SHEETS-JOHNSTONE (2014) – On the origin, nature, and genesis of habit

SHEETS-JOHNSTONE, Maxine. On the origin, nature, and genesis of habit. Phenomenology and Mind, n.6, p.96-116, 2014.

  • Brushing one’s teeth, tying a shoelace or knot, hammering a nail and not one’s thumb, writing one’s name, walking down stairs — each is a distinctive qualitative dynamic, a sequence of movements that has a distinctive beginning, a distinctive contour with distinctive intensity changes, for example, and a distinctive end. Each is a dynamic pattern of movement. We are born with none of these dynamic patterns, which is to say that they are not ready-made or innate in any sense. Each is learned. p.97
  • There is a lesson to be learned from this existential truth, namely, that whatever habits we develop in what we do and the way we do things, they exist because we learn the dynamics that constitute them, whether by trial and error, by assiduous practice, by resting and taking up the challenge again at a later time, or whatever. The mode of one’s learning may vary, but the formation of a habit in each instance is basically an enlargement of one’s kinetic repertoire, which is to say that one can form a habit only by learning a new dynamic pattern of movement. p.97
  • Infants indeed initiate their own learning by first of all learning their bodies and learning to move themselves (Sheets-Johnstone 1999a/expanded 2nd ed. 2011). p.97
  • Infants learn quite by themselves to reach effectively, to grasp objects effectively, to walk, to feed themselves, and ultimately, to talk and thereby exceed their classification as infants. Habits of mind proceed in concert with these habit formed and -informed accomplishments, most basically in expectations, i.e., in if/then relationships, of which more presently. p.97
  • Across the spectrum of human cultures, that is, in the most basic ontological sense that includes every human, habits are indeed a matter of having made the strange familiar. That familiarity becomes ingrained in what Husserl terms the psychophysical unity of animate organisms and their ways of living in the world. In more precise terms, habits develop by bringing what was out of reach and/or beyond understanding effectively and efficiently into the realm of the familiar and into what are basically synergies of meaningful movement that run off by themselves. Habits are indeed grounded from the beginning in movement, that is, in the primal animation of animate organisms that gives rise to sensings and sense-makings that evolve into synergies of meaningful movement and habits of mind. p.97-98
  • In the course of their learning their bodies and learning to move themselves effectively and efficiently, infants form certain ways of “doing” that generate an ever-expanding repertoire of “I cans” (Sheets-Johnstone 1999a/ expanded 2nd ed. 2011, Chapter 5). We might recall in this context Husserl’s and Landgrebe’s emphasis on the fact that “I move” precedes “I do” and “I can” (Husserl 1989, p. 273; Landgrebe 1977, pp. 107-108). Certain ways of “doing” are indeed constituted in and by certain qualitatively inflected movement dynamics that inform an infant’s “I cans,” dynamics that create particular spatio-temporal-energic patterns. Just as infants nurse in distinctive ways and kick their legs in distinctive ways, so they ultimately learn to walk in distinctive ways, which is to say that the qualitative dynamics of one infant’s movements are different from that of another. Ways of moving are indeed individualized. Moreover qualitatively inflected movement dynamics feed into a certain style, of which more later. What is of immediate moment here is that self-generated dynamics are the foundation of developmentally achieved habits. p.98
  • What Merleau-Ponty terms “natural signs,” including “the realm of instinct,” are part of the heritage of humans, Merleau-Ponty’s dismissal of them to the contrary. As noted in that discussion, “When Merleau-Ponty writes that ‘in man there is no natural sign’, and that ‘[i]t would be legitimate to speak of “natural signs” only if the anatomical organization of our body produced a correspondence between specific gestures and given “states of mind”’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962, pp. 188-189), he is surprisingly oblivious of the dynamic congruity that binds movement and emotions, the kinetic and the affective (Sheets-Johnstone 1999b/2009). p.99
  • There is a basic dimension of instincts, however, that warrants attention. In their pristine mode, i.e., before being possibly transformed by learnings of one kind and another, instincts are properly analyzed as self-organizing dynamics that flow forth experientially in spontaneous movement dispositions, thus basically, not just the spontaneous movement disposition of a fetus to move its thumb toward its mouth and not toward its ear or navel, for example, but the spontaneous disposition to move in and of itself in the first place, including movement of the neuromuscular system itself as it forms in utero. Such movement is not “action” nor is it “behavior.” It is the phenomenon of movement pure and simple — a phenomenon that in truth is not so simple when analyzed phenomenologically in descriptive experiential terms, that is, as a phenomenon in its own right. Indeed, this pure and simple phenomenon is incredibly complex, far more complex than the terms ‘action’ or ‘behavior’ suggest when they are implicitly and largely unwittingly used in its place, as in talk and writings of “action in perception” (Nöe 2004). Along similar lines, neither does “embodied movement” come close to a recognition of the phenomenological complexity of movement, even as in an attempt to abbreviate Husserl’s consistent specification of the two-fold articulation of perception and movement (Husserl 1989) by stating, “Our embodied movement participates in seeing, touching, hearing, etc., thereby informing our perceptual grasp on the world” (Gallagher and Zahavi 2012, p. 109). p.100
  • In effect, what I freely choose to do and do again that leaves a natural disposition or instinct behind is itself a habit: my freely formed movement itself in virtue of its repeated patterning is in a basic sense habitual. p.101
  • This existential reality is of moment for it indicates a substantively significant cognitive dimension in the formation of habits and in habits themselves. In more explicit terms, the intertwining of habit and free motivation and movement implicitly suggests habitual patterns of mind– habitual ways of valuing and of thinking. Given the fact that “consciousness of the world . . . is in constant motion” (Husserl 1970, p. 109), these habitual ways can hardly be ignored. p.102
  • Insofar as these relationships are foundational– “if I close my eyes, it is dark”; “if I move my lips and tongue in certain ways, I make and hear certain sounds”–it is not surprising that the relationships are foundational to everyday human habits, such as closing one’s eyes to go to sleep or when a light is too bright, and saying the words “No” and “Yes.” Just such kinesthetically felt and cognized experiences ground the faculty that Husserl identifies as the “I-can of the subject” (Husserl 1989, p. 13), a faculty that engenders a repertoire of abilities and possibilities that are indeed in many everyday instances habitual. More finely put in phenomenological terms, tactile-kinesthetic awarenesses and their invariants are realized in basic if/then relationships that we spontaneously discover in infancy in learning our bodies and learning to move ourselves. Tactile-kinesthetic awarenesses are thus a central aspect of animation, a tactile-kinesthetic built-in of life, a vital dimension in the formation of habits. p.102
  • In other words, habits of mind are also spurred by happenings and by particular valuings and thoughts that follow in response to those happenings that become standard. Though they are open to possible variations according to circumstance, they retain their basic dynamic: the bodily-felt dynamic of apprehension, for example, or of suspicion, and so on. p.102
  • “Each person nourishes his immortality in the ideology of self-perpetuation to which he gives his allegiance; this gives his life the only abiding significance it can have. No wonder men go into a rage over the fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die. Your immortality system has been shown to be fallible, your life becomes fallible” (Becker 1975, p. 64). p.103
  • The blinders of habit are clearly not limited to scientists, but include those whose “allegiance” deters them from considering findings, perspectives, or ideas different from, or inimical to their own. p.103
  • Concerns about a morphology of mind notwithstanding, the above discussion and examples indicate that habits of mind may be and commonly are formed coincident with kinetic habits, and from the beginning in learning one’s body and learning to move oneself. The full-scale realities of habit are indeed psycho-physical in nature and develop in concert with experience. They are at once cognitively, affectively, and kinetically dynamic: they flow forth with varying intensities, amplitudes, and perseverations in each of these dimensions of animate life and at the same time as a singular whole in the habit itself. p.104
  • “the unity of man encompasses these two components not as two realities externally linked with one another but instead as most intimately interwoven and in a certain way mutually penetrating (as is in fact established)” (Husserl 1989, p. 100). p.104
  • We are indeed freely-motivated and freely-moving (e.g., Husserl 2001, p. 283). These dual facts of human life are obviously of pivotal importance to our understandings of habit. Supposing we are sufficiently attuned to our affective/tactile-kinesthetic bodies, we can, for example, choose to change our habit of turning only toward certain things and not others, or of finding interest in only certain things and not others, or of doing only certain things and not others. These dual facts of human life are of pivotal importance as well to understandings of habit and its relation to style. p.105
  • A veritable phenomenological analysis of what is going on “in most actions” shows something quite different. It shows that, whether a matter of walking or eating or dressing ourselves or drying ourselves after a shower, or whether a matter of myriad other everyday “actions, the dexterity, the precision, the fluidity, and so on, that are necessary to the “action” running off are engrained in kinesthetic memory in the form of an ongoing qualitative dynamic that is spontaneously inflected and modulated according to circumstance, an ongoing qualitative dynamic that was learned and cultivated in earlier years and is now so dynamically familiar that it runs off by itself. In short, whatever the everyday adult actions, their dynamic familiarity is anchored in the tactile-kinesthetic body and thus in kinesthetic memory. p.107
  • It is indeed not that the body “tries to stay out of our way,” but that in learning our bodies and learning to move ourselves, we have amassed an incredibly varied and vast repertoire of I cans. To overlook ontogeny is thus to fail to ask oneself basic questions concerning one’s adult knowledge and in turn foil foundational elucidations of habit. It should be added that neither does Merleau-Ponty asks himself ontogenetic questions, basically genetic phenomenology questions, nor does he, in his discussion of habit, provide answers to the question of how habits come to be formed. p.107
  • Further still, doing phenomenological justice to “habitual or practiced movements” means realizing that movement is not a matter of body parts having “changed position in space.” By its very nature, movement is neither positional nor is it simply spatial. Movement is a phenomenon in its own right, a spatiotemporal- energic phenomenon that is clearly distinguishable in essential ways from objects in motion, which do change position in space. p.108-09
  • Moreover kinesthesia can hardly be ignored since it, along with tactility, is the first sensory modality to develop neurologically in utero (Windle 1971) and, barring accidents, is there for life. p.109
  • As Stern states, “In order for the infant to have any formed sense of self, there must ultimately be some organization that is sensed as a reference point. The first such organization concerns the body: its coherence, its actions, its inner feeling states, and the memory of all these” (Stern 1985, p. 46; see also Sheets-Johnstone 1999c). Though not specified as such, these invariants all rest on  the tactile-kinesthetic body (Sheets-Johnstone 1999b/expanded 2nd ed. 2011). The description of each dimension indeed validates the primacy of movement and the tactile-kinesthetic body. p.110
  • Surely it is essential for phenomenologists to attempt a regressive inquiry, to take an ontogenetic perspective and carry out a constructive phenomenology. Habits are a fundamental dimension of human life. Indeed, we could not readily live without them. If everything were new at each turn, if all familiarity was erased and strangeness was ever-present, life as we know it would be impossible. p.112
  • What we notice in another person’s style are precisely just such aspects of another person’s comportment—the ways in which he or she typically relates to his or her surrounding world, thus not only the way in which a person “behaves,” i.e., his or her typical kinetic qualitative dynamics, but the things the person typically values, his or her typical lines of thought, what he or she typically notices, and so on. p.112
  • There is a certain familiarity about the person that is simply there, evidenced in the dynamics of his or her comportment across our history with them, hence dynamics that we have experienced before and have now come to expect. It should be noted that we do not anticipate ourselves in the way we anticipate others. As indicated above, we are commonly less aware of our own qualitative dynamics than we are of the qualitative dynamics of others unless we have attuned ourselves to our own movement. p.113
  • When we begin not with an adultist perspective and speculative entities to explain various phenomena, but with a veritable reconstructive or constructive phenomenology that allows one to “get back” to those nonlinguistic days in which we learned our bodies and learned to move ourselves and in the process formed nonlinguistic corporeal concepts in concert with synergies of meaningful movement, we approach veritable understandings of mind. We find that those synergies of meaningful movement are orchestrated not by an embodied mind but by a mindful body, alive to and cognizant to its surrounding world and developing fundamental abilities to move effectively and efficiently within it from infancy and in fact from in utero onward. p.113

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