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Philosophy... Artifacts... Friendship

 
Ivan Illich addresses an assembly of Roman Catholic philosophers in California. He meditates on the difficulty of putting first in one's life the gospel precept of love in today's world of artifacts, systems, and virtual realities. He calls for a philosophy of technology to give people a ground on which to stand.
By Ivan Illich  
  I speak as a xenocryst.

"Deus in adjutorium meum intende" ... bismillahi rahmani rahim ...that I might set out on this perplexing task. First, I shall be seventy this year, but I have never before addressed an assembly of philosophers. Second, I made a promise to Pope Paul VI twenty-five years ago: Since he believed that I was a dangerous figure in the Church, I agreed to abstain from speaking to groups of priests, brothers and women religious. This is the first time, then, in all these years, that I face a Catholic association. I assume that its members include some priests and nuns. Third, I follow my teacher, Carl Mitcham, on the program. He has been my principal guide in the field of technosophy longer than I have known him. Since I wrote Tools for Convivialitv, his periodic and opinionated bibliographic surveys have mapped my path into the philosophy of tools. What I have to say today grew out of our friendship during the past seven years, a time when I was privileged to think and talk with him at Penn State University.

In each of these three circumstances, I am a hedge-straddler in German, a Zaunreiter, which is also an old word for witch. With one foot, I stand on familiar ground. There, ancestral generations have prayerfully cultivated a garden into whose trees they carefully grafted pagan Greek sprouts. The other foot, dangling on the outside, is weighted down with foreign mud and reeks of odd scents.

Today, I have a straightforward thesis to propound: I plead for the recognition of a philosophy of technology as an essential, that is, necessary, element for Christian asceticism in 1996. I urge you to make an unflinching analysis of artifacts as the indispensable prolegomenon to a courageous life of chaste friendship and attentive prayer, ending with the art of dying, the action of an intransitive death. Risking being seen as a sore thumb, I might even be taken for a xenocryst, a crystal foreign to the rock in which it is found embedded. Hence I beg you to be patient while I make my argument.

In all strictness, one can speak about creators of perception. These manipulating agents seek to shape the public through both the content and presentational mode og their artifacts.


Historians and philosophers have sought to study that which matters. But progress in the West has changed the character of matter. Above all, "matter" has come to mean more things. These things, artifacts, have definite consequences. Yet their impact on the one thing which, according to the Gospel, really matters, the itinerarium nostrae mentis in Deum, has not yet been considered worthy of explicit and passionate inquiry. Professor Anderson's invitation to speak on this occasion, the seventieth anniversary of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, makes a truly banner day for me at this time in my life. Finally, I stand before an audience whom I need not fear I can hope to be given an attentive hearing ... and to be understood.

Philosophia ... ancilla temperantiae.

The circumstances of our world have made a new type of propaedeutic a prerequisite for the intellectus quaerens fidem. What objects were and how they could affect our appetites and distract our minds was understood by Elias, the two Gregorys, Benedict, Ignatius and Therese of Lisieux. This body of wisdom is no longer applicable in its traditional formulations. And new ascetic disciplines have not yet been devised and tried.

Western economic growth and development have shifted the balance between objects and me in three ways, resulting in a transformation between myself and every other, whether object or person. Increasingly, it is not creatures but artifacts that matter. Secondly, objects can no longer be grasped; they appear ever more frequently in virtual space. Thus they matter more subtly; because of sophisticated artistry, they are also more irresistible. Thirdly, there is a general movement from artifacts that call for interpretation, to those which enticingly proffer context-sensitive "help." Because people's perceptions are to a large extent technogenic, the person who feels called to a prayerful life today cannot neglect a rigorous intellectual grounding based on a critique of contemporary perception. In all strictness, one can speak about creators of perception. These manipulating agents seek to shape the public through both the content and presentational mode of their artifacts. The neophyte who approaches the sacred liturgy or mental prayer faces a historically new task. The saints whom one would emulate lived in a very different world.

Like the self-denying paragons of earlier times, the one who sets out on the itinerarium today must divest him or herself of bad habits that have become second nature retrain and balance disordered proclivities towards money, the flesh and vanity which have become ingrained in one's hexis. But something more and very different is also required. One must recognize how one's senses hear I will speak principally about the outer and inner eye have been used and molded by things. In the past, one had to consider the use and enjoyment of things. Today, one must further suspect the international symbolic schemes with which things are charged. The new things with new consequences are systems. These systems are constructed in such a way as to pattern the actions of one's ears and eyes, to fashion the very behavior of one's body, one's self. No one can easily break the bonds forged by years of television absorption and curricular education. These experiences turn one's faculties, especially the eyes, into system components.

With the disappearance of traditional objects, faith has been deprived of its millenary embodiment in particular ways of life.


Such was not the world seven decades ago, when this association was founded. What Jacques Ellul describes as the grip (l'emprise) of the technological bluff on human perception could hardly have been imagined then. Virtual spaces that could not be entered were rare oddities. The concept of context-sensitive help was unknown; information theory and systems analysis had not yet been conceived. The monsters who frighten me everyday for example, diagnosed lives that must be saved, or immune systems that must be protected were only theratogenic phantasies then.

The object, der Gegen-stand, was routinely perceived as something real, external, separate a res or an aliquid and, at least analogically, as something which, in my conditio humana, in my circumscribed and traditional reality, had a history. Architects drafted on paper and modeled in clay, they did not visualize on a screen. It is true that at the time Ford produced his Model A, and the Church canonized Thérese of Lisieux, and my mother gave birth to me, the instrumental artifact moved toward its apogee; it was becoming increasingly dominant in the sensual environment. But technology was still seen as a tool to be used for the achievement of an end set by the user; one could still speak in terms of a final cause; technology was not yet the very milieu itself. It had still not redefined homo, from a tool-user to a co-evolved product of engineering. The character of the object was not a quandary; it was something more or less what it had been for generations. One setting out on an ascetical journey could follow accepted and well-known markers and paths. This is no longer possible. The old rules for the discernment of good from evil spirits must now be complemented by new procedures for distinguishing things from zombies, and objects from pictures. Temperance, what the Cappadocians called nepsis, must now guard the heart, not only from real temptations like the allurements of the flesh, but also of images and so-called needs. Prior to the exercise of virtue, however, one must acquire the sound discipline to recognize the illusions as harmful, modern witchery.

Philosophia ... ancilla caritatis.

With the disappearance of traditional objects, faith has been deprived of its millenary embodiment in particular ways of life. These ways were vastly different from one another, but each was rooted, sustained and perpetuated through its respective material culture. Each ethos, which means gait, or way of life, shaped human actions into a certain taste, thereby generating a second nature. Such actions, or exercises of common sense, decency, fairness and style in the arts of cooking, suffering and swiving provided the seedbed for a configuration of virtues including the principal one, love, all of which could be ennobled by faith. Thus real distinctions among things, and between person and thing, are basic for the possible relating of one to another. But with amazing rapidity, the hardware and software of the 1980s bulldozed the material milieu that had been generated by human actions, and replaced it with a mostly technogenic, increasingly virtual, standard environment.

I examined the history of hospitality and care, and discovered that the Church initiated the sterilization of charity through its institutionalization as service.



















I analyzed schooling as the secularization of a uniquely Catholic ritual because I wanted to grasp thhe mystery of a packaged commodity disguised as the gift of faith.


Paradoxically, the Church then began to define her mission as inculturation this in the very decade when all that was left of traditional folkways had been eviscerated or destroyed. What remained generally became raw material for a bureaucratically staged facsimile folklore. Therefore, the critical grasp of those characteristics that distinguish genuine ethnic artifacts from ones that are system-engineered is one of the requirements of contemporary ecclesiology. It is necessary to distinguish those parts of the material environment that can foster and those that chill love.

In my own pilgrimage, I engaged philosophy as ancilla in order to resist algorithmic reductionism, and to forestall the illusion that power or organization can ever enhance the practice of charity. This twofold discipline acted as a conceptual shield to protect me from loving abstractions (misplaced concreteness), and from attempting to help others by benevolent management. Such an askesis also inevitably led to the rejection of genetic axioms from which the topology of technological thinking arises. This topology is well protected, that is, hidden, by a self-image designed to rationalize life beyond virtue and the good. Action is oriented, not toward seeking the good, but the better; not toward living in the present, but in the future.

Thirty years of inquiry ...

I analyzed schooling as the secularization of a uniquely Catholic ritual because I wanted to grasp the mystery of a packaged commodity disguised as the gift of faith. I examined the history of hospitality and care, and discovered that the Church initiated the sterilization of charity through its institutionalization as service. I wrote on the degeneration of water into H20 as an instance of the disincarnation of bodies, thereby suggesting the dissolution of sacramental matter. I got myself into deep trouble, especially with some academic feminists, publishing an essay on the social history of duality and its corruption by sexuality. I wrote Gender, in part motivated by love for Our Lady who gave birth to that Brother through whom my fraternity with the Other is subsumed in the mystery of the Trinity. In writing these books, I found the same mysterious pattern repeated over and over: A gift of grace was turned into a modern horror - examples of: corruptio optimi quae est pessima. I saw that my reliance on the ancilla opened many unexpected perspectives on the symbolic, ritual, magic and aesthetic properties that the artifact has acquired through its recent transcendence of instrumentality. The discipline of philosophy has brought me to a troubled contemplation.

Praeparatio fidei ...

With Ellul, one can increasingly imagine the late twentieth century as one all-encompassing artifact. In this time and setting, I have pursued the study of philosophy in order to learn how to live. I want to do this in such a way that I go beyond loving my neighbor just as myself. Faithful to the example of Therese, I would like to accept the vocation to love the Other as God enfleshed has done, and wants to continue doing through me.

To love your neighbor as yourself - that was the rule God laid down before the Incarnation; he knew what a powerful motive self-love was, and he could find no higher standard by which to measure the love of one's neighbor. But this wasn't the "new commandment" Jesus gave to his apostles, his own commandment, as he calls it ... I am not just to love my neighbors as myself: I am to love them as Jesus loves them, and will love them till the end of time...

(The Story of A Soul)

I have pursued the study of philosophy in order to learn how to live. I want to do this in such a way that I go beyond loving my neighbor just as myself.


























I take up philosophy as an ancilla, not just to avoid potholes on the path to a good life, but to steer clear of perverting the Gospel. This is the concern which impelled me to search for those characteristics in contemporary artifacts that need to be fearlessly faced as the issues relevant to the practice of charity.


As you see, I take up philosophy as an ancilla, not just to avoid potholes on the path to a good life, but to steer clear of perverting the Gospel. This is the concern which impelled me to search for those characteristics in contemporary artifacts that need to be fearlessly faced as the issues relevant to the practice of charity. Before this assembly today I can say these things without fear of being misunderstood. Indeed, I can assume that the truths about charity are, in the words of the Scholastics, per se nota to you.

The apophatic stance of a Catholic philosopher ... ?

The aim to make life better vulgarly understood as the politician's promise to continually raise the standard of living has played havoc with the search for the appropriate proportionate, harmonious or, plainly, good life. The quest for such a life is easily written off by some academic intellectuals as overly simplistic or even irresponsible. To cut through the verbiage of their prose, I see that only sober, unsentimental vernacular rhetoric can possibly demonstrate the ultimate character of complex mathematical modeling or related systems management. All such conceptual schemes are incompatible with the pursuit of faith and love. These abstract artifacts, typical of our time, are much more subtly and intimately powerful as obstacles to the understanding of revealed truth than any historic res bellica or res mechanica.

But the truths leading to charity are not per se nota in the economic holding patterns where I do my balancing act as a teacher. When speaking to university audiences in Philadelphia or Bremen, I feel that I should shroud my ultimate motive in apophasy. I do not want to appear as a fundamentalist preacher or, worse, a Catholic theologian. I have not been given the official mission to teach Catholic theology. Therefore, I do not relate the historically unprecedented characteristics of the modern artifact to the New Commandment recorded in the Gospel of John, but to philia. Traditionally, Philia has been understood as the flowering of politics. In my teaching, I explore questions arising from the difficulties of experiencing philia in a wasteland politics.

The examined artifact ... prelude to ethics.

My friends and I have not encountered any difficulty presenting a philosophical inquiry concerning the nature of the modern artifact as the necessary prerequisite for a dignified, affectionate, passionate life in the l990s. The more clearly they understand the sadness of having lost all moorings, students manifest a correspondingly intense interest in the practice of philia. With unwavering attention, they listen to our doubts about the possibility of ethics in the absence of shared forms of personal hospitality, and after the loss of belief in the art of suffering. Intuitively, they grasp our hypothesis that it is le milieu technique that conditions, reinterprets, and possibly thwarts the acquisition of a moral hexis, shaped by the repetition of good actions, of ethical habits. I never cease to wonder at the readiness of serious students to accept my claim that the philosophical grasp of the nature of technology has become a fundamental condition for a rational, or "natural", ethics in a world aptly symbolized by Windows 95.

...the philosophical grasp of the nature of technology has become a fundamental condition for a rational, or "natural", ethics in a world aptly symbolized by Windows 95.






















With nausea, many young people now recognise that participation in systems sterilizes and deadens the heart...


From historical research to ethical awakening ...

I have spoken from my experience as a medievalist who, year after year, interprets twelfth-century texts on friendship and monastic community. This activity inevitably leads my students into aporetic bafflement; they smart at their own impotence to sympathize intellectually, emotionally and bodily with the notions of chastity, humility, prudence, fortitude and the other virtues revealed in these texts. I continually face a prodigious task of translation. Many of them are then shocked by the amoral sterility of their hearts, livers and loins when the moment is appropriate to address another person as Thou to borrow a concept from Emmanuel Levinas. In other words, I try to teach philosophy as the discipline of intellectus quaerens amicum.

In my seminars, I have often seen a student look up from the exegesis of a passage by Aelred of Rivaulx, Heloise, or Hugh of St. Victor, and search for some resonance or correspondence in his or her own young heart. Sometimes, with a flash of realization, they recognize what the ideas and connotations derived from the language of process, field, feedback, loop, context sensitivity, and such have done to their capacity as persons to comprehend. In these moments of disciplined alienation, it is sometimes possible to be shocked into the insight that it is almost unimaginable for an inhabitant of systems to desire an I-Thou relationship like that cultivated in Talmudic or monastic communities. Feeling acutely as a desolate loss the inability to recapture these past experiences, a thirst is awakened.

They hunger for a self that comes into existence through the respectful love of an Other. This longing is specifically characteristic of 1996, utterly different from the spirit of commitment we witnessed in 1968. That generation awoke to a thirst for justice. They wanted to atone for privilege by making the Other an object of development; they wanted "to help" through various programs of economic, pedagogical or ideological transformation.

A new yearning for sobriety ...

When you spoke of the need for a philosophy of things just ten years ago, you immediately evoked the immanent power of modern objects to polarize society, to destroy our physical niche, or to control other people. But these are not the principal philosophical issues today. And the students I meet have a sense of this; they are ready to examine what objects say; this question may be prior to what objects do.

The authority of "science says..." has dwindled. With nausea, many young people now recognise that participation in systems sterilizes and deadens the heart, enervates ethical sensibility. Askesis, which means training in the renunciation of objects, is on the point of becoming an accepted first step toward concept clarification, propositional exactness and theoretical coherence.

Only a few years ago, students in Oldenburg and Penn State were surprised when Professor Illich, in a Science, Technology and Science course on the tradition of nepsis, the guarding of the senses, spoke of high fidelity and immune systems rather than of buttocks and breasts. I believe that the longing in students is due to a widespread awareness of the desertification of the amorous faculties. Some speak of erotic expression or the experience of agape, but I prefer the term philia. Students and others still struggle for words; things have mutated from being instruments to becoming systems. Many have not found a solid place to stand, a place from which they could judge these novel objects.

I believe that the longing in students is due to a widespread awareness of the desertification of the amorous faculties.

























The moment the object becomes a system it loses the otherness that is decisive for the character of tool.


But the felt disquiet among students encourages me to formulate a plea for philosophical attention to artifacts: Chisels and statues, text and layout, communications and systems condition the working of our senses and thereby impinge on the habitual practices that constitute virtue. With this premise, one can begin to bring up to date the rules for the discernment of spirits. Then one can accurately gauge unprecedented influence of 1996 artifacts, not only on the conditions of our habitat, but also on our senses.

The historical nature of objects ...

Over thirty Years ago, Norris Clarke, then President of the Jesuit Philosophical Association, was aware of the issue. In 1961, addressing that association, he said:

Wrapped in the ephemeral dignity of office, I want to force upon you quite shamelessly one thought that has been causing me considerable philosophical concern during the last few years ... a serius lacuna in Thomistic metaphysics ... the lacuna concerns the metaphysics of order or "system" ... no Aristotelian or Thomistic type of accident ... could adequately express ... the mode of presence of the final cause in a non-cognitive natural agent.

Clarke points toward the truth that the nature of an epoch's modal object, the "thing" from which only the embrace of Lady Poverty can free me, cannot be understood at all times by the same categories. In retrospect, this is eminently so in the case of technology or instrumentality. Techology as instrument has dominated western perception for 600 years, but is now fading away. The moment the object becomes a system it loses the otherness that is decisive for the character of tool.

Originally, my interest in the tool as mediation was awakened by an innovation in the sacramental theology of the thirteenth century. Up to that time, orqanon had meant both hand and hammer and, also, the two of them together as one "unit." During the life of Aquinas, tool was "disembedded" and became an instrumental cause, an abstraction which, arguably, can be taken as a labelling category for the macro epoch into which all of us were born.

I thought that this conceptualization of a novel mode of causation around 1240 was the result of fides quarens intellectum. I thought that the mental construct, technology, was but more instance of curruptio optimi ..., one more example of the secularization of a concept that had originally come out of an interpretation of the faith. Here, the contemporary horrors of technological manipulation could be traced to a corruption of sacramental theology.

...the subject of my meditation and teaching is how the love of friendship, philia, can be practiced under the conditions socially and symbolically engendered by modern artifacts.


I was wrong. The artifact was an instrument par excellence, not because of the way the infallible action of God worked in the sacraments of the Church, but in some way because of the fallible action of angels, governing heavenly spheres. For the Scholastics, one of the principal characteristics of the universe was order. It was thought not fitting that God act directly on the world. Heavenly bodies, made of quinta materia, governed the world below the realm of the moon. It seemed appropriate in proportion that angels, pure spirits, guide these heavenly bodies. Instrumental causality thus entered philosophical thought.

The artifact as cult object ...

In the study of theology, ecclesiology was my preferred subject; and, within this discipline, liturgy. Liturgy, like ecclesiology, is concerned with sociogenesis. One inquires into the history and continued embodiment of the Word through rituals. Necessarily, rituals often center on objects like icons, statues, tables, tombs and chalices. So, my interest in these so-called sacra led me to think about instrumentally used objects. I saw that, historically, artifacts could be conceptualized as instruments. But contemporary artifacts appeared to be different.

As a child of my tradition, I believe that, ultimately, I shall be judged as I have loved. And I grew up with the teaching that objects can either hinder or enflame love. Since I have been given the talent and training for study, I have let my reflections on liturgy inform my research into contemporary objects. Therefore, the subject of my meditation and teaching is how the love of friendship, philia, can be practiced under the conditions socially and symbolically engendered by modern artifacts. For me, finally, philosophy is the ancilla amicitiae.

 
Ivan Illich is a world renowned critic of modern day systems such as education and medicine. He lives as a nomadic philosopher between the U.S., Central America and Europe, staying with friends, and lecturing and teaching when invited by friends.

Presentation given to The American Catholic Philosophical Association at their annual meeting in Los Angeles, California, March 23, 1996.
 
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