Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr

This is a revised version of Ivan Illich’s lecture, prepared in collaboration with Matthias Rieger.

This year’s annual Schumacher Lectures have been organized to honor Leopold Kohr. During his life-time, this teasing leprechaun was recognized by very few as a man ahead of his time. Even today, few have caught up with him; there is still no school of thought that carries on his social morphology.

I want to be precise: To place him among the champions of alternative economics would be a posthumous betrayal. Throughout his life, Kohr labored to lay the foundations for an alternative to economics; he had no interest in seeking innovative ways to plan the allocation of scarce goods. He identified conditions under which the Good became mired down in things that are scarce. Therefore he worked to subvert conventional economic wisdom, no matter how advanced.

Kohr’s day will dawn when people awaken from their economic slumbers, when the age of faith in homo economicus gives way to a penetrating skepticism, when social theorists carefully read this modest but important thinker. In the meantime, the Schumacher Center for a New Economics is a fitting place to keep Kohr’s memory alive until such time as he is recognized as a major pioneer in social thought.

His vision of a decent common life was predicated on modesty, not on plenty. A native of the village of Oberndorf near Salzburg, he began with the propensity of Salzburg folk to trust and enjoy the local ways distinctive of each valley. He saw the truth in their suspicion of universal values. He perceived how a good life could be corrupted. Kohr remains a prophet today because even those social theorists for whom small is beautiful have not yet discovered that the truth of beauty and goodness is not a matter of size, nor even of dimensions of intensity, but of proportion.

I see Kohr as the one social thinker who picks up the biological morphology of D’Arcy Thompson and J. B. S. Haldane as the starting point of a social morphology. These scientists studied the proportion between form and size in living creatures. Mice appear only within rather narrow parameters of size. One intuitively grasps mousiness—that familiar form of a small, compact body with a tail that scurries across the floor on four swift and delicate legs. Such beings come in sizes from an inch to a foot. Haldane demonstrated that the form of mousy proportions cannot exist outside this lower and upper limit. Since the weight increases with the cube of its size, legs able to move a larger rodent would have to thicken beyond mousy proportions. Kohr discusses society in analogy to the way plants and animals are shaped by their size and sized by their shape. He is uninterested in the timeless and weightless critters fabricated by social scientists. As a friend remarks, these abstractions appear to come out of “social thought about mice on the moon.”

Kohr’s thought resists reduction to any scenario of the future. Nor is it oriented toward progress; rather, he inquires into the form that fits the size. I was impressed by this in the 1950s when I found Puerto Rico a Mecca for planning, attracting Young Turks from Princeton to Tel Aviv. These brash technical advisors looked upon “Operation Bootstrap,” an economic development scheme for the island, as a grand opportunity for social engineering. Kohr, living and teaching in Puerto Rico at that time, was a familiar figure in a hillside slum at the edge of the Rio Piedras campus. A sugar-cane cutter expressed what I felt: “Unlike the professors, party workers, and priests, this Austrian makes us think about what our neighborhood is, not about how to carry out the experts’ plans.”

Kohr cast his net beyond planning goals, toward the not yet, the nondum, which the poet Paul Celan places “to the north of the future.” Kohr never attempted to seduce people into utopia, which is always a misplaced concreteness. He fostered a vision that could be realized because it fell within limits, it remained within reach. Kohr stood for renunciation of a ranging gaze that sought chimeras beyond the shared horizon.

He was aware of the crippling effect of our upbringing; he knew, for instance, that most people of his time had grown up on formula. Bottle-milk was the fashion; breasts would not make their comeback till the seventies. What Jacques Ellul calls the technological system made the commodity paradigm all-pervasive. Telling stories about his village of Oberndorf—where a schoolteacher named Franz Xaver Gruber had composed “Silent Night”—Kohr attempted to teach about what had become almost impossible: to look to common sense in the midst of development euphoria.

His character qualified him to be a spokesman for this lost “faculty,” common sense. He was a funny bird—meek, fay, droll, and incisive. Everett Reimer, also living in Puerto Rico at that time, introduced him to me as a coqui, a green tree frog, so tiny that few have ever seen one sitting in the hollow of a banana leaf. But the melodious croak of this tiny amphibian dominates Puerto Rican nights, making them different from the darkness elsewhere in the tropics. Unsurprisingly, the islanders have chosen this creature as their totem.

Kohr was an eminently unassuming man. I would even go so far as to say that he was radically humble, and this aspect of his thought and character tends to disqualify him from inclusion in textbooks. It may also have contributed to the fact that so few have grasped the core of his argument: the prominence he gives to proportionality. Inspired by him, many have gone so far as to cherish smallness. Encouraged by his participation in conferences of Greens, numerous friends joined in the defense of European regionalism. But not many of those who applauded him understood the depth of his opposition to current axiomatic certainties shared by both ecologists and industrialists and embraced by economists of otherwise opposed positions and schools. Diffidently, he asks you to step outside of what passes for commonly accepted perception. Thus, I find him a guide into the untracked territory of hope that lies beyond the future.

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 Oberndorf. 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.

Proportionality, then, as Kohr uses the concept, does not fit into an economic calculus. But I have found it very difficult to make an argument establishing this position. For example, many today are rightly horrified by the consequences of economic growth and development during the past few decades. They are convinced that alternatives to current political and economic policies can be found without abandoning a fundamental assumption of the possibility of the good life today—namely, the assumption that society is built on scarce values. But my argument undermines this belief.

Economics assumes scarcity. Therefore, it deals with values and calculations. It cannot seek the good that fits a specific person within a given human condition. Where scarcity rules, ethics is reduced to numbers and utility. Further, the person engaged in the manipulation of mathematical formulas loses his or her ear for ethical nuance; one becomes morally deaf.

Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted. Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization. Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good.

When I was asked to give this lecture, I was in the midst of an ongoing conversation with Matthias Rieger, a friend and musicologist. This young colleague has helped me see an argument that may make Kohr’s and my position clear. The thesis I want to establish is this: Economic assumptions, once incorporated into one’s way of perceiving reality and constructing arguments, exclude ethical options whose object is the good. Rieger’s thought now comes to the fore in what I am going to say. If we consider his musicological research, we can see the development of Western music as a reflection of various changes occurring in different parts of European society.

Kohr’s “a certain appropriateness” strikes one as a powerful intuition only when it is understood in the context of a historical fracture. In this rupture the world we now inhabit finds its origin. Kohr insists on the correlation between a certain size and the harmony that shines forth in appropriate proportions. Outside this configuration lies nemesis. A memorial to Leopold Kohr demands that one explore this correlation. It is my contention that both the perception of such a correlation and the very ability to imagine it have been lost. This loss encompasses physical, social, and cultural realms of thought and action. To demonstrate this Rieger and I have composed an argument in three movements on the theme of proportion.

In the prelude, I focus on the relationship between society and nature. Here I find a paradox: The most radical ecological policy proposals grope toward a recovery of proportionality. But at the same time these very recommendations, accepting the conventional world of economics, cannot be carried out without deepening the fracture.

The next movement is composed in counterpoint to the society/nature dichotomy and reveals the depth of the issue by comparing the creation of economics and the pianoforte.

The third movement, a coda, touches on seven other domains where globalization explodes any possible framework of appropriateness. In these instances, one sees how ancient harmony has been replaced by various kinds of a modern temperament—for example, computation and calculus.

Prelude—Society and Nature

Everyone knows about the issues: People in the industrial system not only need but also consume and use up nature. Further, they leave behind not only their refuse and dead bodies but also mountains of toxic waste, which is not an occasional side effect but an essential trait common to all forms of modern technology. Progress, then, might be better understood and gauged according to the ways nature is consumed rather than by looking at the increasing distance between wealth and poverty. Questions of social justice may actually be a distraction, hindering thought about real solutions. It’s true that the average American exhausts nature with an intensity hardly imaginable to the poor of the world. And those who gather to discuss such matters are altogether atypical—they are experts. Being such, their efforts to protect nature obligate them to exploit nature—through sophisticated travel and meeting facilities—far beyond the public average. But these kinds of consideration may be a smokescreen.

Until now, the unrestrained use and commercialization of nature, together with the accompanying social polarization, has been driven with iron logic by the dream of ever further progress. Today some believe that the reason for these seeming distortions is the failure to distinguish between technical efficiency and social productivity. The distinction becomes plausibly relevant, they say, through an analysis of the uses of energy fuels in industrial society. Technically, it is possible to get four times as much “prosperity” out of the giga-joule of energy as formerly. It is not energy efficiency that results in this four-fold increase but what they call energy productivity. Energy productivity translates into satisfaction. To satisfy the desire to converse, cook, or read in the evening, one analyzes the design and arrangement of the light fixtures. Making rational adjustments will indeed result in a calculable reduction in the wattage required for a given lighting system.

Opinion leaders like Ulrich von Weizsäcker in Germany and Amory Lovins in America propose to increase energy productivity by about 3 percent annually through a gradual rise in the cost of “energy”—gradated according to the intensity of ecological impact—together with significant tax cuts in other areas. Such an ecological tax reform would shift the profitability of investment capital from technological efficiency to productivity and would encourage the re-migration of work back into small groups—from new constructions to making repairs, from the provision of services to their substitution by individual and community actions. This plan predicts a decline in polarization and a reduction of shadow-economy work, a time when not only salaries and wages but also the exploitation of nature is taxed.

Apparently this policy, although couched in technocratic terms and translated into dollar signs for news-consumers and voters, does not contradict Kohr’s worldview. Indeed, the proposal suggests that we can begin to think about a prosperity that is not the result of producing ever more. Proponents speak about remaining within the range of reasonable and appropriate expectations. The ultimate criterion for taxes would not be a quantitative measure of production and circulation of goods but an excessive exploitation of the environment. The principal guide for social policy would be appropriateness and not percentages. Why do I find fault with this unconventional but reasonable proposal? An energy tax that seems to be calculated in light of the idea that human and world well-being depend on the proper relationship between society and nature has great symbolic power—in this case, alas, the power to promote a deception.

From Friedrich Engels to Milton Friedman, from fiscal liberals to conservatives, the redistribution of the social product is the basis for a general prosperity. Any fundamental transformation in the society will depend upon the marginal conditions of the economy plus certain technical parameters: recycling, insulation of buildings, ecological agriculture, the elimination of long-distance transport of goods. In all current scenarios, a world market is simply a given. In this respect, clearly, Kohr’s idea of smallness is simply irrelevant, if not nonsensical.

If one wishes to include the ideal of social justice, some kind of economic growth is required: more products and more services. But growth promoters fail to see that hand in hand with a bigger pie, any ecological gain will be accompanied by the further modernization of poverty and the legitimation of the poor’s dependence on the pie. Economic growth always means that it costs the poor more to live and they are bound more tightly to large-ticket consumer durables. On both sides of “the Wall”—like the one still found today between Miami and Havana—there is a shared belief system: values are measured by money. And the money supply available for redistribution remains tied to the taxation of employment and the turnover of merchandise sales. Thus, the material basis of justice is chained to a social product that must grow.

There are even Chinese planners who now share with a growing number of American and German technocrats the opinion that not only prosperity or justice but the very existence of a viable economy is threatened by a value system that is out of alignment with natural balances. Yet even the most radical reformers overlook the fact that the very concept of values, on which all political economy depends, is inappropriate to give substance to the notion of proportionality. A certain proportionality, however, is implicit in every argument made by Leopold Kohr. Therefore, every proposal based on values—that is, accepting economic society—deepens the historic break, takes us further from any recovery of proportionality.

Interlude—On tonos

The Greeks had the concept of tonos, which one can understand as “the just measure,” “reasonableness,” or “proportion.” These differences in meaning invite one to look at its history. I want here—especially in light of energy tax proposals—to look at tonos as the foundation for understanding cosmic relations in Western thought; it is also central in a two-thousand-year tradition of making sense of oneself and of the world. One can see that if the common welfare is not built on a tonos—a certain tension, a proportion between humans and nature—the energy-tax idea, together with other economic alternatives, slides into adaptive utilitarianism, systems-oriented technical administration, or diplomatic environmental gossip.

A hundred years before the French Revolution, proportion as a guiding or orienting idea, as the condition for finding one’s basic stance, began to be lost. Till now, this disappearance has hardly been recognized in cultural history. The correspondence between up and down, right and left, macro and micro, was acknowledged intellectually, sense perception confirming it, until the end of the seventeenth century. Proportion was also a lodestar for the experience of one’s body, of the other, and of gendered relations. Space was simply understood as a familiar cosmos. Cosmos meant that order of relationships in which things are originally placed. For this relatedness—this tension or inclination of things one to another, their tonos—we no longer have a word today. One cannot even imagine the experience of Dante emerging from hell, rejoicing in the harmony of four new stars, having moved into the realm of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence (Purgatory, Canto I). Today one is confined to the positivist symbol of a scientific paradigm.

The energy tax proposal gives us the opportunity to make explicit the argument for ordering oneself and one’s world through proportion. Such an attempt is not romanticism nor a turning back of the clock and certainly not a renunciation of social justice. On the contrary! We want to recall that tonos which was silenced in the course of Enlightenment progress as a victim of the growing mathematization of science and the desire to quantify justice. Therefore, we face a delicate task: to retrieve something like a lost ear, an abandoned sensibility. Perhaps we can achieve this with music.

Plato would have known what Kohr was talking about. In his treatise on statecraft Plato remarks that the bad politician is he who confuses measurements with proportionality. Such a person would not recognize what is appropriate to a particular ethos, a word that originally implied a dwelling place, later something like “popular character.”

Like any boy, Plato was taught gymnastics and music—the refinement of body and spirit. Techné musiké comprised reading, writing, singing, and playing the lyre. His teacher demonstrated proportionality to him with a monochord, a rectangular sound box with a single stretched string. He was taught how one divided the string harmoniously by means of a bridge and thus the manner in which the two parts related to each other. The teacher divided the string’s length into a two-fifths and a three-fifths segment, thus producing two harmonious sounds. Along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, musiké was used as a sensible route to the appreciation of appropriate correspondences. As Socrates tells Glaucon:

. . . musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul on which they mightily fasten . . . he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature

(Plato, The Republic, III, ¶401)

By hearing, seeing, and striking the appropriate divisions on the monochord, Plato’s musical ability and pleasure accustomed themselves to the harmony proper to the community/ethos in which he was born. The student’s synaesthesia was tuned—the coordinated fit of ear, eye, and touch for what was graceful and good in his community. What was appropriate was sensed, then judged to be good.

Music provided training in the art of proportionality; this included an opposition to hubris, a firm sense of moderation. The possibility of a resulting shame then acted as the guarantor of a proper mixture of judiciousness and desire. Music was the essential blending of beauty, truth, and goodness, a cosmos-reflecting sound—not primarily inner or outer, not representing a purely aesthetic standard or an abstract moral rule—instilling in the listener a distinct bearing or attitude that grasped the nature of the sound proper to the Dorian character, a sound befitting the dialect proper to this place and this place alone.

To speak of a tonal center or tonic in this context would be false. “Tone” in Plato’s time was not a measure. Proportion was implicit in the two segments of one string. An individual tone was unthinkable, as would also have been one nation-wide measurement for length and weight. In place of tone—implying a tonal center—it would be better to speak of modes.

Therefore, to play music fitting for some occasion according to the rules prescribed by the ethos of Athens, one had to determine the intonation of the local flute and cithara. Genus (Greek tetrachordal tuning) established how the intonation was to be expressed musically. It provided a framework in which to choose the mode so that one could play the music of that place. Proportion underlay all this as the constitutive principle or logos.

What for us are words, the Greeks called logoi or relationships. And what we understand simply as intervals between two tones would be understood as ana-logia, as the concord of the strings. This intonation had to correspond to the ethos—actually the pace, the custom, the disposition or attitude—which was as different for Dorians and Athenians as their gait and speech. Within his ethos, the boy Plato learned to think about the character of the tonos—that is, the appropriateness of Athenian proportions.

This inherent dissymmetry, resulting from the ordered vibrating of two strings sounding against each other, is proportion, that which was enjoyed in ancient music. The choice of mode was not a musico-aesthetic issue but an ethical one. The rule of the local ethos was normative, determining which genus was to be chosen. The musical genus was always established on an analogy with the gender (a cognate of genus) of the musicians, singers, and dancers. Further, each occasion—of sadness or joy, war or love—had its own style or proper form. When men went off to war, the flute accompanied serious Doric songs, while their women, playing Aeolian songs on the cithara, bid them farewell. The Greek mind rested on two bases, appropriateness in expression—found in the rule of the ethos—and tone as ana-logia, as proportion or ratio.

A child today cannot learn this kind of music, cannot be introduced to the resonances of proportionality. Even if the child cannot read music—that is, notes—the sound will be a composition of independently manufactured existing tones. Paideia, the attuning of the common sense to the ways of a certain community, has been replaced by a universalistic education. In the meantime, Alexander’s dream of replacing city-states—each based on its own ethos—with a universal Greek oikumene has led to the monstrous desire for global tuning.

What this means can be plainly shown with the example of a piano. This instrument has little in common with a monochord. It cannot elicit a sense of proportion because it is a machine that generates precisely measured vibrations. These are fitted into octaves, each of which is divided into twelve equally distant half tones. The piano is also tuned to an unvarying magnitude, the standard pitch of 440 Hertz. Antiquity had no concept of a note, no sense of such a sound. The independent or solitary tone was as foreign to Plato’s worldview as was the individual—who seems so natural to us. Today, one assumes the existence of individuals.

Further, the length of the monochord was arbitrary. It was designed to make audible appropriate correspondences, not atomistic tones. As with the stories told in Kohr’s village, music was local. It was consistent with, or befitted, a certain community conceived as an ethos, not as congeries of individuals, which today is called a “population.” The ear was trained to hear the appropriate correlation within a musical mode, a sound altogether unique to the region of its origin.

For a long time the monochord remained the device for tuning both other instruments and persons; through the use of the monochord, the person became attuned to his or her respective ethos. To get the octave, one moved the bridge beneath the string so as to divide it two to one; for the fifth, one divided it two to three. On the piano you get twelve half tones and come back to the octave, repeating the twelve divisions into fifths. Not so on the monochord. The last quint comes to lie slightly above the eighth octave. The circle of quints did not square but grated or croaked. Pythagoras, some generations before Plato, is credited with having discovered this disagreeable howl, called “koma.”

All through the Middle Ages and until the fifteenth century, music remained the harmony between an ethos and its proportion. In Florence in 1436, celebrating the consecration of the new cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, William Dufay, composer of the festival’s motet, stood beside Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the church’s dome. In the music composed for this occasion the proportions of the building were reflected, the voices likewise fitting the space. Dufay was already in the modern sense a composer and Brunelleschi a calculating, experimenting Renaissance architect. But Dufay did not yet use equal-sized tones, just as Brunelleschi did not rely on the concepts of the then developing science of statics. Thus, the immanent, cosmic order of all things in harmonious relationship to one another remained for both of them the source of artistic creation.

But music began to be understood as an artwork fabricated from sounds. Acoustics, the science of audible sounds, appeared at the end of the seventeenth century. Formerly, the immanence of cosmic harmony in visual as well as audible beauty made a distinction between music and acoustics irrelevant. Now music was reduced to one example of acoustics. As the monchord had been our emblem for techné musiké so we found its opposite in the modern piano that stood in Hermann von Helmholtz’s laboratory. It too has the power of a symbol. The acoustics of its equal distribution temperament stands in harsh contrast to ancient music. The definitive expression of this box of defined sounds is found in Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone (1863).

The piano, looked at as the modern counterpoint of the monochord, blocks the perception of what harmonious appropriateness once meant. Each of its white and black keys hits a string that produces a calculated half tone. The production of this initial half-tone arrangement first became possible in 1739 through Leonard Euler’s use of logarithms to calculate the intervals.

Helmholtz started out with an equal distribution temperament ear, and his experiments “proved” that this ear was created for the scale, furnishing a gradated receptor. He thus altered the way of hearing, just as 900 years earlier the way of seeing was changed by the writings of certain Arabs. No longer did the seeing ray go out from the eye to marry what was adequate to itself; rather, a ray of light was thrown back from the object, projecting the surface of the thing seen onto the retina. Since the year 1000, opsis—an active virtue of looking—has been replaced by instruction for correct viewing through scientific optics. Likewise music, as the appropriate balance in tensions between the macro- and microcosmos, has been displaced by an esthetic artifact made out of tones for which Helmholtz provided the theoretical systematization. Further, the rules of mechanics and physiology obtained through acoustical resonance were expressed in equally distributed tempered intervals.

Until well into the seventeenth century the idea of cosmos—already familiar to the Greeks—remained unquestioned. Kosmein means to line up, whether two armies or the two shores of a river, or to match, whether heaven and earth or the world/macrocosmos and the human/microcosmos. This cosmic understanding of being, referred to as “The Great Tradition,” came to an abrupt end—the cosmos was discarded.


In medieval philosophy, temperament referred to the combination of qualities in a certain proportion, determining the characteristic nature of something. So in physiology one sought to balance the four cardinal humors of the body—the sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic temperaments—in order to achieve the proper relative proportions. Temperament always implied a due or proportionate mixture, a proper or fitting combination. “To temper” was to bring something to its proper or suitable condition, to modify or moderate something favorably, to achieve a just measure.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, “to temper” came to mean to tune a note or instrument in music to some temperament—that is, to adjust the intervals of the scale in instruments of fixed intonation such as the piano. This was a radical departure from the earlier meaning and signaled the effective disappearance of the ancient notion of proportion in music as in other areas of modern life.

Consider, for example, the great break in the practice of medicine that occurred in the epoch of equally distributed temperament: Until the late eighteenth century a country doctor saw his task as making a diagnosis based on an anamnesis—the relating of one’s life history—in which the disharmony in the sick person’s humoral relationships became evident. The doctor would then attempt to bring about the restoration of the proper balance. Physiology was still the knowledge of proportion in interior flowings. All this changed radically. Similarly to what happened in musical sound, a new normative rule was established in medicine: Toward the end of the nineteenth century the ideal of health became the measured physiological interaction among organs.

Barbara Duden has shown how deeply the loss of proportionality changed the anatomical criterion of what is human (Disembodying Women, 1933). Traditionally, humanness began only with the birth of a well-membered infant. The cord had to be severed for a child to come into existence. “Human” was a synonym for a vis-ˆ-vis relationship. In the eighteenth century the prenatal proportions between the head and the rest of the body could not yet be recognized as human. The unborn fruit, the fetus, was not called a human being. The hydrocephalic, bowlegged, stump-armed, pot-bellied being who occasionally came out would be seen as a mooncalf, a monster, a mole or lump, but never as a child. Woman’s body was not a piano. There was no developmental anatomy as yet to provide a blueprint for growth; thus, there was no definition of a human being according to some arbitrary floating abstraction.

As in medicine, so also in architecture proportionality disappeared. Around 1700 the rule of the Golden Mean as the tonos regulating both ground plan and elevation was lost. Functionalism overpowered proportionality in drawing, planning, and, later, design. The doctrine of the orders in architecture, which had defined the conception of harmony in the shaping of columns for two thousand years, was dethroned as the practical guide in the space of a few decades.

The search for equally tempered sounds in the early eighteenth century enlarged orchestral range, symphonic arrangement, and international collaboration in music. Around this same time a process comparable to modern acoustic temperament occurred in economics. The geographic identification of the economic and political spheres began in France, to be followed elsewhere later. The nation state became equivalent to a market. This trend was greatly enhanced by the standardization of measurements. Before, most of the bushels, barrels, kegs, and tuns, the morgen, and a cord of wood were different on this and that side of regional boundaries, as were the products measured—whether grain, wine, or lumber; all were rooted in a local ethos. The tempering of these magnitudes required the unification of measurements, creating modernized commodities. These, in turn, presupposed the growing convertibility of currencies. What Karl Polanyi and Louis Dumont refer to as the social creation of scarcity acquires a more poignant meaning when compared to the temperament of the piano.

The historical fracture that led to tempered sounds, mechanical anatomy, functional architecture, and scarcity-enhancing economics was reflected in the mode of perception itself. Before the arrival of the idea of temperature in about 1670, people understood that springs were always warmer in winter and cooler in summer: a proportion was experienced. There was no doubt about this sense perception, even when scholars were divided about whether the crasis—the combination of humors in the winter earth—created a cosmic balance of humors or whether the good of nature was providentially maintained by Mother Earth stabilizing the seasons. The idea of temperature and its measurement first required calibrating on an equal-interval scale the expansion of quicksilver in a thin glass tube, a seventeenth-century invention from Venice. As with eye and ear, self-perception was also tempered. People felt the need to check their body temperature and, much later, to get complete physical check-ups. A temperature of eighteen degrees above zero (C.) in a room came to have a certain importance in the perception of well-being, as did the standard pitch of 440 Hertz in music.

In this way the doctrine of the sensus communis, the common sense or sense of community, also disappeared. It had been the task of medicine and philosophy to investigate this sense and to establish the common reference found behind the perceptions of each individual sense organ. Since the seventeenth century this sense has no longer been recognized in medicine as an organ. But in jurisprudence it increasingly became prominent as the innate, unerring capacity to recognize the proper means, which appeared in common law as a jury of peers applying “the rule of the common man.” In the meantime, however, the demand for protection through operationally verified claims in legal systems has thrown a nearly invincible suspicion on every judgment made in terms of the old common sense. The word “common,” which began with a robust sense (something “belonging to the community,” Oxford English Dictionary) extending to each person (“This was the comyn voys of every man,” Chaucer), by the late nineteenth century came to signify a mean or vulgar person.”

Not only were seeing and hearing transformed, not only the senses themselves, but also the character of desire—with the good disappearing, to be replaced by value. In ethics, value widely displaced the good. It’s true that “value” is an old word; it stood near “dignity” in meaning, pointed out what was precious, indeed magnificent, and early on indicated the selling price of an object. Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, “value” has had these uses and has denoted what was always desirable, useful, even what was due; it then entered discourse in place of the good. By the time of my youth, it simply stood on the positive side of zero. Today, however, one needs a qualifier—values can be either positive or negative. To resolve this convertibility, to make it determinate, there is no stable criterion. With values, anything can be transposed into anything else, just as in music, with equally tempered tones, any melody can be transposed from one key into another. Proportionality being lost, neither harmony nor disharmony retains any roots in an ethos. The good, in the sense of Kohr’s certain appropriateness, becomes trite, if not a historical relic. It then becomes possible to speak about the triviality of evil.

In ethics, values are as opposed to an immanent, concrete proportion as are the sounds of Helmholtz. Like them, values run counter to tonos, the specific tension of a mutuality or reciprocity. As timbre separated from tone, so that one could play a violin’s part on the piano, so an ethics of value—with its misplaced concreteness—allowed one to speak of human problems. If people had problems, it no longer made sense to speak of human choice. People could demand solutions. To find them, values could be shifted and prioritized, manipulated and maximized. Not only the language but the very modes of thinking found in mathematics could norm the realm of human relationships. Algorithms “purified” value by filtering out appropriateness, thereby taking the good out of ethics.

When one attempts to utilize or exploit the good, natural inclination is extinguished. Such a propensity, the desire of everything for its own good, was accepted as inherent to all existence and was termed natural love. Even for several generations after Newton, rain was not drawn downward but sought its natural place. Flowers reached up toward the sun. Among people, this attraction was understood as a step toward friendship and friendship as the fruit of civil life. All were called to the other, to friendship.

Kohr lived in the fidelity of friendship, and he served this vision by awakening wisdom, sapientia—a word derived from tasting food. He knew that not any inclination but a certain awareness and feeling, a certain sensitivity to the appropriate, is the necessary condition of friendship. He knew that the historical loss of this knowledge fosters the emergence of social mutations that can be recognized now as monsters. Get Greek melodies from a piano? As well get beauty from economics!


Publication By

Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was born in Vienna, Austria, and grew up in Europe. A Croatian-Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and polemical critic of the institutions of Western culture, he could appear as a stern, forbidding character, which he put down to “growing up in five languages, but without a mother tongue”. He studied histology and … Continued

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