Toward a Feminist Ontology: A New Logic of Truth in Irigaray's Reading of Plato's Cave

By Trott, Adriel M. | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Toward a Feminist Ontology: A New Logic of Truth in Irigaray's Reading of Plato's Cave


Trott, Adriel M., Philosophy Today


Thus the outlawed element-called the slave and the repressed in other symbolic systems-rules without appeal or recall the very text that outlaws it.

Luce Irigaray

I argue in this essay that Luce Irigaray offers tools in her early work that serve to radicalize the notion of difference that we find in traditional metaphysics since Plato. As I see it, sexual difference in "Plato's Hystera" is a trope that Irigaray employs to disrupt the economy of identity and difference that we have inherited from Plato, an economy that excludes true difference.1 I call this kind of work feminist ontology. I argue that by challenging the tyranny of truth based on identity as it has come to us since Plato, Irigaray offers us a new metaphysics that grants difference a claim to truth outside the hierarchy of identity. Reading Plato's analogy of the cave in "Plato's Hystera," Irigaray maintains that Plato's description of truth necessarily undermines itself. Against Plato's claim that the sun, as the one signifier, evidences the lack of knowledge in the cave, Irigaray argues that the cave offers its own multiple account of truth that threatens the logic of the sun. In fact, she contends, Plato's One of the sun is rooted in the originary epistemological moment of the cave which disrupts the entire economy of Platonic truth from within itself. Because the passage between the cave and the sun is continually forgotten, as Irigaray repeats over and over again as if to remind unceasingly, because this passage is forgotten, we fail to recognize the cave as its own economy of truth and see it only as a dim reflection of the strict logic of the One sun.2

Plato's privileging of one signifier demands that we constitute meaning in terms of non-difference. By non-difference, I mean difference understood solely in relation to identity for Plato. Difference is measured by the distance from identity, and not in itself. By assuming the existence of an original and judging by the failure of a thing to be like the original, this account of difference gives priority to the original and not to the different thing.

Irigaray contends that difference cannot be understood in relation to identity: the one thing that measures what it is not. Instead, difference must be multiple. The multiple of difference is not of a One and then of every other, the Many, which has meaning because it is related to the One. That is the meaning that follows from the logic of identity. Put in terms of sexual difference, Irigaray does not desire to be man's equal, as she supposes de Beauvoir strives to be, because this equality involves a relation to identity-being the same as another.3 Rather, difference must be understood in terms of true otherness. The One must be eliminated altogether, and difference understood as the relation of all the existing particulars in relation to one another. Irigaray illustrates this relation of difference and identity by showing that the logic of the sun, of identity, requires the logic of the cave, of difference, not vice versa as Plato would have us believe. In fact, any working political ethics demands this multiplicity.4

Essentialism and the (Im)Possibility of Difference

When we read Irigaray's essay on Plato, we must remember that this chapter is the bookend that mirrors its other bookend, the first chapter on Freud. Feminist readers of Irigaray find themselves in an ambiguous relationship with her theorizing on difference and sexual difference in particular. They acknowledge that her efforts to multiply sites of signification are necessary for the subjective development of women. Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis reasserts the traditional notion of signification and identity in terms of one signifier, the phallus, which bestows meaning only on that which finds itself in relation to the signifier. It is clear in Irigaray's analysis that Freud is just another thinker of the logic of signification that Plato establishes in his analogy of the cave. …

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