An Intellectual Journey
- ISBN: 9780271088129
- Published By: Pennsylvania State University Press
- Published: February 2021
Ivan Illich—priest, cultural critic, pedagogue—is one of the underappreciated figures of the 20th century, in no small part because his body of work did not remain in one discrete sphere. Writing on education, gender, the nature of labor, hydrology, and language—to name but a few topics—Illich’s work over the course of nearly sixty years was provocative and inspiring as he skillfully mapped the connections between culture, knowledge, power, and human agency. But his divergent writings make him difficult to categorize, particularly if one is looking for the relationship between his religious commitments and his diverse writings. But thanks to David Cayley’s new biography, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, a more cohesive way to view his work is finally available.
Illich’s roots were, and remained, theological ones, writing most of his religious essays early in his career, but frequently referencing theological figures and themes throughout his life. But for those reading Illich and looking for a consistent thread of his work, his latter departures away from theology into literature, philosophy, and cultural theory are puzzling. His specifically religious writings, composed in the 1960s, largely conclude following his educational work in Mexico, after which he was placed under official Vatican ban (chapter 3). But, as Cayley observes, the themes which first appear in Illich’s work undergird and make possible his later work.
Illich's early writings, in which he analyzes and critiques the ways in which religious institutions misunderstand power and the role of culture, garnered him both respect and controversy. But it is these themes—the way in which liturgies both sacred and secular shape our vision of the world, and the way in which institutions support and propagate these liturgies—that would become regular features throughout Illich’s later work. For example, his most well-known work, Deschooling Society (Harper and Row, 1971), critiques compulsory schooling for being too much about credentialing and too little about emphasizing skills which could be gained in other educational forms (chapter 4). The main veins of this argument can be seen in his earlier work surrounding the division of the Church into clergy and laity, with the former validated because of their training and the latter forced into that division by means of the liturgy.
Following his period of writing on explicitly theological topics, Illich’s main focus became other institutions within society that he thought were shaping our world in inhumane ways: educational systems, employers (chapter 5) and medical institutions (chapter 6). His central critique of these institutions is that they were more concerned with maintaining proper credentials and power than in promoting human flourishing, and that over time these institutions buttressed their legitimacy by delegitimating more free and spontaneous alternatives. Rather than encouraging people to seek health, both through trial and error and through fostering healthy cultures, medical facilities pursue only narrow courses of treatment, dismissing all other approaches to health as subpar while devoting great resources to smaller and smaller medical breakthroughs. Rather than encourage labor that could be learned in a variety of contexts or skills that could be gained in various forms of personal exchange, labor markets emphasize the need for proper credentials and accreditation instead of the actual skills of the laborer.
From there, Illich turned his attention to the processes and cultural artifacts through which institutions “catechized” society. He explored the contours of how the language taught by schools creates its own self-justifying reality, of how labor markets create new definitions of gender (chapter 8) to support longer working hours (chapter 10), and of how health had become less a matter of interpersonal care and more a matter of trust in clinicians (chapter 11). Cayley narrates each of these turns, pulling these divergent strands of Illich’s writing into a braided whole, and offering details of the authorship of his major works and insights from his many conversations with Illich.
Arguably Cayley overreads the influence of Illich’s earliest writings; in a way, Illich’s writings can be read as an earlier version of Charles Taylor’s thesis that religion lost its cultural place primarily because its influence is so widespread. Because Catholicism’s articulations of institutional life were so assumed, it is not surprising, Cayley suggests, that parodies of the Church emerge in medicine, education, and labor. But count me among the persuaded: after years of reading Illich, Cayley’s genealogy—richly documented and carefully argued—provides the definitive account of how to make sense of one of the last great polymaths and cultural critics.
Myles Werntz is director of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University.Myles WerntzDate Of Review:March 7, 2023