Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Dewey's Notion of Habit

What is a habit?  It is an action performed in a particular way such that the repetition of the action is more or less predictable, without variation, and without a requirement for any particular thought prior to the act.  In other words, it is an act performed without the benefit of pre-cognition.  No action can be described as a habit if it is a singular occurrence. Yet, it is also true that not every act which occurs repeatedly is a habit.  Mechanistic motions which proceed automatically, like the hands of a clock, are not habits.

Habits, at least, initially, must be set into motion by an act of will. This is what separates habits from what are called  "conditioned responses." We form the habit of placing our keys in the same place so that we will not forget where they are when  we need them. It does not matter that we do this automatically.  The initial association between keys and location was done deliberately. Further thought about where our keys are located is not required because the pattern does not vary.

But all repetitions are not habits. If we are startled by a loud noise or some other surprise, our heart may skip a beat. This is a pure physiological response that occurs below the threshold of conscious experience. Not a habit.  It doesn't seem to me that Dewey makes this distinction between "habits" and ordinary acts that are repeated without cognition.

The difference between "good" habits and "bad" is presumably the nature of the outcome, and whether the habit is conducive to our health and happiness or not.  Dewey says "only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is." Is this really true?  It would seem that Dewey has put the cart before the horse.  If we have no idea of the good in our mind then our discovery of it is left to chance.  This implies that our habits are created willy-nilly, without the benefit of a moral compass. If we decide to do something and it turns out badly, then do we really expect the outcome to improve if we keep doing it? Of course not. That is the definition of insanity: to keep doing the same thing over and over (a habit) while expecting a different outcome.  If reality functioned that way then science would be impossible. All probability is derived from the expectation of certain outcomes from particular conditions. If you want a different outcome, then you must vary one of the conditions. To say that we must do good before we can know good is strange indeed, considering that for many of us the belief that good exists (or is possible) is the very thing that motivates us to find it.


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