Monday, April 30, 2012

Dewey on habits

I've sought here to discover some of the origins of current neo-pragmatist theories of the actor. John Dewey's writings are certainly crucial for that quest. So what did Dewey contribute to a pragmatist understanding of how people act? one place to look for an answer is in a 1922 book, HUMAN NATURE AND CONDUCT: An Introduction to Social Psychology. It is a particularly interesting book to read, in that Dewey goes back and forth between a kind of descriptive psychology and some astute theorizing about morality as a constraint on action.

A particularly central part of Dewey's theory of action is the idea of habit. He believes that a large volume of our ordinary human conduct is not deliberative or plan-ful at all, but is rather based on habit. So what is habit? Here is a brief description in Human Nature and Conduct:
Habit means special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts. It means will. (kl 386)

The word habit may seem twisted somewhat from its customary use when employed as we have been using it. But we need a word to express that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired ; which contains within itself a certain ordering or systematization of minor elements of action ; which is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation; and which is operative in some subdued subordinate form even when not obviously dominating activity. (Kindle Locations 378-381)
In the tradition of deliberative rationality, the idea of will is central. The agent deliberates about ends and means and chooses (wills) a means that will bring about her ends. So the will is the fundamental element of action. But in fact, Dewey argues that the idea of "will" itself can be understood as a compound of habits, rather than a self-originating deliberation about ends and means.
By will, common-sense understands something practical and moving. It understands the body of habits, of active dispositions which makes a man do what he does. Will is thus not something opposed to consequences or severed from them. (Kindle Locations 403-404)
Dewey's discussion of habit and action is particularly sensitive to the relationship between the constraints and practices of the body and human patterns of action. He uses an extended example of "standing straight", and points out that "good posture" is a complex characteristic involving the environment, the body, and the will. But crucially, the unadorned will ("I will henceforth stand straight") cannot in fact determine subsequent behavior. In fact, he argues that the idea of standing straight can only come to us once we are bodily capable of good posture:
Only the man who can maintain a correct posture has the stuff out of which to form that idea of standing erect which can be the starting point of a right act. (Kindle Locations 302-303)

Given a bad habit and the " will " or mental direction to get a good result, and the actual happening is a reverse or looking-glass manifestation of the usual fault-a compensatory twist in the opposite direction. Refusal to recognize this fact only leads to a separation of mind from body, and to supposing that mental or " psychical" mechanisms are different in kind from those of bodily operations and independent of them. (Kindle Locations 312-314)
 He also emphasizes the point that habits in action generally presuppose a social context:
But since habits involve the support of environing conditions, a society or some specific group of fellow-men, is always accessory before and after the fact. Some activity proceeds from a man; then it sets up reactions in the surroundings. Others approve, disapprove, protest, encourage, share and resist. (Kindle Locations 167-169)
 Or in other words, we acquire our habits of behavior through exposure to other actors.
We often fancy that institutions, social custom, collective habit, have been formed by the consolidation of individual habits. In the main this supposition is false to fact. To a considerable extent customs, or wide-spread uniformities of habit, exist because individuals face the same situation and react in like fashion. But to a larger extent customs persist because individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs. (Kindle Locations 523-525)
This is a point made elsewhere in the blog in the context of the idea of methodological localism: the individual takes shape through the persistent fact of existing social practices and norms. Here is a representative example of Dewey's ideas about the social construction of the individual.
We come back to the fact that individuals begin their career as infants. For the plasticity of the young presents a temptation to those having greater experience and hence greater power which they rarely resist. It seems putty to be molded according to current designs…. Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. (Kindle Locations 571-573)
Moreover, individual habits in turn contribute to social patterns:
Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity. Their significance depends upon the environment inherited from our forerunners, and it is enhanced as we foresee the fruits of our labors in the world in which our successors live. (Kindle Locations 207-209)
And habits are the foundation of ethical ideas as well:
Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom. (Kindle Locations 578-579)
So the fact of habit in action is in fact a very fundamental part of Dewey's view of the social world and the individual actor's role in that world. And it is a role that suggests that Dewey differs very fundamentally from the Aristotelian view of deliberative rationality in action, where the actor identifies a set of ends, arrives at a set of beliefs, and reasons to a conclusion about what action to choose. (It seems to have more in common with another aspect of Aristotle's theory of action, the role that virtue plays in ordinary conduct.) Dewey doesn't say that there is nothing deliberative about action; but he appears to believe that habit is more common and more fundamental; further, he seems to believe that many examples of the exercise of will are in fact examples of the influence of nested sets of habits. Dewey seems to accept this implication about the subordinacy of reasoning to habit:

Habit, occupation, furnishes the necessity of forward action in one case as instinct does in the other. We do not act from reasoning; but reasoning puts before us objects which are not directly or sensibly present, so that we then may react directly to these objects, with aversion, attraction, indifference or attachment, precisely as we would to the same objects if they were physically present. (Kindle Locations 1724-1726)
This component of a theory of action seems valid with respect to a range of human behaviors and interactions, but it seems to seriously undervalue the fact of conscious deliberation in action. It cannot be denied that human actors do sometimes approach problems of action -- what to do? -- in a conscious and deliberative way.  This is the kernel that underlies rational choice theory, and it seems to be a plain and undeniable part of human problem solving and choice.  Dewey's understanding of action as the result of an ensemble of socially instilled habits seems in the end to be unsatisfactory as a full theory of action.


Anonymous said...

Part 3 of the book is all about conscious deliberation!

Daniel Little said...

Thanks -- I plan to post on these ideas in a later posting.

Ariel said...

I've been thinking a bit about this as I need to 'select', as it were, a model of individual action for my doctoral research (on migration intentions and decision-making).

Two relevant papers come to mind that both try to incorporate a pragmatist understanding into a theory of action and agency:

+ Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American journal of sociology, 103(4), 962–1023.

+ Gross, N. (2009). A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms. American Sociological Review, 74(3), 358–379.

I've been wondering whether individual action can be conceputalised as being graded along a cline of habit at one end and deliberative/purposive action according to situational novelty, sort of in the manner of Kahnemann's model of 'System 1' vs. 'System 2' thinking...

Howard Johnson said...

In my thoughts, the general direction in pragmatic psychology has been toward the social origins of cognition that occupy the later have of your post and I think might not be fully developed vis a vis rational choice. This pragmatic perspective does not say that reason is not important, but it's importance lies within dialogical / social processes.
I think understanding it in terms of rational choice requires suspending some philosophical foundations. As said by Richard Rorty:
It [pragmatism] is a story about how certain intuitions we inherit from the Greeks can be undermined and replaced, rather than systematized [as in analytic philosophy]. Whether or not one accepts or likes this story, it is a story of transformation, a story of the sort that Kierkegaard could acknowledge as having ethico-religious import (even though its import is radically atheistic).
Though Dewey is a good starting point, I would also include Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Wittgenstein and their various interpreter into order to fully develop this pragmatic strain of thought as it relate to rational choice.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, I've been following this blog for a little while now, but feel prompted to comment on this post to thank you for a very elucidating exegesis on a topic I've been seeking to inform myself of for a while! So many neo-pragmatists harken back to Dewey's "habit" as if it is a self-explanatory alternative model of action, it can be a little frustrating at times to try to figure out how to trace it back through his copious writings.

While your post is really helpful, I guess to me it is still not entirely clear what the criteria would be to designate a certain action as "habitual" vs. something else. But it may be that every action is at least a little bit tinged with habit, and so the question is less one of seeing the overall "habitualness" of an action, and more seeing how actors combine habits in responses to contexts. This, at least, leads me to think that there must be room for deliberative thinking there, and that perhaps further inquiry into the nature of such internal deliberation is really a space of enormous potential for social science.

As Ariel points out, Kahnemann's work (as well as that of some other behavioral psychologists and economists - Jonathan Haidt also comes to mind) proposes to move in that direction. Stephen Vaisey seems to be one of the main voices in sociology trying to combine these psychological findings with broader social phenomena. I personally don't find Vaisey's attempt to graft "system 1" and "system 2" onto a theory of culture particularly persuasive, but it is at least worth examining and trying to build fruitful discussion out of.

To my mind (and many others'), the main problem with the recent scientific yen to explore the brain is that it uses spectacular power of information and visualization technologies as a sort of tour de force argument that the phenomenon has been explained. Dewey seems far ahead of this tendency when he points out that something like the explicit will to action is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what composes a habit. What interests me most in posts such as yours is to learn more about how we can build ideas to better bridge between good, strong phenomenology, with gets at the full depth of the composition of phenomena such as individual and group habit, and the broader analytic categories that the advanced computing technologies are ready-made to apply their crunching power towards. Here such broad notions as memory and recognition suggest themselves, but I'm not yet at the point where I know how to build specific research designs around these...



Anonymous said...

I'm currently making my way through The Creativity of Action by Hans Joas, who does well to situate the pragmatist theory of the actor. I'd be very interested to see you do a post on the book!

Daniel Little said...

Hello, anonymous -- take a look at this posting, which has some discussion of Joas.