In Defense of Vernacular Ways

The crises con­tin­ue to accu­mu­late: the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, the social cri­sis, crises upon crises. But as we try to cre­ate “solu­tions,” we dis­tress­ing­ly find our­selves up again­st a lim­it, dis­cov­er­ing that the only alter­na­tives we can imag­ine are mere­ly mod­i­fi­ca­tions of the same. Pro­posed solu­tions to the eco­nom­ic cri­sis toss us back and forth between two immo­bile poles: free mar­ket or reg­u­lat­ed mar­ket. When we face the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, we decide between sus­tain­able tech­nol­o­gy or unsus­tain­able tech­nol­o­gy. What­ev­er our per­son­al pref­er­ence, a lit­tle to this side or a lit­tle to that side, we all unwit­ting­ly play accord­ing to the same rules, think with the same con­cepts, speak the same lan­guage. We have for­got­ten how to think the new – or the old.

Ivan Illich, priest, philoso­pher, and social crit­ic, is not a fig­ure that most would expect to read about in a Marx­ist mag­a­zine. But he iden­ti­fied this prob­lem long ago, and argued that the only “way out” was a com­plete change in think­ing. His sug­ges­tion, both as con­cept and his­tor­i­cal fact, was the “ver­nac­u­lar.” We will not escape from cap­i­tal­ism through the ratio­nal­i­ty of the sci­en­tist of his­to­ry; nor will we get any help from the stand­point of the pro­le­tari­at. The firm ground of Illich’s cri­tique was pre­cap­i­tal­ist and prein­dus­tri­al life in com­mon.

Even those who reject this posi­tion must meet its chal­lenge. Those for whom pol­i­tics is embed­ded in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of post­mod­ern “lifestyles,” inflect­ed with pseudo-Marx­ist jar­gon, will have to rec­og­nize that the only mod­el we have of forms of life based on direct access to the means of sub­sis­tence is pre­cise­ly the “ver­nac­u­lar” that Illich pro­pos­es. Alter­na­tive­ly, those who locate eman­ci­pa­tion in a Marx-inflect­ed nar­ra­tive of tech­no­log­i­cal pro­gress must to face Illich’s deep crit­i­cisms of devel­op­men­tal­ism, sci­en­tism, and pro­gres­sivism. The fol­low­ing is a chal­lenge not only to cap­i­tal­ism and the experts who defend it, but also to its crit­ics.

Mind Trap 1: the eco­nom­ic cri­sis

Ignor­ing his own con­tri­bu­tions to the fes­tiv­i­ties, George W. Bush recent­ly scold­ed those on Wall Street for get­ting drunk on the prof­its from sell­ing unpayable debts.1 The result­ing col­lapse of finan­cial mar­kets her­ald­ed the end of the par­ty. The drunks seem to have sobered up with­out them­selves suf­fer­ing the con­se­quent hang­over. Instead, in the U.S. and else­where, a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple are left strand­ed with­out homes, jobs, food, or med­i­ci­nes in the wake of that twen­ty-year long binge. In the opin­ion of some, the prospects of full employ­ment or secure retire­ments for US cit­i­zens are a dis­tant and unlike­ly dream. As recent­ly as April 19th 2011, The McDon­ald Cor­po­ra­tion con­duct­ed a nation­al hir­ing day. Almost one mil­lion peo­ple applied for those jobs, known nei­ther for their lav­ish pay nor for their agree­able work­ing con­di­tions. McDonald’s hired a mere six per­cent of the­se appli­cants, as many work­ers in one day as the num­ber of net new jobs in the US for all of 2009.2

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, diag­noses of what went wrong have pro­lif­er­at­ed fast and furi­ous­ly. Of the many expla­na­tions offered, three stand out.3 First, in a spir­it of self-exam­i­na­tion, econ­o­mists have con­clud­ed that their sci­en­tific mod­els of how peo­ple behave and asset prices are deter­mined were wrong and con­tribut­ed to their inabil­i­ty to antic­i­pate the cri­sis. That is, econ­o­mists con­fessed to their igno­rance of how economies work. Since their earnest attempts to improve the­se mod­els are unlike­ly to ques­tion the creduli­ty that forms the shaky foun­da­tions of finan­cial mar­kets, it is like­ly that the future of finan­cial and macro­eco­nom­ics will resem­ble the epicy­cles and eccen­tric­i­ties of Ptole­maic astron­o­my in the time of its decline.4

Sec­ond, jour­nal­ists, pol­i­cy mak­ers, and econ­o­mists who began to sing a dif­fer­ent tune after the cri­sis erupt­ed, find fault with the ide­ol­o­gy of neo-lib­er­al­ism. There is wide­spread recog­ni­tion now that dereg­u­lat­ed and unreg­u­lat­ed mar­kets allowed com­mer­cial and invest­ment banks to invent and trade in finan­cial instru­ments that car­ried sys­temic risks and con­tribut­ed to the fail­ure of cred­it and cap­i­tal mar­kets. This doc­trine that unfet­tered mar­kets pro­duce the great­est eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit for the great­est num­ber, while embar­rassed, is not in full retreat, at least in the U.S.5 That neo-lib­er­al ide­ol­o­gy is not van­quished by its evi­dent fail­ures is relat­ed to the third cause iden­ti­fied in the­se diag­nos­tic exer­cis­es.

If igno­rance excused econ­o­mists and pol­i­cy mak­ers from antic­i­pat­ing the cri­sis and wide­ly worn ide­o­log­i­cal blink­ers exac­er­bat­ed it, then it is bad­ly designed incen­tives that are gen­er­al­ly fin­gered as the most promi­nent and prox­i­mate cause of the cri­sis. Accord­ing­ly, much ink has been spilled on redesign­ing incen­tives to more effec­tive­ly rein in the “ani­mal spir­its” that derail economies from their pre­sumed path of order­ly growth. As such, incen­tives are a flaw that rec­om­mends itself as rem­e­dy.

This con­ceit is per­haps best exposed in the report authored by the Finan­cial Cri­sis Inquiry Com­mis­sion of the US gov­ern­ment.6 For instance, in indict­ing the process and meth­ods for gen­er­at­ing and mar­ket­ing mort­gage-backed secu­ri­ties, the com­mis­sion empha­sizes that incen­tives unwit­ting­ly encour­aged fail­ures at every link of the chain. Low-inter­est rates allowed bor­row­ers to refi­nance their debts and use their homes as ATM cards; lucra­tive fees drove mort­gage bro­kers to herd up sub­prime bor­row­ers; the demand for mort­gages from Wall Street induced bankers to low­er lend­ing stan­dards; rat­ing agen­cies stamped lead as gold because paid to do so by invest­ment bankers; the lat­ter dis­trib­ut­ed the­se tox­ic assets world­wide rely­ing on math­e­mat­i­cal mod­els of risk; and the C-suite of the finance, insur­ance, and real estate sec­tors presid­ed over the house of card because hand­some­ly reward­ed for short term prof­its. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, chang­ing the­se incen­tives through more strin­gent reg­u­la­tions and bet­ter-spec­i­fied rewards and pun­ish­ments to guide the behav­iors of dif­fer­ent mar­ket par­tic­i­pants occu­py most of its rec­om­men­da­tions for the path for­ward.7

This pecu­liar com­bi­na­tion of igno­rance, ide­ol­o­gy, and incen­tives used to explain the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, also illu­mi­nates the space of con­tem­po­rary politi­co-eco­nom­ic thought. Most of the heat­ed debates on how to ensure order­ly growth, cen­ter on the quan­tum of reg­u­la­tion nec­es­sary to con­trol eco­nom­ic motives with­out sti­fling them. Accord­ing­ly, think­ing about eco­nom­ic mat­ters vac­il­lates on a fixed line anchored by two poles-free mar­kets on the one end and mar­kets fet­tered by legal­ly enforced reg­u­la­tions at the oth­er. Only a brief exposé can be afford­ed here of the lin­ea­ments of this thought-space cir­cum­scribed almost two cen­turies ago.8

Around 1700, Bernard Man­dev­ille acer­bical­ly exposed the mech­a­nism dri­ving eco­nom­ic growth. Poet­i­cal­ly, he point­ed out that it was the vices—vanity, greed, and envy—that spurred the expan­sion of trade and com­merce. In bar­ing the vicious­ness that nour­ished the desire to accu­mu­late rich­es, he also left to pos­ter­i­ty the prob­lem of pro­vid­ing a moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for mar­ket activ­i­ty.9 Adam Smith pro­vid­ed a seem­ing­ly last­ing rhetor­i­cal solu­tion to this moral para­dox. First, he col­lapsed the vices into “self-inter­est” and so removed the sting of vicious­ness from the vices by renam­ing them. Sec­ond, he ground­ed “self-inter­est” in a nat­u­ral desire to “bet­ter our con­di­tion” that began in the womb and end­ed in the tomb and so mor­al­ized it.10 Third, he invoked an invis­i­ble hand to trans­mute the self-inter­est of indi­vid­u­als into social­ly desir­able ben­e­fits. Not only was the pas­sage from the indi­vid­u­al to the social there­by obscured by prov­i­den­tial means but the pri­vate pur­suit of rich­es was also jus­ti­fied by its sup­posed pub­lic ben­e­fits.

Thus, Smith hid the para­dox unveiled by Man­dev­ille behind a rhetor­i­cal­ly pleas­ing façade. The uncom­fort­able insight that pri­vate vice leads to pub­lic ben­e­fit was defanged by the notion that pub­lic ben­e­fits accrue from the unflinch­ing pur­suit of self-inter­est. Where­as the for­mer revealed the vicious mech­a­nism fuel­ing com­mer­cial­ly ori­ent­ed soci­eties, the lat­ter made it palat­able. Faith in the effi­ca­cy of the inscrutable invis­i­ble hand there­by under­wrote the pur­port­ed “nat­u­ral har­mony of inter­ests,” accord­ing to which the butcher and the bak­er in each pur­su­ing his own ends unwit­ting­ly fur­thers the wealth of the nation at large.

Smith’s rhetor­i­cal con­vo­lu­tions were nec­es­sary because he excised use-val­ue from polit­i­cal econ­o­my and found­ed the lat­ter entire­ly on exchange-val­ue. In con­trast to his pre­de­ces­sors for whom the eco­nom­ic could not be sep­a­rat­ed from ethics and pol­i­tics, Smith carves out a space for the eco­nom­ic by defin­ing its domain by the deter­mi­nants of mar­ket prices.11 He accept­ed Locke’s argu­ments: that labor is the foun­da­tion of prop­er­ty rights; that apply­ing labor trans­forms the com­mons into pri­vate prop­er­ty; that mon­ey ignites acquis­i­tive­ness; and that accu­mu­la­tion beyond use is just.12 Smith delib­er­ate­ly ignores the com­mons and embold­ens the mar­ket because it is the sphere in which acquis­i­tive­ness flour­ish­es. He cur­tails his inquiry to exchange-val­ue in full aware­ness of the con­trast­ing “val­ue-in-use.” Even if not in the­se pre­cise terms, the dis­tinc­tion between “exchange-val­ue” and “use-val­ue” was known to both Aris­totle and Smith. Yet, Smith is per­haps the first who rec­og­nizes that tra­di­tion­al dis­tinc­tion and nev­er­the­less rules out use-val­ue as a legit­i­mate sub­ject of an inquiry on wealth.13 For Aris­totle, it was pre­cise­ly the dis­tinc­tion between use and exchange that ground­ed the dis­tinc­tion between appro­pri­ate acqui­si­tion and inap­pro­pri­ate accu­mu­la­tion. More gen­er­al­ly, it is when con­sid­er­a­tions of jus­tice and the good con­sti­tute the start­ing point of think­ing about man that prof­it-seek­ing becomes vis­i­ble as a force that rends the polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty into a com­mer­cial soci­ety. By encour­ag­ing self-inter­est­ed­ness, Smith allows the vain­glo­ri­ous pur­suit of wealth to over­shad­ow virtue as the nat­u­ral end for man.14 By focus­ing eco­nom­ic sci­ence on exchange val­ues, Smith priv­i­leges the world of goods over that of the good. The price Smith pays for ignor­ing use-val­ue is the need to invoke prov­i­den­tial the mys­tery by which self-inter­est becomes social­ly ben­e­fi­cial. Since Smith, neo-clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics has either dis­avowed the dis­tinc­tion between use and exchange val­ue or con­fessed to being inca­pable of under­stand­ing use-val­ue.15 By insist­ing that the valu­able must nec­es­sar­i­ly be use­ful, Marx, unlike Aris­totle, could not rely on the lat­ter to crit­i­cize the for­mer.16

Nev­er­the­less, it was soon dis­cov­ered that indi­vid­u­al self-inter­est did not “nat­u­ral­ly” pro­duce social ben­e­fits. Vast dis­par­i­ties in wealth, endemic pover­ty, mis­er­able liv­ing con­di­tions, and per­sis­tent unem­ploy­ment con­sti­tut­ed some of the many social­ly maligned con­se­quences of unfet­tered mar­ket activ­i­ty. To account for the­se vis­i­ble fail­ures in the nat­u­ral har­mony of inter­ests, a sec­ond for­mu­la, due to Jere­my Ben­tham, was there­fore paired to it. An “arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests” forged through laws and reg­u­la­tions were deemed nec­es­sary to lessen the dis­junc­tion between pri­vate inter­ests and pub­lic ben­e­fits. That is, state inter­ven­tions in the form of incen­tives – whether cod­ed in mon­ey or by law- were thought nec­es­sary to prod way­ward mar­ket par­tic­i­pants to bet­ter serve the pub­lic inter­est.17

Accord­ing­ly, it is this dialec­tic between the nat­u­ral and arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests that encodes the poles of the Mar­ket and the State and con­sti­tutes the thought-space for con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions on eco­nom­ic affairs.18 Too lit­tle reg­u­la­tion and mar­kets become social­ly destruc­tive; too much reg­u­la­tion and the wealth-cre­at­ing engi­nes fueled by self-inter­est begin to sput­ter. And yet, the con­tin­u­um con­sti­tut­ed by the­se two poles is uni­fied by a com­mon pre­sup­po­si­tion: that use-val­ue is of no use to com­merce and that the ego­ism implied by self-inter­est is both nec­es­sary and nat­u­ral to com­mer­cial expan­sion.

Though the eco­nom­ic cri­sis has, once again, exposed the Man­dev­il­lian foun­da­tions of com­mer­cial soci­ety, think­ing about it con­tin­ues to func­tion in the space marked out by Smith, Ben­tham and the founders of that philo­soph­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism, which erect­ed the moral­i­ty of a soci­ety ori­ent­ed by exchange val­ue on the foun­da­tion of ego­ism. When con­fined to this thought-space, one is con­demned to rely­ing, in alter­nat­ing steps, on the inter­re­lat­ed log­ics of free and reg­u­lat­ed mar­kets. The ques­tion remains whether there is an alter­na­tive to the thought-space con­sti­tut­ed by the State and the Mar­ket. Per­haps the answer to this ques­tion lies in tak­ing a dis­tance to what the­se log­ics pre­sume: that exchange-val­ue is of pre­em­i­nent worth and that pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­als are to be har­nessed to that cause.

Mind Trap 2: the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis

Board­ed up homes and idle hands are to the ongo­ing cri­sis in eco­nom­ic affairs, what dis­ap­pear­ing fish and poi­soned airs are to the oncom­ing envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. A gen­er­a­tion after Rachel Car­son and Bar­ry Com­mon­er, sci­en­tists are now of almost one mind: humankind’s activ­i­ties on the earth have so changed it, that the species is now threat­ened by dis­as­ter on a plan­e­tary scale.19 What poets and prophets once warned in verse, sci­en­tists now tell us through sta­tis­tics and mod­els. Lurk­ing beneath those dry num­bers is a grow­ing cat­a­log of hor­rors – ris­ing seas, rag­ing rivers, melt­ing glac­i­ers, dead zones in the oceans, unbear­able hot spots on land – that fore­tell an unliv­able future.

Were the pic­ture they paint not so dire, it would be laugh­ably iron­ic that sci­en­tists and tech­nocrats now dis­avow the fruits of the very tech­no-sci­en­tific machine they once served to mid­wife. But it is cer­tain­ly trag­ic that in think­ing about what can be done to avert the impend­ing cri­sis, sci­en­tists and engi­neers no less than politi­cians and cor­po­rate boss­es insist on more of the same. Atten­tion is now direct­ed at invent­ing meth­ods to not only mit­i­gate the phys­i­cal effects of run­away indus­tri­al­iza­tion, but also to re-engi­neer the human psy­che to bet­ter adapt to such effects. Thus, from recy­cling plas­tic and increas­ing fuel mileage in cars to devis­ing tow­ers to sequester car­bon under­sea and engi­neer­ing car­bon eat­ing plants, the pro­posed solu­tions range from the mun­dane to the bizarre. More gen­er­al­ly, the debate on what to do about the con­flict between eco­nom­ic growth and eco­log­i­cal integri­ty is anchored by two poles: at the one end, “eco-friend­ly” or “sus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies, and at the oth­er, pre­sum­ably “unsus­tain­able” or envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive ones.

Thus man’s sur­vival appears as a choice between the Prius, solar pan­els, biodegrad­able paper bags, local foods, and high den­si­ty urban lofts on the one hand, and the Hum­mer, oil tanks, plas­tic bags, indus­tri­al­ized foods, and sub­ur­bia on the oth­er. Eco-friend­ly tech­nolo­gies may change the fuel that pow­ers our ener­gy slaves but does noth­ing to change our depen­dence on them. That the fruits of tech­no-sci­ence have turned poi­so­nous is seen as a prob­lem call­ing for more and improved tech­ni­cal solu­tions imply­ing that the domain of tech­nol­o­gy forms the hori­zon of eco­log­i­cal thought.20 That more and dif­fer­ent tech­nol­o­gy is the dom­i­nant respon­se to its fail­ure sug­gests that the made (tech­ne) has replaced the given (physis). Eco­log­i­cal thought is con­fined to the space framed by tech­nol­o­gy part­ly because of the unstat­ed assump­tion that knowl­edge is cer­tain only when it is made.

It was Vico who announced the specif­i­cal­ly mod­ern claim that knowl­edge is made, that verum et fac­tum con­ver­tun­tur (the true and the made are con­vert­ible; have iden­ti­cal deno­ta­tion). It is true that the school­men, in think­ing through the ques­tion of the Chris­tian God’s omnipo­tence and omni­science, argued his knowl­edge was iden­ti­cal to his cre­ations. They argued this by insist­ing that through his cre­ative act (mak­ing some­thing from noth­ing) he expressed ele­ments already con­tained with­in Him­self. God knows every­thing because he made it all from his own being. How­ev­er, the school­men humbly held that the iden­ti­ty of mak­ing and know­ing applied only to God. Man, being cre­at­ed, could not know him­self or oth­er nat­u­ral kinds in the man­ner akin to God. Since sci­en­tia or indu­bitable knowl­edge was the most per­fect kind of knowl­edge, and nature or physis was already given to man, it implied that man could not sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly know the sub­lu­nary world. It took a Galileo and a Descartes to turn this under­stand­ing on its head.21

The­se ear­ly mod­erns were “sec­u­lar the­olo­gians” who tried to mar­ry heav­en and earth. They argued that geo­met­ri­cal objects or forms – such as tri­an­gles and squares – were unearth­ly. At best, such math­e­mat­i­cal objects were “ideas” formed by the cre­ative act of the imag­i­na­tion. The imag­i­na­tion as a site of cre­ative activ­i­ty entailed that it be unhinged from what is given. Exem­pli­fied by math­e­mat­i­cal objects, whose per­fec­tion owes lit­tle, if any­thing, to the imper­fect beings of the world, the sec­u­lar the­olo­gians thus argued that the truth of ideas is guar­an­teed by the very fact that they are made.22

The per­fect and time­less shapes of geom­e­try were once thought to be applic­a­ble only to the unmov­ing heav­ens. The sub­lu­nary sphere of gen­er­a­tion, change, and decay was not sus­cep­ti­ble to immo­bile math­e­mat­i­cal forms. But accord­ing to the sec­u­lar the­olo­gians, what was good for the heav­ens was good enough for the earth. By insist­ing that the book of nature was writ­ten in “mea­sure, weight and num­ber,” the­se ear­ly mod­erns raised the earth to the stars.

For them, beneath the bloom­ing, buzzing, phe­nom­e­nal world lurked the laws of nature inscribed in math­e­mat­i­cal­ly for­mu­lat­ed reg­u­lar­i­ties. Thus the made lay beneath the given, it required ardu­ous exper­i­men­ta­tion – the vex­ing of nature – to unveil the­se insen­si­ble but imag­ined laws. Accord­ing­ly, math­e­mat­i­cal forms and lab­o­ra­to­ry exper­i­ments con­sti­tut­ed the pre­em­i­nent meth­ods for con­struct­ing knowl­edge of the world. Unhinged from the given because com­mit­ted to the cause of the made, tech­no-sci­ence shook off its Aris­totelian roots, where expe­ri­ence was the mem­o­rable formed from long immer­sion in the reg­u­lar­i­ties of the world, gen­e­sis and move­ment were impos­si­ble to know with cer­tain­ty but only for the most part, and beings in the world were pos­sessed of sub­stan­tive natures.23

Pride­ful immod­esty was not the only rea­son that ear­ly mod­ern philoso­phers brought the heav­ens to the earth. They also did so for char­i­ta­ble rea­sons. Moved by con­cern for the poor this-world­ly con­di­tion of man, they sought to improve man’s estate by escap­ing what is given – food tech­nolo­gies to erase hunger, cars and planes to over­come the lim­its of time and space, med­i­ci­nes to elim­i­nate dis­ease, and now genet­ic manip­u­la­tions to per­haps even cheat death. Thus, pride and char­i­ty infuse that potent and world-mak­ing brew we call tech­no-sci­ence.24

Mod­ern tech­no-sci­ence grew, a bit top­sy-turvy, but always cleav­ing close to the­se found­ing impuls­es. The pride that com­pels to know-by-con­struc­tion con­tin­ues to be wed­ded to the char­i­ty fuel­ing the pro­duc­tion of arti­facts that bet­ter our con­di­tion by trans­mo­gri­fy­ing it. Whether TV’s or the­o­rems, the mod­ern tech­no-sci­en­tific endeav­or is one by which, Entis rationis, cre­ations or con­struc­tions of the mind, are pro­ject­ed and given form as entis real­is, things real­ized. Caught in this closed loop between mind and its pro­jec­tions, every­where he looks, man now sees only what he has made. Instead of recov­er­ing the gar­den of his orig­i­nal inno­cence, mod­ern man is now faced with the grow­ing desert of his own mak­ing. Yet, trapped by the premise of the iden­ti­ty between know­ing and mak­ing, con­tem­po­rary thought remains unable to think of any­thing oth­er than remak­ing what has been bad­ly made.25

Per­haps it is this com­mit­ment to the propo­si­tion that we can know only what we make, to knowl­edge by con­struc­tion, that forces us to be trapped with­in the tech­no-sci­en­tific frame. The envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis has exposed the Achilles heel of unre­strained tech­no-sci­en­tific pro­gress. Yet, faith in Pro­gress and in Knowl­edge as the cur­ren­cy of Free­dom remains unshak­en. Shut­tling between the poles of “sus­tain­able” and “unsus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies, the for­mer is prof­fered as the new and improved cure for the dis­eases caused by the lat­ter. And once more, dis­in­ter­est­ed curios­i­ty and solic­i­tous con­cern for the wel­fare of oth­ers jus­ti­fy and reaf­firm faith in sal­va­tion through tech­nol­o­gy. To escape this debil­i­tat­ing con­fine per­haps requires being dis­abused of the prej­u­di­cial iden­ti­ty between know­ing and mak­ing, which ani­mates tech­no-sci­ence.

Plane­ly speak­ing, but not entire­ly

The space con­sti­tut­ed by the dialec­tic between a nat­u­ral and arti­fi­cial “har­mony of inter­ests” enfolds the rela­tion between free and reg­u­lat­ed mar­kets. The pol­i­tics of a com­mer­cial repub­lic is ori­ent­ed to the sat­is­fac­tion of human needs through com­modi­ties. To con­tin­u­al­ly increase the sat­is­fac­tion of needs, mar­ket soci­eties must expand the sphere of com­mod­i­ty depen­dence, that is, the relent­less pur­suit eco­nom­ic growth. The pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of com­modi­ties pre­sup­pos­es the work­er and the con­sumer, and regard­less of who owns the means of pro­duc­tion or how prof­its are dis­trib­ut­ed, eco­nom­ic growth requires workers/consumers. Even if work­ers are no more like­ly to find well-pay­ing jobs than are debt sat­u­rat­ed con­sumers like­ly to buy more stuff, the social imag­i­nary formed of work­ers and con­sumers per­sists. Accord­ing­ly, any effort to see beneath or beyond this con­fin­ing thought-space must take its dis­tance to this indus­tri­al mind-set formed by the thor­ough­go­ing depen­dence on com­modi­ties.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the debate on the neces­si­ty of “eco-friend­ly” tech­nolo­gies that car­ry a low­er “eco­log­i­cal foot­print” pre­sup­pos­es man as oper­a­tor instead of as user.26 The user is trans­formed into an oper­a­tor when the pow­er of a tool over­whelms that of its user. Thus, whether it is a Prius or a Hum­mer, both aim to improve man’s con­di­tion by frus­trat­ing his nat­u­ral abil­i­ty and capac­i­ty to walk. Both demand skilled oper­a­tors to steer, and nei­ther per­mits the degrees of free­dom nec­es­sary for autonomous use. Whether pro­mot­ed by the tech­nocrat or ecocrat, men are dis­abled by and become depen­dent on their arti­facts when the lat­ter are designed for oper­a­tors instead of enabling users.

The ordi­nary and every­day mean­ing of use­ful­ness embeds it with­in both human pur­pos­es and human actions. A thing is use­ful inso­far as it unleash­es and extends the capac­i­ties of the user; as long as it can be shaped, adapt­ed, and mod­i­fied to fit the pur­pos­es of its users. There­fore, the capac­i­ty of a thing to be use­ful is lim­it­ed by the innate pow­ers or nat­u­ral thresh­olds of the user. For exam­ple, a bicy­cle calls for users because it only extends the innate capac­i­ty for self-mobil­i­ty. In con­trast, the auto­mo­bile requires immo­bile if adept machine oper­a­tors. In this sense, the for­mer is a con­vivial tech­nol­o­gy where the lat­ter is manip­u­la­tive. A hand-pump or a well can be used to raise water for drink­ing or bathing. In con­trast, a flush-toi­let or a dam must be oper­at­ed to pipe or store a liq­uid resource. Thus, to bring to light was has been cast into the shad­ows requires expos­ing the dis­abling fea­tures of some tech­nolo­gies.

Accord­ing­ly, what­ev­er lies beyond the thought-space marked by the dialec­tic of the State-Mar­ket on the one hand and that of the sus­tain­able-unsus­tain­able tech­nol­o­gy on the oth­er, it must be het­ero­ge­neous to both the worker/consumer and the oper­a­tor. In this search, two caveats are to be kept in mind. First, even if the ques­tion is addressed to the present, the answer must be sought for in the past. One is oblig­ed to rum­mage in the dust­bin of his­to­ry to recov­er what was once mus­cled into it. Oth­er­wise, imag­ined futures would give wing to utopi­an dreams just like those that have now turned night­mar­ish. Sec­ond, there is no going back to the past and there is no choice between the (post)industrial and the tra­di­tion­al immured in habit and trans­mit­ted by mem­o­ry. The depen­dence on com­modi­ties and manip­u­la­tive tech­nolo­gies has been and con­tin­ues to be estab­lished on the destruc­tion of alter­na­tive mod­es of being and think­ing. There is lit­tle of the lat­ter around, even as mil­lions of peas­ants and abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples are dai­ly uproot­ed and dis­placed in Chi­na, India, and Lat­in Amer­i­ca. But it would be sen­ti­men­tal and dan­ger­ous to think that one can or should bring back the past. Instead, the task for thought is to find con­cep­tu­al cri­te­ria to help think through the present.27

The Ver­nac­u­lar Domain

Ivan Illich pro­posed to reviv­i­fy the word “ver­nac­u­lar” to name a domain that excludes both the con­sumer and the oper­a­tor. The appro­pri­ate word to speak of the domain beyond depen­dence on com­modi­ties and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies is fun­da­men­tal to avoid­ing one or both of two con­fu­sions. First, the pre­sup­po­si­tions of eco­nom­ics and tech­no-sci­ence are like­ly to be anachro­nis­ti­cal­ly pro­ject­ed into forms-of-life that lie out­side or beyond the thought space con­sti­tut­ed by them. This is obvi­ous when econ­o­mists retro-project fables of the dia­mond and water “para­dox,” “util­i­ty-max­i­miza­tion” and “scarci­ty” into pre-mod­ern texts. So does the his­to­ri­an of tech­nol­o­gy who indif­fer­ent­ly sees the mon­key, Nean­derthal man, and the uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent as tool users. In a relat­ed vein, forms-of-life orthog­o­nal to tech­no-sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly fueled economies are like­ly to be mis­un­der­stood. Thus, those who today refuse mod­ern con­ve­niences are labeled Lud­dites or just cussed, while those who get by out­side the tech­no-sci­en­tific and com­mod­i­ty bub­bles are clas­si­fied as back­ward or poor.

A sec­ond, more potent, con­fu­sion flour­ish­es in the absence of a word ade­quate to the domain out­side tech­no­log­i­cal­ly inten­sive mar­ket soci­eties. Dis­abling tech­nolo­gies no less than wage work can pro­duce or gen­er­ate unpaid toil. That the spin­ning jen­ny and the com­put­er have put peo­ple out of work is well-known. But it is less famil­iar that waged work neces­si­tates a shad­owy unpaid com­ple­ment. Indeed, wage work is a per­haps dimin­ish­ing tip of the total toil exact­ed in mar­ket-inten­sive soci­eties. House­work, school­work, com­mut­ing, mon­i­tor­ing the intake of med­i­ci­nes or the out­flows from a bank account are only a few exam­ples of the time and toil devot­ed to the nec­es­sary shad­ow work com­pelled by com­mod­i­ty-inten­sive social arrange­ments. To con­fuse the shad­ow work neces­si­tat­ed by the sep­a­ra­tion of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion with the unpaid labor in set­tings where pro­duc­tion is not sep­a­rat­ed from con­sump­tion is to mis­un­der­stand shad­ow work as either autonomous action or the threat­ened and shrink­ing spaces out­side the mar­ket.28

Indica­tive of this con­fu­sion is the use of such terms as “sub­sis­tence econ­o­my,” “infor­mal economies,” or “peas­ant econ­o­my” to refer to what has been cast into the shad­ows. By adding an adjec­tive to the “econ­o­my,” his­to­ri­ans and anthro­pol­o­gists unwit­ting­ly rein­force the grip of what they intend to weak­en. By mere­ly mod­i­fy­ing the “econ­o­my” they are nev­er­the­less behold­en to its pre­sup­po­si­tions. A sim­i­lar weak­ness attends the term “sub­sis­tence.” While its ety­mol­o­gy is noble and invokes that which is self-suf­fi­cient and stands in place, its mod­ern con­no­ta­tions are irre­deemably nar­row and uncouth. In pri­mar­i­ly invok­ing the mod­es by which peo­ple pro­vid­ed for their mate­ri­al needs – food and shel­ter – “sub­sis­tence” rein­forces the eco­nom­ic by nega­tion. With its con­no­ta­tions of “basic neces­si­ties” or “bare sur­vival,” sub­sis­tence des­ic­cates the var­ied and mul­ti­far­i­ous forms-of-life once and still con­duct­ed beyond the space cir­cum­scribed by the machine and the mar­ket. One can­not speak of “sub­sis­tence archi­tec­ture” as one can of ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­tures. “Peas­ant” or “infor­mal” does not mod­i­fy dance and song, prayer and lan­guage, food and play. And yet, the­se are inte­gral to a life well-lived, and at least his­tor­i­cal­ly, were nei­ther com­mod­i­fied nor the prod­ucts of tech­no-sci­ence. It is to avoid such blind­ing con­fu­sions that Illich argued for reha­bil­i­tat­ing the word “ver­nac­u­lar.“29

Though from the Lat­in ver­nac­u­lum, which named all that was home­bred, home­made, and home­spun, it was through Varro’s restrict­ed sense of ver­nac­u­lar speech that the word “ver­nac­u­lar” enters Eng­lish. The his­to­ry of how ver­nac­u­lar speech was trans­mut­ed into a “taught moth­er tongue,” is an exem­plar of not only what lies beyond the con­tem­po­rary thought-space but also for what may be wor­thy of recu­per­a­tion in mod­ern forms.30

Elio Anto­nio de Nebri­ja was a con­tem­po­rary of Christo­pher Colum­bus. In 1492, he peti­tioned Queen Isabel­la to spon­sor a tool to quell the unruly every­day speech of her sub­jects. In the Spain of Isabel­la, her sub­jects spoke in a mul­ti­tude of tongues. To dis­ci­pline the anar­chic speech of peo­ple in the inter­est of her pow­er Nebri­ja not­ed, “Lan­guage has always been the con­sort of empire, and forever shall remain its mate.” To uni­fy the sword and the book through lan­guage, Nebri­ja offered both a rule­book for Span­ish gram­mar and a dic­tio­nary. In a kind of alchem­i­cal exer­cise, Nebri­ja reduced lived speech to a con­struct­ed gram­mar. Accord­ing­ly, this con­ver­sion of the speech of peo­ple into a nation­al lan­guage stands as a pro­to­type of the for­ays in that long war to cre­ate a world fit for workers/ con­sumers and oper­a­tors.

Nebri­ja fab­ri­cat­ed a Span­ish gram­mar as a tool to rule enlivened speech. Because stan­dard­ized and pro­duced by an expert, his gram­mar had to be taught to be effec­tive. More­over, fol­low­ing gram­mat­i­cal rules for speech con­veys the belief that peo­ple can­not speak with­out learn­ing the rules of gram­mar. By this dis­pen­sa­tion, the tongue is trained to repeat the gram­mat­i­cal forms it is taught; the tongue is made to oper­ate on lan­guage. Hence, the nat­u­ral abil­i­ty to speak that can be exer­cised by each and all is trans­formed into an alien­able pro­duct requir­ing pro­duc­ers and con­sumers. The con­ver­sion of every­day speech into a teach­able moth­er tongue thus ren­ders what is abun­dant into the regime of scarci­ty – to the realm of exchange-val­ue. Instruc­tion in lan­guage not only dis­ables the nat­u­ral pow­ers of the speak­er but also makes her depen­dent on cer­ti­fied ser­vice providers. Thus, Nebrija’s pro­pos­al at once dis­clos­es and fore­shad­ows the world pop­u­lat­ed by work­ers and oper­a­tors, by the mar­ket and the machine.

The war again­st the ver­nac­u­lar has been pros­e­cut­ed for some 500 years.31 Once the com­mod­i­ty and mar­ket occu­pied the inter­stices of every­day life. Today, it is every­where. For most of human his­to­ry, tools were shaped by the pur­pos­es and lim­it­ed by the nat­u­ral abil­i­ties of its users. Today, their machi­nes enslave the major­i­ty of peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly in advanced indus­tri­al soci­eties. Though this trans­for­ma­tion has and is occur­ring in dif­fer­ent places at dif­fer­ent times and rates, it nev­er­the­less dupli­cates the dia­gram of how stan­dard­ized Span­ish gram­mar dis­em­bed­ded the speech of peo­ple. For instance, the rapa­cious “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” that enclosed the com­mons in the 17th cen­tu­ry, uproot­ed Eng­lish peas­ants from the land to make them ful­ly depen­dent on wages. A sim­i­lar dis­pos­ses­sion now occurs in Chi­na and India, where hun­dreds of mil­lions move from farms to fac­to­ries and slums. Abo­rig­i­nal tribes of the Ama­zon are being dis­pos­sessed and killed now with the same impuni­ty as those in Aus­tralia and the Amer­i­c­as once were. For enter­tain­ment, chil­dren now oper­ate PlaySta­tions where they once kicked around a ball on the street. Mega-church­es in the US indoc­tri­nate the flock with pow­er point slides and music, much as teach­ers, train­ers, and coach­es do in class­rooms around the coun­try. Food sci­en­tists, nutri­tion­ists, and plant pathol­o­gists provide just some of the inputs that con­sumers depend on for their dai­ly calo­rie intake. Whether in sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes or box­es piled on top of each oth­er, peo­ple live in hous­es seem­ing­ly cut from an architect’s tem­plate. Wom­en in India now demand valen­tine cards with as much enthu­si­asm as Turk­ish men pur­chase hair, calf, and chest implants. The his­tor­i­cal record is rife with exam­ples that stand as wit­ness­es to the con­tin­u­ing destruc­tion of the ver­nac­u­lar –whether of food, shel­ter, song, love, or plea­sures.

It is by attend­ing to the his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty of our present predica­ment in the mir­ror of the past that Illich thus reveals a third axis that lies orthog­o­nal to the plane cir­cum­scribed by the axes of com­mod­i­ty inten­si­ty and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. On this z-axis are locat­ed forms of social orga­ni­za­tion anchored by two het­ero­ge­neous forms. At the point of orig­in of this three-dimen­sion­al space, are social arrange­ments that plug peo­ple into mar­kets and machi­nes and there­by pre­vent them from exer­cis­ing their freely given pow­ers. At the oth­er end of this z-axis is found a pro­fu­sion of social forms, each dif­fer­ent from the oth­er, but all marked by sus­pi­cion towards the claims for tech­no-sci­ence and the com­mod­i­ty.

For the­se mod­es of social orga­ni­za­tion, the dif­fer­ence between “sus­tain­able” and “unsus­tain­able” tech­nolo­gies is a chimera. Instead, what mat­ters is the real dis­tinc­tion between con­vivial and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. Sim­i­lar­ly, the pur­port­ed dif­fer­ence between reg­u­lat­ed and free mar­kets, between pub­lic and pri­vate prop­er­ty does lit­tle to shape the­se social forms. Instead, they are ani­mat­ed by the dis­tinc­tion between the house­hold and the com­mons. Thus, the Amish of Penn­syl­va­nia cur­tail their use of such pow­er tools as trac­tors. The Bhutane­se lim­it the num­ber of tourists to whom they play host. Some cities in Ger­many and Den­mark have banned the car to make way for the bicy­cle and walk­ing. Whether on a rooftop in Chicago or by the rail track in Mum­bai, diverse groups rely on their veg­etable patch­es for some their dai­ly sus­te­nance. While com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture build bonds of per­son­al depen­dence, ceram­ic dry toi­lets and relat­ed forms of ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­tures allow peo­ple to dwell. In a fine essay by Peter Linebaugh on the Lud­dites and the Roman­tics, one is per­suad­ed by the implic­it claim that com­mu­nism for the 21st cen­tu­ry may need to mim­ic in a new key, the coura­geous Lud­dite defense of the ver­nac­u­lar.32 Even Marx, in his last years, was less of a Marx­ist than many of those who spoke in his name. He was far more open to the peas­ant com­munes of Rus­sia and West­ern Europe than usu­al­ly assumed.33

The­se mod­es and man­ners of liv­ing in the present are informed by the past. Those engaged in the attempt to unplug from the mar­ket and the machine know that the reign of prop­er­ty – whether pri­vate or pub­lic-was erect­ed on the ruins of the com­mons and that the ubiq­ui­ty of dis­abling tech­nolo­gies-whether sus­tain­able or not-was achieved by den­i­grat­ing con­vivial tools. Yet, cru­cial­ly, know­ing what is past has gone, they are not dog­mat­ic in their fight. They prac­tice a form of brico­lage, oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly tak­ing back what­ev­er they can get. A shared lawn­mow­er here, an over­grown and weed infest­ed gar­den there, a polit­i­cal strug­gle to retain arti­sanal fish­ing in Ker­ala, a move to the bar­ri­cades in the Chi­a­pas, the will­ing­ness to ped­dle cocaine derived home reme­dies in Peru and build­ing ille­gal ten­e­ments on pub­lic lands in Sao Paulo, each effort is aimed at reduc­ing the rad­i­cal monopoly of com­modi­ties and dis­abling tech­nolo­gies. Such ways – of fish­ing, farm­ing, cook­ing, eat­ing, dwelling, play­ing, pray­ing or study – are as diverse and var­ied today as the peo­ple who engage in them. How­ev­er, what they have in com­mon is being ori­ent­ed by the same genus, the ver­nac­u­lar.

Epis­temic Pru­dence

The effort to fight again­st the con­tin­u­ing war on the ver­nac­u­lar also extends to the activ­i­ty of think­ing.34 What is con­fused for knowl­edge today is large­ly R&D fund­ed and deployed by gov­ern­ment and indus­try. Sci­en­tists, whether in the employ of uni­ver­si­ties, gov­ern­ments, or cor­po­ra­tions, pro­duce objec­tive knowl­edge for use by oth­ers. The per­ti­nent ques­tion for those affect­ed by the­se cir­cuits of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion and sale is to ask if there are ver­nac­u­lar styles of think­ing. Is there a kind of thought jus­ti­fied by nei­ther pride nor char­i­ty? What is the nature of rig­or­ous thought that is nev­er­the­less con­duct­ed among friends and aimed at shap­ing one’s own mod­es of life in more beau­ti­ful ways? Are some styles of think­ing bet­ter suit­ed to com­pre­hend­ing the ver­nac­u­lar?

It is like­ly that the intel­lec­tu­al effort appro­pri­ate to bring­ing ver­nac­u­lar ways out of the shad­ows might itself be self-lim­it­ing. I sug­gest the now dis­card­ed notion of com­mon sense as a cri­te­ri­on to both com­pre­hend the ver­nac­u­lar domain and to rec­og­nize the styles of thought appro­pri­ate to it. Though the his­to­ry of com­mon sense is too tan­gled a sto­ry to be told here, it is suf­fi­cient to note its pri­ma­ry mean­ing, at least in Eng­lish. The first mean­ing of com­mon sense is the Aris­totelian “sen­sus com­mu­nis”: “The com­mon bond or cen­ter of the five sens­es; the endow­ment of nat­u­ral intel­li­gence pos­sessed by ratio­nal beings.”35 This under­stand­ing of the com­mon sense stretch­es from at least Pla­to to Descartes and, in this pri­mor­dial sense, refers to the fac­ul­ty nec­es­sary for the exer­cise of rea­son­able judg­ments. Con­trary to pop­u­lar prej­u­dice today, com­mon sense does not refer to the con­tent of what is known but rather how knowl­edge is achieved. Com­mon sense is not reducible to a body of propo­si­tions or of knowl­edge-claims: instead, it is the ground from which judg­ments are reached, par­tic­u­lar­ly, the judg­ment of what is appro­pri­ate, fit­ting, or ade­quate.36

Briefly, com­mon sense is that fac­ul­ty which syn­the­sizes sense impres­sions into per­cep­tions of the world. In turn, the active intel­li­gence abstracts con­cepts from the­se sen­si­ble per­cep­tions. An echo of this activ­i­ty of the intel­lect still res­onates in the word “con­cept,” ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly relat­ed to grasp­ing or touch­ing. That con­cepts are teth­ered to per­cepts, which are root­ed in the sen­su­al, under­writes that Aris­totelian com­mon­place, “noth­ing in the intel­lect that is not first in the sens­es.” Con­cepts are abstrac­tions. But pre­cise­ly because they are abstrac­tions from the real, they main­tain an accord between the world and the mind. Stat­ed sim­ply, both per­cep­tion and the con­cepts that flow from them are depen­dent on what is given to the sens­es; con­cep­tions of the world depend on grasp­ing the world as it is.

Yet, tech­no-sci­ence is based on pre­cise­ly turn­ing this under­stand­ing on its head. Indeed, the announce­ment of Vico may be tak­en as the slo­gan behind which a com­mon sense under­stand­ing of the world was slow­ly suf­fo­cat­ed. From the very begin­ning of mod­ern sci­ence, know­ing is under­stood to be the same as mak­ing: the Carte­sian plane is as con­struct­ed as an air­plane; the Pois­son dis­tri­b­u­tion is as fab­ri­cat­ed as a pipet­te in the lab­o­ra­to­ry. Mod­ern sci­en­tific ideas are not con­cepts teth­ered to the sens­es; instead they are con­structs. Con­structs, as the word sug­gests, are made and not given. As Ein­stein famous­ly said, “Phys­i­cal con­cepts are free cre­ations of the human mind, and not…uniquely deter­mined by the exter­nal world.” Though wrong to use the word “con­cepts,” his acknowl­edge­ment that sci­en­tific the­o­ries are cre­at­ed under­scores how sci­en­tific con­structs frac­tures the com­mon sense tie between per­cep­tion and real­i­ty.

The sharp dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs recalls that the mod­ern world is con­struct­ed and that peo­ple and things are often resized to fit in. Con­cepts are forms of thought engen­dered by the com­mon sense, which itself express­es the union between the world and the sens­es. Con­cepts reflect a way of know­ing things from the out­side in – from the world to the mind. In con­trast, con­structs are forms of reflex­ive thought express­ing a way of know­ing from the inside out – from the mind to the world.In mod­ern times, what is made up does not ide­al­ly con­form to what is given. Instead, what is given is slow­ly buried under the made-up world.

Sci­en­tific con­structs are there­fore not root­ed by a sense for the world. Indeed, given the con­trast between con­cepts and con­structs, it fol­lows that sci­en­tific ideas are non-sense. They are not abstract­ed from expe­ri­ence but can often be used to reshape it. They can be exper­i­men­tal­ly ver­i­fied or fal­si­fied. But exper­i­ments are not the stuff of ordi­nary expe­ri­ence. No exper­i­ment is nec­es­sary to ver­i­fy if peo­ple breathe, but one is required to prove the prop­er­ties of a vac­u­um. Exper­i­ments are nec­es­sary pre­cise­ly to test what is not ordi­nar­i­ly evi­dent, which is why they are con­duct­ed in con­trolled set­tings and also used to pro­pa­gan­dize the unusu­al as ordi­nar­i­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble. Exper­i­men­tal results are nei­ther nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tin­u­ous with nor com­pre­hen­si­ble to every­day expe­ri­ence; they do not clar­i­fy expe­ri­ence but usu­al­ly obfus­cate it.

Unlike R&D, ver­nac­u­lar styles of thought are nei­ther insti­tu­tion­al­ly fund­ed nor direct­ed at the pur­port­ed hap­pi­ness and ease of oth­ers. More­over, ver­nac­u­lar think­ing also cleaves close­ly to the com­mon sense under­stood as the seat of rea­son­able judg­ments. Thus, it avoids the mon­strous heights to which thought can rise on the wings of the unfet­tered imag­i­na­tion. Accord­ing­ly, the abil­i­ty to grasp the ver­nac­u­lar demands not only the courage need­ed to buck aca­d­e­mic pres­sures but also to avoid those flights of the­o­ret­i­cal mad­ness pow­ered through the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of con­structs.37

To draw out some fea­tures of the form of thought ade­quate to the ver­nac­u­lar domain, con­sid­er Illich’s essay titled Ener­gy and Equi­ty, where he dis­tin­guish­es between trans­port, tran­sit, and traf­fic. Where­as tran­sit bespeaks the motion afford­ed to man the self-mov­ing ani­mal, trans­port refers to his being moved by het­eronomous means, whether car, train, or plane. There, a bul­lock cart trans­ports vil­lagers head­ed to the mar­ket. Here cars trans­port com­muters to the work­place. By com­mon sense per­cep­tion, trans­port – whether by cart or car – per­verts tran­sit, which is embod­ied in the freely given capac­i­ty to walk. To those who can­not per­ceive the sen­su­al and car­nal dif­fer­ence between walk­ing and being moved as a Fedex pack­age, the dis­tinc­tion between trans­port and tran­sit is unper­sua­sive. It is equal­ly unper­sua­sive to those mired in that con­struct­ed uni­verse where all motion is iden­ti­fied with the dis­place­ment of any body in space. The rit­u­al­ized expo­sure to pas­sen­ger-miles – whether in cars or class­rooms – is the like­ly rea­son for the inabil­i­ty to per­ceive the felt dis­tinc­tion between trans­port and tran­sit. Thus, the elab­o­ra­tion of con­cepts to prop­er­ly grasp the ver­nac­u­lar domain can­not but begin by plac­ing the con­struc­tions of the econ­o­my and tech­no-sci­ence with­in epis­temic brack­ets.

Yet, if it is to be rea­son­able, such an exer­cise in epis­temic hygiene can­not be immod­er­ate.38 The con­trast between trans­port and tran­sit is clear and dis­tinct, root­ed as it is in phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal­ly dis­tinct per­cep­tions. Yet, traf­fic is a the­o­ret­i­cal con­struct, pro­posed to com­pre­hend any com­bi­na­tion of trans­port and tran­sit. This neces­si­ty for con­structs is nev­er­the­less under­mined by their being teth­ered to and by con­cepts. Accord­ing­ly, the con­cep­tu­al grasp of the world hob­bles the free con­struc­tion of it. The dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs does not imply refus­ing the lat­ter at all costs but rather entails see­ing the hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion between them. That is, ver­nac­u­lar styles of think­ing do not exclude the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs but only seek to keep them in their place.

A sec­ond and relat­ed fea­ture of ver­nac­u­lar thought-styles con­firms its mod­er­ate and indeed, mod­est nature. In accord with ver­nac­u­lar ways, ver­nac­u­lar thought does not demand the exclu­sion or exci­sion of that which is anti­thet­i­cal and for­eign to its domain – the mar­ket or the machine. For instance, ver­nac­u­lar thought does not demand the era­sure of trans­port so that tran­sit can flour­ish. Instead, because root­ed in the per­ceived accord or just pro­por­tion between the tran­sit and trans­port, ver­nac­u­lar thought insists only that the capac­i­ty for auto-mobil­i­ty impose a bind­ing con­straint on trans­port. The sug­ges­tion that the speed lim­it for cars be rough­ly the same as that reached by a bicy­cle is root­ed in the argu­ment that traf­fic be cal­i­brat­ed by the lex­i­co­graph­ic pref­er­ence for tran­sit over trans­port.

Thus, ver­nac­u­lar ways of think­ing in con­so­nance with doing and being do not deny con­structs – whether imag­ined or real­ized. It mere­ly refus­es the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly mod­ern iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of know­ing and mak­ing, of reduc­ing think­ing to cal­cu­lat­ing, of dis­plac­ing the rela­tion between sub­jects and their pred­i­cates by quan­ti­ta­tive com­par­isons. In see­ing beyond the prej­u­dice that com­pares beings in terms of “mea­sure, num­ber, and weight,” ver­nac­u­lar thought rean­i­mates a sec­ond form of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment that, with it, was also cast into the shad­ows. Recall, as Ein­stein admit­ted, sci­en­tific con­structs are free cre­ations of the mind, exem­pli­fied by math­e­mat­i­cal con­structs – equa­tions, cal­cu­la­tions, and the like. But such math­e­mat­i­cal mea­sure­ment is only the infe­ri­or of two kinds of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment.

In The States­man, Pla­to argues for the dis­tinc­tion between arith­meti­cal and “geo­met­ric” mea­sures.39 While both are forms of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ments, arith­meti­cal or numer­i­cal mea­sure is inde­pen­dent of the pur­pos­es of the cal­cu­la­tor and either cor­rect or incor­rect. In con­trast, “geo­met­ric” mea­sure­ments of too much or too lit­tle are inex­tri­ca­bly bound to inten­tion­al­i­ty and there­fore nev­er sim­ply cor­rect or incor­rect but always mea­sured with respect to what is just right or fit­ting. To clar­i­fy the dis­tinc­tion, con­sid­er the fol­low­ing two points. Given a con­ven­tion­al mea­sure – gal­lons or liters – a quan­ti­ty of water can be pre­cise­ly and uni­ver­sal­ly mea­sured as 4. How­ev­er, whether 4 is too much or too lit­tle depends on whether one intends to fill a 3 or 5 gal­lon pail; or to put out a blaz­ing fire or to water a horse. The frame of inten­tion­al­i­ty or pur­pose thus defines the quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ment of greater or lesser, of more or less. Accord­ing­ly, the numer­i­cal mea­sure of plus or minus 1 gains its mean­ing from and is there­fore sub­or­di­nate to the non-numer­i­cal­ly mea­sure of too much or too lit­tle. More­over, it is also rel­a­tive to pur­pose that 3 or 5 is con­sid­ered fit­ting, appro­pri­ate or just right.

But there is a sec­ond point to be empha­sized about the rela­tion between so-called arith­meti­cal and “geo­met­ri­cal” mea­sure­ments. Arith­meti­cal mea­sures are utter­ly ster­ile when it comes to answer­ing the ques­tion of pur­pose, of what is to be done. That is, the ques­tion of whether a given end is appro­pri­ate or fit­ting can­not be debat­ed in math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bols. In fact, the oppo­site is true. It is always pos­si­ble to ask if apply­ing arith­meti­cal mea­sures to a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion is appro­pri­ate. Thus, whether one should fill a 5-gal­lon pail, or con­struct a math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el of human behav­ior or fab­ri­cate a mea­sure called eco­log­i­cal foot­print are unan­swer­able in numer­i­cal terms.40

That arith­meti­cal mea­sure­ments can­not adju­di­cate its own appro­pri­ate­ness shows they are infe­ri­or in rank or hier­ar­chi­cal­ly sub­or­di­nate to “geo­met­ric” mea­sure­ment. The ques­tion con­cern­ing pur­pose is pre­em­i­nent­ly a ques­tion of ethics, of jus­tice among per­sons. More­over, since per­son­al rela­tion­ship can­not but be ground­ed in the embod­ied sense of and for anoth­er, it fol­lows that eth­i­cal judg­ments must be root­ed in com­mon sense. Thus, geo­met­ric mea­sures of what is just and right, of what is appro­pri­ate and fit­ting, are judg­ments formed of the com­mon sense. Accord­ing­ly it fol­lows that con­cepts should reg­u­late and serve as norms for con­structs and, anal­o­gous­ly, that ver­nac­u­lar ways should reg­u­late tech­no-sci­en­tific con­struc­tions.

Past or Future?

Illich’s plea to resus­ci­tate the ver­nac­u­lar must be tak­en seri­ous­ly – espe­cial­ly now, when the ongo­ing eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal crises reveal the restrict­ed thought-space with­in which con­tem­po­rary debates con­tin­ue to be con­duct­ed. Just as the demand for more reg­u­lat­ed mar­kets expose exchange-val­ue as the pre­sup­po­si­tion of eco­nom­ic thought, so also the call for sus­tain­able or eco-friend­ly tech­nolo­gies expose the grip of tech­no-sci­ence on the mod­ern imag­i­nary. The ver­nac­u­lar, we could say, lies orthog­o­nal to the­se axes of mar­kets and machi­nes, offer­ing us a unique stand­point from which to inter­ro­gate the present. While the object of an almost 500 year long war, it nev­er­the­less per­sists with­in the inter­stices and byways of mod­ern life, ready for reac­ti­va­tion.


2. Andy Kroll, “How the McE­con­o­my Bombed the Amer­i­can Work­er,” TomDis­patch. While advanced indus­tri­al­ized economies can­not find enough jobs for its unem­ployed pop­u­la­tions, so called emerg­ing economies are active­ly cre­at­ing employ­ment. By inverse sym­me­try, to sat­is­fy the demand of eco­nom­ic growth through indus­tri­al­iza­tion, notably in Chi­na and India, peas­ants are con­vert­ed into fac­to­ry work­ers in the hun­dreds of mil­lions.

3. Of the raft of books on the caus­es and con­se­quences of the cur­rent eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion, there are those who argue, right­ly in many par­tic­u­lars, that this was only the most sev­ere of the cri­sis prone dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism. In this vein, see for exam­ple most recent­ly, Paul Mattick, Busi­ness As Usu­al (Lon­don: Reak­tion Books, 2011); David Har­vey, The Enig­ma of Cap­i­tal (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010); and John Bel­lamy Fos­ter and Fred Magd­off, The Great Finan­cial Cri­sis (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 2009). I ignore the­se accounts since they are and were large­ly ignored in pol­i­cy cir­cles and main­stream eco­nom­ic think­ing.

4. Notably, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Ani­mal Spir­its (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009). But see also Justin Fox, The Myth of the Ratio­nal Mar­ket (New York: Harper Busi­ness Books, 2009); and Paul Krug­man, “How did econ­o­mists get it so wrong?” New York Times, Sep­tem­ber 9, 2009.

5. Joseph Stiglitz in Freefall (New York: Nor­ton Books, 2010) is per­haps the most tren­chant of the well-known econ­o­mists to fin­ger free mar­ket ide­ol­o­gy as an impor­tant cause of the cri­sis. Also see, N. Roubini & S. Mihm, Cri­sis Eco­nom­ics (New York, Pen­guin Press, 2010); and S. John­son & J. Kwak, 13 Bankers (New York: Pan­theon Books, 2010). Wor­thy of spe­cial men­tion in this regard, is Richard Posner’s, A Fail­ure of Cap­i­tal­ism (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009), which stands as a mod­el for ret­ro­spec­tive hand-wring­ing by a boost­er of neo-lib­er­al­ism.

6. The Finan­cial Cri­sis Inquiry Report (New York: Pub­lic Affairs, 2011). Most if not all of the writ­ings on the finan­cial cri­sis cite incen­tives as both cause and rem­e­dy. The U.S. Con­gres­sion­al report pub­lished after two years of study and inves­ti­ga­tion is exem­plary since failed or inad­e­quate incentives—whether in the form of reg­u­la­tion or com­pen­sa­tion- com­prise the sum of causal fac­tors dri­ving the cri­sis. But also con­sult among any of the above-men­tioned books, Lau­rence Koltikoff’s, Jim­my Stew­art is Dead (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010) for a sen­si­ble pro­pos­al to lim­it finan­cial­ly induced boom-bust cycles through lim­it­ed pur­pose bank­ing. The lat­ter is designed to damp­en the ill-effects of debt financ­ing.

7. The para­dox of design­ing incen­tives to deter­mine future behav­ior seems not to have been ful­ly com­pre­hend­ed. Indeed, in a forth­com­ing work, I intend to argue that incen­tive mech­a­nisms assure only one con­se­quence: they will cer­tain­ly fail.

8. For a fuller account, see Sajay Samuel & Jean Roberts, “Water can and ought to run freely: reflec­tions on the notion of “scarci­ty” in eco­nom­ics” in The Lim­its to Scarci­ty, ed. Lyla Mehta(London: Earth­scan, 2010), 109-126.

9. Bernard Man­dev­ille, The Fable of the Bees or Pri­vate Vices, Pub­lick Ben­e­fits (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1924).

10. “It is because mankind are dis­posed to sym­pa­thize more entire­ly with our joy than with our sor­row, that we make parade of our rich­es, and con­ceal our poverty…Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sen­ti­ments of mankind, that we pur­sue rich­es and avoid pover­ty. For to what pur­pose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambi­tion, of the pur­suit of wealth, of pow­er, and pre­hem­i­nence? Is it to sup­ply the neces­si­ties of nature? The wages of the meanest labour­er can sup­ply them… If we exam­ined his oecon­o­my with rigour, we should find that he spends a great part of them upon con­ve­nien­cies, which may be regard­ed as super­fluities, and that, upon extra­or­di­nary occa­sions, he can give some­thing even to van­i­ty and distinction…From whence, then, aris­es that emu­la­tion which runs through all the dif­fer­ent ranks of men, and what are the advan­tages which we pro­pose by that great pur­pose of human life which we call bet­ter­ing our con­di­tion? To be observed, to be attend­ed to, to be tak­en notice of with sym­pa­thy, com­pla­cen­cy, and appro­ba­tion, are all the advan­tages, which we can pro­pose to derive from it. It is the van­i­ty, not the ease, or the plea­sure, which inter­ests us. But van­i­ty is always found­ed upon the belief of our being the object of atten­tion and appro­ba­tion.” Adam Smith, The­o­ry of Moral Sen­ti­ments (Lon­don: A Mil­lar, 1759/1858), pt. 1, sec. 1, ch. 3, empha­sis added. Con­sult Louis Dumont, From Man­dev­ille to Marx (Chicago: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago Press 1977) whose close tex­tu­al analy­sis of clas­si­cal authors shows that it is the idea of a nat­u­ral har­mony between indi­vid­u­al self-inter­est and the gen­er­al inter­est, that allows, in prin­ci­ple, acquis­i­tive­ness to be free of ethico-polit­i­cal restraints. Though he includes William Pet­ty and John Locke among “econ­o­mists,” William Letwin’s judg­ment is instruc­tive: “…there can be no doubt that eco­nom­ic the­o­ry owes its present devel­op­ment to the fact that some men…were will­ing to con­sid­er the econ­o­my as noth­ing more than an intri­cate mech­a­nism, refrain­ing for the while from ask­ing whether the mech­a­nism worked for good or evil”; Ori­gins of Sci­en­tific Eco­nom­ics (Lon­don, 1963), 147-48. See CB Macpher­son, The Polit­i­cal The­o­ry of Pos­ses­sive Indi­vid­u­al­ism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1962) for sup­port­ing argu­ments that root eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­ism in 17th cen­tu­ry polit­i­cal thought.

11. “…mon­ey has become in all civ­i­lized nations the uni­ver­sal instru­ment of com­merce, by the inter­ven­tion of which goods of all kinds are bought and sold, or exchanged for one anoth­er. What are the rules which men nat­u­ral­ly observe in exchang­ing them either for mon­ey or one anoth­er, I shall now pro­ceed to exam­ine”; Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4.

12. The impor­tance of Locke to Smith is evi­dent in his paean to prop­er­ty. “The prop­er­ty which every man has in his own labour, as it is the orig­i­nal foun­da­tion of all oth­er prop­er­ty, so it is the most sacred and invi­o­lable” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 10, part 2). For rea­sons of space, I can­not do full jus­tice to Locke’s argu­ments. How­ev­er, the fol­low­ing state­ments suf­fi­cient­ly sup­port the four points I empha­size. “What­so­ev­er, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath pro­vid­ed and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to some­thing that is his own, and there­by makes it his prop­er­ty. It being by him removed from the com­mon state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour some­thing annexed to it that excludes the com­mon right of oth­er men”; “And as dif­fer­ent degrees of indus­try were apt to give men pos­ses­sions in dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions, so this inven­tion of mon­ey gave them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­tin­ue and enlarge them”; “…the exceed­ing of the bounds of his just prop­er­ty not lying in the large­ness of his pos­ses­sion, but the per­ish­ing of any­thing use­less­ly in it”; John Locke, Con­cern­ing Civil Gov­ern­ment, Sec­ond Essay, ch. 5.

13.. “…The­se rules deter­mine what may be called the rel­a­tive or exchange­able val­ue of goods. The word val­ue, it is to be observed, has two dif­fer­ent mean­ings, and some­times express­es the util­i­ty of some par­tic­u­lar object, and some­times the pow­er of pur­chas­ing oth­er goods which the pos­ses­sion of that object con­veys. The one may be called ‘val­ue in use’; the oth­er, ‘val­ue in exchange.’” (Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 4).

14. Smith argues that “virtue con­sists not in any one affec­tion but in the prop­er degree of all the affec­tions.” For him, Agree­able­ness or util­i­ty is not a mea­sure of virtue. Instead, it is ‘sym­pa­thy’ or the “cor­re­spon­dent affec­tion of the spec­ta­tor” that “is the nat­u­ral and orig­i­nal mea­sure of the prop­er degree (of virtue).” ***TMS, Part 8, Sec. 2, Ch.3. But such sym­pa­thy is not a virtue. At best it is a mir­ror of social prej­u­dices.

15. The blind­ness to sub­sis­tence in con­tem­po­rary eco­nom­ics is evi­dent in the judg­ment of George Stigler in his review of late 19th cen­tu­ry efforts to grasp use-val­ue: “…and there were some mys­ti­cal ref­er­ences to the infinite util­i­ty of sub­sis­tence.” See his “Devel­op­ment of Util­i­ty The­o­ry II,” Jour­nal of Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my, 58 (1950), 373. Stigler is only capa­ble of equat­ing the use­ful, which is price-less, with the mys­ti­cal.

16. “A thing can be a use-val­ue with­out being a val­ue. A thing can be use­ful and a pro­duct of human labor, with­out being a com­mod­i­ty. …Noth­ing can be a val­ue with­out being an object of util­i­ty..” Marx, K.(1976) Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin Books), 131.

17. The fun­da­men­tal, though large­ly over­looked, essay on the elab­o­ra­tion of the twinned yet polem­i­cal­ly relat­ed “nat­u­ral” and “arti­fi­cial” har­mony of inter­ests remains, Elie Halevy The Growth of Philo­soph­i­cal Rad­i­cal­ism (Boston: Bea­con Press, 1955).

18. It would take a longer essay to show the func­tion of law in com­mer­cial soci­ety. Sum­mar­i­ly, Com­mer­cial soci­ety trans­forms Law into an instru­ment of social engi­neer­ing; and thus of reg­u­la­tion. It began to be used to engi­neer soci­ety towards more or less mar­ket-inten­sive rela­tions. Clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism pred­i­cat­ed on the “nat­u­ral har­mony of inter­ests” requires econ­o­miz­ing on law. In con­trast, to mit­i­gate the destruc­tive­ness of ram­pant mar­ket soci­ety requires shack­ling com­mer­cial­ism with­out destroy­ing it, forg­ing an “arti­fi­cial har­mony of inter­ests” through puni­tive reg­u­la­tions. Hence both the min­i­mal state of lib­er­al­ism (whether clas­si­cal or neo-lib­er­al­ism) and the expand­ed state of wel­fare lib­er­al­ism implies the instru­men­tal­iza­tion of Law. See Michel Fou­cault, “On Gov­ern­men­tal­i­ty,” in The Fou­cault Effect, eds. Col­in Gor­don, G. Burchell and P. Miller (Chicago: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago Press, 1998). The newest crin­kle to this old tale is that mar­kets are no longer thought nat­u­ral. Instead, mar­kets can be designed, often by mar­ket par­tic­i­pants them­selves. Thus mod­er­at­ing mar­kets through incen­tives becomes a mat­ter of auto-engi­neer­ing of and by mar­kets around the late 20th cen­tu­ry.

19. Rachel Car­son, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mif­flin Co, 1962) and Bar­ry Com­mon­er Sci­ence and Sur­vival (New York: Viking Books, 1967) are per­haps the two most promi­nent sci­en­tists to have jump-start­ed the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment with the bless­ings of sci­ence. By now, despite a few if noisy detrac­tors, wide­spread anthro­pogenic envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion is, as it is said, “sci­en­tific fact.” Over 2000 sci­en­tists world­wide con­tribute to the reports and rec­om­men­da­tions pro­duced by The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) on the envi­ron­men­tal effects of indus­tri­al­iza­tion at per­haps the most gen­er­al envi­ron­men­tal reg­is­ter. See Cli­mate Change 2007 for its most recent report.

20. A pair of recent books authored by French philoso­phers sug­gests the philo­soph­i­cal ambit with­in with the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis is com­pre­hend­ed. On the one hand, Michel Serres’s The Nat­u­ral Con­tract (Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press, 1995) insists on the neces­si­ty of a con­tract with the Earth now that Human­i­ty press­es again­st it as does any mam­moth nat­u­ral force. Such a nat­u­ral con­tract, pre­sup­pos­es a new meta­physics, accord­ing to which human­i­ty can­not be reduced to indi­vid­u­als and Earth is not under­foot but whirling in emp­ty space; both so com­pre­hend­ed by Sci­ence and Law. In some con­trast, Luc Ferry’s The New Eco­log­i­cal Order (Chicago: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago Press, 1995) fears the new meta­physics. Cleav­ing to mod­ern ways, he believes “it will ulti­mate­ly be by means of advance­ments in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy that we man­age one day to resolve the ques­tions raised by envi­ron­men­tal ethics” (127). Nev­er­the­less, nei­ther doubt the path for­ward to be illu­mi­nat­ed by a suit­ably refor­mu­lat­ed tech­no-sci­ence.

21. Lynn White, Jr., “The His­tor­i­cal Roots of Our Eco­log­i­cal Cri­sis,” Sci­ence Mag­a­zine, 155:3767, argued for anthro­pocen­tric sin­gu­lar­i­ty of Chris­tian­i­ty and its atten­dant bequest of nature to man for fuel­ing tech­no-sci­ence that has caused the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. In this sec­tion I focus on the meta­physics of mod­ern sci­ence. For a recent state­ment on how his­to­ri­ans of sci­ence who raise their heads from the dusty archives deal with the meta­physics of mod­ern sci­ence, see Lind­berg, The Begin­ning of West­ern Sci­ence (Chicago: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago Press, 1992), ch.14. He agrees with E.A. Burtt, The Meta­phys­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Mod­ern Sci­ence (New York: Dou­ble­day, 1932), whose judg­ment of the pre­sup­po­si­tions and impli­ca­tions of New­to­ni­an mechan­ics has not been fun­da­men­tal­ly chal­lenged. Han­nah Arendt, “The Con­quest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future (New York: Ran­dom Books, 1993) offers a suc­cinct sketch of the ground­less­ness pre­sumed by tech­no-sci­ence.

22. For a fuller account of the the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal debates that pre­pared this view from nowhere, see Amos Funken­stein, The­ol­o­gy and the Sci­en­tific Imag­i­na­tion, (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1986). It is he who names as sec­u­lar the­olo­gians, “Galileo and Descartes, Lieb­niz and New­ton, Hobbes and Vico” among oth­ers. I rely heav­i­ly on him (par­tic­u­lar­ly part 5) and on Peter Dear, Dis­ci­pline and Expe­ri­ence: The Math­e­mat­i­cal Way in the Sci­en­tific Rev­o­lu­tion (Chicago: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago Press, 1995) to grasp the cen­tral lines in the math­ema­ti­za­tion of physis. Also con­sult Peter Dear’s text­book, Rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the Sci­ences (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001) cast as a pithy sum­ma­ry of the seis­mic changes between 1500 and 1800 in what was worth know­ing and how it was known.

23. See A. Mark Smith’s “Know­ing things inside out: the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion from a Medieval Per­spec­tive,” The Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Review, 95:3 (1990) for an excel­lent sum­ma­ry on the rever­sal of the hier­ar­chy between sense and rea­son in mod­ern sci­en­tific thought. Also, con­sult Eamon Duffy, Sci­ence and the Secrets of Nature (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1994) for a per­sua­sive account of sci­en­tific exper­i­ments as vex­ing nature in order to extract her secrets.

24. To appre­ci­ate the brew of pride and char­i­ty that con­sti­tutes mod­ern tech­no-sci­ence we need only to attend to Descartes. “…It is pos­si­ble to reach knowl­edge that will be of much util­i­ty in this life… instead of the spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy now taught in the schools we can find a prac­ti­cal one, by which, know­ing the nature and behav­ior of fire, water, air, stars, the heav­ens, and all the oth­er bod­ies which sur­round us, as well as we now under­stand the dif­fer­ent skills of our arti­sans, we can employ the­se enti­ties for all the pur­pos­es for which they are suit­ed, and so make our­selves mas­ters and pos­ses­sors of nature. This would not only be desir­able in bring­ing about the inven­tion of an infin­i­ty of devices to enable us to enjoy the fruits of agri­cul­ture and all the wealth of the earth with­out labor, but even more so in con­serv­ing health, the prin­ci­pal good and the basis of all oth­er goods in life.” Rene Descartes, Dis­course on Method (Indi­anapolis: Library of Lib­er­al Arts Press, 1960), part six.

25. The term con­struc­tion refers to things – whether phys­i­cal or sym­bol­ic – made. The math­e­mat­i­cal roots of con­struc­tion and con­struc­tivism are thor­ough­ly explored with spe­cial note of Descartes in David Lachter­man, The Ethics of Geom­e­try (Lon­don: Rout­ledge 1989). Funken­stein, The­ol­o­gy, espe­cial­ly chap­ter 5, describes well the philo­soph­i­cal shift from the con­tem­pla­tive ide­al of know­ing to the ide­al of know­ing-by-doing or made knowl­edge. A cur­so­ry glance at any sci­en­tific book should con­vince that “the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs” are a sta­ple of the mod­ern sci­en­tific enter­prise. Those (so-called post­mod­ern philoso­phers, his­to­ri­ans and soci­ol­o­gists of sci­ence) who think they chal­lenge tech­no-sci­ence by empha­siz­ing that sci­en­tific knowl­edge is con­struct­ed only repeat in prose what Bacon, Gassendi, Galileo, Descartes, and New­ton said in verse. Those who think they defend sci­en­tific knowl­edge by invok­ing, as the last trump card, its tech­ni­cal pro­duc­tions mere­ly recon­firm the found­ing con­ceit of mod­ern tech­no-sci­ence: that know­ing and mak­ing are inter­change­able.

26. In this sec­tion I rely on the most exten­sive state­ment of Illich on crit­i­cal tech­nol­o­gy, Tools for Con­vivi­al­i­ty (Lon­don: Mar­i­on Boyars, 1973). Note espe­cial­ly the Chap­ter 4, “Recov­ery” (84-99) call­ing for the demythol­o­giza­tion of sci­ence, the redis­cov­ery of lan­guage and the recov­ery of legal pro­ce­dure. He super­sedes this state­ment only in some respects with his lat­er think­ing: on sys­tems; on the his­toric­i­ty of the instru­ment as a cat­e­go­ry; and the empha­sis on the sym­bol­ic pow­er of tech­nol­o­gy.

27. Louis Dumont, Essays on Indi­vid­u­al­ism (Chicago: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago Press, 1983), shows pre­cise­ly the con­se­quences of attempts to recov­er the past, whose sig­nal dimen­sion has been the rel­a­tive embed­ded­ness of the indi­vid­u­al with­in the social whole. To insist on recov­er­ing that past today is thus to court a species of inhu­man­i­ty the West­ern world has once already encoun­tered in the mid 20th cen­tu­ry.

28. The chill­ing con­clu­sion of this con­fu­sion is the dis­hon­est sen­ti­men­tal­ism fos­tered in indus­tri­al soci­eties, to wit “that the val­ues which indus­tri­al soci­ety destroys are pre­cise­ly those which it cher­ish­es” Ivan Illich, “Shad­ow Work” in Shad­ow Work (Lon­don: Mar­i­on Boyars, 1981), 99. Thus, the rad­i­cal depen­dence on work pro­motes the cher­ished val­ue of Free­dom.

29. “Ver­nac­u­lar comes from an Indo-Ger­man­ic root that implies ‘root­ed­ness’ and ‘abode.’ Ver­nac­u­lum as a Lat­in word was used for what­ev­er was home­bred, home­spun, home­grown, home­made, as opposed to what was obtained in for­mal exchange. The child of one’s slave and of one’s wife, the don­key born of one’s own beast, were ver­nac­u­lar beings, as was the sta­ple that came from the gar­den or the com­mons. If Karl Polanyi had advert­ed to this fact, he might have used the term in the mean­ing accept­ed by the ancient Romans: sus­te­nance derived from reci­procity pat­terns imbed­ded in every aspect of life, as dis­tin­guished from sus­te­nance that comes from exchange or from ver­ti­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion… We need a sim­ple adjec­tive to name those acts of com­pe­tence, lust, or con­cern that we want to defend from mea­sure­ment or manip­u­la­tion by Chicago Boys and Social­ist Com­mis­sars. The term must be broad enough to fit the prepa­ra­tion of food and the shap­ing of lan­guage, child­birth and recre­ation, with­out imply­ing either a pri­va­tized activ­i­ty akin to the house­work of mod­ern wom­en, a hob­by or an irra­tional and prim­i­tive pro­ce­dure. Such an adjec­tive is not at hand. But ‘ver­nac­u­lar’ might serve. By speak­ing about ver­nac­u­lar lan­guage and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of its recu­per­a­tion, I am try­ing to bring into aware­ness and dis­cus­sion the exis­tence of a ver­nac­u­lar mode of being, doing, and mak­ing that in a desir­able future soci­ety might again expand in all aspects of life.” Ivan Illich, “The War again­st Sub­sis­tence” in Shad­ow Work, 57-58. The argu­ment of this essay belies its title.

30. For the fol­low­ing sec­tion, I gloss “Ver­nac­u­lar Val­ues” and The War on Sub­sis­tence,” both in Illich, Shad­ow Work.

31. A more com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the themes in this sec­tion would include a selec­tive sur­vey on the his­tor­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture on ver­nac­u­lar ways and its destruc­tion. As a first ori­en­ta­tion to the exten­sive lit­er­a­ture on the war on the ver­nac­u­lar, con­sult Ivan Illich, Gen­der, (Berke­ley: Hey­day Press, 1982). The works of Karl Polanyi, pre­em­i­nent­ly, The Great Trans­for­ma­tion, (NY: Rein­hart, 1944); but also the essays col­lect­ed in Prim­i­tive, Archaic and Mod­ern Economies, ed. George Dal­ton, (NY: Anchor Books, 1968) and those in Trade and Mar­kets in Ear­ly Empires,eds. K. Polanyi, C. Arens­berg, and H. Pear­son (NY: The Free Press, 1957) clar­i­fy the his­toric­i­ty of com­mod­i­ty-inten­sive soci­eties, made vis­i­ble when nature and human action become wide­ly priced as land and labor respec­tive­ly. Mar­shall Sahlins in Stone Age Eco­nom­ics, (NY: Adline, 1972) and M.I. Fin­ley in The Ancient Econ­o­my, (Berke­ley, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1985) con­firm that pre- mod­ern soci­eties, whether Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia or West­ern Antiq­ui­ty, got on quite well with­out it. Jacques Le Goff, in Medieval Civ­i­liza­tion, 400-1500 empha­sizes the aim of the medieval “econ­o­my” as that of sub­sis­tence, of pro­vid­ing for neces­si­ties (Lon­don: Black­well, 1988). The con­tin­u­ing mod­ern war on sub­sis­tence and the resis­tance to it is well doc­u­ment­ed. Con­sult for exam­ple, E.P. Thomp­son, “The Moral Econ­o­my of the Crowd,” reprint­ed in The Essen­tial E.P. Thomp­son, ed. Dorothy Thomp­son (NY: The New Press, 2000), and the essays col­lect­ed in Cus­toms in Com­mon (New York: New York Press, 1993); Eric Wolf, Peas­ant Wars of the 20th Cen­tu­ry (NY: Harper & Row 1969), Teodor Shan­in, The Awk­ward Class (Lon­don: Cam­bridge, 1977) and Sub­co­man­dan­te Insur­gen­te Mar­cos, Our Word is our Weapon (NY: Sev­en Sto­ries Press, 2001). James Scott, in See­ing Like a State (Prince­ton: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, 1999) argues that vision­ary plans to mod­ern­ize soci­ety invari­ably fail and usu­al­ly leave their ben­e­fi­cia­ries worse off for the atten­tion. Study the key terms col­lect­ed in The Devel­op­ment Dic­tio­nary, ed. Wolf­gang Sachs (NY: Zed Books, 1992) as com­mands that ral­ly the troops to the war again­st sub­sis­tence.

32. Peter Linebaugh, Ned Ludd, Queen Mab: Machine Break­ing, Roman­ti­cism, and Sev­er­al Com­mons 1811-12 (Oak­land: PM Press/Retort, 2012).

33. Con­sult the well-doc­u­ment­ed essay by Teodor Shan­in, “Late Marx: Gods and Crafts­men” in Late Marx and the Rus­sian Road, ed. T. Shan­in (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1983), for a per­sua­sive case that “…to Marx, a time­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary vic­to­ry could turn the Rus­sian com­mune into a major ‘vehi­cle of social regen­er­a­tion.’”

34. This sec­tion is derived from Ivan Illich, “Research by Peo­ple” in Shad­ow Work (Lon­don: Mar­i­on Boyars, 1981), and his unpub­lished man­u­script titled The Wis­dom of Leopold Kohr which makes ref­er­ence to the com­mon sense.

35. This sen­tence from the OED weak­ly sum­ma­rizes the fol­low­ing: “The sens­es per­ceive each other’s spe­cial objects inci­den­tal­ly; not because per­cip­i­ent sense is this or that spe­cial sense, but because all form a uni­ty: this inci­den­tal per­cep­tion takes place when­ev­er sense is direct­ed at one and the same moment to two dis­parate qual­i­ties in one and the same object, e.g., to the bit­ter­ness and the yel­low­ness of bile…” De Ani­ma, III, 425a 30-425b 1. And: “Fur­ther, there can­not be a spe­cial sense-organ for the com­mon sen­si­bles either, i.e, the objects which we per­ceive inci­den­tal­ly through this or that spe­cial sense, e.g, move­ment, rest, fig­ure, mag­ni­tude, num­ber & uni­ty…. In the case of the com­mon sen­si­bles, there is already in us a com­mon sen­si­bil­i­ty (or com­mon sense) which enables us to per­ceive them non-inci­den­tal­ly; there is there­fore no spe­cial sense required for their per­cep­tion,” De Ani­ma, III 425a 15-26.

36. I do not ful­ly explore here the trans­for­ma­tion from a fac­ul­ty into the “innate capac­i­ty” of any per­son to rea­son and judge cor­rect­ly after Descartes. The judg­ment of Funken­stein in The­ol­o­gy, espe­cial­ly page 359, is instruc­tive. He sug­gests that the “mil­i­tant, mis­sion­ary ide­al” of edu­ca­tion over the 17th and 18th cen­turies is relat­ed to “the shift in the con­no­ta­tion of the term ‘com­mon sense.’” The con­no­ta­tions of the terms “le bon sens,” “gemein­er Men­schen­ver­stand,” and “com­mon sense” after the 17th cen­tu­ry imply the capac­i­ty to be edu­cat­ed; for all men to become philoso­phers. Indeed, the prop­a­ga­tion of a method for think­ing pre­sup­pos­es the com­mon­sense as that which is in need of edu­ca­tion. More recent­ly, Sophia Rosen­feld, Com­mon Sense: A Polit­i­cal His­to­ry (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011) traces the twinned log­ics gen­er­at­ed by the degra­da­tion of com­mon sense from a fac­ul­ty. On the one hand, it serves as a touch­stone for the wis­dom of peo­ple again­st elites; on the oth­er, the mul­ish­ness of the mass­es need­ed re-edu­ca­tion. For a con­spec­tus of writ­ers on the com­mon sense con­sult, AN Foxe, The Com­mon Sense from Her­a­cli­tus to Pierce (Turn­bridge Press, 1962). It is how­ev­er frus­trat­ing for the lack of a bib­li­og­ra­phy and a his­tor­i­cal­ly insen­si­tive read­ing of the authors sur­veyed. In con­trast, JL Beare, Greek The­o­ries of Ele­men­tary Cog­ni­tion from Alcemaeon to Aris­totle (Claren­don Press, 1926); WR Bundy, The The­o­ry of the Imag­i­na­tion in Clas­si­cal and Medieval Thought (Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press, 1927); David Sum­mers, The Judg­ment of Sense (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987) are excel­lent treat­ments of the his­to­ry of the com­mon sense as fac­ul­ty from Aris­totle to the late Renais­sance when read seri­al­ly. See also E. Ruth Har­vey, The Inward Wits: Psy­cho­log­i­cal The­o­ry in the Mid­dle Ages and the Renais­sance (Lon­don, 1975); and HA Wolf­son, “The Inter­nal Sens­es in Lat­in, Ara­bic and Hebrew Philo­soph­i­cal Texts,” Har­vard The­o­log­i­cal Review, 25 (1935).

37. Stan­ley Rosen, The Elu­sive­ness of the Ordi­nary (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002) argues spirit­ed­ly for the com­mon­sense foun­da­tions of thought. Such foun­da­tions sup­port but can­not rise to heights reached by extra­or­di­nary thought, which by neces­si­ty, exceed its grasp. In the so-called “sci­ence wars” of recent decades, the issue was framed as that between the social con­struc­tivists and the real­ists. In the light of the fore­go­ing dis­tinc­tion between con­cepts and con­structs, it is clear that both par­ties to the debate agree that sci­en­tific knowl­edge is made, that is to say, con­struct­ed.

38. In much of his writ­ings, Illich insists on elab­o­rat­ing con­cep­tu­al dis­tinc­tions built on the per­cep­tion of autonomous human actions. Between Deschool­ing Soci­ety and The His­to­ry of Homo Edu­can­dus he con­trasts learn­ing to edu­ca­tion and school­ing; in Med­ical Neme­sis, between autonomous cop­ing and health­care; between Research by Peo­ple and R&D. In some cas­es, he invents or gives new shades of mean­ing to terms to recov­er per­cep­tions buried by con­structs – for exam­ple, dis­val­ue, shad­ow work, gen­der and ver­nac­u­lar. Let the triple, hous­ing, dwelling, and habi­ta­tion stand as a par­al­lel exam­ple to trans­port, tran­sit, and traf­fic used in the text above. A gen­er­al case for the com­mon­sen­si­cal Illich still awaits a care­ful exe­ge­sis of his texts.

39. I take some lib­er­ties with inter­pret­ing The States­man, 283d-284e in Pla­to, Com­plete Works, ed. John M. Coop­er (Hack­ett Pub­lish­ing, 1997).The rel­e­vant dis­tinc­tion as described by the vis­i­tor reads as fol­lows: “It is clear that we would divide the art of mea­sure­ment, cut­ting it in two in just the way we said, post­ing as one part of it all sorts of exper­tise that mea­sure the num­ber, lengths, depths, breaths, and speeds of things in rela­tion to what is opposed to them, and as the oth­er, all those that mea­sure in rela­tion to what is in due mea­sure, what is fit­ting, the right moment, what is as it ought to be-every­thing that removes itself from the extremes to the mid­dle” (384e).

40. It is a weak recog­ni­tion of this hier­ar­chy that is reit­er­at­ed in the wide­ly accept­ed dis­junc­tion or dis­con­ti­nu­ity between “sci­ence” and “val­ues.”

Author of the article

is a Clinical Associate Professor of Accounting at Penn State University. He has spoken on science, economic thought, and the vernacular for Canadian radio. His academic publications aim to undermine the current fascination with accounting and related numbers as a modality of management.

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