Being Human [5] – Cultural Habits

What is a habit?  Hearing the term, we think of: addictions (cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, masturbation), tendencies (leaning to the left in our chairs, putting one’s head in the right hand when bored, looking inappropriately at people we find attractive), or patterns (coffee in the morning, television in the evening, hygiene before bed).  In every habit, there is some automatic, non-deliberative regularity: whether of time, situation, or opportunity.  But all of these are descriptions and examples of habits, and not explanations of what a habit is.

The English word comes ultimately from the Latin root of habere—to have or to hold.  This use, like so many others, comes from a translation of Aristotle’s Greek term, ἔθος (ethos), etymologically related to ἦθος (éthos), the stem of ἠθικός (éthikos)—as in, ethics.  In other words, “habits” are not merely unconscious or automatic processes, but deeply tied to the moral goodness or badness of human behavior.

In contrast to this Greek origin, all too often today, the formation of habit is believed to occur almost exclusively through neurochemical reinforcement, and most especially through certain correlations noted in dopamine release.  Certainly, dopamine—and all the brain—plays a part; but habits are part of a much more complex cognitive architecture than the neurochemical can explain.  That is, neither new nor old mechanist philosophies—all of which reduce causality to forces which are a vis a tergo, temporally antecedent forces “from behind”—can sufficiently explain how a habit is formed.[1]  The idea that our habits are the product of mechanical forces has led to many profound confusions (for instance, concerning the nature of sexual attraction).  Tenacious claims of being “born this way”—not merely with regard to same-sex attraction, but with attraction even toward minors, among other things—implicitly reject any deeper or morally-relevant sense of sexual attraction having a habituated component.  The contemporary view of habit’s relation to character (or more accurately, of habit as unrelated to character) jumbles together various strands that form no coherent or stable pattern; it is ein Unsinnstapel, relying upon half-baked notions of neuroreductionism, innate tendency, unconscious processes, and without a hint of how we are at least responsible in part for the active conditions of our non-deliberative tendencies.

Against this mechanist view of habit, I propose that, together with the relevant idioscopic discoveries and hypotheses about neurochemical mechanisms, we understand habits at the cenoscopic level of inquiry as being formed through a threefold recursive process: reception, reaction, and inference.[2]  Each of these three is a kind of “interpretation”, insofar as something is taken as; the old Aristotelian maxim has it that the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver—as water takes the shape of the vessel in to which it is poured, or an ignoramus, believing the word “frugal” to mean “promiscuous”, thinks his neighbor is easy when she says, “I tend to be frugal with new people.”  In other words, we never simply receive a thing just as it is, but only to the degree that we are capable of receiving it.[3]  Further, when we receive something, more often than not we have a reaction to that which has been received.  I may not notice it at the tip of consciousness, but hot air may cause reactions of discomfort; or loud noises of annoyance; or a pretty woman smiling at me a general sense of pleasure.  But our reactions can also be grounded in error: the ignoramus, for instance, might think he might have a fun time with his neighbor and begins to get excited—having just met her—at hearing her say she tends to be frugal with new people; and that pretty woman might be smiling because she knows I am soon to have a beer thrown in my face.

The really interesting movement of habituation occurs, however, at inference.  This term is used here very broadly: to cover any sort of adaptation from any number of instances in the pursuit of seeking a result judged good (either better than previous, as we infer not to touch hot things after burning our hands on the stove; or comparably good as previously experienced, as when we infer that doing a particular thing makes someone else smile), even if we do so without really understanding what it is we are doing or why.  But it also covers specific, conscious inferences: as when we reflect upon an occasion and determine to alter our behavior in the future.[4]  Moral habituation is precisely of this lattermost inferential sort—that is, although the basis for our habits may reside in non-conscious or socially-promoted characteristics, it is of the essence of our ἔθος that it is determined by conscious choice; even if that choice is simply to accept what we have been given by others without question.

That we are given—have been given, are being given—habituating worldviews really should not be a matter of question.  This transmission belongs not merely to family, though such may take deep roots, but to the cultures into which we are born at large, for we are given messages from which we infer social cues about “good” and “bad” from every corner: school, books, magazines, news, televised fictions, movies, music, video games, and the great stereopticon that is social media.  Sufficiently reinforced through repetition or preponderance of apparent good or bad, these cues turn into habits, ways of holding ourselves towards the world.

But these culturally-imbued habits are not only habits of what we think; they are also habits of how we think.  That is, as Marshall McLuhan so often put it: the medium is the message.  We learn not only messages, but also media, and the nature of media alters the nature of our thinking accordingly.  We may be visual people, or auditory people; tactile or even olfactory; we may be abstract and logical or concrete and emotive; we may be a people conditioned to remembrance and factual accuracy, or to fiction and fluid narrative.  For the last several generations, Western nations—none any more than the United States of America—have been inclined to fiction and fluid narrative through our addictions to imaginative television and film, popular music and news media.  We have swallowed illusion after illusion, to the point of becoming ourselves quite habitually delusional.

But do we know—have we realized—can we turn the lenses back on ourselves, and see the foundations of this delusional habit?

[1] In fact, mechanistic theories of explanation propose all things be understood in terms of vires a tergo.

[2] This triad is taken from Charles Peirce, who outlined in his 1908 letters to Lady Victoria Welby a more complex system of his better-known semiotic triad (of object, representamen, and interpretant) to include both a dynamic object and an immediate object, as well as a trio of interpretants: immediate, dynamical, and final.  The first of these three is receptive, the second reactive, and the third inferential.  While the delineation of interpretants from processes is important, here we simplify for the sake of brevity.

[3] Not incidentally, this is the original meaning of the Latin word obiectum [Go into the etymology/Gegenstand].

[4] Peirce’s example is that of his wife, having just woken up while he has been out of bed for a while, what the weather is like today; he replies that it is stormy (which concept she receives), at which news she is disappointed (her reaction), and from which she infers (this being my contribution to the example) that she should not get her hopes up for a picnic in April.

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