James Hillman: Gender and Individuality

The space devoted in Utne Reader and The Nation to Katha Pollitt’s well-written piece on gender issues represents the continued disproportionate attention given to this contemporary symptom in our national psychological debate–the virtues of feminism and of the men’s movement notwithstanding. Is gender worth the trees felled for bringing it so often to print?

I have three main objections to discussions of gender and would like to make one recommendation. First, I follow old Alfred Adler in considering all oppositional thinking to be a neurotic mental activity. The male-female opposition was for him the most basic of the polar pairs, and hence the most neurotic. This explains why it is so crazy-making trying to step aside from gender arguments once they are broached in friendly conversations, public forums, or academic articles. You get immediately entwined, for/against, better/worse, and reduced to opposing arguments, which bears witness to Adler’s thesis that one is trapped inside an insoluble neurotic loop once gender enters a discussion.

Second, gender is a class concept, dividing the populace of the world into some three billion folks amassed on either side of a barbed conceptual fence. A class concept does fundamental injustice to the complexities and idiosyncrasies of individuals, who are by definition distinct from one another, and only alike in the most vague and gross ways. To know any individual, you do worst by starting off with the widest category she or he belongs to and do best by being most precise. I cannot ever know myself “as a man,” and can never find my “true manhood,” “essential masculinity,” etc.

The class concept exists only as an abstraction, apart from actual human beings, each one different, none exactly fitting any class definition, unless that definition is to be diluted beyond significance, Even if the idea “man” is raised to a universal archetype, it is knowable only as it presents itself in a particular person. I cannot know “the masculine” or “the feminine,” but l can know myself and you in terms of specific traits, features, behaviors, and quirks. And it is just so that I wish to be known and to know others.

Third, this obsession with the hurt child of the past and with gender by the psychologically interested citizenry continues two massive diversions from the issues at the core of our national malaise, issues such as racism; violence; inability to grieve, repent, and hold accountable; worship of The Economy; retreat to security; our addiction to innocence (denial); and that prime event of the ’90s — our sinking ship. The whole bloody planet—its species, primordial peoples, biosphere, differentiated languages, gene pools—is sliding fast into extinction. As the ship goes down, does it matter whether it’s men or women who are the first to drown? Even Victims can pull an oar.

Oh yes, the recommendation: a ban on gender articles for anyone over 16 years of age.

James Hillman
Thompson, CT

Source: Utne Reader, 1993 edition.


Addendum: Further remarks by James Hillman on the gender question, from alternative sources:

“Another one of the fake issues is gender. We pit men against women and all the bookstores are filled with talk of men against women. It’s irrelevant! — this gender-war. It’s bullshit! It should be men and women against the oppressors.” [Discussion with Stephen Capen – 1996]

And finally, I boast this triumph: a book with a passionate psychological intent whose passion was not diverted into the indulgences of the gender war. As civilization subsides into its own waste deposits, it doesn’t matter whether you are feminine or masculine or any composite of them. We all dissolve together. Far more urgent matters than gender call out to the passion of psychology.” [Introduction to The Soul’s Code – 1996]


JH: when intellectuals spend their time on the gender conflict without realizing that we’re all gonna die together, and that the environmental disasters affect men and women equally, and that gender discussions are irrelevant to the major questions of the time. They’re not a matter of breaking through the glass ceiling. They’re a matter of the planet, a matter of the distortion of economics that keeps the thing the way it is. We’ve been taught that big government is a horror in the last five years. It’s not big government, it’s big corporations. If you wipe out big government, there’s nothing that can oppose the big corporations. Nothing. The rape of the planet is not done by big governments, mainly. It’s done by helpless governments in the face of big corporations. Brazil, for example. And the gender thing distracts us, because it’s personalized, it’s immediate, it’s my own personal battle with my woman, or her personal battle with me. They become magnified by this. And then the resentments of years of oppression.

CP: It’s not just at the level of political exigency, either. I recall your writing at one point that there’s no respect for gender at the deepest levels of the psyche.

JH: Fate isn’t a gender matter. Death isn’t a gender matter.

[CP interview with JH]