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.]

Students ≠ Kids?

As noted many times on this blog, I work within the philosophic tradition known as American Pragmatism. William James proposed this tradition’s core principle—the pragmatic method– as a way to resolve seemingly intractable “metaphysical questions.” In short, it holds that to know an object, we should examine that object’s effect on other objects. I’ve found that this simple move—tracing the consequences of a belief or statement or action— can prove remarkably useful in clarifying my thoughts. In the following I’d like to demonstrate the pragmatic method in action. Specifically, I want to interrogate a commonplace I often encounter as a college writing teacher: students ≠ kids.

Before we begin, I need to clarify what I mean by “commonplace.” As I understand it, commonplaces are ready-made verbal formulas. They are the bits of distilled wisdom, imparted to us by our various communities, that help guide our actions.

Commonplaces are obviously important. They help us understand and interact with our environment. We therefore become very attached to them. This emotional investment can sometimes blind us to their actual nature. Me and my commonplaces get so close, James would say, that I start to see them as ontologically true. And that’s a problem.

Consider a US Marine, guided by the belief that as a Marine, she is “always faithful” and “first to fight.” These commonplaces shape the Marine’s actions. Hence, they’re important. If the Marine is a pragmatist though, she recognizes that “always faithful,” though it may (seem to) fit her to a T, remains a mere verbal formula. It’s been applied to her from without and therefore remains open to revision (or even rejection). It’s true, sure, but true only because of what it does in context. In other contexts, or for other Marines, it may be false.

Now let’s turn to a pedagogical example. College students are adults, not children (students ≠ kids). This is pretty much a truism among progressive educators, its utterance sure to garner a round of head nods at the conference or faculty meeting. Is it true or false though? Following James, we can find out by tracing its consequences.

So what does students ≠ kids do? Well, first it encourages teachers to “take the training wheels off,” to make students responsible for their own learning. A long line of progressive educators, from Maria Montessori on down, would suggest that this is a positive move.

So our example can do positive work. If we wish to follow James though, we must keep in mind that this statement is in no way ontologically true. We can’t, for example, prove empirically that college students are adults and not children. Instead, we must view this statement for what is it is—a community generated object acting on other objects. Among certain constellations of objects, its consequences may be other than positive.

Consider a common situation faced by writing teachers. It’s near the end of the semester. You’ve worked through a carefully designed syllabus, given your students every opportunity to think critically and learn and grow. Despite this, some students remain mired in bland thought and language, comfortably ensconced in the status quo. This is a frustrating moment. And for some teachers, reminding themselves that their students are NOT fully formed adults may be a potent ameliorative tactic. It can help the teacher read more generously, find new reserves of patience. In short, writing teachers can’t expect college freshman to think and write like Theodor Adorno. Conceptualizing college students as in-process, as plastic, in short, as children, may help teachers come to terms with this fact.

So, here we have a commonplace (students ≠ kids) that in certain contexts does positive work. In other contexts, the inverse (students = kids) does positive work. From a Jamesian perspective, we can therefore say that this commonplace is both true and false. To make this determination we consider the thinker, the context and what the commonplace does for that thinker in that context. In short, we must use the pragmatic method.

Admittedly, such an analysis makes an implicit moral claim. It suggests that it’s better (more logical, more socially useful) to think of our beliefs as tools rather than objective descriptions. As tools, we’re free to change said beliefs as circumstances necessitate. We’re free to view our students as both adults and children, for example. William James makes a strong case that this is the best way to approach our world. It forces us to stay flexible, makes us more generous thinkers. I too think this is a good way to live and to think. Use of James’s pragmatic method can help nudge us in this direction.

Truth, Action and Climate Change

One of the main tenets of Jamesian pragmatism is the idea that truth is created through action. No statement, this argument goes, is a priori true. Statements only become true when they cause us to act. For example, my belief that a chair can support my weight causes me to sit in it. It is through this action that the statement “the chair can support my weight” becomes true.

This simple method of judging truth can prove quite disruptive. Consider Wild Bill. This is a cantankerous old man whom I used to sit next to on the bus. He claimed to believe that a certain type of honey cures cancer. The pharmaceutical companies are suppressing this fact, he said. But did Bill actually believe that “honey cures cancer” was a true statement? I would argue that he did not. If he would have believed the truth of this statement he would have acted upon it, for example by consuming large amounts of honey or marketing honey to cancer patients. What Bill was doing was a pathological sort of verbalization. Professing this certain belief was doing something for him (supporting his sense of himself as a “subject who knows” perhaps). A Jamesian analysis reveals the hollow nature of his claim.

I think about Wild Bill a lot when considering the current discourse around climate change. Take for example this recent Rolling Stone article. It ties together a lot of disparate facts about heat waves and the behavior of walruses to make a claim that “our climate change nightmares are already here.” Certainly, this sort of alarmist, quasi-apocalyptic discourse appeals to many people (which is why, of course, Rolling Stone is running the article). Does anyone actually believe these apocalyptic claims about melting icecaps and a ten-foot sea level rise though?

No. When viewed from a Jamesian perspective, most of the people who profess a belief in the certainty of radical climate change do not believe their own claims. Very few people, for example, are selling their property in New York or Miami, or investing their kid’s college fund in businesses that stand to gain from global warming. Like Wild Bill, they are not willing to act on their supposed beliefs. This lack of action marks their claims as mere verbalizations, not truth claims per se.

The above analysis has a couple of interesting consequences. First, it helps explain why the left has had so much trouble convincing mainstream America that climate change is a serious problem. If supposed climate change believers don’t even believe, how can they possibly hope to persuade skeptics?

It also makes one wonder what work this apocalyptic discourse is doing for its adherents. What benefit do climate change evangelicals gain from their claims of impending doom? I think clearly there is a social aspect– people purport to hold these beliefs to fit in, gain status in their communities, etc.

Given the prevalence of this apocalyptic discourse though, and the unthinking intensity with which many subjects cling to it, there’s likely something more at work. Perhaps apocalyptic discourse acts as a sort of guilt-release mechanism. Modern bourgeois subjects feel a deep unease about the way they live. To profess to believe that the world is coming to an end because of their Subaru and air conditioning and air travel somehow relives them of this guilt. Such a pathology is interesting to consider. Especially if you’re an apocalypse-prone subject!

What is Pragmatism?

On this blog, I often refer to something called “pragmatism.” What is this pretentious thing? In short, it’s my way of making sense of the world. The term comes from philosophy, but the ideas underlying it are pretty simple. In fact, you may be a pragmatist and not even know it.

Pragmatism is an (some say, the) American philosophical tradition. It’s associated with people like poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, social reformer John Dewey and always dapper, “bluesman of the mind” Cornel West. It was first popularized around 1900 by William James, ghosthunter and brother of novelist Henry James. More recently it was championed by philosopher Richard Rorty.

So what is a pragmatist? How does such a person think? Well, first off, there’s no such thing as pragmatist dogma. Two people can have opposing views about a topic and still both be pragmatists. Instead of telling you what to believe, in other words, pragmatism is a mindset, a disposition.

As I see it, the pragmatic mindset has three key features. #1: Pragmatists believe that value can only be determined by looking at the consequences of an object, action or idea. A belief is true if you can act on it. An action is good if it has positive consequences. This is a simple idea, but the impact is huge. It means that pragmatists disregard essences. We don’t care what a thing is, we only care what it does.

#2: Pragmatists view ideas as tools. As James puts it, all humans exist within a constant, overwhelming flux of sensory inputs. Ideas are just tools we use to cut this flux into manageable bits. They help us do stuff. When an idea is no longer useful, it needs to be discarded. In practice, this means that pragmatists value experimentation, flexibility and openness. We don’t fetishize ideas.

#3: Pragmatists recognize that all people, having had different experiences, will cut up their sensory flux in slightly different ways. In other words, people will always have varying beliefs. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, diversity of opinion is good because it gives us more ways to solve problems. Of course, it can also cause conflict. That’s why pragmatists promote respect for, and understanding of, differing belief systems. You have your beliefs, I have mine– recognizing that neither is “wrong” (or at least can’t be judged as such from an outside perspective) is the first step towards compromise.

Of course, the above traits are valued by many individuals and cultures. That’s what makes pragmatism, as William James said, “a new name for an old way of thinking.”

So who’s not a pragmatist? In my opinion, basically anyone who thinks they have access to some fundamental Truth. This includes religious fundamentalists (Truth = word of God), unreformed Marxists (Truth = Marxian economic laws) and certain dogmatic believers in logic or the scientific method (Truth = logical formulas or “objective” scientific observation). Of course, all these groups have access to limited, localized truths. The key, from a pragmatic perspective, is not to let them push that truth on others. We must politely remind our fundamentalist friends that ideas are tools, not fetish objects.

Against Bigness

There is great news out of Turkey today. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party has been defeated in an attempt to win a super-majority in parliament. This would have allowed Erdogan to change the constitution and greatly extend his power. For the record, I think Erdogan is a fine (if only moderately democratic) leader. Why do I cheer his defeat then?

William James writes, “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets….” This sums up my understanding of the attitude which must underlie any healthy society. Bigness, be it in the form of a powerful leader like Erdogan, or the fetisization of an idea (racial or religious purity, for example), is the enemy of efficient administration. In short, for a space to be optimally governed, there has to be a constant circulation of ideas and personalities. Too much power (or faith) concentrated in any one person or idea, for too long, short-circuits this process.

On the level of macro-politics, I think the above idea can be empirically justified. If you look at the most materially advanced nations– the US, western Europe, etc.– the time any one individual spends at the top of the pyramid seems universally quite short. The same is true, interestingly, of China, which while not conventionally democratic, changes leadership every 10 years. My hypothesis is that the sharing of power among different groups of elites in these nations has factored in their success.

On the micro-level, this view also has consequences. Within any society, some groups may have too much symbolic power. Cops, for example, or the military, or priests, or even professors. It doesn’t matter who they are– when any group gets too big or too great we must challenge them, “steal in through the crannies,” as James says and shatter their aura of invincibility. The internet is a great tool for doing this. One of the goals of this blog, undoubtedly, is to assist in the smashing of idols.

Finally, on a practical level, this view has one important political implication– it makes me hesitant to support Hillary Clinton. Though I generally agree with her policies, I worry that extending the power of her group of elites may have a negative effect on the long-term health of the system. In short, the Clintons and their friends have already had a chance to make their mark and fill their pockets. It may be best not to let them back in the game. We don’t want them to become idols.