Habit and The Individual Will (A Dialogue)

(The banks of the Moskva river, late on a summer afternoon.  PAVEL sits on a park bench, gazing out over the water.  ANTON approaches.)

Anton:  Hello, professor, you look perplexed!

Pavel:  Ah, hi there Pasha.  Yes, I’ve been reading Alexander Livingston’s new book about the politics of William James, and I’m trying to figure out how his discussion of habit and will relates to my milieu: writing, the writing classroom, you know.

A: James, the American?  What does he say?

P: Well, habit is a key idea for James.  He calls it “the great flywheel of society,” the ultimate “conservative agent.”  These formulations suggest that habit is both omnipresent and restrictive.  Our habits are also not completely our own.  They have been formed over time by communal action.  In a very real sense, something as simple as riding a bicycle contains the combined wisdom of the ages.

A: Fascinating.

P:  I think so too.  For individuals, staying within the bounds of habit is easy.  It doesn’t require conscious thought, and when engaged in habitual behavior our affective state is one of calm, peacefulness.  Habit, it could be said, is a kind of anesthetic.

A:  I know this feeling.  Commuting to work, or moving around the house on a lazy Sunday morning, at these times it’s almost like I feel nothing.

P: Yes.  As Livingston has it, James draws a distinction between the warm embrace of habit and those moments when we are forced to transcend habit.  When we are forced to create our own interpretations of the world and act on those interpretations.  In these moments, we think and act for ourselves.  Our affective state is one of tension.  We feel “keyed up.”  This tension only subsides as our original, thought-intensive action becomes habituated.  As we start, once again, to operate automatically.  Now though our patterns of action are altered.  We’ve added our little contribution to the great mass of communal wisdom which is habit.  James sees great import in these little moments of transcendence.

A:  I think I’m following you.  Let’s see if I can play out an example.  You know I was recently in Australia.  They drive on the opposite side of the road there.  Learning to drive a car with a manual transmission—so shifting with my left hand—was a real challenge.  It took a lot of effort to do everything backwards.  I had to consciously think through what for years I’d been doing unconsciously.

P:  A perfect example.  James would say that in those moments of struggling with the gear shift you were transcending habit.  You were interpreting the world and adjusting your actions accordingly.  No one was thinking or acting for you.  In this sense, you were asserting your will as a sovereign individual.

A:  Hmm…

P: We should note, though, that the assertion of the will for James is not about conquest or mastery.  It’s essential element is not control over people or objects.  Instead, it’s about engaging the singularity of the world and formulating an equally singular response.

A: Interesting idea.  But how does any of this relate to writing?

P: That’s what I’m trying to figure out.  It seems that no act of writing can be completely habitual.  Even the writing of a simple narrative can’t be thoughtless in the way that driving a car is thoughtless.  We have to fit communal forms (words, sentences, etc.) to our singular experience.  This requires mentally searching for and selecting those forms—that is by definition thought.

A:  So all writing requires an act of will?

P:  To any extent.  Perhaps it’s more useful, though, to think of it as a continuum.  No act of writing is completely habitual, but some are less habitual than others.  Only some acts of writing, I think its fair to say, allow for transcendence of the type James is envisioning.  Transcendence occurs when we really have to struggle, when the words won’t do what we demand of them.

A: Those knots in a piece of writing, those moments of aporia when the ideas that you are working with just won’t cohere…

P:  Yes.  There’s a sort of dialectic in those moments, isn’t there?  The writer must take opposites and combine them to reach a higher synthesis.  In doing so he moves from a state of tension—of anxiety and uncertainty—to a state of calm.  I think this dynamic is analogous to James’s discussion of habit and will.  In this case, the will manifests in the struggle to overcome the aporia, in the moments of conscious effort that lead up to the resolution of the conflict.  James puts great value on moments such as these.  These are the times we are most attuned to and engaged with the world.

A:  Effort as an end in itself, eh?

P:  Yes, it seems so.  It also seems that the application or creation of new forms is another way we overcome the habitual in writing.  I mean, we typical do things one way.  We use certain genres in certain situations, etc.  To do things another way, to bend certain genres to fit new situations, that’s another way the will can manifest in the act of writing.

A:  Ah, I see!  That’s why you’re writing this blog post in narrative format.

P: Indeed.  I’m not the first to write a philosophical dialogue, of course, but remember, effort is an end in itself.  So James would say that in the struggle to do something new (something I’ve never done before), I am positioning my will against the force of my habits, and against the force of tradition as embodied in my habits.  I’m thus asserting myself as a sovereign agent.

A:  You are acting in response to the situation’s singular demands.  I could see how this process of reading and responding requires a certain “presentness” which could be of intrinsic value.

P:  Indeed…. Well, it’s almost dinner time.  Enough talking.  How about I buy you a kebab?

A:  Only if I can buy us a round of Putinka.

P:  You drive a hard bargain, my friend.  Let us go.

[PAVEL and ANTON exit.]