Illich, Ivan

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Most well known as a 1970s social critic of the technologies of schooling, development, and health, Ivan Illich (1926–2002) was born in Vienna, Austria, on September 4, and died in Bremen, Germany, on December 2. In the 1980s Illich shifted from social criticism to cultural archeology, that is, an effort to expose modern certainties or assumptions, in order to provide an ethical perspective on the ways technology has transformed human experience in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Early Years and the Centro Intercultural de Documentación

Illich was born in Vienna, of French and Serbo-Croatian descent. During World War II he was in some danger because of the Jewish heritage on his mother's side. After the war he undertook studies in science, philosophy, theology, and history; was ordained a Catholic priest; and in the 1950s was posted to the United States, where he became a protégé of the conservative Cardinal Spellman, head of the New York archdiocese. There he acted as a pastor to Puerto Rican immigrants, and as a result of sympathies with their plight, was appointed Vice-Rector of the recently established Catholic University of Puerto Rico. His work in Puerto Rico galvanized an emerging criticism of policies promoting economic and technological development, and led him in the 1960s to establish the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, as an institutional base for the exploration of alternatives. CIDOC became a locus for visits by many dissatisfied with technosocial trends and the inspiration for a generation of social critics, from Paul Goodman (1911–1972) to Paolo Frerire (1921–1997). Accused by the Vatican of thereby becoming a scandal to the Church, Illich resigned his institutional ministry, although he was never laicized or married.

It was from CIDOC that Illich published his most widely read books: Deschooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973), and Medical Nemesis (1976). In each case Illich identified what he termed the phenomenon of counterproductivity: that is, the pursuit of a technical process to the point where it undermines its original goals. The system of public schooling, originally conceived to advance learning, had become an impediment to real education. Advanced technological tools were at odds with autonomous human development and the culture of friendship, in the name of which they were often invented. High-tech health care was making people sick. Iatrogenic illnesses, that is, illnesses caused by physicians—as when patients have negative reactions to drugs, are harmed by diagnostic x-ray treatments, or are otherwise misdiagnosed and mistreated—had, he argued, become a counterproductive epidemic.

The correct response, for Illich, was to learn to practice a more disciplined and limited use of science and technology, and to invent alternative, especially low-scale, technologies. In many instances, however, the practice of such an ethical imperative was made difficult by what Illich termed radical monopolies: Although no car manufacturer has a monopoly on the automobile market, cars themselves have a overwhelming monopoly on roads so as to crowd out pedestrians and bicycles.

Living His Theory: After CIDOC

Practicing what he preached, and fearing that CIDOC itself might become counterproductive, Illich closed the center in 1976. He divided up its accumulated assets equally among all those who worked there, from the teachers to the gardeners, and became for the remainder of his life an itinerant scholar. During this period he held posts as visiting professor at a number of universities, from the University of California at Berkeley and the United Nations University in Tokyo to Pennsylvania State University and the University of Bremen, Germany. Two early collections from these years—Toward a History of Needs (1978) and Shadow Work (1981)—stress counterproductivity in the economics of scarcity, or the presumption that economies function to remedy scarcities rather than to promote community sharing of available goods. Technoeconomic progress was, Illich argued, actually undermining society and culture, the possibilities for friendship and solidarity, and specifically increasing the gap between the rich and the poor both within developed countries and between developed and developing countries.

Toward a History of Needs also hints at a new project in historical archeology that takes its first full-bodied shape in Gender (1982), an attempt to recover those social experiences of female/male complementary obscured by the modern economic regime of sex. H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness (1985) explores the possibility of a history of stuff. ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1988) carries historical archeology forward into the area of literacy, as does In the Vineyard of the Text (1993). Both examine how the techniques of reading transform human beings' experience of themselves and each other, thus inviting contemporary consumers of automobiles and computers to consider that they might not be wholly unaffected users of neutral technologies. Modern technology, for Illich, tends to emerge from and then reinforce a distinctive ethos, the recognition of which is best appreciated by investigations into the moral environments of previous techniques.

In the 1980s Illich became afflicted by a mascular tumor for which, again in accord with his beliefs, he refused high-tech medical treatment. Although he was in increasing pain during the last two decades of his life, he sought to practice what he understood as the traditional arts of suffering, and continued to develop his ideas. He was in his last years especially critical of the notions of "environmental responsibility" and what he saw as the new ideology of "life." Calls for environmental responsibility were, he argued, often just another excuse for advancing technological management of the world, and even the Christian pro-life movement gave too much ground to science insofar as it defined human life in terms of a molecular-biological genesis that cannot be directly experienced. What was at work in history was a counterproductivity writ large that he often described with a Latin phrase, corruptio optimi que est pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst. Just as the sweetest flowers, when they rot, smell worse than weeds, scientific and technological attempts to better the human condition, not to mention Christian efforts to institutionalize the friendship of charity, ultimately undermine their own ends.

Illich's criticism itself often was criticized as being overstated and polemical—too much a radical, anarchistic prophesy to be taken seriously. Many of his specific historical claims seemed exaggerated to more sober historians, and he was sometimes unfair to those who questioned his ideas. Yet popular recognition of counterproductivities in government regulation were an ironic echo of Illich's more sweeping analyses. And precisely because of his efforts to live friendship as a fundamental human good, he remained until his death at a friend's home in Bremen, Germany, a charismatic figure who continued to influence cultural criticism and to inspire students seeking alternatives to the standard paths of worldly success.


SEE ALSO Bioethics;Development Ethics;Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


Cayley, David. (1992). Ivan Illich in Conversation. Concord, Ontario, Canada: Anansi. Personal and autobiographical in character.

Hoinacki, Lee, and Carl Mitcham, eds. (2002). The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection. Albany: State University of New York Press. Includes nineteen original reflections by close Illich associates, with an epilog by Illich, and an annotated bibliography.

Illich, Ivan. (1971). Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row.

Illich, Ivan. (1973). Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper and Row.

Illich, Ivan. (1976). Medical Nemisis. New York: Pantheon.

Illich, Ivan. (1978). Toward a History of Needs. New York: Pantheon. Includes the essay "Energy and Equity," which argues the counterproductivity of increased energy consumption.

Illich, Ivan. (1981). Shadow Work. London: Marion Boyars.

Illich, Ivan. (1982). Gender. New York: Pantheon.

Illich, Ivan. (1985). H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness: Reflections on the Historicity of "Stuff." Dallas, TX: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Illich, Ivan. (1993). In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh's "Didascalicon." Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Illich, Ivan, and Barry Sanders. (1988). ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. San Francisco: North Point Press.

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Illich, Ivan

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