The Vehicle and the Objective

by Lorne Mitchell on 24/11/2011

An extract from Idries Shah’s “Learning How to Learn” p142 called “The Vehicle and the Objective”:


Q: What is your attitude on the structure of human studies and the materials within the structure?

A: A characteristic disease of human thought is to mistake the vehicle and the objective, or the instrument and the aim. This tendency is seen in all human communities, whether they are what we call ‘advanced’ or otherwise. It is as strongly present in civilised as in barbaric societies, only its manifestations are different.

The rule is that: Something which was functional becomes prized for itself: whether it is an exercise becoming a ritual, or an individual worker becoming idolised, or a tool becoming a totem.

Whoever encourages this tendency will always find supporters, because this warp is already in the human environment, and its derivatives will seem ‘right’.

On the other hand, the concept of vehicle and instrument, of not seeing the wood for the trees, and other manifestations of this possible confusion, are so well established that there will always be people who will understand the importance of thinking straight on the container and that which is contained, and on other manifestations, including the grub-chrysalis-butterfly one.

The means and the end are not the same. Studies, courses and processes exist for determining, perceiving and profiting from the knowledge of ‘means’ and ‘end’.

Do you remember Omar Khayyam saying:

‘Temples and the Kaaba of Mecca are the houses of devotion/striking the bell is the sound of worship/the girdle and church and rosary and cross/every one is the sign of devotion.’

The tool becoming a totem is especially marked as a tendency when people want to generalise theories, laws and rules out of situations which require a greater flexibility than just one or two alternatives.


For this week’s Thursday Thought I was wondering whether we are in the current mess because the tool became a totem.  I attended a fascinating talk today by David Birch at the RSA on the future of money – who proposed a revolution in the way money is exchanged by using new technologies such as mobile phones, peer-to-peer banking and cashless systems.  I took no notes, but remember him saying that it that 70% of the cash in Norway is at some time in its life used by organised crime.

Interested to know what other readers think about this …..please do leave a comment below….


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Niels November 24, 2011 at 21:46

The Vehicle and the Objective:
What a complicated and incomprehensible way to say that there is a difference between the What and the How.


2 Lorne November 25, 2011 at 08:47

Yes, I agree, Niels, the language is difficult – but I do like some of the analogies. Sometimes we are not conscious of making the choice of how – it is just presented to us as a given. And a picture can help people to see the crazy situation they have put themselves into (like the man on the donkey)!


3 Niels November 24, 2011 at 21:49

70% of the cash in Norway is at some time in its life:
If we know the circulation speed of the cash, the life-time of the cash and the number of people in Norway, then we can calculate the number of people in organized crime, although we still don’t know how many of these people live in Norway and how many are just visitors…


4 Lorne November 25, 2011 at 08:51

Yes, if we want to get really analytical! We should ask Tom to help! However, Birch’s point was more that he thought the cash economy was actually a bad thing and should be phased out – something I had not thought of before. His rationale was that it served the criminal classes as well as the parts of society who could not afford to play in the electronic money space (credit cards, online bank accounts, mobile phones) and as a result were disadvantaged in paying bills etc.


5 Richard November 25, 2011 at 07:36

I more thought a poetic way of syaing there is a difference between the what and the how!


6 Lorne November 25, 2011 at 08:54

Yes, Richard. Quite difficult language at times as well. But I do love the way poetry brings to life a different dimension to a problem. I met someone recently who teaches facilitation and who uses Sufi learning stories to help students get out of the more mechanical way that we often think in the West. Sometimes the what and the how come packaged to the point where many people cannot separate them (clever advertising, for example). I think this is definitely one of the root causes for our current predicament.


7 Oldsirhippy November 25, 2011 at 10:27

How true!
We tend to want to accumulate money – rather than be conscious of what money can do as a tool. Money becomes the end, the totem, and eventually we get to love it for itself!
Money is a tool, loving a tool is sad!


8 David Brunnen November 25, 2011 at 11:22

Lorne, you can find an audio recording of the lecture at RSA by going to:




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