Is this criticism of Luce Irigaray's statements on physics accurate?



Wikipedia has this to say about Luce Irigaray

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, in their book critiquing postmodern thought (Fashionable Nonsense, 1997), criticize Luce Irigaray on several grounds. In their view, she wrongly regards E=mc2 as a "sexed equation" because she argues that "it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us". They also take issue with the assertion that fluid mechanics is unfairly neglected because it deals with "feminine" fluids in contrast to "masculine" rigid mechanics.

It's incredibly easy to misunderstand and misrepresent postmodern or feminist thought. To understand if the criticism is accurate and fair, we need to understand what the assertions Sokal and Bricmnt critizize actually are, beyond this quote, and what Luce Irigaray actually meant.

What were these to statements on physics actually about?


Posted 2015-06-30T08:29:41.163

Reputation: 521

The reference given in the book is (Irigaray 1987b, p. 110) which refers to: Irigaray, Luce. 1987b. “Sujet de la science, sujet sexue?” In Sens et place des connaissances dans la sociéte, pp. 95-121. Paris: Centre National de Recherche Scientifique. [Note: This is different from: Irigaray, Luce. 1987a. “Le sujet de la science est-il sexue? /Is the subject of science sexed?” Translated by Carol Mastrangelo Bove. Hypatia 2(3): 65-87. [French original: Les Temps modernes 9, no. 436 (November 1982): 960–974.] — some of the commenters on Reddit looked at this instead, so couldn't find it.] – ShreevatsaR – 2017-05-29T10:21:04.447

I don't know how the subfields of philosophy Iriragay moves in are called, please add appropriate tags. Also, this site had no feminism tag until now? – mart – 2015-06-30T08:31:00.977


There is an informal discussion of this over on reddit/askphilosophy. What Irigaragy was saying on the subject is a bit nuanced, but I think it's fairly summarized by the title of her work: Speech is Never Neutral. That is: everything said is said in the context of and received through the lens of the prevailing cultural norms. So she was, in a sense, making the argument that Sokal et al criticize, though in perhaps a less bald way. Unfortunately for us, the original work is in French.

– Dan Bron – 2015-06-30T09:45:02.547

4It would be useful to add which text this quote is taken from; otherwise what we have here is mainly what Solal says about Irigray, and not what Irigray herself is saying. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-06-30T10:12:11.770



In Fashionable Nonsense, Sokal and Bricmont draw on quite a few different bits of Irigaray's work, but the one that is most extensively quoted is her This Sex Which Is Not One, specifically chapter 6 on "The Mechanics of Fluids".

Irigaray is writing about the treatment of women and the feminine within the context of western philosophy, and in this chapter she's presenting a case that there is something masculine in the logic of the discrete solid object. Her idea is that the finite logic of syntax in the Frege/Russell tradition functions by first fixing upon a finite and discrete domain, which necessarily involves a process of extension. She thinks this process of extension is specifically psychological, depending upon a cognitive function of judging boundaries and exclusions and treating things as (solid) individuals. Finally, she argues that that function has been specifically coded as masculine, in contrast to how western culture has coded as feminine aspects of fluidity, which has sexualized connotations.

Sokal (standing in for the authors against) is affirming firstly that mathematics takes the continuous very seriously and has proposed very particular theories of fluid mechanics without undermining the classical logic foundation, rather than ignoring it as "other". Secondly, he makes the case that the mathematics involved is used through formulating an idealized model rather than imposing that structure upon the world as a matter of "the Real"; that mathematics creates models and structures, rather than imposing itself upon the world as such. Finally, he criticises Irigaray on what he sees as an idea that mathematical reasoning might be somehow beyond the dispositions of women, who are perfectly adept themselves at understanding the tools of sets, probabilities and geometries that Maths has proposed.

I think there is a lot to be said in defense of both parties here, but I think Irigaray's position is much less threatened by Sokal's response than might be concluded given the Wikipedia article.

Paul Ross

Posted 2015-06-30T08:29:41.163

Reputation: 4 801

1What is your theory/explanation for why she invokes fluid dynamics, which has nothing more to do with “fluidity” than the name? (Note that Sokal and Bricmont have a theory, and that is their main point, rather than attacking whatever her position on feminism may be—which they may very well agree with.) – ShreevatsaR – 2017-05-29T09:36:45.033

7Irrespective of Sokal I am afraid there is not much to say in defense of Irrigaray on this particular issue, other than that it is not central to her case. She tries to apply generalities she believes in to an area she understands little about. This demagoguery undermines her credibility, and makes it easy for Sokal-Birchmont to dismiss her case altogether. – Conifold – 2015-06-30T19:35:09.733


Here is Hayles, a fellow feminist:"In a footnote to the chapter's first page, Irigaray airily advises the reader ``to consult some texts on solid and fluid mechanics'' without bothering to mention any. The lack of mathematical detail in her argument forces one to wonder whether she has followed this advice herself. Nowhere does she mention a name or date that would enable one to connect her argument with a specific theory of fluids, much less to trace debates between opposing theories".

– Conifold – 2015-06-30T19:36:59.100

1@Conifold, Irigaray's mistake, I think, is that she's conflating the idea of "fluidity" in logic that she wants to propose (which is probably more like a categorical logic of some sort) with the actual mathematics of fluid dynamics, and thereby stepping outside her technical expertise. This seems like an error, but that seems like a lot to get hung up on as a response to her general position, which could easily be interpreted with some sympathy by your typical category theory enthusiast. – Paul Ross – 2015-06-30T20:28:53.897

accept, this answer and the reddit thread help to put thing into context. – mart – 2015-07-21T08:33:24.653


"L’équation E=MC2 est-elle une équation sexuée ? Peut-être que oui. Faisons l'hypothèse que oui, dans la mesure où elle privilégie la vitesse de la lumière par rapport à d’autres vitesses dont nous avons vitalement besoin. Ce qui me semble une possibilité de la signature sexuée de l'équation, ce n'est pas directement ses utilisations par les armements nucléaires, c'est d'avoir privilégié ce qui va le plus vite "

Luce Irigaray, « L'ordre sexuel du discours », in Langages, le sexe linguistique, 1987, p. 110.

Karl Daggfeldt

Posted 2015-06-30T08:29:41.163

Reputation: 21

1Hi, and welcome to Philosophy SE. This is not an answer but an addition to the Question. If you are unable to edit the OP question you can add a reference as a comment. – christo183 – 2019-05-16T10:22:48.783



Posted 2015-06-30T08:29:41.163

Reputation: 11


Note that this quote:

In their view, she wrongly regards E=mc2 as a "sexed equation" because she argues that "it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us".

Appears to have been forged, as there's no evidence of it in Irigaray's writings.

William Bell

Posted 2015-06-30T08:29:41.163

Reputation: 172

Do have a reference that could provide more information about this issue. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-05-13T22:19:23.287

From this ( ) we see that quote, but it was from a Sokal and B. article. See above for more sourcing comments... note that she wrote in French.

– elliot svensson – 2018-05-15T16:14:19.947

My evidence is that people I know who read french have read the original article and found nothing resembling the quote. – William Bell – 2018-05-16T21:03:05.227