Friday, April 6, 2012

Phenomenological Delving: What Is a Habit?

The following is a snippet from my book manuscript that is the beginning of the explanation of John Dewey's theory of habit, which undergirds my own phenomenological pragmatism.  The habitual body is the primary, proximate source of meaning for human experience.

Dewey writes,

The essence of habit is an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response, not to particular acts except as, under special conditions, these express a way of behaving.  Habit means special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilictions and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts (MW 14:32; 143).

            "Habit" primarily refers to the capacities of the organism to reconstruct its environment.  While the latent structures of the environment and situation have been discussed, the inclusion of the biological phase of habit in organic processes focuses on how the organism actively structures and restructures its environment and thereby the situation.  Habits "incorporate an environment within themselves.  They are adjustments of the environment, not merely to it"  (MW 14:38; 142).  Hence, habits are a continual incorporation or embodiment of the environment and are continuous with it.  They are not "inner forces," "powers of an autonomous organism," "individual reflexes," "psychic associations," or "repeated actions."[i]  They are "structured processes integrating the organism-environment field … general paths of integration and interpretation … situational structures."[ii]

[i]           Alexander, Horizons of Feeling, 142.
[ii]           Alexander, Horizons of Feeling, 142.

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  1. Human experience is the continual and continuous incorporation (into the body) of the environment. Human conscious experience, as not all experience is conscious, is the extension of experience into the explicitly symbolic. That is, we present existential connections as meaningful ones. Or, if one must use the word "represent," we re-present existential involvements as meaningful ones. Why? Because the meaningful situation is an extension of the environment into the possible; meanings are the explicit possibilities of action. (Do not read "possibility" in its formal logical connotations.)

    Habits are the organismic structures by which the environment is incorporated as the situation.

  2. do you take recent work on cognitive biases into you account of consciousness/coping?

  3. It depends. What work in cognitive biases are you talking about?

    I am trying to develop the account to a point sufficient to synthesize with more precise cognitive scientific accounts. My try focus is to work on the bridge between metaphysics and phenomenology and the background theory of embodiment, and thus I do not plan to work on neurosis, particular biases, etc. directly. I think another form of analysis is more suited to that, as mine is a functional one. We might discuss what "functional" means. We could also talk about the focus on temporality and continuity, etc. But if by "cognitive bias" you means something like the "expectation bias," then it depends on precisely where you are going with that question. Expective behaviors or pareidolia are built into this account as well as what many would call neurotic behaviors, but I am presently not engaging in contemporary studies of them as it is only tangentially relevent to the immediate task of a background theory of human consciousness. Maybe in 5-10 years, if everything works out, I will be working on projects of that specificity, but the fundamentals have to be in place first.

  4. p.s.

    Now if you were asking about proprioception, etc., then that would be a different story. Right now my account is biased towards perceptual experience, and I think going to recent work is the best way to round it out.

    I have been asking around if anyone would be interested in a online reading group for Deacon's Incomplete Nature this summer. Interested?

  5. I'm not specifically talking about pathology but the everyday evolutionary pre-judices/distortions of our perceptions and our kluged together bodies/interfaces:

    I don't know Deacon but I'll take a look and let you know, thanks.

  6. No, I do not take into account such because that would not advance the project. I would welcome any specific suggestions that might change my mind, but in general adding those appear to be a category mistake in my eyes. I'm interested in the continuous and temporal structure, and this is not the first time that you're pushed me to the physical studies, which I pursue only to find counter-examples and such. Or, as I wrote earlier, one can think of my work as part of a "background theory" for hypotheses and evidence, but it is more focused on being a background for social, cultural, political, and moral critique rather than cognitive science, for which it would not be suited.

  7. I see, when I think of the "background" of our being-in-the-world how are bodies are made and function is an integral part of those systems of exchanges. for better or worse my Dewey is always in tandem with Canguilhem.

  8. Yes, as I said, you tend to move in that direction and I move in another. Perhaps part of the difference is that you forget that I am a junior scholar and do not have the decades of reading that more senior scholars have. Moreover, to be honest, much of my graduate reading time was spent reading texts to be marketable, which means that I have a very wide grasp of the history of philosophy and of eastern and western texts. I have the service courses covered. That comes at the price of monolithic specialization, because only a junior scholar who has done that could juggle the metaphysics, phenomenology, and biology only 2 years out from graduate school. Patience, Dmf?

  9. p.s.,


    Part of the point of a functional analysis is that the physical science can change quite a bit without disrupting the functional analysis. That is also why my analysis cannot be a detailed phenomenal one.

  10. jason, i was just trying to be clear about how i come at these matters and trying to get clearer about your approach, i'm not invested in everyone ending up in the same place and just try and learn and maybe be helpful where i can.

  11. Dmf,

    Apologies if we had one of the "wrong tone" train wrecks of internet conversation. I read your words as a prescription for me and not a revelation of your own position.

    I think your approach is excellent and appropriate, and I hope to team up with a colleague that has that kind of background so that we can co-write works. Thank you for being helpful, and please do continue, though I might need a reminder to slow down my train of thought, eh, Conductor DMF?

    I believe that we are using "functional" in a difference sense. I am using "functional" not in terms of evaluating inputs and outputs, which can only be properly done as a science, but in terms of structure. (I started writing an explanation of "structure," but I don't think that will get us anywhere.)