Tag Archives: William James

Some Thoughts on Habit

9 Dec

“The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work…. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.”

(William James, “Habit,” from Selected Papers on Philosophy.)

I had a conversation yesterday about actions and character, running along the usual lines of “you are who you are” vs. “you are what you do.” As is always the case when trying to talk of these things, whatever balance between the two apparent options we might have had was lost as slight disagreement led to dramatic opposition, and we were both reactively taking positions neither would probably want to defend. I hate watching a talk fumble, but there didn’t seem to be a way out – once you enter into talk that cleaves between identity/actions, you can’t pull them back together. There’s very little language for it. 

I remember literally staying up at nights trying to balance my sympathy for existentialism – an identification founded on the personal experiences of isolation, doubt, shaky self-definition (i.e. my early 20s) – and my increasing acceptance of a restrained structuralism. For those who find this opposition a bit crude, let me explain that I was living alone in an apartment in downtown Montreal eating far too much chickpea curry and pizza; it’ll ravage one’s sensitivities to nuance. But it did seem impossible to reconcile the lived experience of chosen, decisive action and the reality of connection, cause, and the co-determination of, apparently, all things. (I lean a bit materialist, for the record, though it’s a subtle tilt, having been fired up by Raymond Williams and, through him, Louis Althusser.)

This forced choice – radical freedom or extensive causality – parallels, though isn’t necessarily reducible to, so many others. Indeed, it seems to be the fault line beneath all kinds of conversation, despite some semblance of surface calm. We talk about deeds done, indiscretions, faults committed, and we balance these acts against intention, circumstance, the mitigation that context allows; we pick and choose which of our feelings or choices indicates our deep character, bracketing the rest as meaningless and exceptional; we lie on couches and map our anxieties onto childhood, our early formation, and tie those determinations tight while trying to find ways to let our “true self” manifest; the list stretches long…

My own recent work has looked at Alcoholics Anonymous, which offers a rather meaty example of these contradictions and ambivalences. Mariana Valverde’s Diseases of the Will details these conflicts, as  popular understandings of alcoholism have swung endlessly between drunkenness as a moral failing and drunkenness as an innate disposition (and so a medical, rather than moral, concern). My own reading of the official literature and discourses of A.A. suggests that this tendency to swing between two poles is as present in those suffering from alcohol dependence as it is in those who try to describe that suffering from the outside. The disease model of alcoholism suggests that an alcoholic is who one is; yet the moral culpability for one’s drinking, and the imperative to remain abstinent, suggests that alcoholism iswhat one chooses to do. Again, the determination of one’s action (drinking) by one’s character (a diseased alcoholic) is set against the reverse: the determination of one’s character (the identity of “alcoholic”) by one’s action (a history of drink).

I won’t elaborate further on the distinction I just mentioned, as I’ve been advised by several loved ones to keep these posts shorter and more sweet. (If any of you are reading this, I expect acknowledgement and praise.) I have described it, though, because in this case there is an evident middle ground – the American tradition of pragmatism, specifically, its expression in William James’ writings about habit. This excites me, so here’s a link to a short paper of James’ about the subject. If you’ve read him before, you’ll know this will be a pleasure to flip through; if you haven’t, you owe yourself.

Between the extremes of radically-free action and over-determining “character” or “identity,” habit sits unassumingly and barely noticed. But it offers a way out, at least in Valverde’s view (and my own). Our early actions accumulate and establish later predispositions, and later tendencies grow out of our earlier choices and behaviours; our decisions settle like sediment and ultimately establish, with more or less room for upheaval, the terrain of our character. But, importantly, this character isn’t reducible to an “identity” – there is no substrate of “type” or “category” that serves to determine or explain our actions (which include feelings and thoughts, in my view). James famously wrote that we are “a bundle of habits,” and this metaphor helps us escape the feeling that we are in fact agents of haphazard choosing (for we are in fact “bundled”) and, equally, the suspicion that we are causally chained to our identity (bundles are loose, and no one stick sits beneath the rest). While the whole still depends on its parts, and still forms a whole, no one part is foundational, determining, irreducible.

Two important things follow from this: 1) we’re better able to make sense of things that weren’t “readable” through the bifocals we were earlier limited to; 2) the false dichotomy between the bounded self and the pervasion of the social collapses, and with it falls the wall between internally-perceived freedom and externally-observed cause. I’ll provide a quick example for the first, a brief comment for the second, and leave it at that, with the hope of eliciting some commentary from my dedicated readership (Boots, are you online right now?).

1) Efforts to understand the “work” of Alcoholics Anonymous persistently center on “identity conversion,” the process whereby new affiliates take on the identity of “alcoholic,” as well as its presuppositions about the “disease,” “alcohol allergy,” the need for abstinence, etc. This new identity is performed publicly through story-telling, i.e. “My name is Job, and I am an alcoholic.” This parallels certain creedal conventions that permeate certain strains of Christianity and so, along with references to God in the 12 Steps, lead people to (falsely) reduce A.A. to a religious or cultish group. This view is unable to make much sense of the instability of a system that simultaneously stresses moral responsibility (to attend meetings, make amends, etc.) and amoral medical disease. This difficulty follows from the assumption of a unified, coherent “alcoholic identity” that is taken on by participants; its contradictions must inherently lead to contradictions within oneself or ambivalences which get bracketed. But if you instead read the situation as a shifting of habits, the picture becomes more clear. First, contradictions in the official ideology and, thence, the “alcoholic identity” needn’t be problematic because a “bundle of habits” doesn’t necessitate any sort of internal coherence. There is not a single identity set against itself in terms of moral or medical explanation, but instead an assortment of habits, one of which might best be explained by moral responsibility (the repeated choice to enter bars despite one’s problems with drink) and another by medical disease (a habit of drinking, so repeatedly reinforced that it has become ironclad). “Identity,” as such, no longer matters. In fact, as Valverde points out, it never has mattered much within the program’s actual functioning – she points to the slogans, posters, mottos, advice, etc., that are the framework for one’s recovery, and notes that their general tenor (e.g. “one day at a time”) has little to do with identity and very much to do with habit. Since the founders of the program were strongly influenced by William James and American Pragmatism, this is no surprise.

2) Behaviour is learned, modeled on others, and so its repetition and sedimentation into habit reflects those others; and, as a result, bears strong connection to one’s professional, class, ethnic and familial contexts. There needn’t be any determining relationship between culture/society and the self, because they’re of the same clay – social boundaries are maintained by the behaviours, beliefs, values and tastes of people (see Bourdieu and habitus) who themselves are habituated by those who came before. Individual habits take on the contours of larger social systems by virtue of upbringing, but there is always room for change because it is not a hard-line determination. It isn’t, for instance, as in crude readings of Marx, that the economic base determines the sociocultural superstructure, but that they are both part of the same co-determining and self-reproducing system. The opposition of individual to society, character to act, etc., are all dichotomies imposed after-the-fact; focusing on the immanence of social life, the way matter and value are patterned and reproducing, and so not chaotic or meaningless, without being beholden to any determining foundation or label, is both more epistemologically sound and a bloody relief.

I’ll stop there. That last paragraph might be a bit dense, so please feel free to ask for elaboration or to virtually prod at it like a falsely calm wasps’ nest.