Babette Babich | Life is a Test: On Ivan Illich

Below American philosopher Babette Babich talks about Ivan Illich’s political philosophy of being human. Babich is known for her studies of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, and Hölderlin as well as for substantive contributions to scholarly discussion of the role of politics in institutional philosophy as well as gender in the academy. A student of Hans-Georg Gadamer, she also worked with Jacob Taubes and Paul Feyerabend.

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Ivan Illich (1926–2002) was a Croatian-Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and critic of the institutions of modern Western culture, who addressed contemporary practices in education, medicine, work, energy use, transportation, and economic development.
The book that brought Ivan Illich to public attention was Deschooling Society (1971), a radical critical discourse on education as practised in “modern” economies. Giving examples of what he regards as the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education, Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements.
In his Medical Nemesis, first published in 1975, also known as Limits to Medicine, Illich subjected contemporary Western medicine to detailed attack. He argued that the medicalization in recent decades of so many of life’s vicissitudes—birth and death, for example—frequently caused more harm than good and rendered many people in effect lifelong patients. He marshalled a body of statistics to show what he considered the shocking extent of post-operative side-effects and drug-induced illness in advanced industrial society.
Illich invented the concept of radical monopoly: when a technical medium is or appears to be more effective, it creates a monopoly which denies access to other media. The mandatory consumption of a medium which uses a lot of energy (for example motorised transportation) narrows the fruition of use value (innate transit ability).
“By “radical monopoly” I mean the dominance of one type of product rather than the dominance of one brand. I speak about radical monopoly when one industrial production process exercises an exclusive control over the satisfaction of a pressing need, and excludes nonindustrial activities from competition.” — Ivan Illich
Illich worked to open new possibilities and argued that we need convivial tools as opposed to machines. A tool may have many applications, some very different from its original intended use. A tool may be thought of as an expression of its user. The opposite of this is the machine, where humans become its servants, their role consisting only of running the machine for a single purpose.
“I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.” — Ivan Illich

2 responses to “Babette Babich | Life is a Test: On Ivan Illich

  1. “The question of technology is one of the most important questions in all of philosophy because we, as human beings, live with technology and live on its terms. Something like the Internet is so immediate to us … so intimate in our lives, that we take it for granted and may not realize that it actually plays a role in shaping our thinking.” – Babette Babich

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