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A Short Guide to Ivan Illich

C. Kotanyi
Oldenburg, March 2008

A bibliography of several hundreds of entries is now available of the works of Ivan Illich. To help find an access to this large body of publications, we suggest guidelines or tracks through some of the main themes. The texts, summarized as abstracts, shall be first ordered chronologically, then according to selected themes. A
ttempts will be made at thematic cross-references, at selected quotes and at a glossary of terms with their specific use.

The guide aims at providing means of approach ("Erschliessungsmittel") such as Abstracts and a Glossary, and  lines of approach ("Erschliessungspisten") in the form of thematic groupings of the bibliography as well as groupings according to bibliographic form (Books, Essays, Collections,...).

As a principle, the Bibliography here should refer to original publications. It could include later versions, often containing revisions, as steps to a hermeneutics, to an analysis of the evolution of Ivan's ideas.

We remind that the rich density and wealth of erudition and insights characteristic of Ivan Illich, and the warmth and comfort he conveys with elegance, can hardly be reflected in any summary, hence the rather arbitrary scope and design of this guide, which cannot claim any true representation of his thinking.

What we attempt is a sort of survey of concepts, notions and ideas, a sort of thematic or semantic inventory, as a reading aid, as a complement, an auxiliary to the bibliography. This should be different from a critical discussion, from a thematic analysis, from a conceptual interpretation, even though it would be very difficult to draw a clear line between inventory and interpretation.

We do not claim value-less objectivity. We basically agree instead with Ivan that people need no guide for their judgment, only some amount of credo ut intelligam, of faith as an aid to understanding. The guide attempts to identify keys to understanding rather than fixed trajectories through the work of Ivan Illich.


The Guide experiments with means of approach such as:

1  Publications in chronological order with 
2  Cross-references
3  Selected Quotes

4  Major texts such as Core texts and Books
5  Thematical selections on medicine, work, scarcityliteracy, etc.
7  Index ?

This might be understood as a sort of "structured" or "concentrate" overview.

Suggestions for lines of approach:

1  Tools for Conviviality states Ivan's basic motive as  the urgency of a criticism of over-valued modern institutions and the urgency of a rehabilitation of lost values (vernacular, commons, proportion, etc.) (where "value" would be precisely the wrong term, since "value", in Illich's terminology, arises once proportion is lost).

2  Deschooling Society, Energy and Equity and Medical Nemesis examine three key modern institutions, education, transportation and medicine.

3  Gender shows a turn in Ivan's approach, from direct criticism to in-depth historical study, linking conviviality to the vernacular, to proportion, and the generation of an economy of scarcity, of needs, to their loss. In the Mirror of the Past gives summaries of this turn.

Ivan Illich in conversation with Majid Rahnema (1997): "During a decade or more, my criticism focused on the procedures used in the attempt to reach goals that I did not then question. I objected to compulsory schooling as an inappropriate means to pursue universal education -- which I then approved (Deschooling Society). I rejected speedy transportation as a method of increased egalitarian access (Energy and Equity). In the next step, I became both more radical and more realistic. I began to question the goals of development more than the agencies, education more than the schools, health more than the hospitals. My eyes moved from the process toward its orientation, from the investment toward the vector's direction, toward the assumed purpose. In Medical Nemesis, my main concern was the destruction of the cultural matrix that supported an art of living characteristic of a time and place. Later, I increasingly questioned the pursuit of an abstract and ever more remote ideal called health."

In other words, Ivan turned in the early 1980ies from a critical analysis of institutions to that of their purpose.

Deeper level: Steps to modern institutions. Silent reading, separation of text from speech, priority to the visual; memory becomes visual, from spoken to written memory, from water to H2O; loss of proportion, of common sense; disappropriation of commons; mother tongue instead of vernacular: disappropriation of language; language instead of speech, alphabetisation of speech; teachers, alienating professions. A history of disappropriation and alienation, first of speech, then of language.
Next deeper level: Origin of modern institutions.
"Corruptio optimi quae pessima" (To Honor Jacques Ellul 1993).

At the deepest level: Lee Hoinacki (2004) Why Philia ?

1  Bibliographic guide

Texts are sorted according to their bibliographic form.

Bibliography      Short bibliography of Ivan Illich
Abstracts            Abstracts for Ivan Illich
Essays                Essays of Ivan Illich
Books                Books of Ivan Illich
Core                   Major texts of Ivan Illich
Collections        Collections of essays of Ivan Illich
Conversations   Conversations with Ivan Illich

2  Thematic guide

Texts are sorted according to some suggested key themes or groupings of themes.

commons           Ivan Illich on commons, the vernacular, subsistence as realms of conviviality
decision              Ivan Illich on compulsive decision-making and expert rule.
development      Ivan Illich on development.
                           Ivan discovered in the 1960ies in Porto Rico and South-America the tragedy of "development", leading to his criticism of modern institutions and to his later research on their origin.
           Ivan Illich on education.
gaze                    Ivan Illich on gaze.
                           The birth of modernity required a modification of the act of seeing, from active looking as sending out lumen to passive seeing as receiving lux. The science of opsis, of the act of looking, is lost around the 12th century in favour of optics, the science of light. The production of text, of silent, passive reading decoupled from active, spoken reading is related to this modification of the habits of gaze. It leads to the production of a fixed sense of self, it enables the birth of mother tongue and the loss of the vernacular, of the realm of conviviality.
literacy               Ivan Illich on literacy.
                           The birth of literacy, of silent reading around the 12th century prepares modernity. Ivan studied this process in his historical investigations, beginning with Genus, of the origins of modern institutions, convinced that the "spell could be dissipated only by studying how it was cast".
medicine             Ivan Illich on medicine.
                            Ivan studied the counterproductivity of medicine as a key modern institution undergoing currently a deep transformation from science to expert institution within an "economy of needs", producing, as a "service", passivity towards suffering and death and compulsive decision-making.
philia                  Ivan Illich on friendship.
scarcity               Ivan Illich on the generation of needs in an economy of scarcity.
technosophy       Ivan Illich on technocracy
                            A broader area including Illich's analyses of medicine, transportation, literacy etc., which he then confronts with conviviality, commons etc.
     Ivan Illich on transportation.
urbanism             Ivan Illich on urbanism.
work                   Ivan Illich on work.

This device would be probably most useful if it could follow the evolution of Ivan's ideas on these issues, leading "naturally" to a critical analysis.

3  Conceptual guide

Identification and definition of key concepts; selection of key quotes.

Glossary             Glossary for Ivan Illich
Glossary index       Follows the evolution of key concepts


Texts on-line
Texts on-line
with short abstracts

Through the initiative and with the support of Barbara Duden, Johannes Beck, Ludolf Kuchenbuch et al.

Thank you, Lee Hoinacki and Manfred Werner for your hints and corrections !

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