It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Harvey Cox remembers Illich

'"R-r-read me the last three sentences you have written." It was the summer of 1968, and the voice, slightly accented, with the trilled "r," issued from a tall figure in a brown and gray serape lying prone on the floor of my small study at the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Dutifully, I read for Ivan Illich, the founder and director of "CIDOC," the most recent scribblings on the book I was then writing. Then he responded. His comments, as usual, were apt and dazzling. He could conjure historical analogies out of the air, suggest alternative phrasing, pose probing questions.'

So begins an obituary and appreciation of Ivan Illich that we stumbled onto recently. We actually had seen this piece back in 2003, shortly after Illich died, but we'd forgotten about it. It's written well - by Harvey Cox, a Harvard theologian perhaps best known for The Secular City, published in 1965 - and offers some interesting observations of the man and his reputation and of the vibrant scene that arose around CIDOC.

Of Cuernavaca in the 1960s, Cox writes: "The outdoor cafes around the lovely old piazza with its central gazebo and refreshment stands provided only one of the many venues reminiscent of the crackling atmosphere along the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris."

There was a decided buzz about Cuernavaca, especially among young countercultural types, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They arrived in droves, with their backpacks, jeans and recently purchased serapes and sandals. They thronged the boarding houses and inexpensive hotels. Some wanted to learn Spanish, and the center had an excellent language school. Others just wanted to hang out. All wanted to warm themselves in the already legendary glow of Ivan Illich and the cluster of intellectual enfants terribles that surrounded him. But many soon became disillusioned.

Illich, whose ideas on education--spelled out in his 1971 book De-Schooling Society--were indeed revolutionary, had utterly no patience with academic slackness. He couldn't abide people who used language--any language--sloppily. He hated empty chatter. He was just as critical of hippy laxity as he was of the moralistic smugness and rigidity of his own church. The young people climbing off the rickety buses may have expected a merry prankster, but instead they found an old-world aristocrat with a hawk nose and piercing eyes who made stringent demands on them, and whose stinging critique of bureaucratic modernity arose from his love of tradition rather than from some Haight-Ashbury version of doing your own thing.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Deschooling Society, the Greek translation

A PDF scan of Deschooling Society, translated into modern Greek, is available for viewing and downloading at Scribd, here. Here is what the book looks like:

Deschooling Greek

Universidad de la Tierra

We've mentioned Gustavo Esteva, a Mexican activist and friend of Ivan Illich, in a previous post, here. Recently, we came across an article by him and streaming video of him speaking about the same topic at a conference.

The article is entitled, "The Meaning of the Global Crisis and 'Recovery' for Study Abroad: What Are We Preparing Students For?" Esteva presented it in 2010 at a conference called "Fostering Multicultural Competence and Global Justice," put on by an organization called SIT, in Vermont. (SIT was founded as the School for International Training, but has gone by the acronym since 2007.) The essay is available in PDF on this page (click Download on the right) and so are two video streams (at the very bottom of the page, labeled Keynote Speech Parts 1 and 2).

A description of the piece:

There is universal consensus that we are at the end of an historical cycle. But the consensus vanishes when you try to identify the corpse: we cannot accept that it is not just another business cycle, as the pundits still proclaim, but neither can we assume the end of globalization, neoliberalism, capitalism or the modern era, as many critics currently argue. Raised with a promise of infinite prosperity, beyond business cycles, at 'the end of history' after the marriage of capitalism and liberal democracy, our students have suddenly entered an era of decreasing expectations and increasing uncertainty. How to reformulate their hope, any hope? How can they be inspired by what the people are doing, all over the world, when they take again in their hands their own lives and destinies, reclaiming their own definition of the good life?

Esteva is identified as founder of the Universidad de la Tierra, a learning center (?) in Oxaca. More about that organization is available here, among other sites. Here is a photo of a sign seen there:

IllichSign Chiapas

Ivan Illich and Stanley Hauerwas on Crisis, Time, Panic, and Patience

Another paper referencing Illich has come to our attention: "Outflanking the Bureaucratic Production of Urgency: Ivan Illich and Stanley Hauerwas on Crisis and the Cultivation of Patience," by Ben Kautzer of University of Nottingham. It is available in PDF format here. It's a thoughtful essay that reflects on Illich's thoughts about crisis, speed, and time and then, following Stanley Hauerwas, suggests "that an alternative perception of time capable of resisting the politics of panic is best rooted in the practice of patience."

We first encountered Mr. Kautzer's name at his blog, Musings East of the City, where in 2009 he wrote a sympathetic piece about Illich's reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Hugh on friendship

In our last post, we mentioned a radio show in which Jerry Brown, now governor of California and then mayor of Oakland, interviewed Ivan Illich and Carl Mitcham. The following is an excerpt from the transcript of that show, which is available at the site of Brown's We the People organization.

Jerry Brown: OK, this is Hugh of St. Victor, a man who lived in the 12th century, and here is what he says. He says, "Charity." Now when he says charity does he mean love?

Illich: Yes.

Brown: OK, so I'm going to use that. When he says love never ends. "To my dear brother Ronolfe from Hugh, a sinner. Love never ends. When I first heard this I knew it was true. But now, dearest brother, I have the personal experience of fully knowing that love never ends. For I was a foreigner. I met you in a strange land. But that land was not really strange for I found friends there." And it goes on. You want me to go on some more?

Illich: It's so beautiful.

Brown: "But the land was not really strange for I found friends there. I don't know whether I first made friends or was made one, but I found love there and I loved it and I could not tire of it for it was sweet to me and I filled my heart with it and was sad that my heart could hold so little. I could not take in all that there was but I took in as much as I could. I filled up all the space I had but I could not fit in all I found so I accepted what I could and weighed down with this precious gift I didn't feel any burden because my full heart sustained me. And now having made a long journey I find my heart still warmed and none of the gift has been lost for love never ends."

Illich: Isn't that a marvelous little letter?

Brown: It's wonderful.

Illich: Today we would immediately say if a man writes to a man like that he must be a gay. Why not? But anyway if he writes to a woman they would say what a marvelous sexual relationship. But do I need these alienating concepts? I want to just go back to a great rabbinical and also as you see, monastic, Christian development beyond what the Greeks like Plato or Cicero already knew about friendship. That it is from your eye that I find myself. …

We the People, in Oakland, Calif.

The following article appeared in the New York Times for Sept. 17, 2000. A website still exists for We the People, and it provides access to many papers and other materials relating to the proceedings described here. Particularly interesting is the transcript of Jerry Brown's radio show with Ivan Illich and Carl Mitcham as guests. (Just follow the links at the left side of the page.) Unfortunately, the phone numbers provided for We the People are not in service, so there's no information available about where one might obtain the audio recordings of this broadcast that also are mentioned on the site.

Intellectual Forum Brings Jerry Brown to the Table


OAKLAND, Calif., Sept. 16 — The phrase ''back to school'' has acquired new meaning here. It's time to grab the ballpoints, the highlighters and the 450-page binder of reading materials and head over to the mayor's house for a little ''Medieval Philosophical Latin: Part 1.''

Call it Jerry 101. Mayor Jerry Brown, former presidential candidate, former governor and former Jesuit seminarian, has invited the citizenry of this city on the move to participate in the Oakland Table, a casual intellectual exchange over six weeks -- a sort of Ivory Tower in a loft -- in which two dozen scholars, headlined by the historian and philosopher Ivan Illich, have been brought in to ponder the city, citizenship and the deep meaning of it all.

Part salon, part graduate school seminar, it may be the northern California equivalent of Dorothy Parker's Round Table at the Algonquin in the 1920's in Manhattan, except that instead of whiskey and cigarettes, there are tai chi and yoga classes in an adjoining room.

''Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living,' so we're examining it,'' Mr. Brown said the other day, having spent two hours ''in colloquy,'' where the discussion drifted from Daedalus to whether washing dishes constituted slavery.
''The big question is,'' Mr. Brown said, '' 'How do we create a place?' The 'Oakland Think Tank' sounded too cerebral. The word 'table' is a great metaphor for urban civitas.''

The Table, which will be held twice a year for three years, is being financed with $120,000 from the We the People Foundation, the nonprofit educational organization Mr. Brown started in the mid-1990's before becoming mayor. The speakers, who have turned Mr. Brown's quasi-communal loft building in Jack London Square into a Zen-like faculty club, include the architectural theorist Joseph Rykwert and the Mexican intellectual and activist Gustavo Esteva. One result will be a book, Mr. Brown said.

The seminars, alternately resembling town meetings and academic encounter groups complete with surreptitious doodling, have been drawing an eclectic following, from faithful students of Mr. Illich, the author of the 1970 book ''Deschooling Society,'' which influenced the home-schooling movement, to people like Bruce Miller, a banker, who says he finds the subjects, which focus on civic engagement, ''provocative.''

''It's just like college,'' Mr. Miller said, ''except that you don't have to write papers.''

The Table has also attracted plenty of interlopers from nearby Berkeley, including Debbie Moore, organizer of the ninth annual Nude and Breast Freedom Parade to be held on Sunday in Peoples Park, who believes that the presence of nude bodies can soften cities and ''tenderize the sidewalk,'' she said.

Not present were Brown critics like Wilda White, president of the Jack London Neighborhood Association and an Oakland school board member, who do not approve of pointy-headed table-talk. They are concerned about the rising homicide rate and, with dot- coms in ascendance, the ''Jerrification'' of Oakland at the expense of the poor.

''I'm sure it's fun,'' Ms. White said of the Table, with subjects like ''Historical Conceptions of Place'' and ''Proportionality in Architecture.'' ''But with the lack of affordable housing, the high murder rate and schools in disarray, it's a luxury.''

Mr. Brown said he was seeking ways to instill more ''hospitality, friendliness and give and take'' in the city, bringing to Lake Merritt, in Oakland, perhaps, the spirit of Lake Wobegon and making the city more than a blip in the Berkeley-Stanford intellectual firmament.

''Instead of cost-benefit analysis,'' he said, ''let's take a look at the common good, at Oakland from the view of early Christianity and 2,000 years ago.''

Mr. Brown continued: ''Potholes are being filled, drug dealers are being arrested, buildings are going up. But that's not the whole story.''

For the former Governor Moonbeam, who made out-of-the-box thinkers like E. F. Schumacher, Herman Kahn and R. Buckminster Fuller regents of the University of California, the daily grind of governing never has been. [sic?]

So far in his mayoralty, ''pragmatic agendas have crowded out Jerry's New Age style, at least publicly,'' observes Bruce E. Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. ''Now it's re-emerging on the radar screen.''

Former Mayor Ed Koch of New York City, who used to bring in scholars for debates at Gracie Mansion, says of the revving up of politicians by intellectuals: ''It goes back to Pericles. ''It's a recycled idea. In the golden age of Greece the brightest minds discussed the issues of the day, like chariot traffic and its adverse effect on the Parthenon.''

Democracy may be a big topic at the Table but that's not the whole story. ''Why am I doing this?'' said Mr. Brown, before heading off to a group dinner of anadama bread and Moroccan sausage. ''The primary reason I'm doing this is because I find it interesting.''

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Convivial Tools article

An article about Ivan Illich and his notion of convivial tools appeared recently on The Atlantic Monthly's website. In "Why the Landline Telephone Was the Perfect Tool," Suzanne Fischer, an historian of science and technology, reviews Illich's idea and concludes that "our contemporary convivial tools are mostly in the realm of communications. At their best, personal computers, the web, mobile technology, the open source movement, and the maker movement are contemporary convivial tools."

Do you agree?

Monday, May 07, 2012

An encounter

A man from New Zealand named Tony Ward writes of Ivan Illich on his website, ("Critical Education Theory and Practice"):

I only met him once, when he came to deliver a seminar to the Faculty at the School of Architecture at Berkeley in (I think) 1972. My colleagues and I numbered about fifteen, and were seated around a large conference table while Illich stood at the blackboard, talking and drawing diagrams to illustrate his words. We all listened respectfully, but after about fifteen minutes I began to realise that I didn't understand the highly abstract monologue that he was delivering. So I raised my hand and said:
"Dr Illich", I said, "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I have the feeling that you are not really here! Where are you?"
An eternity of silence and disapproval filled the room as my colleagues glared at me. Ivan Illich looked at me quizzically, broke into a smile and responded:
"You're quite right! I'm not here at all! I'm preparing a lecture to present at the University of San Francisco tomorrow." He put down the chalk, sat at the table and asked, "What shall we discuss?".

The seminar turned out the be an extraordinary exchange of ideas.

Sunday, May 06, 2012


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.

An Italian Take on Illich

An Italian website offers in PDF an article about Illich and, as indicated in its headline, the idea that shaped his thought for many years, corruptio optimi pessima - the corruption of the best is the worst. The best way to understand the West as we know it, Illich concluded, is as a perverse, even demonic version of the Gospel.

The article is one that appeared in a magazine called Meditteraneo. Alas, we cannot read the piece, but we're happy to report that it does include a photo of Illich that we've not seen before.

PastedGraphic 1

From the left, this shows Sindaco Vitali, Romano Prodi, Illich, and Paolo Prodi. Romano Prodi has served twice as prime minister of Italy - from 1996 to 1998, and from 2006 to 2008. His brother Paolo is an historian whom Illich credits (In The Rivers North of the Future, p. 80) as an important "teacher."

Illich tells David Cayley: "With Paolo I had, for the first time, an opportunity of reflecting, with a man several years younger than I, on the way in which the Western, Roman Church attempted to give a juridical shape to the household rules by which monastic communities lived together. This attempt to create a canonical establishment … produced a deep corruption. It led … to a toning down of the message of the founder…."

Illich is introducing the topic of the "criminalization of sin." Illich goes on to explain that while the Library of Congress' online catalog lists eighty-two items by Prodi, only one is available in English.

"I bow to this authority and feel pretty certain that he is right, and I say this having read his critics and satisfied myself that I am not allowing friendship to outshine my critical intelligence. But I would hardly dare to say what I'm about to say, if he were looking over my shoulder, because I will take liberties which are neither academically legitimate, nor necessarily kind. I'm sure, if he reads it later, he will bear with me."

Among other topics, llich's discussion of the criminalization of sin delves into the history of oath-taking and contracts, which Prodi has spent much effort looking into. Oaths, Illich notes, were proscribed in the New Testament - "nothing [was] more absolutely forbidden." And that was a radical change from the way people had generally acted up until then - a "rule-breaking innovations," as Illich calls it, that the Church ended up perverting in its effort to turn Christ's call to "love thy neighbor" into a law.

A year ago, a symposium was held in honor of Illich - A New Beginning, it was called. The opening talk was given by Paolo Prodi. A program for this meeting can be seen here and here. And here, we believe, is one of the papers delivered there, about Illich in Mexico. And Facebook shows a page about this event, as well.

"Second Language Learning as a Tool for Conviviality"

We've just learned of "Wringing the Neck of the Swan," a paper published recently (PDF) in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing. In it, Kristin Dillman Jones of Concordia University in Chicago, looks at the teaching and learning of second languages.

"I propose language learning as a convivial tool [that] opens our hearts to learn in the commons from our neighbors and also shatters the current commodification of languages" Ms. Jones writes. The swan whose neck she seeks to wring is modernist and industrial methods of learning, and in that process, she refers often to the thought of Ivan Illich, among others. Ms. Jones relates some of her own experiences learning - and not learning - foreign languages at different moments of her life.

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.