Challenging Institutions

This week Ivan Illich died.  I am glad to have known him.  He made my mind dance with new ideas, skipping over convention, exploring uncharted intellectual territory, questioning accepted patterns of thought.  He challenged the institutions of education, medicine, religion, and in his 1994 Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture he even challenged the “institution” of alternative economics.

It was a lecture in honor of Leopold Kohr, filled with a tender appreciation of the man of whom Schumacher said, “he had learned more than from anyone else.”  For those of us in attendance, it was as if Illich was burning up in front of us with the passion that comes with the conceptualizing and conveyance of original ideas.  He compared the creation of economics and the pianoforte and in the process revealed the root problems of globalization.

Quoting from “The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr“:

Kohr’s contribution is to be found in his social morphology.  There, two key words reveal his thought: Verhältnismässigkeit and gewiss.  The first means proportionality or, more precisely, the appropriateness of a relationship.  The second is translated as “certain,” as when one says, “in a certain way.”  For example, Kohr would say that bicycling is ideally appropriate for one living in a certain place, like.  An examination of this statement immediately reveals that “certain,” as used here, is as distant from “certainty” as “appropriate” is from “efficient.”  “Certain” challenges one to think about the specific meaning that fits, while “appropriate” guides one to knowledge of the good.  Taking both “appropriate” and a “certain place” together allows Kohr to see the human social condition as that ever unique and boundary-making limit within which each community can engage in discussion about what ought to be allowed and what ought to be excluded.  To consider what is appropriate or fitting in a certain place leads one directly into reflection on beauty and goodness.  The truth of one’s resultant judgment will be primarily moral, not economic.

Illich’s voice will be deeply missed.  As a culture we have prided ourselves on an independence of thinking.  But the truth is that independence is fading to an ever more monotonal sound.

It has been been a pleasure for us at the Schumacher Center to offer the series of lecture pamphlets to our members—a collection of original approaches for achieving community renewal.  It will take lively imaginations spurred by a love of place to discover solutions to the problems facing our communities.  Such moral imagination is our best hope in these troubled times.

Lecture pamphlets in stock are listed on our website. We are pleased to fill gift orders including cards with your name. The work of the Center is supported primarily by its members.  Your additional donation helps us continue this tradition of fine pamphleteering.