Sunday Pragmatism, part III: James on Habits and Will; a Mental Taxonomy

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Pragmatism Series

Part I
Part II

William James’ Principles of Psychology is a remarkable book. One of the most striking chapters is chapter IV, “Habit”. It starts by claiming

When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits. (104)

This is one of James’ most famous expressions. It represents, I think, a powerful argument against Cartesian psychology. Indeed,

The strongest reason for believing that [attention and effort] do depend on brain-processes at all, and are not pure acts of the spirit, is just this fact, that they seem in some degree subject to the law of habit, which is a material law. (126)

That our mental life is undoubtedly structured by asymmetric rules of psychology provides a powerful abductive argument against the Cartesian — ultimately Platonic —  taxonomy of Reason above and against base emotions and habits. After James, Heidegger was perhaps the most systematic critic of the dualisms stemming from Descartes, Locke, and Kant. Like James, Heidegger inverted the traditional mental hierarchy by placing greater emphasis on factical thrownness and our “falling” into habit, idle chat, and the socially scripted comportments of Das Man and the they-self.  All this is evidence against the dualist hypothesis. An analytic of humanity must be finite for indeed,

the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed. (105)

We see in James a clear statement of naturalistic philosophy of mind, an attempt to embody the mind and ground it in natural reality. It’s curious that Husserl accused Heidegger of also trying to naturalize consciousness in his marginalia of Being and Time. Moreover, James’ broad understanding of cognition seems to me light-years ahead of his time. We see in this chapter a lucid account of what was considered a modern neuroscientific fact: brain plasticity and Hebbian learning (“fire together, wire together”):

The only thing [nervous currents] can do [to brain matter], in short, is to deepen old paths or to make new ones; and the whole plasticiy of the brain sums itself up in two words when we call it an organ in which currents pouring in form the sense-organs make the extreme facility paths which do not easily disappear. (107)

The most complex habits, as we shall presently see more fully, are, from the same point of view, nothing but concatenated discharges in the nerve-centres. (108)

Moreover, James’ mental metaphors were far ahead of his time. He had already clearly saw the importance of homeostatic equilibrium and the basic ideas of dynamic systems theory and how they theoretically apply to cognitive function. The image is vague, but the substance is there:

…[W]e can only fall back on our general conception of a nervous system as a mass of matter whose parts, constantly kept in states of different tension, are as constantly tending to equalize their states.

I won’t go into the details, but it seems clear that James’ understood the idea of phase state changes and Deleuzian singularities, albeit abstractly. Speaking of Deleuze, I am really looking forward to taking John Protevi’s Deleuze class in the Fall; it’s going to rock! (I’m planning on digging into Deleuze this summer with Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus, and Protevi’s Political Physics and Political Affect.)

Anyway, James’ chapter on Habit is also brilliant in regards to its understanding of child development and the process of mastering embodied skills. He quotes at length a Dr. Carpenter from 1874 who said

It is a matter of universal experiences that every kind of training for special aptitudes is both far more effective, and leaves a more permanent impress, when exerted on the growing organism that when brought to bear on the adult. (110)

This kind of stuff is bread and butter to the Dreyfusian Heideggerians. It’s no surprise to me that many people accuse such scholars of reading Heidegger in terms of American pragmatism. Often this is seen as a narrow reading, but this critique only works if one assumes that James’ understanding of humanity was itself narrow. On the contrary, James’ mental taxonomy was phenomenologically rich, perhaps more so than the purely “formal indication” of Heideggerian phenomenology. Indeed, in developing a mental taxonomy, he says

Most of the performances of other animals are automatic. But in [humanity] the number of them is so enormous, that most of them must be the fruit of painful study. (113)

From this, James’ extracts a general principle: “habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts our performed.”

One may state this abstractly thus: If an act require for its execution a chain, A, B,C,D,E, F, G, etc., of successive nervous events, then in the first performances of the action the conscious will must choose each of these events from a number of wrong alternatives that tend to present themselves; but habit soon brings it about that each event calls up its own appropriate successor without any alternative offering itself…(114)

This might not sound obviously Heideggerian, but upon close inspection, we can see that it is.

We all of us have a definite routine manner of performing certain daily offices connected with the toilet, with the opening and shutting of familiar cupboards, and the like. Our lower centres know the order of these movements, and show their knowledge by their “surprise” if the objects are altered so as to oblige the movement to be made in a different way. (115)

From this passage, we can see that Heidegger’s phenomenology of the ready-to-hand was not original; it had been anticipated by American pragmatism decades earlier. Like Heidegger, James says that our primary mode of interaction with the world is characterized by familiarity. We are intimately familiar with the usability of our surroundings and how they afford us opportunities for acting. We become so familiar or “at home” in our dwelling that when something familiar doesn’t work how it normally works, readiness-to-hand “breaks down”, or we become “surprised”, as James put it. The mental taxonomies are roughly isomorphic.  However, I think James’ taxonomy is more accurate, because it has a phenomenological account of initiation and voluntary will that Heidegger is either unable or unwilling to address. Indeed, James says

A strictly voluntary act has to be guided by the idea, perception, and volition, throughout its whole course. In a habitual action, mere sensation is a sufficient guide, and the upper regions of brain and mind are set comparatively free….

In habitual action…the only impulse which the centres of idea or perception need send down is the initial impulse, the command to start.(115-116)

The only psychologist I know who captured this notion of “initial commands” as well as James did is Julian Jaynes and his notion of “structions” or “neural instructions”. Furthermore, Jaynes’ notion of “behavioral reactivity” and his distinction between automatic nonconscious cognition and volitional conscious narratization is drawn from Jamesian mental taxonomies as well. A post on Jaynes and James will probably be forthcoming soon…

After laying out his taxonomy of habit and will, James’ uses this to provide some moral lessons from which we can rethink education of the young. I will end this post with one one of my favorite passages ever:

Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. (127)

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