Erich Fromm on Ivan Illich

There is a book by Ivan Illich that has an introduction by Erich Fromm: Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution (Doubleday & Co. Garden City,  1969-1970. (The translation to French has the title: Libérer l’Avenir: Appel à une Révolution des Institutions [Éditions du Seuil, 1971]).

Here I will simply select a few statements by Fromm, indicating where he and Illich agree (despite the fact that their views in other respects are quite different). According to Fromm, they agree on a core of ideas. Fromm calls this core “humanist radicalism”, although he thinks the expression, and perhaps any expression, is inadequate, even if not misleading, to describe the content of this core.

 Fromm recognizes that Illich’s thought has evolved through the years, but, he says, “[Ivan Illich] has [through the years] remained true to himself in the very core of his approach and it is this core that we share” (fls.7).

What does Fromm mean by “humanist radicalism”? What does the expression imply?

For Fromm, the expression “humanist radicalism” does not mean or imply “a certain set of ideas, but rather ( . . . ) an attitude, ( . . . ) an ‘approach’, as it were. ( . . . ) This approach can be characterized by the motto: de omnibus dubitandum; everything must be doubted, particularly the ideological concepts which are virtually shared by everybody and have consequently assumed the role of indubitable common-sensical axioms. To ‘doubt’ in this sense does ( . . . ) imply ( . . . ) the readiness and capacity for critical questioning of all assumptions and institutions which have become idols under the name of common sense, logic and what is supposed to be ‘natural'” (fls.7-8).

Humanist radicalism then implies “radical doubt”. “Radical doubt is an act of uncovering and discovering; it is the dawning of the awareness that the Emperor is naked, and that his splendid garments are nothing but the product of one’s own phantasy. Radical doubt means to question; ( . . .) radical doubt is a process; a process of liberation from idolatrous thinking; a widening of awareness, of imaginative, creative vision of our possibilities and options. ( .  .  . )” (fls.9).

“Humanist radicalism is [also] radical questioning guided by insight into the dynamics of human nature. ( . . . ) [Illich’s approach] questions every idea and every institution from the standpoint whether it helps or hinders man’s capacity for greater aliveness and joy. ( . . . ) This is not the place to give lengthy examples for the kind of common-sensical premises that are questioned by humanist radicalism.  ( . . . ) Dr. Illich’s papers deal precisely with such examples as [for instance] the usefulness of compulsive schooling.” (fls.9).

“Humanist radicalism questions all ( . . . ) premises and is not afraid of arriving at ideas and solutions that may sound absurd. ( . . . ) The importance of [Dr. Illich’s] thought lies in the fact that they have a liberating effect on the mind by showing entirely new possibilities; they make the reader more alive because they open the door that leads out of the prison of routinized, sterile, preconceived notions. By the creative shock they communicate ( . . . ) they help to stimulate energy and hope for a new beginning.” (fls.10).

In Salto, November 25, 2019

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