Lucia del Gatto – A philosophy faithful to happiness: A dialogue with Luce Irigaray

The Western world is going through a dramatic crisis of historicity. Beset by numerous difficulties, the most alarming issue of all may be the widespread inhibition of our faculty for transformation. Increasingly, the media and our individual experiences indicate a crisis in our capacity to modify the conditions of our existence in terms of our aspiration to happiness.

The prevailing trend within contemporary philosophy reflects this paralysis: the criticism of traditional thinking risks engulfing reason itself in nihilistic insanity. If we want to pass from mere deconstruction to a new construction, Irigaray’s generative contribution seems to be particularly fruitful: in fact, a positive and vital turning point for thinking emerges from it, rather than a rhetorical and abstract universalism. That is demonstrated by Irigaray’s capacity to reformulate the relationship between culture and nature in order to open up the pathway of a philosophy faithful to happiness.

The idea of happiness that inspires Irigaray’s work is not treated in a universal meaning, which would render it impervious to developments within individual and collective History. It concerns a philosophical stance, an unwillingness to take refuge in the fortress of abstraction. Our tradition has basically considered itself rationalistic, betraying our being, reducing it to a mere universal neuter and abstract res cogitans and, at the same time, dividing us up into an intelligible part and a sensible one. This separation of culture from nature has led to a pollution of thinking, a pollution of feeling and a pollution of acting. Irigaray suggests that philosophy should work on a different level, inviting thinkers not to renounce their anchorage to life in all its concrete depth (cf. ‘Remembering Humanity’).

Experience teaches us that divisions produce pain and that happiness is connected with the tension towards harmony. First of all, then, we have to overcome the divisions that derive from the opposition between culture and nature that is present throughout the history of Western philosophy. To understand in which sense the duality of the sexuate difference can help us to go beyond the dualism of abstract thinking by regaining a continuity ‘between the head and the feet’ (Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, p.3), we should perhaps examine the semantic roots of happiness. The Latin equivalent of happiness is felicitas, which belongs in the semantic field of words like fecundus and femina. According to Émile Benveniste’s etymology, they ‘have in common this radical fe- that corresponds to the Greek the-, whose primary sense is “fecundity, prosperity”‘(Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes. I. Économie, parenté, societé, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1969, p. 189: ‘fecundus, felix, femina, mots de signification très différent, mais qui ont en commun ce radical fe- répondant à grec the- et dont le sens premier est ‘fécondité, prospérité’’). The verb phuo (‘I produce, I generate, I blossom’) contains both the generative meaning and the reference to a natural dimension. In this manner, we can recuperate the original relationship of logos (‘word, reason’) to phusis (‘growing being’).

Irigaray’s philosophy takes on the difficult task of bringing the primary meaning of happiness back to centre stage. As Karen Burke notes, ‘Luce Irigaray’s phrase, “la culture de la nature”, is a phrase in French that I translate as both “the cultivation of nature” and “the culture of nature”‘ (‘Masculine and Feminine Approaches to Nature’, in Luce Irigaray: Teaching, p. 195). In fact, culture derives form the Latin verb colere (‘to cultivate’), while nature derives from nascor (‘to be born, to start, to begin’): grammatically, the substantive natura coincides with the future participle of a middle voice, a periphrastic form which means a process that contains in the present the possibility of a real future (for the analysis of the meaning of words such as eteros e ghenos or of the grammatical forms of the dual and the medium verb present in ancient Greek but lost in modern languages see ‘The Return’ in In the Beginning, She Was). Only that of whose maturation we take care of can come to birth: Irigaray proposes restoring a relationship between logos and phusi according to a non-hierarchical dialectics, which would prevent the blossoming of the human, instead of freeing its generative potentialities. Developing the notion of fecundity implied in the instance of felicitas asks us to start from the acknowledgment of the fact that ‘between human being and nature, another proximity can reveal itself and work itself out with sexual difference as the mediation’(Luce Irigaray, Between East and West: from Singularity to Community, p. 18). In this context, the etymological connection between felicitas and femina doesn’t refer to the biological prerogative of a woman, but to the contribution she can make to a shared generation, of a cohabitation of a world that is respectful of difference, also thanks to her confidence with nature that she has to become aware of and elaborate. Irigaray’s philosophy maintains that the tension towards harmony is capable of healing divisions without cancelling out the differences, favouring a relational and dialogic rationality that can replace the prevailing trend, which is dichotomous and dominative. Starting from a sexuated incarnation, to think the unthought of the difference, constitutes a necessary step towards the recovery of thinking and of feeling from the dualisms that transfix them, especially in virtue of the faithfulness of this philosophical gesture to the concrete demand for sense preserved in the primary meaning of happiness.

In this framework, it is indisputably fundamental to focus on the fact that Irigaray has restored dignity to love, which is contained in the etymology of the word philosophy (‘philein’ means ‘to love’). According to Irigaray, love does not mean only a private sentiment or an ephemeral emotion but, literally, a way of being, a living and expansive energy that reveals our ‘being two’ of body and spirit to be the germinal cell of subjectivity, of intersubjectivity and of a shared world texture. The sophia of the philein (the wisdom of love) involves taking care (colere) of the growing being (natura) with respect to the differences that constitute the reality, an assumption of the responsibility for its generation. The way of love leads back to the source which is the origin of an ancient wisdom according to which thinking is rooted in life and in its demand for felicitas. In this sense, Irigaray’s philosophy constitutes a valuable compass which prevents us getting lost, reminding us of ‘the labor of love of which each receives one’s part of happiness, of grace’(The Way of Love, p. 11).