Silvia Locatelli — Irigaray Overcoming Hegel in the Relation between Subjects

What does it mean to create an authentic relationship between two different subjects? And what role does the self-determination of individual subjects play in the creation of such a relationship? These are questions that I believed to be fully solved within the Hegelian system. Indeed, as a student trained in systematic thought, I was convinced that, in a dialectical perspective, the formation of subjectivity and its relation to otherness was definitively solved. Thanks to Irigaray’s writings, however, I have realized that speculative thought is not always neutral, and I began to reflect on how the universal process of the spirit could be critical of the singularities subsumed under its logic. In particular, lingering on the formation of consciousness, I could not help noticing a relation to otherness that did not fully convince me from the point of view of the real, concrete relationship we face when we encounter a different subjectivity – especially a differently sexuate subject – that is, a relationship in which the body, touch, but also the mystery of the transcendence of the other, are, according to me, essential.  

Thus, in my research I will try to show how Irigaray’s work undertakes to approach the relationship between two naturally different subjects in a concrete way. To do that, I will focus my reflections on the relationship between Irigaray and Hegel, as the latter also tried to follow the development of a subjective consciousness through its relations with what is different from it. That way, I will attempt to demonstrate that Irigaray’s philosophy treats the relationship between two different subjectivities in a more concrete, in the sense of more effective and more vital, way. This is possible because the author differs from Hegelian thought in two fundamental aspects:

  1. Irigaray considers essential the maintenance and the cultivation, instead of the resolution, of difference – and thus the preservation of the transcendence of  subjects with respect to each other. I will show that what Hegel calls the union-in-difference is very often a problematic relationship, in which two different subjects are not united while keeping their singularities. Rather, Hegel establishes a hierarchical relation between the two beings, making the being of one dependent on the other. Then, it is difficult to interpret Hegel’s philosophy as a philosophy which is truly capable of maintaining the difference(s) of/between the individuals. I will attempt to make this clear by referring to Hegel’s treatment of the concept of sexuate difference and, subsequently, to Irigaray’s critique of the Hegelian Antigone. Indeed, according to Irigaray, not even in a moment free of reproductive purpose – as it is in the case of Antigone – is Hegel able to propose an authentic sexuate difference. Irigaray affirms that, through the recognition of common roots for the divine law – represented by Antigone – and the human law – represented by Creon – a same dialectical dynamism can exist thanks to which the union-in-difference of both is made possible by the creation of a hierarchy, thereby by absorbing the feminine character in the masculine character. For this very reason, Irigaray analyzes the relation between Antigone and her brother Polynices as obeying the same logical bounds of sexuate difference as those inherent to the traditional way of viewing reproduction, forcing the woman to adopt a submissive position in relation to the man.
  2. Irigaray considers to be essential the creation of a relation between subjects for the determination of each of the components of the relation in two – a relationship in which the corporeal is fundamental as well as  the touch between two sexually different subjects. Thus, to analyse  the importance of the relation between subjects and the flesh in which this relation can take place, I refer to the book Sharing the Fire in which Irigaray compares herself extensively with Hegelian thought. In this text Irigaray shows how the desire to commune with the other – from the assumption of sexuate difference and the consequent irreducible otherness of the different sex – can arouse a fire capable of making a relationship between the sexes possible. A relationship thanks to which both subjects can make their own being flourish can only happen between two subjects who are constitutively different. Thereby, viewing the sexually different other as irreducibly different allows a relationship to arise between two subjects, who, conscious of their particularity – precisely thanks to their belonging to one sex – are in search of the absolute in the relationship with the other. However, this absolute can never be completely achieved, since the other, as a subject and not an object, cannot be ‘mine’, but rather maintains open  a whole in which the relational coordinates are always evolving. Hegelian philosophy appears less attentive than Irigaray’s thought with respect to the relationship between two subjects. Indeed, it emphasizes the need of a subject-object relation through which a consciousness becomes self-consciousness, making its own and appropriating that which is external to it. Moreover, Hegelian philosophy openly rejects the truth of a knowledge still bound to sensitivity. In fact, sensible certainty, which is the first step within the Phenomenology of Spirit, must be overcome because Truth cannot reside in nor arise from sensitivity because a too immediate link exists between subject and object.

Thus my text attempts to propose a comprehensive treatment of how Irigaray’s thought could overcome Hegelian thought, solving some problematic aspects such as the lack of a philosophy of touch, of a dynamic relation between two, and of a focus on the body.