Teaching: Notes on the Thought of Luce Irigaray

by | 13 Apr 2015


One of the major concerns for Irigaray regarding education, and in my view perhaps the most important one, involves the absence of horizontal relations in the classroom. Indeed, Irigaray writes:

Education is still based on the characteristics of the male subject, and seldom takes interest in the values of the female subject. Subject-object relations, competitive relations with a peer, or peers, within a one-many configuration, and hierarchical relations define the dominant model. What is lacking is a culture of horizontal relations between different subjects (Irigaray, 2008b, p. 210).


Horizontal relations in the classroom involve relations between teachers and students, as well as relations among students, which do not just do away with projecting the subjectivity of a self in a position of power on an other, but create a space in which both self and other can become on their own terms. Irigaray suggests that it is essential to identify and recognize the absolute difference of the other in educational discourse and educational practice. Unless this is done, education will fail to include the real otherness of the other and will fail to provide a space in which both the self and the other, teacher and student, male and female student, can grow on their own terms.

Irigaray approaches this question from a number of angles. She examines, for example, the way in which children learn and shows how boys and girls learn differently, while schools only respond to the way of learning observed mainly among boys and disregard the type of learning observed mostly among girls (Irigaray, 2008b). Or she examines the contents of education and shows how these are biased toward masculine perspectives (Irigaray, 2008a, 2008b). She argues that school curricula exclude topics such as desire and love. “In reality, they [schools] split children – as all of us – into two parts: one so-called cultivated part and one so-called natural part which ought to remain at home, possibly in darkness, perhaps only in bed, in any case lacking words or education concerning desire and love” (Irigaray, 2008b, p. 203). Irigaray actually states, “The values that are privileged by the feminine subject must enter the educational system as well as the means of meeting in difference.” (Irigaray, 2008a, p. 145). And indeed, both the privileging of boys’ ways of learning and the masculine bias in contents, two suggestions that may be debatable but in my view hold some unquestionable validity, prevent the formation of horizontal relations in the classroom.

But the most interesting aspect of her work on education is arguably her effort to formulate terms to answer the question of how to develop horizontal relations in general, and in the classroom in particular – to conceptually elaborate the conditions for a relationship between a one who teaches and a one who learns without the teacher imposing his or her subjectivity on the students, and therefore denying the possibilities for the students to engage in their own, individual becoming. Here, Irigaray emphasizes an ethical perspective for, according to her, in order to aim for “horizontal relations in difference” (Irigaray, 2008b, p. 217) the ethical gesture of recognition seems to be essential.

Recognition involves becoming aware of the limitations of one’s self and of the impossibility to reduce the other to the one. Recognition never assumes the wholeness of the one or of the other, or allows for the projection of the one onto the other. Irigaray writes, in “agreeing to be questioned by a different meaning, by a world whose sense remains invisible to us but which we agree to welcome, by which we agree to be questioned and touched when listening to it” (Irigaray, 2008c, p. 232). It is “a way of opening ourselves to the other and of welcoming this other, its truth and its world as different” (ibid.).

Horizontal relations in difference allow the one and the other to have their own subjectivities. They allow students “to become” with faithfulness to their own natures, while enabling a dialogue between the two subjectivities. “To become,” in Irigaray’s argument, means to manifest one’s own self in line with one’s own nature, while recognition makes room for the other to manifest his or her own self in line with his or her own nature in its otherness. The one and the other are transcendental to one another; however without the existence of the other it is impossible to manifest one’s own nature and therefore to become.

In effect, Irigaray’s argument on recognition suggests that the existence of the other is absolutely necessary in order to become one as one, to grow. In the classroom, recognition prevents the teacher from dominating students, because recognition preserves something new that has not yet become manifest within the student. This something new, the otherness of the other, is not absorbed by the teacher since the teacher remains within his or her limits, aware of what is beyond his or her own sense of self in the becoming of his or her students.

Then, how can we cultivate the ethical gesture of recognition in the classroom? Irigaray, does not elaborate on this matter. Nor does she give a suggestion about how to develop a method to nurture and cultivate the ethical gesture of recognition. In fact, Irigaray will never suggest a method, for in line with her own theory she should not suggest one. From the moment that a standard or a definitive way to create horizontal relations in difference is set, it denies the very idea of horizontal relations in difference that she has been proposing.

Yet, I argue that it is still possible to suggest that it is the teacher’s role to guide students and enable them to cultivate the ethical gesture of recognition. According to Irigaray, the task of teaching is “of guiding, of helping the other to discover one’s own path, to enter the space and time of his or her proper life and to accomplish it as a human being” (Irigaray, 2008c, p. 234). In such a case the otherness of the other is respected and the student, in turn, learns to recognize.

There is no possible prescription for practising the ethical gesture of recognition. This has to be tailored for the particular sensibility of each child. A whole relationship is thus nurtured through the ethical gesture of recognition, one able to create “a culture that could meet the aspirations and necessities of our time…considering difference itself as the source of their relationship and their becoming” (Irigaray, 2008b, p. 218).

Through such an education one can envision democracy. Education, in Irigaray’s philosophy is central to democracy. It can be argued that it is in fact her understanding of democracy and its relevance to the field of education that informs her thoughts on pedagogical practice. She states, “democracy can be understood as an opportunity for each one to live one’s own singularity” (Irigaray, 2008a, p. 70). If we fail to do this, democracy, for her, indeed becomes “an anonymous community of people in which we lose our subjectivity, our desire, our happiness” (ibid.). In this sense, democracy is a practice and a way of being, in which the subjectivity and uniqueness of “the two” is preserved.

Irigaray suggests that it is possible to establish horizontal relationality in educational settings without elaborating how exactly that has to be achieved. Yet, her argument that an awareness of an ethical gesture, what she terms “recognition,” is always necessary in order to nurture a sensibility towards the cultivation of horizontal relationality in difference seems to be the key. The cultivation of this ethical gesture, I suggest, can eventually lead to a transformation of classroom culture, leading to a way of living in line with the idea of democracy as defined by Irigaray.


Dr. Tomoka Toraiwa is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Communication at Keiwa College, Japan. She is the author of “Enabling Education: Rethinking Teacher-Student Relationship through Luce Irigaray’s Ethics of Difference,” in Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder eds., Building a New World: Luce Irigaray Teaching II, Palgrave Macmillan, June 2015.


Irigaray, Luce. (2008a). Conversations. London and New York: Continuum.
Irigaray, Luce. (2008b). “Teaching how to meet in difference” in Luce Irigaray: Teaching, edited by Luce Irigaray with Mary Green. London and New York: Continuum, pp. 203-218.
Irigaray, Luce. (2008c). “Listening, Thinking, Teaching” in Luce Irigaray: Teaching, ed. by Luce Irigaray with Mary Green. London and New York: Continuum, pp. 231-240.




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