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I’ve found Thomas Kasulis’s distinction between intimacy and integrity to be one of the more helpful ways to think through the significance of culture in philosophy, especially when dealing with East Asia. To help Westerners understand East Asian thought, Kasulis portrays it as having an “intimacy” orientation, as opposed to a more familiar “integrity” orientation.

Now Kasulis is aware enough to realize that there are exceptions to all such generalizations, and some of his examples of “intimacy” come from the West too. The distinction is supposed to function more like one of Max Weber’s ideal types. That is to say: one may never encounter intimacy or integrity orientations in their pure forms; any actual culture or person or book will probably contain some mix. Nevertheless, by thinking of the two as relatively coherent extremes, one is better able to understand what’s going on in the middle.

When applied to ethics and politics alone, the distinction is not particularly original and could even come across as something of a cliché: basically, the modern West is individualistic and oriented toward individual rights and the integrity of the individual, while East Asia focuses on the intimacy community and the ensuing responsibilities of interdependence. Where Kasulis’s work gets interesting is when he applies the distinction to theoretical philosophy. Western thought, Kasulis says, establishes truth by separating the knower and known, establishing “objective” knowledge as opposed to “subjective” knowledge, knowing the object of knowledge in its integrity, in a way independent of its subject’s preferences. In East Asian thought, by contrast, knowledge is a matter of familiarity and acquaintance; knowing the truth is like knowing a person. Rather than distancing oneself from the object of knowledge in order to become more objective, one must become closer to it, intimate with it in a sense.

I’ve found this distinction helpful as I begin expanding my (so far very limited) knowledge of East Asian thought. I recently had the pleasure of reading Jason Clower’s dissertation on Mou Zongsan, a 20th-century Chinese Confucian thinker widely read in Chinese philosophical circles but little known in the West so far. (The dissertation will soon be published by E.J. Brill.) Clower expresses some frustration with Mou’s elliptical style, in which he simply states his claims rather than doing the work of precise argument – a feature others have attributed to the classical Confucian texts themselves. I suspect that what Mou is doing (and perhaps the earlier Confucians with him) is trying to present a worldview and invite the reader to inhabit it, so that once the reader thinks with Mou she will be able to fill in the argumentative gaps. An intimacy orientation rather than integrity.

But I had already observed the power of Kasulis’s distinction earlier, when he presented a version of the book at Harvard’s Workshop in Cross-Cultural Philosophy. Kasulis was, as I noted, careful to say that he wasn’t just associating intimacy with “the East,” that it could be found in the West as well, especially in the premodern era. Early in the book he refers to an American nurse as an example of the intimacy orientation; one could argue that contemporary “continental” philosophy takes an intimacy approach as well, as opposed to the analytical tradition’s more straightforward integrity approach.

Fine, I said, we can see intimacy all over the place. But what about integrity? Isn’t this just another modern Western phenomenon – isn’t this distinction just another way of highlighting the ways in which the modern West differs from everyone else, as Weber himself had tried to do? Can you provide any significant example of the integrity orientation outside of the modern West?

At this point my advisor, Parimal Patil, chimed in with one of those rare insights that change one’s entire impression of a subject. “Yes,” Parimal said, “classical Indian thought!” I was blown away, because I’d been studying Indian tradition and this insight had been right under my nose for years, yet I’d somehow failed to see it. Classical Jain thought, and texts like the Yoga Sūtras, espouse an integrity view so pronounced it makes Descartes look like an ethics-of-care theorist: the purpose of life is for the subject to detach himself from the world and its suffering, exist alone in his purity. I hadn’t seen this because I was so used to modern India, where family ties are so strong compared to ours that it seemed naturally like an intimacy culture. But modern Hindu families are removed on so many levels from the world of classical Indian thought, it’s hard to put the two together. Once I had this insight, I saw that Kasulis’s insight can take us places that Weber’s can’t.