applied to the object of study. However, this project aims at investigating the notion of not-knowing from a positive and constructive point of view, in accordance with the philosophy of Luce Irigaray about our being unable to fully know and to fully grasp the other as differently sexuated. I argue that our being unable to know this other in an exhaustive way opens up to an epistemology of a positive not-knowing – a not-knowing that is neither default nor needs to be overcome, but is an existential condition of our being in the world. Hence, an investigation of what means respecting the difference between me and the other would be a starting point for an epistemology of the negative and the possible positive account of  our not-knowing.

For Irigaray, difference is a key element to define what it is to be human. The challenge is to let this difference be and not try to overcome it by subsuming the other under my wills and concepts: to let the other be different. But, according to Irigaray, in Western tradition, we have failed to maintain this difference and, instead, have been trained in reducing difference to sameness. And yet, such a reduction of the other to the/a same is not “merely” the reduction of another person but also a reduction of our possibility of thinking. Thus, our being unable  to think of the otherness of the other has severe consequences for science and philosophy. But, this bond between how to think of the other and to think in general is a promise: if I could let be the difference of the other, and cultivate the conditions for our meeting in difference, a new epistemology could be gained: an epistemology that does not depreciate and even cancel out the unknown but, on the contrary, cultivates our ability to acknowledge the unknown – but in a way that maintains its difference and alterity.

By taking into account the structure of my subjectivity and that of the other and  examining how, together,  we can contribute to the subjectivity of each other, we establish the basis for the conditions for our meeting in difference. The difference between two  human beings naturally different is, in Irigaray’s philosophy, an absolute and irreducible difference – this difference can never be overcome. These two are not complementary nor supplementary (To Be Two, p. 34), and the two cannot  become one whole, as is sometimes proposed by philosophers (among others, Aristofanes in Plato’s Symposion). The two persist in a constant approaching and distancing as both are drawn towards each other thanks to the difference between them, but they are always sent back to themselves due to their unsurmountable difference, without being able to really exceed their limits in relation to the other. In this approaching-distancing, a space between the two is created, “a third” (The Way of Love, p. 9), and it is thanks to this space that the other and I can meet in difference. Further, this space is always evolving and is thus always created anew: it cannot be defined once and for all, but must keep a dynamic existence. This point is crucial, as it means that there is not something like “The third”, “The space between”, but that this third or this space is constituted in and a constitutive part of an always-changing dialectical motion between the two.

Here, Irigaray makes a radical proposal about ontology which overcomes the logic of Western tradition: to think our being as  in some way material and autonomous. As the other and I are  constituted together but remain singular, dependent on the space between us that is created through a turning back of each one to oneself because of our respective limits, a traditional ontology cannot take into account of this always-becoming evolution: “If the human is divided into two, always open and in interaction in its unity, the being of each of its parts and of their common world no longer belongs to a traditional ontology” (op.cit., p.11). Instead, “The unity of the being as human should then be measured with respect to the unity of the relation with the other…” (op.cit. p.78). I am not without the other, but we do not compose a unified being either.  In a way, the two are not two beings in a traditional sense, each on their own, but they are only together as  two subjects constituted in their singularity: both together and singular at the same time. In this way, they both are and are not, are both dependent and independent, and thus escapes a traditional ontology. An ontology proper to the human being would instead entail a rethinking of what “a being-in-relation itself implies” (op.cit., p. 90).

In this way, Irigaray makes clear that the consideration for the meeting between two humans who are naturally different entails a rethinking of  our traditional ontology and logic. She writes:

The questioning cannot be carried out starting from already existing representations. It demands another type of thinking in which our horizons and their constitutions have to be examined. It is no longer simply a matter of integrating some new terms into a logic put in place for centuries. It is logic itself that has to be modified, the grammar of thinking. (op.cit., p. 91).

Thus, to take into consideration the conditions for meeting in difference could radically change our thinking. For this to be possible, we need an epistemology of the not-known that preserves difference rather than eradicates it. If we begin with the difference between ourselves and the other, and the space between ourselves that our approaching-distancing creates, a new epistemology would appear. To cultivate the difference between two thus amounts to making possible a new epistemology, an epistemology which can ‘know’ the unknowable, ‘think’ the unthinkable – to know and think “[a] Nothingness which is not nothing” (op.cit., p. 174).