08 December 2021

Lasch—Instrumental and Practical Reason

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
The antidote to instrumental reason is practical reason, not mysticism, spirituality, or the power of "personhood." In the Aristotelian tradition of political theory, phronesis or practical reason describes the development of character, the moral perfection of life, and the virtues specific to various forms of practical activity. Technique, on the other hand, concerns itself exclusively with the means appropriate to a given end. The highest form of practice, for Aristotle and his followers, is politics, which seeks to promote the good life by conferring equal rights on all citizens and by establishing rules and conventions designed not so much to solve the problems of social living as to encourage citizens to test themselves against demanding standards of moral excellence... The Aristotelian conception of practice has more in common with play than with activities defined as practical in the modern sense. Practices in the Aristotelian sense have nothing to do, as such, with the production of useful objects or with satisfying material needs. ...

The classical conception carries with it a certain contempt for the production of material comforts and useful objects...; but it nevertheless enables us to identify one of the disinctive features of the industrial worldview: its instrumentalization and debasement of practical activity. Instrumentalism regards the relation of ends and means as purely external, whereas the older tradition, now almost forgotten, holds that the choice of the means appropriate to a given end has to be considered as it contributes to internal goods as well. In other words, the choice of means has to be governed by their conformity to standards of excellence designed to extend human capacities for self-understanding and self-mastery. Industrial societies conceive of the extension of human powers only as the replacement of human labor by machinery. As work and politics lose their educative content and degenerate into pure technique, the very distinction between technique and practice becomes incomprehensible. Industrial societies have almost completely lost sight of the possibility that work and politics can serve as character-forming disciplines. These activities are now understood strictly as means of satisfying material needs. Moral ideas, meanwhile, lose their connection with practical life and with the virtues specific to particular practices and become confused instead with the exercise of purely personal choices and the expression of personal prejudices and tastes, which can be neither justified nor explained and which should therefore not be regarded as binding on anyone else.

(pp. 253-255)

As regards the extrinsic benefits of music education, there are at least two ways to parse this
degenerat[ion] into pure technique

There is the

pure technique
of the
soulless technician


pure technique
of the
postindustrial worker


These twin degenerations have very different ramifications, but they come from the same place: the desire for control; which incidentally, for Lasch, also underlies the elite desire to escape the common lot and to divest from civic enagagement and public services.

It is my experience of music educators (and of my own younger self) that the throttle of control is, in the sphere of education, much more delicate than we would like it to be.

Precisely because
the choice of the means appropriate to a given end has to be considered
it follows that when the "end" itself has simply been dictated to the student rather than arising from their own inclinations, the search for "means" can never be all that it could and should be.

The Aristotelian conception of practice has more in common with play than with activities defined as practical in the modern sense
and there is precious little play in running scales and arpeggios unless you yourself have decided that this is what you really, dearly want to be doing.

This is not a new idea. It is not imcompatible, I don't think, with a traditional, technique-centric music pedagogy. What it is fully imcompatible with, rather, is the desire for control, for accountability, for measurable outcomes, for teacher sets clear expectations for students. It ceases to be possible after the instrumentalization and debasement of practical activity which attaches to the doctrine that music makes kids smart.

At this point in history, it is essential to question the boundless confidence in human powers that acknowledges no limits, which finds its ultimate expression in the technology of nuclear warfare. But this cannot be done by disavowing all forms of purposive intelligence or by dissolving the subject-object distinction that allegedly underlies it... Selfhood—an obsolete idea, according to Bateson and other proponents of the "new consciousness"—is precisely the inescapble awareness of man's contradictory place in the natural order of things.
This "awareness" of inescapble contradiction seems to me to lead unavoidably to at least some of the central conceits of postmodernism, the same conceits which Lasch quite vehemently rejects in his discussion of art. This I find puzzling.
Advocates of a cultural revolution echo the dominant culture not only in their confusion of practice with technique but in their equation of selfhood with the rational ego. Like their opponents, they see rationality as the essence of selfhood. Accordingly, they argue for a "resurrection of the body," for "feminine" intuition and feeling against the instrumental reason of the male, for the alleged aimlessness of play, and for the "poetic imagination," as Bateson puts it, as a corrective to "false reifications of the 'self.'" The distinguishing characteristic of selfhood, however, is not rationality but the critical awareness of man's divided nature. Selfhood expresses itself in the form of a guilty conscience, the painful awareness of the gulf between human aspirations and human limitations. "Bad conscience is inseparable from freedom," Jacques Ellul reminds us. "There is no freedom without an accompanying critical attitude to the self," and this "excess of freedom and the critical turning back upon the self that freedom begets," he adds, "are at the source of dialectical thinking and the dialectical interpretation of history."
(pp. 257-258)

As for the party of the superego, it equates conscience not with an awareness of the dialectical relationships between freedom and the capacity for destruction but with adherance to a received body of authoritative moral law. It hankers for the restoration of punitive sanctions against disobedience, above all for the restoration of fear.
A perfect capsule rejoinder here of the view that an armed society is a polite society.
It forgets that conscience (as distinguished from the superego) originates not so much in the "fear of God" as in the urge to make amends. Conscience arises not so much from the dread of reprisals by those we have injured or wish to injure as in the capacity for mourning and remorse.

(pp. 258-259)

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