The idea of contingency and how that idea evolved over time was a major theme in Illich's thinking, especially as put forth in his final interviews with David Cayley. Illich talks at length about contingency in The Rivers North of the Future, arguing in two successive chapters that contingency helps to explain the death of nature and the rise of today's technology-saturated world.
Contingency, Illich points out, originally referred to the idea that the world's existence is a gift from God. Early Christians thought of the world -- "the whole of nature" -- as existing "in God's hands, where it acquired its aliveness through God's constant, creative support." Why does the world exist at all? Simply because God willed it, said St. Augustine. St. Thomas went on to further develop this idea.
Eventually, however, philosophers such as William of Ockham and Descartes sought to "break out of a world-view defined overwhelmingly by contingency," and coinciding with this, according to Hans Blumenberg, whose thinking Illich works from, is the beginning of modernity. Once "the possibility of understanding things without reference to God had been created," and "once God's will has become totally arbitrary it has also become, in a sense, redundant, and the connection between God and the world can be easily cut." And it was cut, with man having taken it upon himself, more and more, to engineer and improve through technology seemingly every aspect of the world and even his own body and mind. Think of the schemes afoot to control the earth's weather on a global scale, and the "transhumanist movement."
Says Illich: "A contingent nature at its noon is gloriously alive, but it is also uniquely vulnerable to being purified and cleaned of its aliveness in the sunset of contingency. … once the universe is taken out of God's hands, it can be placed into the hands of people, and this couldn't have happened without nature having been put in God's hands in the first place."
From here, Illich goes on to sketch out a striking new theory to explain how the notion of "tools" came about. Illich reviews Aristotle's thinking about the implements that craftsmen used and shows that these were not conceived of in a way that matches how we think of tools today. But during the Middle Ages, Church thinkers came to believe that angels needed some kind of tool to affect the heavenly spheres, and from that follows the idea of tools that people would use. (Naturally, we're over-simplifying, here.) Later, as Illich sees it, the 800-year epoch of tools and instrumentality gave way to the current age of systems.
We bother to write about this as we have mainly to set the scene for noting our discovery of a paper on the Web (PDF) entitled "Illich: contingency and transcendence." Its author is Dr. J. van Diest, who describes the paper as related to a lecture he gave in 2010 during a Conference on Culture and Transcendence, held at the Free University in Amsterdam. The paper discusses Illich's ideas about contingency and attempts to distinguish two kinds of contingency, one of being and another of "determination." Unfortunately, due to what we take to be a fairly rough translation (from Dutch?), the paper is somewhat difficult to follow, but we've been through it only once, so far. We'll definitely give it another try.