Ivan Illich
February 3, 2011 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Ivan Illich was an Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest and critic of the institutions of contemporary western culture and their effects on the provenance and practice of education, medicine, work, energy use, and economic development.
posted by Joe Beese (20 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
A little light on context. Not to be confused with Ivan Ilyich.
posted by lumensimus at 12:00 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Vernacular values was a particularly fascinating reframing of the idea of "subsitence" modes of living. Illich hit a lot of important topics; ideas still valuable today.
posted by infinite intimation at 12:03 PM on February 3, 2011

I read Energy and Equity in my early teens and it had a huge effect on me. Thanks for these links - it's great to be able to download this stuff and read it again.
The opening quote of E&E - "El socialismo puede llegar solo en bicicleta." - is even more true today than it was then.
posted by silence at 12:17 PM on February 3, 2011

Fantastic link! Thanks, Joe Beese.
posted by cgc373 at 12:26 PM on February 3, 2011

Illich: An automobile which cuts out the use value from your feet. Like an automobile which makes the world inaccessible, when actually in Latin "automobile" means "using your feet to get somewhere." The automobile makes it unthinkable.

What a great mind. The 2 interviews and Eulogy by Jerry Brown are wonderful. We have to thank the stars that he is still around and the governor of California.
posted by Xurando at 12:28 PM on February 3, 2011

I was fortunate to be a CBC listener while David Cayley spent a great deal of time on, and with this thinker. There were tapes to be had, I haven't looked yet for mp3s.

As well as being a fairly convincing Christian apologist, he had such a high degree of integrity and high moral standards, which he lived, that I had to decide for myself that I am simply not that good of a person. He refused to even speak of nuclear weapons, the very idea being abhorrent for him.

De-schooling Society is a great read (not enough of it on Google Books to make a link worthwhile).
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:29 PM on February 3, 2011

The medical nemesis, also a truly interesting read. The concept of iatrogenesis is worth examining (I had meant to put some links together on it, may still yet).
Fun point in the DFW library, one of the circled words was iatric, of iatrogenesis. I think deschooling society has been linked here before, this collection is a great reminder of the vast diversity of his thinking. Excellent compilation.
posted by infinite intimation at 12:41 PM on February 3, 2011

Nice collection. I wish The Right to Useful Unemployment: And Its Professional Enemies wasn't omitted.
posted by safetyfork at 12:42 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Medical nemesis link .
Deschooling society PDF link (pretty sure it's all there).
posted by infinite intimation at 12:47 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had never heard of this man until this post. Reading some of his work here, I like the guy. He tackles incredibly complex subjects and reduces them to the fundamental ideas in a straightforward way. I love that he punctures our cultural preconceptions without hesitation.

I can imagine he was no big fan of the IMF.
posted by Xoebe at 1:08 PM on February 3, 2011

I highly recommend reading Nathan Gardels' 1989 interview with Illich, "The Shadow that the Future Throws."

A couple of excerpts:

[C]ommon sense is … searching for a language to speak about the shadow which the future throws.

The disintegrating ozone layer and warming atmosphere are making it intolerable to think of more development and industrial growth as progress, but rather as aggression against the human condition.

posted by New Frontier at 1:56 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

@not_that_epiphanius, there are a few MP3 links on the linked archive (scroll down), including the Cayley interview.
posted by Alt F4 at 5:01 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Deschooling Society was a revolutionary book, influenced by the free school movement, but by Illich's many other thoughtstreams, as well. Probably his most famous book, and probably still a great read, (although it's been a while for me). It is definitely outside the lamentably narrow argument about teachers' unions, vouchers, etc.

Considering revolutions such as the one in Egypt, is it not worthwhile to consider revolutionary changes in our teetering society?
posted by kozad at 5:16 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Illich is a hero of mine. I think we can all hear the echoes of futurity in this famous quote of his:

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.
—Ivan Illich

posted by fake at 5:41 PM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Illich has been one of my intellectual heroes for more than 30 years. He seemed to be fading away, I've rarely met anyone else who is aware of his work, and I'm thrilled to see he's known to so many others here.
posted by namasaya at 6:02 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

there are a few MP3 links on the linked archive

Thanks - I was at work, and the ethics of taking my time from there to do proper search froze me so completely, that I was unable to do so.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:05 PM on February 3, 2011

Ivan was a customer of mine for many years, at a bookstore I was a co-owner of. Ironic that just last week, the university announced the closing of the Science, Technology, and Society department that grew up around his work here at Penn State.

It was hard to reconcile some of the brilliant things he wrote with how he responded to his cancer. Ivan hated the medical establishment and wrote frequently about how we allowed medicine to infiltrate our lives and our personal sovereignty far too much. When he was diagnosed with cancer himself, he chose not to treat it, though perhaps that's not entirely accurate. The tumor on his face disfigured him and caused him great pain. Rather than succumb to what he saw as the false promise of medicine at the cost of his own agency, he chose to self-medicate with opium.

It was sad to watch him deterioriate. He often spent hours reading in the store. And in the end, I remember watching this brilliant mind fitfully struggle to concentrate. Clearly he felt pain. And he flet obligated to live with his choice. But illness isn't interested in its victim's past accomplishments or their attitudes about technology. Suffering touches all indifferent to our beliefs or ideologies.

It always heartens me to see people here on Metafilter talk about what a powerful impact he had. He was a brilliant man. And I highly recommend all of his books.

Start here:
DeSchooling Society

Tools for Conviviality

Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health

In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh's Didascalicon (my personal favorite)


ABC: Alphabetization of the Popular Mind

Also, liberation theology was important to Ivan. Folks should know what it was.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:52 PM on February 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm a 17-year-old unschooler. School was hell for me. I first heard about unschooling through Grace Llewyllyn, who was inspired by John Holt, who was inspire by Ivan Illich.


posted by wayland at 7:40 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

That's an amazing story, Toekneesan. When I read:

It was hard to reconcile some of the brilliant things he wrote with how he responded to his cancer. Ivan hated the medical establishment...

I thought: here it comes, he copped out as any human could be forgiven for doing when faced with the multidimensional pain of cancer. But he didn't. I appreciate your feeling for and about him during those days, but, man, he lived, and even died, his beliefs.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 10:25 PM on February 3, 2011

safetyfork, I too noticed the omission of The Right To Useful Unemployment And Its Professional Enemies - a fascinating book. Since I have a copy of it in my home library, I thought I'd share a few quotes I like from the book (pp. 82-84):
"...the struggle for an equitable distribution of the time and the power to be useful to self and others outside employment or the draft has been effectively paralyzed. Work done off the paid job is looked down upon if not ignored. Autonomous activity threatens the employment level, generates deviance, and detracts from the GNP: therefore it is only improperly called 'work'.
"Work no longer means the creation of a value perceived by the worker but mainly a job, which is a social relationship. Unemployment means sad idleness, rather than the freedom to do things that are useful for oneself or for one's neighbour. An active woman who runs a house and brings up children and takes in those of others is distinguished from a woman who 'works,' no matter how useless or damaging the product of this work might be.
"...in contemporary society, effort is not productive unless it is done at the behest of a boss, and economists have a hard time dealing with the obvious usefulness of people when they are outside the corporate control of a corporation, volunteer agency, or labour camp. Work is productive, respectable, worthy of the citizen only when the work process is planned, monitored, and controlled by a professional agent, who insures that the work meets a certified need in a standardized fashion. In an advanced industrial society it becomes almost impossible to seek, even to imagine, unemployment as a condition for autonomous, useful work. The infrastructure of society is arranged so that only the job gives access to the tools of production...A society that fosters intense dependence on commodities thus turns its unemployed into either its poor or its dependents."
These words - originally published by Illich in 1978 - happen to be very timely for me. I have been unemployed for over a year now, yet I continue to joyfully seek opportunities to earn money and be useful to others as much as possible outside the confines of 9 to 5 (with varying degrees of success.)

Thanks, Joe Beese, for this post honouring a brilliant thinker and social critic.
posted by velvet winter at 11:24 PM on February 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

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