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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter June 10, 2022

Putting the Embodied Turn in Philosophy to Practice: Luce Irigaray’s Response to Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Embodied Thinking

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From the journal Nietzsche-Studien


Luce Irigaray’s writings on Nietzsche’s philosophy belong to the groundbreaking interpretations of his work and they also confirm the continued relevance of his philosophy. Unlike most male-centric philosophers, Nietzsche not only saw that sexual difference was becoming one of the major philosophical issues of our age. He was also keenly aware of how it permeated our philosophical tradition with its dualistic models, which is one reason for Irigaray’s interest in it, as has been widely discussed in feminist/queer philosophical research into her Nietzsche interpretation. Another common denominator of Nietzsche and Irigaray are their philosophies of the body. Interpreters of Irigaray have pointed out how her conception of embodied, sexuate being calls for a new way of philosophical thinking (Grosz), and Stegmaier interprets the liberation from prejudices we encounter in Nietzsche’s works as a “liberation of philosophy.” How can the liberation of philosophy be understood in the way we practice philosophical thinking? In the following interpretation of Irigaray’s book The Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (1980), I show how it offers a theory and a practice of embodied philosophical thinking, which I will discuss in light of new phenomenological methodologies of embodied thinking (Gendlin, Petitmengin). Irigaray’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy in Marine Lover is both critical and constructive as apparent in her interpretation of Dionysus and Ariadne. On the one hand, this couple represents for her the patriarchal tradition of philosophy that she claims Nietzsche is still stuck in, and on the other hand, it also represents a liberation from resentment and misogyny in relations of the sexes. The notions of listening to oneself and to the other, being touched and tearing, enable such a liberation, both on the level of relations of the sexes and on the level of philosophical dialogues and thinking that Dionysus and Ariadne also represent. The water/ocean in the title of Marine Lover indicates how this is a philosophical text that displays an explicit processing and articulation of feelings, emotions, and affects in philosophical thinking.

Put briefly, perhaps the entire evolution of the spirit is a question of the body; it is the history of the development of a higher body that emerges into our sensibility. The organic is rising to yet higher levels (Nachlass 1883/84, 24[16], KSA 10.655).

Luce Irigaray calls Nietzsche a “companion of her life.”[1] When she was marginalized and expelled from her academic position, after the publication of Speculum of the Other Woman in 1974, she sought refuge in nature and had Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85) with her. She wrote Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche as a direct consequence of this experience.[2] Sadly, this major work of Nietzsche scholarship, published in 1980 in French and in 1991 in an English translation, has not yet appeared in a German translation. It is a poetic text inspired by Also sprach Zarathustra, although quite different in tone and style. Such a poetic style was not uncommon in French feminist philosophy when Marine Lover was written as in the case of texts by Julia Kristeva or Hélène Cixous. Marine Lover is, however, not to be understood as a mere poetic musing at the cost of philosophical content or argumentation in its discussion of Nietzsche’s philosophy. In my view, Marine Lover is a rich work that is a milestone in the Nietzsche research of the late twentieth century and continues a series of internationally influential interpretations of Nietzsche’s philosophy from Martin Heidegger to Gilles Deleuze. Irigaray’s interpretation of his philosophy breaks new ground in both Nietzsche research in particular and in philosophy in general.

Among feminist and queer interpretations of Nietzsche’s philosophy that have opened up new avenues of research, Irigaray’s interpretation is by far the broadest in scope and the most profound in unearthing elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy to lay a ground for a new beginning of philosophical thinking as embodied thinking. Irigaray not only takes Nietzsche’s philosophy of the body seriously by highlighting how an embodied notion of “man” undermines a dualistic, disembodied, neutral and sexist understanding of the human subject. With her text, she also demonstrates how philosophizing out of the body is instrumental in invigorating and “liberating” philosophical thinking, which was Nietzsche’s goal with his philosophy, as Werner Stegmaier argues.[3] Elizabeth Grosz seconds that view when she writes that by attempting to develop a philosophy that refuses to “privilege mind at the expense of the body,” Nietzsche attempted to “completely change the character of the philosophical enterprise; and presumably the same would be true of all other knowledges insofar as the body is the disavowed condition of them all.”[4] Margaret Whitford’s interpretations of Irigaray’s “philosophy in the feminine” also emphasize how Irigaray redefines philosophy by investigating what philosophy excluded by its lofty and disembodied conceptions of the philosophical and of philosophizing.[5] In addition to deconstructing theoretically illusory and outdated conceptual dualisms, Irigaray expresses a practical need for an embodied philosophical thinking, writing, and speaking, to be able to voice and articulate what has been silenced by an understanding of women and the feminine as the silent other of the male that has permeated our philosophical tradition.[6] These interpreters of Irigaray’s philosophy have, however, not elaborated at any length how a new way of speaking out of the body emerges and by what means it could be cultivated and practiced. With the following reading of Marine Lover, I argue that an implicit methodology of embodied thinking and speaking is in fact practiced in the dialogue of Marine Lover, even though it is not made explicit as a process involving steps and moves. I will make the basis for such a methodology in Irigaray’s interpretative approach in Marine Lover more explicit in light of recent theories and methodologies of embodied thinking and knowing that account for the experiential, affective, and subjective in thinking to correct, complement and complete a disembodied conception of thinking, although I will not develop any interpretation of the possible methodic steps and moves required to achieve this.[7] This paper is hence an attempt to think further and extend Irigaray’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy as embodied philosophical thinking.

For Irigaray, Nietzsche is the philosopher who was most instrumental in introducing both the embodied turn in philosophy and a philosophy of sexual difference. His philosophy is for her an opening, yet at the same time she criticizes Nietzsche for remaining stuck in a sexist understanding that prevents him from fully developing the liberation of philosophical thinking she aims to practice. Donata Schoeller similarly points out that there is a tension in Nietzsche’s philosophy between the analysis of a disembodied conception of man and an embodied transformative way of thinking, since his doctrine of eternal recurrence undermines the hoped-for radical overcoming of traditional non-transformational analysis. This move can, according to Schoeller, be detected in cutting-edge feminist and phenomenological thinking as, for example, in the philosophy of Irigaray.[8] For Irigaray, it requires a feminine philosophical positionality to accomplish a move from mere analytical to transformative thinking. The dialogue she stages in Marine Lover between herself and Nietzsche is hence both a criticism of the shortcomings of his philosophy as it relates to women and her own enacting of embodied thinking and speaking toward further liberating philosophical thinking. In parallel to the dialogue between the philosophers Irigaray (as the narrative voice) and Nietzsche, Irigaray discusses Dionysus and Ariadne and their relationship insofar as Nietzsche’s understanding of them remains committed to traditional, dualistic, hierarchical, and oppositional structures of gender difference. On that basis, she discusses how Dionysus and Ariadne can be thought of as a couple who do not stand in a hierarchical relation to one another, but relate to one another in a way that is mutually liberating. As an interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Marine Lover is therefore both “pars destruens” and “pars construens,” as Sergio Alloggio puts it.[9] The part of the feminine that is repressed in Nietzsche’s conception represents for Irigaray precisely the liberating potential for philosophy that needs to be disclosed, and therefore she writes: “I want to interpret your midnight dreams, and unmask that phenomenon: your night. And make you admit that I dwell in it as your most fearsome adversity. So that you can finally realize what your greatest ressentiment is” (ML 25).

To clarify how the “higher body that emerges into our sensibility” is manifested in Irigaray’s “pars construens” reading of Nietzsche’s philosophy, I will proceed as follows: firstly, I will argue that Marine Lover displays an implicit method of embodied thinking that allows the male and the female figures to begin to free themselves out of their oppositional structure that in our philosophical tradition has condemned the woman to be a silent other of the man. Second, a core aspect of this kind of a dialogue is touch, not in the narrow haptic sense, but rather in the affective sense of being touched in thinking and in a dialogue with one another. With her philosophy of thinking that touches, Irigaray further develops Merleau-Ponty’s idea of touch in her efforts to modify and complement the traditional vision-orientation of philosophical thinking, which, as Grosz has discussed, is less embodied than touch as a base of thinking and knowing.[10] Third, to illustrate this, the sense of hearing is pivotal to my interpretation of Marine Lover as a treatise on embodied thinking. Being touched thus involves listening, an inner listening to what one is touched by. In her book on Slow Philosophy (2016), Michelle Boulous Walker discusses Nietzsche’s idea of slow, intensive reading and Irigaray’s method of attentive listening as heralding a new era of slow philosophy that goes against the tendency “to equate reading with seeing and reducing reading to its cognitive dimensions because bodies read.”[11] My interpretation contributes to an understanding of what it means that “bodies read,” although I do not restrict “reading” to texts. I share with Boulous Walker the idea that Irigaray’s and Nietzsche’s philosophies offer powerful tools to go beyond superficial forms of critical thinking in an academic culture of efficiency and speed. I, however, understand listening as a sensing of the felt meaning of a topic as more than slowing down, even though it most often involves it. I will not only discuss listening to a text or an other, but emphasize inner listening as basic to a communication in which the couple in dialogue overcomes an oppositional, hierarchical structure in favor of an asymmetrical dialogue of sharing that can be enriching.[12] This becomes especially apparent where one is moved by the pain of the other and might tear up. This aspect of dialogue is like its watermark, for it gives the dialogue its true value and points to the water as the flow of life that expresses itself in affects, emotions, and sensibilities.

The Philosophy in the Body

We have a philosophy in our body before we make a theory out of it, as Nietzsche writes in his chapter on the body in Also sprach Zarathustra.[13] In Marine Lover, many of the central themes of Nietzsche’s philosophy are discussed: embodied life, the eternal recurrence of the same, the will to power, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, Ariadne, Christ, men and women. Irigaray’s novel interpretations of these different topics require separate and in-depth analyses in the context of Nietzsche research. Apart from Ellen Mortensen’s[14] and Elisabeth’s Grosz’s[15] interpretations of Irigaray’s critique of Nietzsche’s main ontological doctrines, most feminist readings of Marine Lover, such as those by Kelly Oliver, Frances Nesbitt Oppel, and Ingeborg Owesen, have in one way or another centered on the topic of the body and, more specifically, as the body relates to sexual ethics and philosophies of difference.[16] Such readings have been important in disclosing how Nietzsche’s philosophy – with its emphasis on the body, its reflections on sexual difference, and its metaphor of pregnancy[17] – could (despite its sexist dimensions) be inspirational for the influential and innovative gender-responsive philosophical developments of the twentieth century, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of the second sex, Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of natality, Judith Butler’s deconstruction of the distinction of sex and gender, and Irigaray’s philosophy of sexual and sexuate difference.[18] More recent interpretations of the Nietzschean philosophical underpinnings of Marine Lover have examined this work as an elemental philosophy that resonates with Nietzsche scholarship about his philosophy of nature and the elements, inspired by pre-Socratic, and especially Heraclitus’s, philosophy,[19] on the nonhuman and animalic, pointing out its significance as a precursor to contemporary environmental and posthumanist philosophy.[20] Underlying such an approach is that our ecological crisis has to do with a disconnection from the earthly, elemental basis of human beings that is connected to us through the living and experiencing body. When we speak of the disconnection from the earth and other living beings in the context of embodied philosophical thinking, we are speaking about a disconnection from our own lived experience.[21] In Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887), Nietzsche laments the philosophers’ lack of attention to experiences: “As far as the rest of life is concerned, the so-called ‘experiences’ – who of us ever has enough seriousness for them? Or enough time? I fear we have never really been ‘with it’ in such matters: our heart is simply not in it – and even not our ear” (GM, Preface 1).[22] This disconnection has roots in our philosophical and religious traditions, from ancient ideas about man being the master of the earth and other living beings, and from anthropocentric ideas about man’s central place on earth, to abstract, vision-centric scientific thinking and to the extent that the latter alienates us from sensing and perceiving our elemental, material grounding. For Nietzsche, this tradition of externalizing our anthropocentric ideals into a transcendent sphere culminates in the death of God. He brings this absolute back to earth and replaces a transcendent deity with the figure of Dionysus, who represents earthly being and becoming. What Irigaray does in Marine Lover is to enter into a dialogue with the Dionysian philosopher Nietzsche. She complements his Dionysian philosophy with the missing counterpart, here represented by a feminine figure that comes from the water. Water as a primal element is the stuff of emotions, feelings, and affects.

That is one reason for the title of the book, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. Irigaray speaks to, and with, Nietzsche as his lover from the ocean, from the immemorial waters of the feminine that have been forgotten, repressed, or appropriated in our philosophical tradition. Yet, this approach has more far-reaching implications than mainly for a criticism of the male-centric philosophical tradition and for a deconstruction of hierarchical, dualistic gendered identities. The metaphor of water in Marine Lover has been seen as a strategic tool to juxtapose a “mechanics of solids,” which works

in fundamental complicity with Cartesian dualism and the metaphysics of realism and self-identity that it supports, entail[ing] a thing (including a subject) that is identical to itself. This metaphysics is dualist not simply in terms of presuming and establishing an opposition between mind and body but in binarizing existence with the distinction between subject and object, thus implicitly (and at times explicitly) coding women on the side of body and object. […] [T]he Irigarayan metaphorics of fluids […] befuddles and complicates this Cartesian ontology and is as capable of rewriting male corporeality as female.[23]

As a processual thinker, Nietzsche states that the human individual is an animal that is not determined once and for all but is in a continuous process of becoming (BGE 62). Sexual differences are hence not solid but fluid, and yet they are for Irigaray and for Nietzsche, as thinkers of gender differences, real as lived experiences of embodied beings with different physical features. For Irigaray, biology is one of the grounds for the irreducibility of sexual difference as natural and real.[24] This is a widely discussed controversy in Irigaray scholarship.[25] More precisely, she repeatedly says sexuate difference (sexual difference in her earlier work) is real, is fundamental, is natural. She has a critical relation to western biology, but she also draws on it.

Alison Stone claims that Irigaray identifies sexual difference as a fundamental difference between “the rhythms of percipient fluids constituting women’s and men’s bodies, supporting this with a philosophy of nature that she justifies phenomenologically and ethically.”[26] Stone therefore classifies this philosophy of sexual/sexuate difference as a form of “realist essentialism.” In line with Nietzsche’s philosophy, I would claim that realist essentialism cannot to be reduced to biological essentialism (insofar it yields substantivist and universalizing categories of difference), but it should be understood as embodied-processual and becoming. Such a realist essentialism (via categories denoting attributes or properties that are meant to be general rather than universal in the sense of being valid for all, at all times and everywhere) hence can be seen as nothing more than articulations of prevailing styles and tendencies that express different commonalities emanating from life worlds or lived experiences. Generalizing categories can therefore not be seen as all-inclusive (valid for all members of a group, at all times and everywhere) because they constantly undergo changes and modifications. According to a processual account of difference, it can furthermore not have any single, unitary origin, but it is necessarily multiple in origin: “Where does difference begin? Where is it (elle)? Where am I? […] How can one master that dark place where you find birth? Where you begin to be” (ML 67). Difference comes first, there is always at any beginning an interaction between asymmetrical beings. Since gendered identities are processual, the transformative power of a dialogue between the sexes stems from the productive encounter of differences for philosophical thinking. With Marine Lover, Irigaray brings such an idea of processual identities to the level of gender by giving a philosophical voice to a feminist philosophical understanding of the embodied and situated subject, a voice that speaks out, expresses, or articulates an embodied, embedded, enacting subject.[27] That is why Irigaray not only philosophizes about how the philosophy of the body changes our understanding of life and reality. In the text of Marine Lover, she puts into practice the embodied turn in philosophy that Nietzsche was so influential in effecting.

Felt Sense and Felt Meaning

Marine Lover is a fictive amorous dialogue and an erotic philosophy in the broad sense of consciously enacting deeper levels of cognition, sensory levels, and a bodily “felt sense” and felt meaning for philosophical issues. For the concept of “felt sense” I am indebted to Eugene Gendlin’s discovery of that concept, elaborated in his “philosophy of the implicit,” and to his efforts in developing methods of accessing felt sense for philosophical thinking. As Schoeller rightly points out, Gendlin is “a thinker whose work is still to be discovered in its relevance for feminist philosophy, and it its relevance for thinking further Nietzsche’s philosophy of the body.”[28] Gendlin writes:

Philosophy can reopen the old assumptions and conceptual models if we think with our more intricate experiencing as well as with logic. We can think everything more truly if we think it philosophically, that is, with attention to how we think it, and with the critical understanding that no concept, rule, or distinction ever equals experiencing. Our more intricate experiencing may carry it forward, but is not thereby replaced. It is always freshly there again, and open to being carried forward in new ways, never arbitrarily, but always in quite special and precise ways.[29]

Marine Lover is about how we think philosophically and how we listen to ourselves and to others in a conversation or a dialogue. Embodied knowing is a form of inner listening to experiential knowledge and insight inside us by connecting with our pre-reflective, pre-discursive, affective levels of thought and memory symbolized by the ocean in Marine Lover. The body stores everything we have experienced (including reading, thinking, reflecting, etc.) and processes all information we have accumulated, and in that sense cognition is embodied, as findings by the contemporary cognitive sciences have confirmed.[30] Like the ocean is always movement, our embodied thinking is moved in thought by deeper layers of cognition. Thinking is enacted out of this embodiment, of which both environment and first-person experience are aspects.[31] The enactive embodiment is not the grasping of an independent, outside world by a brain, a mind, or a self; rather it is the bringing forth of an interdependent world in and through embodied action. The living body as a self-producing and self-maintaining system enacts or brings forth meaning. Cognitive processes belong to the relational domain of the living body coupled to its environment, offering an alternative to a strict understanding of Cartesian dualism, cognitivism, and computational thinking. One of the reasons Irigaray is drawn to Nietzsche’s philosophy is precisely that he understands the affective source of philosophical thought and thereby undermines the traditional duality of cognition and affect, mind and environment, in philosophical thinking. By this very act, he also rehabilitates the embodied features of the human being that have been denigrated as feminine in our philosophical and religious traditions. Yet, Irigaray points out how Nietzsche’s philosophy nevertheless stands metaphorically with one foot in the water and another foot in the air. As a philosopher, Nietzsche needs, in Irigaray’s view, a feminine other that allows him to continue to make himself flesh (ML 182). His body metaphorically needs to be “crossed” by a different body that takes him down from his loftiness where he closes himself to the other and into the flesh that enables embodied, earthly, embedded thinking (ML 183).[32] For Irigaray, the liberation of philosophy must come from the experience and the wisdom of the woman who has been the silenced other, from the memory of the effects of the matricide in a philosophical tradition that has not acknowledged the maternal origin of life in its importance for a truly embodied thinking.[33] Being crossed by a different body in a philosophical dialogue is more than the ability to take the perspective of the other in a merely intellectualistic manner. The text of Marine Lover displays how the listener lets themself be affected by the other in a dialogue that is truly self-transformative. In times of #MeToo, Marine Lover can indeed be seen as a philosophical model for how experiences of silencing and abuse need to be expressed, listened to, taken seriously, and taken to heart. It is therefore time for the male figure in Marine Lover, as a member of the patriarchal tradition of philosophy, to listen attentively.

The Body Coming into its Own

Irigaray’s elemental philosophy of water, air, and earth in Marine Lover has precursors dating from pre-Socratic philosophers to Nietzsche’s, Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s philosophies of the elements as the earthly ground in which we are embedded.[34] Even though the main point of Heidegger’s interpretation is that the body is the guiding thread of Nietzsche’s philosophy, he claims that Nietzsche thereby merely reverses the Platonic duality of body and soul.[35] He interprets Nietzsche’s conception of the body as a Cartesian subject of technological civilization that strives for domination over the earth after the death of God. With this view, Heidegger in fact claims that Nietzsche remains stuck in the duality of body and soul because his conception of the Dionysian merely replaces the God of our tradition with a pure self-empowering willing body. Despite this interpretation, Heidegger underscores and values the turn to earth in Nietzsche’s philosophy as he shows with his own philosophy of the interplay of different earthly elements. In his own elemental philosophy, Heidegger does not, however, acknowledge how the body is the missing link in our relation to the earthly environment. Against such forgetting of the body, Nietzsche articulated embodied features of thinking that are also accentuated in his turn to physiology in his last writings.[36] I argue that in Irigaray’s Marine Lover, the body comes into its own, as will, as desire, and as felt meaning for philosophical issues and is understood as “manifestation or externalization of what is private, psychological, and ‘deep’ in the individual.”[37] As an umbrella concept for affects, sentiments, emotions, and feelings, the will here cannot be understood one-sidedly as a will to dominate and control as Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s theory of the will.

Coming to ourselves in and through philosophical thinking is of utmost importance to Irigaray because the feminine subject has been externally determined by a male-centric philosophical discourse. The feminine has been articulated not only as an other, or as a second and lesser sex compared to the first and traditionally more highly valued male sex, as Simone de Beauvoir showed in her treatise on the Second Sex (1949). Irigaray goes beyond Beauvoir’s stand by claiming that the feminine has been defined in ways that have not allowed it to express itself. The feminine other has been an echo or mirror of the masculine that allows the masculine to affirm itself. The feminine is a mere representation in symbols, in language, and in social structures that determine gendered identities and relations. The feminine has not been able to express itself, out of its own situation. Irigaray in effect reformulates Beauvoir’s famous slogan that we are not born women but become women by indirectly saying that we are born women but have been unfree to express and articulate it. By expressing sexuate difference in the voice of the Marine Lover who speaks to Nietzsche, she hence carries forward Beauvoir’s and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the body as the situation in which we are embedded and out of which we enact. This difference is not an expression of any solid essence, but it is rather a processual becoming out of an embodied situation. The voice of the Marine Lover comes out of the not-yet-represented, and in that sense, Irigaray offers a Nietzschean theory that does not only describe the body from an observer’s perspective or the forces of incorporation (“Einverleibung”) with an analysis of biopolitics and the social construction of embodied identities like poststructuralist interpreters have done. Irigaray takes the phenomenology of embodied lived experience represented by Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty to the next step by disclosing an implicit methodology of embodied thinking in her reading of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Marine Lover presents a voice that expresses how it has been silenced in the tradition of philosophy and how it comes into its own by speaking out of lived experience. Nietzsche, for Irigaray, is the chosen partner for such a dialogue because his texts show how he indeed practiced an inner listening by delving into his own depths – by returning to the sea, metaphorically speaking, even though he fled into the airy heights too (ML 12). Irigaray furthermore extends the model of a philosophical dialogue between her and Nietzsche by staging an encounter between Dionysus and Ariadne to show how Nietzsche was not able to connect water and air and to elaborate how it can be thought of as a means to think philosophically in an embodied, earthly manner.

The Philosophical Couple: Dionysus and Ariadne

The couple in Irigaray’s interpretation is a prime form of generative difference and a paradigm for any philosophical encounter with, and listening to, oneself (as other) and an other. The male-female couple holds a prime place because of its iconic duality that has permeated Western thought. Reality is not binary, but our culture has been shaped by dualistic structures that have been gender-denoted. Nietzsche’s criticism of Platonic metaphysics has been of great interest to feminist and queer philosophies, because not only did Nietzsche display how it is based in a gender duality, but he also sought to undermine this duality and rehabilitate the feminine side of it (the body, emotions, nature). Traditional dualism has throughout the ages created a tension between the sexes that has inhibited their relations with themselves and one another, creating resentment and scorn, resulting in toxic relations. Irigaray is convinced that a love between the sexes that grows out of curiosity, wonder and respect for their mutual differences can pave the way for improved relations and communications between different actors and groups in general. Rebecca Hill has argued along these lines that the concept of difference at the heart of Irigaray’s thinking is not restricted to sexual difference but to all forms of difference because it is necessarily meant to engender relations that cannot be predicted.[38] The body as experiential wisdom that each and every individual has accumulated (through acquiring knowledge and personal experiences) is a source of one’s own philosophical thinking and for that reason also the source of the individual resolve and responsibility that Stegmaier claims is the core feature of the liberation of philosophical thinking, enabling it to generate new orientations.[39] In the philosophical tradition Nietzsche criticizes, the “language body” has overtaken the body language we are indeed capable of when we allow the body to express and articulate itself with language that “resonates” with what it feels and senses by listening to oneself and others (ML 65).[40] Everything we think has a bodily felt meaning as a bodily flavor and a bodily texture. So Nietzsche appropriates the feminine as the earthly, the bodily, and the affective and incorporates that into his conception of the philosopher as an embodied thinker.

For interpreters of Nietzsche’s philosophy of gender identities, his philosophy remains inconsistent because he does not rehabilitate women as a sociopolitical group by calling for granting them equal civil rights. Irigaray enters the discussion about Nietzsche’s philosophy of women on the deeper experiential level of communication between the sexes by showing how the woman in Nietzsche’s philosophy is kept distant in his sexist remarks: “that is where to keep her so as to bind her to his rhythm and to the measure of his will” (ML 52). Nietzsche therefore does not allow feminine difference to infiltrate his own philosophical outlook and be transformed in his ideas about women as a group. So despite his immense efforts to undermine outdated binary dualities, he remains in this respect committed to them, “frozen in the icy rigidity of juxtaposed pairs, opposites, vis-à-vis, of resemblances or differences that are perhaps fertile in their relationships, still productive but lacking in harmony” (ML 116). The notion of harmony is here to be understood in the sense of an interaffective attunement, as a tuning into the different rhythms of one another. Rhythms here mean the vital affects of embodied life based in anything from longing and desire to self-preservation and survival. Yet, in his philosophy of sexual difference, Nietzsche, according to Irigaray’s interpretation, does not tune into the woman as a different other to have it affect and transform his own embodied thinking:

If he let her carry him along without forcing her to follow his rhythm alone. For anyone who does nothing but obey ceases to be heard. And if the one and the other are not joined in the difference of their movements, they risk the abyss one within the other, no longer sensing anything either of the same or of the other (ML 36).

Against such “autistic madness” (ML 188), Irigaray describes the interaffective dialogical movement in the following way:

Rhythm and measure of a female other that, endlessly, undoes the autological circle of discourse, thwarts the eternal return of the same, opens up every horizon through the affirmation of another point of view whose fulfillment can never be predicted. That is always dangerous? A gay science of the incarnation? (ML 188)

The feminine voice of Ariadne laments in Marine Lover the matricide that Irigaray claims is endemic to the philosophical tradition. Indeed, Ariadne herself is made to represent the feminine from the masculine perspective, as its mere echoing and representation:

Ariadne would at last have nothing underneath, nothing inside, no more depth, split, hole, chasm, abyss. She is infinitely divided from herself. […] Echo – but unique, solitary, tirelessly repeated, charmingly caroled, nightingale echo – of the master’s words and desires. Wholly in the air. Giving herself endlessly out to be-be for him. Eternal-without body. Pure mechanism (ML 110).

There is, however, a transition in the text when the Ariadne figure is able to distance herself from this tradition and laugh about it. At that point she turns her formal address of “vous” into a more direct and personal addressing of Nietzsche as “tu.”[41] This marks the transition from the lament to the possibility of a dialogue that can be liberating for both partners.

Dionysus and Ariadne: Liberating One Another in Thinking

Dionysus and Ariadne have a deeper meaning that Irigaray taps into in order to transit from a critical-deconstructive to a critical-constructive embodied philosophical dialogue. For one, Dionysus is a god of love between the sexes, a fact that has not been discussed at any length in Nietzsche scholarship in terms of its implications for embodied philosophical thinking. For Irigaray, Dionysus and Ariadne can represent philosophical erotic love as an encounter that begins with a touch in the sense of being touched by the other in a way that can generate a philosophical thought. To explicate this idea of embodied thinking, it is helpful to distinguish calculative, computational thinking and more embodied forms of thinking like Hanne De Jaegher does in her research into what she calls “engaged epistemology.” De Jaegher points out that “in search of our highest capacities, cognitive scientists aim to explain things like mathematics, language, and planning (and while explaining them, they often imagine computers at work).”[42] In an Irigarayan spirit, De Jaegher points to a different pinnacle of cognition and claims that the “most sophisticated human knowing […] lies in how we engage with each other, in our relating,” and this form of knowing has been neglected in cognitive science and philosophy of mind. We therefore need a new epistemology of human knowing, an enactive theory of participatory sense-making. This level of knowing and thinking includes reflective care as an effort to articulate with words that fit and resonate with a deeper felt meaning.[43] De Jaegher thus calls for a fuller exploration of the phenomenology of loving and knowing through engaging with the work of Irigaray as well is with that of Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and others. This article responds to this challenge with its interpretation of the Nietzschean basis of Irigaray’s erotic theory of engaged epistemology.

Irigaray illustrates how knowledge is created in human encounters with the conception of an overflow (“Überfülle”) of energy that Nietzsche ascribes to Dionysus and that is actualized in the playful and transformative encounter of Dionysus and Ariadne. Instead of Ariadne being the silenced counterpart, a mirror enabling the man to shine in its reflection, Ariadne and Dionysus represent a playful encounter in which both are transformed. The liberating dialogue refers to Ovid’s account of Dionysus and Ariadne where they are called Liber and Libera and in which they are liberated through their love for one another.[44]

With this reference to the liberated Dionysus, Irigaray appeals to Nietzsche to give up his reluctance to set the woman free:

You meet Ariadne or Diotima or […] You want to marry her. To chain her to your side, as guardian of your hearth, so that your work can be accomplished. She refuses. Stresses her freedom in the face of your will. Except in that eternal recurrence that creates an autological movement that cannot be reopened (ML 73).

By not opening himself up to the feminine, the male philosopher is stuck in an autological movement of the eternal recurrence of the same. The feminine other provides the means for breaking such a cycle. According to Irigaray’s reading, Nietzsche is missing an anchoring, a new grounding to open up a new cycle. Irigaray therefore begins where Heidegger left off, with his conclusion that Nietzsche remained within the metaphysical tradition by merely turning the Platonic model upside down. Her task is to think with and beyond Nietzsche about how “another anchoring of energy” can substitute the Platonic schemes that permeate our philosophical thinking.[45] Nietzsche envisioned the Übermensch or a Dionysian philosopher that continually gives birth to himself in his artistic-philosophical pursuits, but Irigaray opts for a knowledge-producing couple, Dionysus and Ariadne, as a metaphor for a transformative philosophical dialogue.

If Heidegger claimed that Nietzsche’s philosophy remained stuck with its idea of an embodied will to power, Irigaray maintains that Nietzsche was unable to renounce a solitary “masculine will to power” that liberates himself.[46] In other words, to summarize Irigaray’s reading, for Irigaray, Nietzsche sticks to a solitary will to power.[47] In response to that, Irigaray suggests an interrelational conception of the will that is interdependent, that is, a will that depends on others and on which others are dependent. The strong will is a will whose liberation also depends on the other.

In her later reflections on Nietzsche, Irigaray holds on to her earlier position in Marine Lover that Nietzsche could find a new anchoring by using his “sexuate belonging as a framework to the world, to the other(s), and first to himself.” Yet “his male and masculine identity intervened as a framework in his way of living and thinking, but without his knowing.”[48]

Beyond Resentment: To Touch and To Be Touched in a Philosophical Dialogue

The constructive couple-encounter has something else to offer that I interpret as an Irigarayan addition to traditional conceptions of what constitutes a philosophical, dialogical encounter. Dionysus and Ariadne accept each other’s differences not only in love for the other but also in self-love. Resentment is, among other things, born out of lack of love for oneself, which triggers a need to elevate oneself by denigrating and belittling the other. Traces of resentment are indeed apparent in an immature form of dialogue where undermining the other is the main goal. A more sophisticated dialogue consists in a duel of opposing views where the goal is to win the other through Jürgen Habermas’s idea of an “unforced force of the better argument,” but it is often perverted by a strong will to conquer, or what Robert Nozick describes as “coercive philosophy.”[49] The combative style apparent in the vocabulary of “coercion” is, as Boulous Walker writes, a “philosophy that abstracts itself from what is foreign in the other, a philosophy unable to listen to and engage with the other, is a philosophy that trains us for adversarial battle and argument, rather than one that prepares us for an intersubjective exchange.”[50]

With his positive attitude toward agonism Nietzsche viewed a competitive dialogue as something entertaining, but he nevertheless saw it as inferior to deep philosophical thinking that is fueled by inspiration, digested through walks, and nurtured by asymmetrical viewpoints and that has a serious core in experiences of loneliness and suffering. The lamenting Ariadne is therefore of great importance for his understanding of philosophy, so much so that Günter Schulte even asserts that we can view Nietzsche’s philosophy in toto as a lament of Ariadne. Dionysus is the only one that has ears for this and can respond to the lament.[51] The dialogical style introduced with the philosophical couple is not about winning and boosting the ego by convincing the other to “see” the (“my”) truth. It is a dialogue that is less egocentric and more allocentric because it is based on listening, also to an “other” within oneself. Schulte even goes as far as saying that Nietzsche had a fetish for listening, apparent in his adoration for the small ears of Dionysus, who wants Ariadne (who has small ears too) to put a clever word into his own ears (DD, Ariadne, KSA 6.401). Such a dialogue is also more about truth-seeking than -finding because Dionysus is a labyrinthine philosopher seeking “his Ariadne” rather than finding truth.[52] In tune with the love between them, Irigaray emphasizes the caress and the touch that instantiates their dialogue.[53] This is a far cry from a competitive philosophical exchange because it is a dialogue that has its beginning in being moved and being disarmed. There is vulnerability rather than arming for a fight in this metaphor for a philosophical dialogue.[54]

Irigaray uses the metaphor of the two lips that touch each other to describe the form of a dialogue that is both intra- and inter-active.[55] The metaphor of the lips is in part developed in Irigaray’s interpretation and criticism of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological description of the hands that touch each other, where one touches and the other is being touched.[56] Without going into the extended discussion of Irigaray’s reception of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of touch,[57] the main point to be emphasized here is that the lips that touch each other connect and remain at the same time self-contained. While listening to the other, one is also listening to oneself listening to the other, in a dialogue with oneself as one dialogues with an other. In the last chapter of Marine Lover, Irigaray compares Dionysus and Christ in a way that elucidates the congruence of inner listening as a matter of being responsive to oneself and listening to the other as a matter of acknowledging and opening oneself to the other. Like Dionysus, the Christian symbol for Irigaray is not a figure in an otherworldly realm but rather the representation of “a nearness in life.” The words of Christ “aim to touch rather than to prove or to convince” (ML 181). This reading reminds of Nietzsche’s insight that powerful thoughts that bring on the storm come with a dove’s feet (EH, Preface 4). Irigaray prefers the touch of Christ to the violent, overpowering Dionysian type of attack. The Christian touch is “respectful of bodily space, of sensual space, of openings in the skin. Each one remains himself, these and those get close, meet, touch one another” (ML 181).

Irigaray’s and Nietzsche’s philosophy of listening is a phenomenological (or, in Nietzsche’s case, a proto-phenomenological) description of how thinking is embodied as a process of inwardly listening to and sensing “the depths of the flesh that sometimes needs time” (ML 181). Touch is an embodied sense (in addition to the five senses) that Matthew Ratcliffe has described as background touch or a background sense of belonging to the world.[58] Irigaray juxtaposes this way of philosophical thinking where we are in touch with the bodily sense by being connected to pre-reflective, pre-discursive dimensions of thought with constructionist thinking about incorporation. When words (expressed by others or by ourselves) do not “resonate” in the body,[59] embodied thinking “remains impassive to the letter enveloping or masking the message. The letter does not touch. It is too explicit and too cryptic. It remains outside the body” (ML 181). Meaning is determined by words, concepts, and terms that Irigaray depicts here as “letters enveloping or masking the message,” but embodied thinking implies that there is a relation between a bodily sense for meaning and its verbal, linguistic expression. When words fit what we mean there is not a split between the lived experience of a deeper level of meaning and the words uttered to express, articulate, or construct it.

The story that Irigaray tells with her amorous dialogue between Dionysus/Nietzsche and Ariadne/Irigaray is a narrative about a woman who has historically been silenced as a gender and who approaches Dionysus/Nietzsche to tell a story of this experience, of her liberation, her experience with Nietzsche that opened a way but got stuck. There is the frustration of a woman philosopher with her own tradition that has put down the feminine and has excluded women philosophers and thinkers from the canon and curricula of philosophy. But there is also the joy of finding one’s own voice in philosophy by accessing knowledge and wisdom stored in the body. That means nothing less than that experiential knowledge is something that is always involved in thinking, and yet the practices of abstract thinking trained in philosophy have required that we block ourselves off from this source dimension of meaning instead of harnessing it.[60] We have silenced not only others but ourselves as well by disparaging our felt sense for meaning.

Crying Philosophers

Ariadne is a lamenting figure who tells a story of her suffering in Nietzsche’s and Irigaray’s philosophies. Irigaray’s philosophy has been criticized for an obsession with feminine suffering, even bordering on a masochistic tendency.[61] This is in my view an overstated criticism, at least with regard to Irigaray’s reflections on Dionysus and Ariadne. For Nietzsche and Irigaray, experiences of suffering are part and parcel of human life and a rich resource for deepening philosophical thinking. As Keith Ansell-Pearson writes, when Nietzsche “translates the human being back into nature he finds a spiritual animal” (BGE 230), and his “call for a naturalist purification entails approaching our affects and drives, our inclinations and disinclinations, our pros and cons, free from the fateful beautifications and curse of morality.”[62]

Tearing up is a self-affective state, and from the perspective of embodied thinking a via regia to sensory, embodied levels of thinking and a clear indication for connecting with them. When we tear up over something, we empathize with something that we have endured and that can be anything from wonder and joy to anger and desperation. Tearing is an expression of empathic gentleness and kindness toward ourselves if it is not only sheer emotion that makes us consumed by self-pity. As Irigaray writes, “he who has gone through pain, is free of heaviness. […] And what once was a burden has become a bad dream dissolving in a mist” (ML 29). Embodied thinking hence consists in a reflection of the emotions that stir us, and for a change to occur it is necessary to pay attention to how the crying feels and attend to the felt sense beneath the tears. Without such processing, crying remains a helpless state for philosophical thinking. In her tears Ariadne finds a way to reflect and to articulate her emotions, and Dionysus is, in Irigaray’s narration, enraptured to hear her lament and comforts her. Telling her story allows her to cast into the sea all memories of her unlucky union with her former companion Theseus. Irigaray uses terms such as “thawing” and “flowing” to depict this purifying embodied thinking, and she encourages Nietzsche to do the same and to swim. His reluctance has to do with his fear of the element of water and his preference for mountains and the crisp, icy air of the highlands. Nietzsche’s image of himself in GS 60 reveals his fear of water and women that we witness in some of his texts. The aphorism Women and their Action at a Distance has the philosopher standing at the beach, not daring to approach the women sailing on the ship that goes by. They are no Sirens like the enticing women of the ancient Greek myth of Odysseus, but women who make petty noise, and the philosopher standing amid the fire of the surf better keep his distance from them. Therefore, the narrator of Marine Lover laments that between “you and me, me and you, you want me to make a dam” (ML 56).

With Marine Lover, Irigaray encourages Nietzsche to overcome this fear of women/the feminine and the element of water. She encourages him to taste the saliva in his mouth that enables him to speak (ML 37) and to exchange fluids with her, which is metaphorically speaking about exchanging thoughts that may come from a deeper longing or even a wounded place. The narrative voice is posed in the text as a teacher who can give the male philosopher advice about how to connect with deeper emotions. Tearing up is here portrayed as a skill in which women are culturally better trained than men. Nietzsche is aware of this when he writes that women can cry when they want, but when men want to cry there is no effect because men lack training in the mechanics of crying.[63] Nietzsche fully acknowledges how crying and laughing are liberating for the philosopher, allowing him to connect with levels of thought that are not controlled by morals.[64] Morals are in his view nothing but “prescriptions against passions,” and he takes Spinoza as an example of a philosopher who became unable to laugh or to cry because he guarded himself against emotions by analyzing them to the point of dissecting them (BGE 198). He therefore accuses Spinoza of observing emotions and affects like a pathologist with a scalpel rather than touching them inside himself and allowing them to be felt.

In a very revealing letter to Lou Salomé (before the break of their friendship), Nietzsche writes that Lou can make him cry and that she can comfort and console him. He goes on to say that she caresses his words as if she speaks with his demons.[65] Finding the right words calls for a caressing attitude and consists in developing a taste for words. Referring to Lou’s comforting of Nietzsche may, however, give the impression that I conceive of the Nietzschean-Irigarayan philosophy of embodied thinking as a therapeutic method.[66] That would place this philosophy on the same level as the novel When Nietzsche Wept from 1992 by the psychoanalyst and psychotherapist Irvin David Yalom, who describes a fictive psychotherapeutic healing that Nietzsche receives in sessions with the psychoanalyst Joseph Breuer. Yalom suggests that Nietzsche could have learned to cherish personal relations more and could have solved his emotional blockages by crying. The book ends with Breuer urging the weeping Nietzsche to imagine that his tears have a voice. At first, Nietzsche finds it embarrassing, but finally he admits that his tears tell him that he is free. Then Breuer encourages Nietzsche to tell him about the grief behind his tears, to which Nietzsche responds by telling him about his loneliness and finally about the relief to be able to say what he really feels.

There is a difference between professional psychological therapy and philosophical thinking, yet we still cannot clearly distinguish between philosophical and therapeutic thinking in the context of Nietzsche’s and Irigaray’s philosophies. Lou Salomé was one of Freud’s most prominent early disciples, Irigaray is a psychoanalyst and a renowned critic of sexism in Freud’s and Lacan’s theories, and Nietzsche himself had an extraordinary psychological sense for the human soul and our civilization, not the least the culture and the sentiments that have driven our philosophical tradition and its philosophers. But even though there is a therapeutic element to Nietzsche’s philosophy as a physiology of culture and human existence, Irigaray is not analyzing the person Nietzsche even though she alludes to how his life, his times, and his biography may have affected his philosophy. The primary target of her interpretation are Nietzsche’s texts, his basic concepts, and the ideas they convey. She allows the silenced feminine to speak to a groundbreaking philosopher of the body and embodied thinking, making Marine Lover an important criticism of the disembodied philosophical understanding of thinking and reasoning. This needs to be emphasized especially in the context of a philosophy of embodied philosophical thinking as it is to be understood as the ability to think logically with abstract concepts and to make universalizing claims precisely based on a strong subjectively anchored sense of the problems and issues at hand. This kind of thinking is hence not to be understood as merely subjective, but rather as potentially more objective because it contains a greater awareness of the subjective drives, motives, and meanings that fuel it and thus requires a conscious and deliberate reflection of them. Thinking and knowledge are situated, as feminist epistemologists have pointed out,[67] and Irigaray indeed deepens the concept of social situatedness by accounting for the first-person experiential dimensions of it.

To be touched in thinking for Irigaray is a self-affective move insofar as we open ourselves to a topic by sensing into it, be it in a text we read, a phenomenon in the world we observe, or the words of a dialogue partner we listen to.[68] Irigaray therefore illustrates how the borders of our bodies, at the lips, the eyelids, our hands, touch each other. Self-affection means that we can touch something without being fully absorbed by it, and in that sense it is a basic move of embodied philosophical thinking that connects with a felt sense for issues. Having such a felt sense enables us to find the right words to express a philosophical issue because the words we use need to fit the felt meaning for it. That is what makes a philosophical thought truly our own and prevents us from getting stuck in clichés or in using words that cannot adequately say what we mean.

For Nietzsche, the will, as the kind of energy or life force we are, is a complexity of feeling, thinking, and affect (BGE 19). What touches us philosophically hence has to do with how it matters to us, how much it interests us, and how we are invested in it. He therefore asserts that the meaning we give to a phenomenon depends on how much life comes out of the feeling for it.[69] Nietzsche did not want to encourage philosophers to become more introspective in accord with the state of psychology during his lifetime. Embodied philosophical thinking is not to be equated with knowing oneself in such a specific sense.

Nietzsche and Irigaray come together in a criticism of sterile philosophical thought, lamenting that we have lost touch in academic philosophy. We have become like “clockwork dolls who have only the mouths still left them by the living,” as Irigaray writes (ML 21). “Man” has died with “God” and we have to learn to practice a more human, a more earthly way of thinking to become the “spiritual animals” we are.[70] We can more consciously enact a philosophical sensibility that each and every philosopher and thinking being can cultivate and that every creatively thinking being has consciously or unconsciously always accessed.


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Published Online: 2022-06-10
Published in Print: 2022-11-30

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