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By his own account, Thomas Kasulis developed the distinction between intimacy and integrity worldviews while trying to understand and express the differences between Japanese and American culture: though each culture contains elements of both, Japan is a culture where intimacy predominates and America one where integrity predominates. But once he’s established this genesis in the introduction, in the rest of the book Kasulis deliberately – and helpfully – makes his analysis more abstract. It’s no longer about Japan and the US, it’s about a pair of ideal types that can be applied to many different kinds of cultural differences, including those within what we think of as a single culture.

One such difference is the presumed difference between men and women. After over a century of feminism in the West, it continues to be a commonplace that men and women typically see the world differently from each other. That presumed difference is expressed in fora from psychology and sociology to water-cooler conversations and stand-up comedy. And what’s most interesting to me here is how that difference maps — rather closely, I think — onto the distinction between integrity and intimacy.

As far as I know, in building his own philosophical synthesis, Ken Wilber never refers to the intimacy/integrity distinction as expressed by Kasulis, but he spends considerable time reflecting on “masculine and feminine” types or principles or values. He draws these largely from Carol Gilligan’s influential observations of boys’ and girls’ moral and psychological development. Gilligan saw boys, as they developed, coming to think about good and bad action in terms of rules, rights and individuality; girls, in terms of relationships, responsibility, care. Her distinction follows almost exactly the parameters of Kasulis’s distinction when it comes to ethics. In short, Wilber and Gilligan say: men and boys tend to think in an integrity orientation, women and girls in an intimacy orientation.

Recent psychological research into autism and Asperger’s syndrome has pushed this idea even further. Asperger’s syndrome, involving an ease with patterned rule-governed activities and difficulty with social relationships, would seem to be an example of an extreme integrity orientation at the expense of intimacy. Cambridge (UK) psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen that Asperger’s syndrome is a pattern of the “extreme male brain” – and low-functioning autism still more extreme than that. Baron-Cohen’s theory is based on a distinction between systemizing and empathizing:

‘Empathising’ is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. Empathising allows you to
predict a person’s behaviour, and to care about how others feel. In this article, I review evidence that on average, females spontaneously empathise to a greater degree than do males. ‘Systemising’ is the drive to analyse the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system. Systemising also refers to the drive to construct systems. Systemising allows you to predict the behaviour of a system, and to control it. I review evidence that, on average, males spontaneously systemise to a greater degree than do females.

Empathizing is central to intimacy as Kasulis describes it, which is all about close and unspoken understandings of others; systemizing is central to integrity’s abstracted and universalized patterns. And Baron-Cohen’s evidence seems persuasive to me in establishing that, within a modern Western context, men are more typically associated with integrity than are women.

As far as I can tell, Baron-Cohen’s evidence is based primarily on the modern West, which limits its ability to establish a biological universal beyond cultures. But we might not want to overstate that point. Every non-Western culture with which I am familiar makes distinctions between masculine and feminine values or principles, and it would be interesting to explore the extent to which these track Baron-Cohen’s empathizing/systemizing model.

A more important limitation to the “male/female brain” concept is right there in Baron-Cohen’s own quote, where he says on average. It cannot be disputed (and Baron-Cohen does not try to dispute) that many men and women do not fit the proposed pattern. One of the most famous contemporary Aspergians is Temple Grandin, a woman; many other examples are easy to provide.

Baron-Cohen recognizes that the pattern he finds is only a statistical generalization; some women are going to have a so-called “male brain” and women a “female brain”. But given that point, I think there are serious problems with using the language of male and female (or masculine and feminine) to describe these orientations. We should not be too quick to treat empathizing as essentially feminine and systemizing as essentially masculine.

Most obviously, such an approach can blind us to the reality of “masculine” women and “feminine” men. (My first wife may have had a stronger integrity orientation than anyone else I’ve ever met.) More subtly – and more dangerously – I think it reinforces the power differentials that feminism has fought so hard against. The radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, writing before Baron-Cohen but after Gilligan, criticized Gilligan in her important essay “Difference and dominance” (from Feminism Unmodified). She points out that when one sex thinks with a morality of responsibility and another with a morality of individuality, it privileges the latter – a dynamic that has played out in a thousand arguments about household chores. “Women think in relational terms because our existence is defined in relation to men.” While I’m not sure MacKinnon’s account is right in explanatory terms, I think it makes important points for future action: if we are to have a society with justice toward women, it is important not to treat traits associated with submissiveness as if they are essentially or naturally feminine, whatever the statistical generalizations might say. (They are, let us never forget, only statistical generalizations.)

Pulling back to the level of cross-cultural philosophy where I began: If Kasulis is right that Japanese culture is characterized by a much stronger intimacy orientation than the West (and I think this is hard to dispute), we reach some very uncomfortable places when we think of that orientation as “feminine” and integrity as “masculine” (as Wilber and Baron-Cohen both seem to do). Critics of Orientalism like Edward Said have long pointed out how colonial writers portrayed “the East” (from Turkey to Japan) as essentially feminine, compared to a masculine West. I don’t think cross-cultural philosophy does itself any favours by associating itself with those stereotypes; but if it is to use the language of feminine and masculine to describe different cultural orientations, then that’s exactly what it will wind up doing.

In the final chapter of his book, Kasulis himself acknowledges the ways in which his categories relate to Western constructions of masculine and feminine, connecting them to feminist epistemology. He doesn’t think that the association of masculine with integrity and feminine with intimacy is universal; assessing whether that’s the case would make for a fascinating but very difficult work of cross-cultural anthropology. He attempts at one point to suggest that men are associated with the dominant orientation in each culture – so that in Japan, men are associated with intimacy and women with integrity! However, he hesitates on that point so much (and even provides so much countervailing evidence to it) that it doesn’t seem like even he believes the point. It certainly was not convincing to me.

Regardless, I see all that I’ve discussed here as constituting an argument for the use of Kasulis’s categories. There are real and important differences in ways we see the world, ways which have been and continue to be coded as male and female or masculine and feminine – certainly in the West, and I suspect elsewhere as well. But we do better service to both cross-cultural philosophy and the cause of gender equality if we avoid the gender-coded language to speak of them. The language of integrity and intimacy works very well as an alternate way of doing so.

EDIT (15 Oct 2023): The original version of this post had referred to “the late radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon”. I must have been confusing her with her colleague Andrea Dworkin, who had died a while before. Ten years after this post, I see MacKinnon is still alive today, coming out with interesting thoughts on transgender issues.