The Vehicle and the Objective

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….