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“Habit is a second nature that destroys the first. But what is nature? Why is habit not natural? I am very much afraid that nature itself is only a first habit, just as habit is a second nature.” - Blaise Pascal

PSYCHE

In Praise Of Habits – So Much More Than Mindless Reflexes

In Praise Of Habits – So Much More Than Mindless Reflexes

psyche.co

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Habit is the foundation of the routines that comprise the vast bulk of our everyday lives. When we are not disturbed, we live our practical lives without engaging in anything like a cautious assessment of what it is we are doing at any given moment. No conscious deliberation or r...

In tune with this characterisation, philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists alike often conceive of habits as highly mechanistic and near-automatic responses to environmental cues that unfold outside of our deliberative control. This conception of habits as mindless...

However, even our most mundane habitual routines actually display a great deal of intelligence. Indeed, they are often intelligently context-sensitive and flexible in such a way as can support and structure our goals and projects.

Consider the example of driving the same route to work every morning. You might often find yourself wrapped up in thoughts about how your day will unfold, or how you might explain to your boss why you failed to complete some task, and yet you still easily navigate the roads that lead you to your ...

In attempting to account for the intelligent dimension of habit, researchers have moved away from construing habits as unintelligent mechanisms and towards modelling them as a species of belief.

The puzzle we face in clarifying the character of habits is t...

Great thinkers since before Aristotle have overwhelmingly tended to characterise humans as rational animals in virtue of our capacity to form and intelligently adjust our beliefs. On this view, constructing good habits is vital – but, once a habitual routine is established, it is not ...

Gilbert Ryle, in his seminal work The Concept of Mind (1949), emphatically denied that habits were intelligent. For him, habits are mere mindless mechanisms. Indeed, he explicitly contrasts habitual doings with intelligent and skilful behaviours, claiming that it “is of ...

In On Habit (2014), Clare Carlisle notes that this sort of characterisation of habit – as unintelligent and “a degradation of life, reducing spontaneity and vitality to mechanical routine” – has been held by many influential philosophers of the mind throughout history, i...

One inclined to agree with this mechanistic conception of habit as inherently unintelligent might argue that the puzzle referred above is simply ill-posed. On this analysis, any attempt to construe habits as intelligence-involving straightforwardly confuses habit and skill. An im...

The mechanistic view of habits is misguided. Habits are not, despite what Ryle says, simply stupefied and rigid reactions to environmental triggers, or ‘single-track dispositions’ to respond to the world with highly stereotyped reflexes. To see this, we need only note that forging any cle...

On the other hand, habits often comprise skills. Consider the habit of whistling when you are bored. This is a considerably skilful act, which can in some cases constitute genuine musical expertise. For just these reasons, introducing a clear-cut distinction betw...

In opposition to the mechanistic conception of habits, some, such as the philosopher Jason Stanley, advocate for an intellectualist conception, on which habits are intelligent because they are really a kind of ‘settled belief’ about ways of achieving certain goals.

An example: in my initial weeks at a new workplace, I will have developed a belief about how I could successfully get to the office. Through my daily commute, this belief gradually becomes entirely automatic and unconscious. At this stage, I do not need to consciously consider wh...

As this unconscious belief becomes entrenched, it might also become recalcitrant to counterevidence. I might, for instance, accidentally take this route to the office even after I am informed and sincerely convinced that there is a more efficient route. According to intel...

This intellectualist view of habits as a form of belief, however, also has serious problems in accounting for their intelligent aspect. Habits are, as our above examples show, often exquisitely context-sensitive. But if Stanley takes habitual doings to be intelligent only...

It is also unclear how unconscious neural processes can even involve beliefs (philosophers have tried in vain for decades to provide a satisfactory account of how they might). As such, if an alternative notion of habits can successfully explain their context-sensitivity w...

Both mechanical and intellectual conceptions of habit encounter significant difficulties in explaining how habits sustain intelligent behaviour. These conceptions have a common root problem, which is a failure to appreciate the pivotal role of perception that philosophers working in the p...

For Dreyfus, we are no less experts at our everyday habitual routines than Serena Williams is an expert at tennis (albeit what we accomplish might be substantially less impressive). The consequence of this, for him, is that our everyday habits will be guided by expert-level perception and...

Dreyfus is correct to highlight the important role of perceptual skill in guiding our habitual doings, but his account should be revised in one crucial respect. For him, as we become experts at completing some everyday routine, the world increasingly draws us to act in one optimal, approp...

The pragmatist philosopher John Dewey is instructive here. Dewey, like Dreyfus, construes habits as facilitating intelligent behaviour by shaping perception. However, he denies that, as we become experts at carrying out everyday routines, our habitual responses always become entirely auto...

In other words, our habitual doings are intelligently adjusted to context precisely because we perceive the environment in which they have been cultivated in terms of the vast and discriminating habitual responses we might make to it. Habits, seen through this pragmatist lens, then, far f...

Contemporary philosophy of mind is positively replete with warnings that we ought not to fall into easy dichotomies between intelligent and voluntary processes on the one hand, and unintelligent and automatic processes on the other. Indeed, even psychologists such as Daniel Kahne...

One sure-fire way to cut right through this dichotomy is to note that, while habits can distort our goals, they can also be exquisitely context-sensitive. Accounting for this context-sensitivity will require acknowledging the pivotal role perceptual skills play in guiding our habitual doi...

WARREN BUFFETT

Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

DESIDERIUS ERASMUS

A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit.

EDITH WHARTON

Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.

MARCEL PROUST

Habit is a second nature which prevents us from knowing the first, of which it has neither the cruelties nor the enchantments.

HERMAN MELVILLE

Yet habit - strange thing! what cannot habit accomplish?

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