Means and Ends: Instrumental versus reflective thinking, and the life and death of the human species

Means and Ends:

Instrumental versus reflective thinking,
and the life and death of the human species

Stephen Covey said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule; but to schedule your priorities.” This is so extremely important. Most people prioritize their schedules – that’s why they never get anything done. They are too busy being busy to really focus on what matters most to them, and so, what matters most is usually left to the side, and left undone. Decades can go by lived in this way. Don’t do it. Make your priorities a priority by creating space for them, and focusing on them. That is the only way your priorities will ever get fulfilled. Otherwise, they are not really priorities, they are just daydreams. Until we carve out space for them, they will never amount to anything. We have to make time for what is important to us, or life will simply pass us by.

Last night, re-reading Aldous Huxley’s great work, The Perennial Philosophy, I skipped to the last two pages, and found a very thoughtful discussion, extremely lucid, as Huxley always is, on action and contemplation. The reflections in that short passage must have been ruminating in my mind while I slept, because today they seem to have sparked further thoughts, which I would like to share…..

Without reflection, we may devote our lives to things that really mean little to us; because we order our lives by prioritizing our schedules, rather than scheduling our lives around our priorities. And that would mean that we by and large waste our lives. But another problem with a lack of reflection is that we may end up pursuing goals which not only waste our precious years, but which can even prove disastrous.

As Heidegger said, their are (at least) two different kinds of thinking (or that is one way to look at it). One is instrumental, and one is reflective. Instrumental thinking is all the rage in modern society. It asks questions of how to do things. It is purely technocratic and utilitarian, or “practical” and “pragmatic”. This seems sensible enough, but there is a far more important question, and that is, what is worth doing? Instrumental thinking does not ask this question. Reflective thinking asks this question. But reflective thinking is not all the rage in modern society, and very few people engage in it. That is why modern society is in trouble, and is in crisis, and rapidly destroying itself.

We are very good at instrumental thinking, but have forgotten our capacity for reflective thinking. That means we can set goals which we have not reflected upon sufficiently, and which are self-destructive, and we can then execute plans to achieve our ill-considered and self-destructive plans with great panache and skill. But it would have been far better to reflect first, then act, so that we do not simply get to our goal faster and more assuredly, but know whether our goal is worth getting to at all.

If we do not once more embrace and consciously value the act and the habit of reflective thinking, we can be racing toward the edge of a cliff – as we are doing now – and at every moment working hard to increase our speed. And that is precisely what we are doing right now, at this potentially terminal stage of human history. A more reflective life and way of being screams out to us. Let us not be too deaf to listen, or soon we will be too dead to hear (more dead than the majority already are).

Simplify, simplify. It is time to reflect, before we run out of time.

March 22, 2016

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