Ivan Illich has died - 2 December - 2002




Ivan Illich

A polymath and polemicist, his greatest contribution was as an archaeologist of ideas, rather than an ideologue

Andrew Todd and Franco La Cecla
Monday December 9, 2002
The Guardian

Ivan Illich, who has died of cancer aged 76, was one of the world's great thinkers, a polymath whose output covered vast terrains. He worked in 10 languages; he was a jet-age ascetic with few possessions; he explored Asia and South America on foot; and his obligations to his many collaborators led to a constant criss-crossing of the globe in the last two decades.

Best known for his polemical writings against western institutions from the 1970s, which were easily caricatured by the right and were, equally, disdained by the left for their attacks on the welfare state, in the last 20 years of his life he became an officially forgotten, troublesome figure (like Noam Chomsky today in mainstream America). This position obscures the true importance of his contribution. His critique of modernity was founded on a deep understanding of the birth of institutions in the 13th century, a critical period in church history which enlightened all of his work, whether about gender, reading or materiality. He was far more significant as an archaeologist of ideas, someone who helped us to see the present in a truer and richer perspective, than as an ideologue.

Illich was born in Vienna into a family with Jewish, Dalmatian and Catholic roots. His was an errant life, and he never found a home again after his family had to leave Vienna in 1941. He was educated in that city and then in Florence before reading histology and crystallography at Florence University.

He decided to enter the priesthood and studied theology and philosophy at the Vatican's Gregorian University from 1943 to 1946. He started work as a priest in an Irish and Puerto Rican parish in New York, popularising the church through close contact with the Latino community and respect for their traditions. He applied these same methods on a larger scale when, in 1956, he was appointed vice-rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, and later, in 1961, as founder of the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) at Cuernavaca in Mexico, a broad-based research centre which offered courses and briefings for missionaries arriving from North America.

The radicalism of CIDOC attracted many young North American priests, but it became a victim of its own success in a rightwing climate, and was wound up 10 years later by the consent of its members. (Illich said of its director, Valentina Borremans, that "she realised that the soul of this free, independent and powerless thinkery would have been squashed by its rising influence... [a positive] atmosphere invites the institutionalisation which will corrupt it".) By this time Illich had also resigned active duty as a priest, thereby sidestepping a potentially bitter conflict with the conservative Vatican authorities, who now opposed CIDOC.

Illich retained a lifelong base in Cuernavaca, but travelled constantly from this point on. His intellectual activity in the 1970s and 1980s focused on major institutions of the industrialised world. In seven concise, non-academic books he addressed education (Deschooling Society, 1971), technological development (Tools For Conviviality, 1973), energy, transport and economic development (Energy And Equity, 1974), medicine (Medical Nemesis, 1976) and work (The Right To Useful Unemployment And Its Professional Enemies, 1978, and Shadow Work, 1981). He analysed the corruption of institutions which, he said, ended up by performing the opposite of their original purpose. He observed the roots of this process in the institutionalisation of charity in the 13th-century church (he frequently cited the Latin maxim "corruptio optimi pessima", the corruption of the best is the worst).

His 1982 book, Gender, argued that the difference between feminine and masculine domains had been sacrificed to the idea of neutral work, capitalism creating and depending on the simplistic coupling of the male wage labourer and the woman as mother to produce new workers.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw the flowering of his interests. There was the historicity of materials (H2O And The Waters of Forgetfulness, 1985), literacy (ABC, The Alphabetisation Of The Popular Mind, 1988, co-written with Barry Sanders) and the origins of book-learning (In The Vineyard Of The Text, 1993). The latter volume was, he said, an attempt to understand the transition from the book to the computer screen through the prism of the changes in 13th-century reading practice.

In essays, papers and through the work of his collaborators, he addressed themes as diverse as the history of the gaze, friendship, hospitality, bioethics, body history (particularly with his close collaborator, the sociologist Barbara Duden) and space.

Illich lived frugally, but opened his doors to collaborators and drop-ins with great generosity, running a practically non-stop educational process which was always celebratory, open-ended and egalitarian at his final bases in Bremen, Cuernavaca and Pennsylvania.

His charisma, brilliance and spirituality were clear to anyone who encountered him; these qualities sustained him in a heroic level of activity over the last 10 years in the context of terrible suffering caused by a disfiguring cancer. Following the thesis of Medical Nemesis, he administered his own medication against the advice of doctors, who proposed a largely sedative treatment which would have rendered his work impossible.

He was able to finish a history of pain which will be published in French next year, as will his complete works. His last wish, which was to die surrounded by close collaborators amid the beginnings of a new learning centre he had planned in Bologna, was not realised.

· Ivan Illich, thinker, born September 4 1926; died December 2 2002


December 05, 2002

Ivan Illich
Radical thinker who believed that schools were bad for pupils but who retreated into thought at the expense of action

Ivan Illich was one of the most radical thinkers of the late 20th century. In the 1970s, from his think-tank in Mexico, he had a major impact on international readers, especially the young, through his radically anti-technocratic, anti-institutional arguments on health, education, transport and energy. Deschooling Society (1971) argued that school rendered people unlearned, and Medical Nemesis: The Appropriation of Health (1975) argued that health professionals were endangering patients’ wellbeing.
In one sense, Illich was a sociologist and political scientist; he held a part-time post under these scholastic rubrics at Fordham University, New York, from 1968. But he was acutely wary of enrolment in any political movement, and he abandoned the term “philosopher” on his passport after an Arab threw himself at his feet, transfixed by the description.

Finally, he opted for the term “historian”. Yet the only past era that won his prolonged attention was medieval Europe, largely through its literature, which he believed, like his fellow dreamer G. K. Chesterton, was the key to wisdom.

Illich dreamt of a society of freedom, equality and fraternity, but he was not a realistic planner towards these goals, and he gradually retreated into thought rather than action — though a close circle of friends did take on his mantle. On the rare occasions that he visited Britain he was keener to engage with university professors than to travel around investigating real social conditions.

Ivan Illich was born in Vienna. His father was a Roman Catholic Croatian landowner, his mother a Sephardic Jew. His grandfather raised him in Vienna. Later he gained fluency in 14 languages; yet he often stated that he had no mother tongue. Nazism forced his family to leave Austria and he ended his schooling in Florence.

At Florence University he researched histology and crystallography, pursuing wider interests in psychology and art history. He went to Rome in 1943 and began to study as a priest at the Gregorian University, the Vatican’s agency for higher education. Illich also obtained a doctorate in history from the University of Salzburg.

In 1951 he was assigned to pastoral work in New York with Puerto Ricans, to whom he became passionately committed. In 1956 he moved on, as Vice- Rector, to Puerto Rico’s Catholic University, where he acquired an active hostility to a “Yankee” model of religion applied to Hispanic society. That led to a running feud with the Catholic hierarchy, especially when he attacked a bishop who issued an interdict against voting for a pro-birth control candidate in an election for governor; after that clash he was recalled to New York in 1960. In 1959, aged 33, he was made a Monsignor, one of the youngest in the world at the time.

He set off on a 3,000-mile trip by horse and foot across South America from Santiago to Caracas, seeking out a new arena for work. In Colombia, he managed to stop the distribution of milk powder in famine areas by missionaries, who were aiming, as he saw it, to win extra leverage by giving the powder to Christians only. This hasty action led directly, he later admitted, to the death of a dozen children, and it was to haunt him in the following years.

In 1961 he set up the Intercultural Centre for Documentation in Mexico City, which sought to accumulate information that could be used by people and leaders alike, rather as Mass Observation did in Britain, and which offered crash courses in what later came to be called “de-Yankification” for would-be missionaries to Latin America. Later it evolved as an outlet for radical thinking on Latin American issues and key Western socio-cultural problems. Its classes centred on dynamic group therapy to excise culturally imperialist assumptions. Time magazine noted of his style with students: “He yells at them and lectures them, plays and prays with them, insults them and drinks with them.”

Catholic priests and laymen often came to the centre. But Illich ran into further trouble with the Church when he regularly rejected many of those who had enrolled as being unfit for an anti-American overhaul. Right-wing Catholic groups in Mexico came to see him as a bête noire.

In June 1968 he was called to Rome for a heresy-hunting interview on his beliefs and views. Although it did not in the end convict him, in January 1969 the Vatican banned attendance by priests at the centre. He leaked the details of the investigation to The New York Times; he had been accused of a role in the Archbishop of Guatemala’s kidnap. Two months later he voluntarily gave up the priesthood, retaining a commitment to celibacy.

In the centre’s role as a think-tank a key preoccupation was education. Deschooling Society, Illich’s most famous book, came out in 1971 and introduced his name to a wider, global audience. Convinced that the West’s education system was collapsing through bureaucracy, numbers and the cult of professionalism, he argued against diplomas, certificates and the institutionalisation of learning. “Inquiries into a man’s learning history,” he said, “should be taboo.”

Indeed, he wanted computer networks to link givers and receivers of knowledge and ready outlets for those who wished to attack received ideas within the educational nexus. It was the inefficiency of standard structures that appalled him. He held that an adult could absorb the contents of 12 years’ schooling in one or two years.

Other books flowed from his pen through the 1970s, often after intense think-tank sessions. Tools for Conviviality (1973) widened the scope of his technocratic targets to include television (for numbing conversation) and cars (for choking cities). Energy and Equity (1974) set out the pro-bicycle case, though Illich was often accused of hypocrisy for travelling by jet. He was in demand across the world at lectures and seminars, where he applied a coruscating Socratic technique to unsettle academic assumptions.

Medical Nemesis: The Appropriation of Health (1975) argued that the health professionals had become an active menace to their patients, and he popularised the word “iatrogenesis” to describe a disease induced by doctors. His remedy was that patients, with products in their own hands made available by the medical sector, treated themselves. The Right to Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies (1975) took the attack on to other specialist priesthoods claiming a monopoly of knowledge in their fields. He later applied the model to industrial designers and salesmen.

His books became progressively less alert to practical issues, more absorbed in intellectual history, probing popular attitudes and assumptions over time. They included ABC: The Alphabetisation of the Popular Mind (1988) and In the Vineyard of the Text (1993), which reflected a new focus on medieval literature.

The Intercultural Centre for Documentation closed down in 1976 but alternative outlets emerged in German universities, where he was highly popular. He held visiting professorships at Kassel, Oldenburg and Marburg.

His attacks on professions, neatly paradoxical as they were, often failed to make direct contact with life on the ground in mass society. His acute intelligence was not in doubt, however; on one occasion, he picked up a fluent knowledge of modern Greek in a day from a hotel gardener.

But his realism was debatable. Most of his later life was spent in a mud hut — aristocratically aloof, austere, absorbed but happy, just outside Mexico City. This gave him a very odd perspective on the real problems of the urban industrial West.

He was also a visiting professor at Penn State University and taught in Bremen, where he died having suffered for some time from cancer.

Ivan Illich, anti-institutional writer, was born on September 24, 1926. He died on December 2, 2002, aged 76.



La mort d'Ivan Illich, penseur rebelle
L'intellectuel autrichien est mort lundi 2 décembre à Brême, en Allemagne, à l'âge de 76 ans. Prêtre "en congé" de l'Eglise, il avait, dans les années 1970, proposé une critique radicale et globale de la société industrielle, de l'école et de la médecine.

Ivan Illich aura été, jusqu'au bout de sa vie, un intellectuel rebelle et cohérent: souffrant depuis une dizaine d'années d'une tumeur au cerveau, il avait choisi de ne pas suivre les thérapies usuelles, acceptant de vivre avec une énorme protubérance sur sa joue droite, qui sidérait ses interlocuteurs, avant qu'ils ne retrouvent la lueur de son regard et la vélocité de son esprit.
Provocateur, lucide, implacable critique de la société industrielle, Ivan Illich a été, au tournant des années 1970, le porte-parole entendu et brillant d'une critique non marxiste des institutions qui fondent l'économie contemporaine: l'école, la santé, le développement, la consommation énergétique ont été les cibles d'un discours puissant et qui a donné à l'écologie une assise théorique solide.

Mais, depuis les années 1980, l'euphorie micro-informatique, le renouveau du capitalisme et la reddition corps et biens de la gauche au libéralisme ont fait oublier ce penseur exigeant. Il est décédé lundi 2 décembre, à Brême, dans la douceur, et en pleine possession de ses moyens intellectuels.

Ivan Illich était né le 4 septembre 1926 à Vienne. Son père était croate catholique, sa mère juive séfarade. Il est expulsé en 1941 en application des lois raciales nazies. Il va alors étudier à Florence, puis entre à l'Université grégorienne du Vatican, à Rome, pour devenir prêtre. Polyglotte, il est un dévoreur de connaissances et d'idées. Il est influencé par le philosophe Jacques Maritain, obtient sa licence de théologie en 1951.

Le Vatican destinerait ce jeune prêtre brillant à sa diplomatie, mais il préfère aller à New York où on lui confie la paroisse d'Incarnation Church, à Manhattan, où il va travailler de 1952 à 1956. C'est une paroisse irlandaise, progressivement transformée par l'arrivée massive d'immigrants portoricains. Illich y découvre le problème de l'acculturation et déploie des talents remarquables de pédagogue et de passeur entre les cultures américaine et hispanique. Le succès est tel que ses supérieurs l'envoient en 1956 à l'Université catholique de Porto Rico, où il élargit son travail d'enseignement interculturel. En 1960, il s'oppose à son évêque, qui appelle à ne pas voter pour un candidat gouverneur qui prônait le contrôle des naissances, et doit quitter Porto Rico.

Il parcourt à pied l'Amérique latine et va – selon certains – méditer au Sahara. Il rejoint en 1961 le Cidoc (Centre interculturel de documentation) à Cuernavaca, au Mexique. Il va en faire un carrefour extraordinaire de discussion pour intellectuels et étudiants d'Amérique latine, ou de jeunes Occidentaux, souvent religieux. Cette université sans hiérarchie et sans diplômes est aussi un terrain d'expérimentation de ses idées. Il finit par entrer en conflit avec l'Eglise, en critiquant l'aide apostolique des Etats-Unis à l'Amérique latine, qu'il qualifie de "plante coloniale", dans un article publié en janvier 1967 à New York (repris dans Esprit en mai 1967). Il entérine la rupture début 1969, en renonçant à l'exercice et au titre de prêtre, mais sans renier sa foi.

Indépendant de l'institution, il va se libérer en donnant en quelques années son œuvre bouillonnante et sulfureuse, qui tombe à pic dans un après-Mai 68 encore baigné d'utopie: Une société sans école, publié en France en 1971, est un succès immédiat, tandis qu'Esprit (avec Jean-Luc Domenach) et le Nouvel Observateur (avec Michel Bosquet, alias André Gorz) s'attachent à populariser ses idées. Il y explique que l'école joue comme un système d'exclusion, rejetant ceux qui n'ont pas obtenu de diplôme, tout en monopolisant ce qui est jugé digne du nom de "savoir" et rejetant les autres formes de connaissance humaine.

En 1973, Energie et équité, reprise d'articles donnés au Monde, sape l'analyse courante de la crise de l'énergie – perçue généralement comme un problème de ressources rares – en montrant qu'elle renvoie à la consommation, donc aux usages, par le développement débridé des transports. Il y établit une équivalence originale entre temps gagné – par la rapidité – et temps perdu – à travailler pour acquérir les moyens d'aller vite. La même année voit paraître La Convivialité,critique plus générale du système technique, dans la foulée d'un Jacques Ellul dont il a découvert l'œuvre en 1965.

La Convivialité est un texte qui garde une étonnante jeunesse. Illich y analyse la transformation de l'outil en un appareil asservissant. Il ne critique pas la technologie, mais le monopole qui lui est conféré et qui nuit à la liberté de chacun de répondre à ses propres besoins. Illich décrit la logique qui conduit la société à poursuivre une croissance ininterrompue, acculturant les groupes et les individus, sans répondre à la pauvreté qui, au contraire, s'y développe."L'organisation de l'économie tout entière en vue du mieux-être est l'obstacle majeur au bien-être", résume-t-il.

Dans la seconde moitié des années 1970, Illich poursuit son travail en sapant l'institution médicale (avec La Némésis médicale), les illusions du travail (Le Travail fantôme), le concept d'environnement (H2O). Mais l'optimisme des années 1960 a disparu, et l'on oublie Illich, du moins en France. Il travaille au Mexique, et, depuis 1990, enseigne tous les automnes à l'université de Brême, en Allemagne. Dans le miroir du passé, en 1994 (Descartes et Cie), donne l'image de ses nouvelles réflexions sur l'engagement ou le langage. Mais il saisit mal les phénomènes des années 1990 que sont Internet et la biotechnologie.

Si les intellectuels patentés l'ont oublié, les préoccupations de Illich continuent d'irriguer un réseau actif de critiques du développement, dont a témoigné un colloque important à l'Unesco en mars dernier sous le titre "Défaire le développement, refaire le monde". Illich y était – à côté de José Bové. Ses idées ne sont pas mortes le 2 décembre, elles sont au contraire bien vivantes.

Hervé Kempf


Eléments bibliographiques

La Convivialité, Seuil, 1973.

Nemésis médicale, Seuil, 1975.

Dans le miroir du passé, Descartes et Cie, 1994.

Un inédit, La Perte des sens, et les œuvres complètes en deux volumes, à paraître chez Fayard en 2003.



Nous publions quelques fragments de la pensée d'Ivan Illich, extraits de La Convivialité, Le Seuil (collection "Points").

La liberté

Passé un certain seuil, l'outil, de serviteur, devient despote. Passé un certain seuil, la société devient une école, un hôpital, une prison. Alors commence le grand enfermement. Il importe de repérer précisément où se trouve, pour chaque composante de l'équilibre global, ce seuil critique. Alors il sera possible d'articuler de façon nouvelle la triade millénaire de l'homme, de l'outil et de la société. J'appelle société conviviale une société où l'outil moderne est au service de la personne intégrée à la collectivité, et non au service d'un corps de spécialistes. Conviviale est la société où l'homme contrôle l'outil.


La redéfinition des processus d'acquisition du savoir en termes de scolarisation n'a pas seulement justifié l'école en lui donnant l'apparence de la nécessité; elle a aussi créé une nouvelle sorte de pauvres, les non-scolarisés, et une nouvelle sorte de ségrégation sociale, la discrimination de ceux qui manquent d'éducation par ceux qui sont fiers d'en avoir reçu. L'individu scolarisé sait exactement à quel niveau de la pyramide hiérarchique du savoir il s'en est tenu, et il connaît avec précision sa distance au pinacle. Une fois qu'il a accepté de se laisser définir d'après son degré de savoir par une administration, il accepte sans broncher par la suite que des bureaucrates déterminent son besoin de santé, que des technocrates définissent son manque de mobilité. Ainsi façonné à la mentalité du consommateur-usager, il ne peut plus voir la perversion des moyens en fins inhérente à la structure même de la production industrielle du nécessaire comme du luxe.

La technologie

La solution de la crise exige une radicale volte-face : ce n'est qu'en renversant la structure profonde qui règle le rapport de l'homme à l'outil que nous pourrons nous donner des outils justes. L'outil juste répond à trois exigences : il est générateur d'efficience sans dégrader l'autonomie personnelle, il ne suscite ni esclaves ni maîtres, il élargit le rayon d'action personnel. L'homme a besoin d'un outil avec lequel travailler, non d'un outillage qui travaille à sa place. Il a besoin d'une technologie qui tire le meilleur parti de l'énergie et de l'imagination personnelles, non d'une technologie qui l'asservisse et le programme.

La crise

Je distinguerai cinq menaces portées à la population de la planète par le développement industriel avancé :

1. La surcroissance menace le droit de l'homme à s'enraciner dans l'environnement avec lequel il a évolué.

2. L'industrialisation menace le droit de l'homme à l'autonomie dans l'action.

3. La surprogrammation de l'homme en vue de son nouvel environnement menace sa créativité.

4. La complexification des processus de production menace son droit à la parole, c'est-à-dire à la politique.

5. Le renforcement des mécanismes d'usure menace le droit de l'homme à sa tradition, son recours au précédent à travers le langage, le mythe et le rituel.





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