Ivan Illich

The good, as he came to understand it, is what is uniquely and incomparably appropriate in a given setting. It observes a certain scale, displays a certain proportion. It fits, and the senses can recognize this fit, just as they can recognize what is out of tune.

Values, on the other hand, are a universal coin without a proper place or an inherent limit. They rank and compare all things according to their utility or their relative scarcity.

Ivan Illich


“The book, has ceased to be the root metaphor of the age; the screen has taken its place.”

He saw the evidence all around him. People were spending more and more time in virtual, or non-local spaces. Words were losing their depth and becoming plastic elements in a communications code. Knowledge was increasingly being conveyed diagrammatically — through pictures, icons, and graphs. And text was being cut loose from its moorage on the page and set adrift on the vast sea of information — landing not just in the ghostly entrails of the computer, but in the genetic text of which many people now assume themselves to be the dictation, and in the myriad other codes — identifiers, bar codes, entry codes, passwords, and so on — that now record and manage people’s comings and goings.


Mathematics goes through a similar change a little earlier. The ancient Greek feeling for geometry was comparable to the feeling for music we’ve been discussing. The analytic geometry pioneered by René Descartes removed the natural background against which the figures of geometry had been studied, and replaced it with a network of coordinates. In philosophy, as I also mentioned earlier, ethics ceases to be the science of the good, which is known by its proportionate relationship to the will, its fit, and is replaced by the science of tempering values. The good is or is not, like a perfect fifth in music. Values can be more or less. They assume a point zero, from which negative as much as positive values can be elaborated. Evaluation of the world becomes fundamental for thinking.

This loss of proportionality points to the historical uniqueness of modernity, its incomparability.

The poetic, performative quality of existence was erased and forgotten in field after field: in the law, in the conception of what constitutes the common wealth, in constitutional science, in morality, in the idea that society is based on contract, and, of course, in all the areas we’ve already discussed. And in this transition from a world based on the experience of fit, of appropriateness, to a world which I can’t even name, a world in which words have lost their contours, what was once called common sense has been washed out. Common sense, as this term was used of old, meant the sense of what fits, what belongs, what is appropriate. It was by common sense, for example, that a physician understood the limits of what he could and should do. Today, we can think of a world of objects, of persons, of social constellations to which nothing corresponds. It is not only a wombless world, it is a world in which the idea of frontier, of limit, has a meaning which, I think, before Newton and Leibniz was inconceivable. Until their time, if you spoke of a limit, a horizon, the word itself implied that you spoke of a frontier leading to a beyond. A frontier with no beyond is something profoundly new, something which affects all our daily dealings, and makes us so different from all other persons, other cultures, worlds, languages. Even our poetry is arbitrary.

Our perception of speed provides another example. Even the Greeks could imagine that there might be something faster than a falcon, which was the fastest thing they knew, but they had no general concept of speed, figured as miles above time, miles per hour. When Galileo introduced this concept to the remains of the Florentine Academy or wrote about it to Kepler, his contemporaries were conscious of his creating aviolently arbitrary relationship, which had not been there before.

The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (2005)