Dewey on habits

I’ve sought here to discover some of the origins of current neo-pragmatist theories of the actor. John Dewey’s writings are certainly crucial for that quest. So what did Dewey contribute to a pragmatist understanding of how people act? one place to look for an answer is in a 1922 book, HUMAN NATURE AND CONDUCT: An Introduction to Social Psychology. It is a particularly interesting book to read, in that Dewey goes back and forth between a kind of descriptive psychology and some astute theorizing about morality as a constraint on action.

A particularly central part of Dewey’s theory of action is the idea of habit. He believes that a large volume of our ordinary human conduct is not deliberative or plan-ful at all, but is rather based on habit. So what is habit? Here is a brief description in Human Nature and Conduct:

Habit means special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts. It means will. (kl 386)

The word habit may seem twisted somewhat from its customary use when employed as we have been using it. But we need a word to express that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired ; which contains within itself a certain ordering or systematization of minor elements of action ; which is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation; and which is operative in some subdued subordinate form even when not obviously dominating activity. (Kindle Locations 378-381)

In the tradition of deliberative rationality, the idea of will is central. The agent deliberates about ends and means and chooses (wills) a means that will bring about her ends. So the will is the fundamental element of action. But in fact, Dewey argues that the idea of “will” itself can be understood as a compound of habits, rather than a self-originating deliberation about ends and means.

By will, common-sense understands something practical and moving. It understands the body of habits, of active dispositions which makes a man do what he does. Will is thus not something opposed to consequences or severed from them. (Kindle Locations 403-404)

Dewey’s discussion of habit and action is particularly sensitive to the relationship between the constraints and practices of the body and human patterns of action. He uses an extended example of “standing straight”, and points out that “good posture” is a complex characteristic involving the environment, the body, and the will. But crucially, the unadorned will (“I will henceforth stand straight”) cannot in fact determine subsequent behavior. In fact, he argues that the idea of standing straight can only come to us once we are bodily capable of good posture:

Only the man who can maintain a correct posture has the stuff out of which to form that idea of standing erect which can be the starting point of a right act. (Kindle Locations 302-303)

Given a bad habit and the ” will ” or mental direction to get a good result, and the actual happening is a reverse or looking-glass manifestation of the usual fault-a compensatory twist in the opposite direction. Refusal to recognize this fact only leads to a separation of mind from body, and to supposing that mental or ” psychical” mechanisms are different in kind from those of bodily operations and independent of them. (Kindle Locations 312-314)

 He also emphasizes the point that habits in action generally presuppose a social context:

But since habits involve the support of environing conditions, a society or some specific group of fellow-men, is always accessory before and after the fact. Some activity proceeds from a man; then it sets up reactions in the surroundings. Others approve, disapprove, protest, encourage, share and resist. (Kindle Locations 167-169)

 Or in other words, we acquire our habits of behavior through exposure to other actors.

We often fancy that institutions, social custom, collective habit, have been formed by the consolidation of individual habits. In the main this supposition is false to fact. To a considerable extent customs, or wide-spread uniformities of habit, exist because individuals face the same situation and react in like fashion. But to a larger extent customs persist because individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs. (Kindle Locations 523-525)

This is a point made elsewhere in the blog in the context of the idea of methodological localism: the individual takes shape through the persistent fact of existing social practices and norms. Here is a representative example of Dewey’s ideas about the social construction of the individual.

We come back to the fact that individuals begin their career as infants. For the plasticity of the young presents a temptation to those having greater experience and hence greater power which they rarely resist. It seems putty to be molded according to current designs…. Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. (Kindle Locations 571-573)

Moreover, individual habits in turn contribute to social patterns:

Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity. Their significance depends upon the environment inherited from our forerunners, and it is enhanced as we foresee the fruits of our labors in the world in which our successors live. (Kindle Locations 207-209)

And habits are the foundation of ethical ideas as well:

Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. (Kindle Locations 578-579)

So the fact of habit in action is in fact a very fundamental part of Dewey’s view of the social world and the individual actor’s role in that world. And it is a role that suggests that Dewey differs very fundamentally from the Aristotelian view of deliberative rationality in action, where the actor identifies a set of ends, arrives at a set of beliefs, and reasons to a conclusion about what action to choose. (It seems to have more in common with another aspect of Aristotle’s theory of action, the role that virtue plays in ordinary conduct.) Dewey doesn’t say that there is nothing deliberative about action; but he appears to believe that habit is more common and more fundamental; further, he seems to believe that many examples of the exercise of will are in fact examples of the influence of nested sets of habits. Dewey seems to accept this implication about the subordinacy of reasoning to habit:

Habit, occupation, furnishes the necessity of forward action in one case as instinct does in the other. We do not act from reasoning; but reasoning puts before us objects which are not directly or sensibly present, so that we then may react directly to these objects, with aversion, attraction, indifference or attachment, precisely as we would to the same objects if they were physically present. (Kindle Locations 1724-1726)

This component of a theory of action seems valid with respect to a range of human behaviors and interactions, but it seems to seriously undervalue the fact of conscious deliberation in action. It cannot be denied that human actors do sometimes approach problems of action — what to do? — in a conscious and deliberative way.  This is the kernel that underlies rational choice theory, and it seems to be a plain and undeniable part of human problem solving and choice.  Dewey’s understanding of action as the result of an ensemble of socially instilled habits seems in the end to be unsatisfactory as a full theory of action.

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