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Reviewed by:
  • A History of Habit: From Aristotle to Bourdieu ed. by Tom Sparrow, Adam Hutchinson
  • Sarin Marchetti and Alan Rosenberg
Tom Sparrow and Adam Hutchinson, Eds.
A History of Habit: From Aristotle to Bourdieu
Lanham, Lexington, 2013, xi + 315, incl. index.

The collection by Sparrow and Hutchinson gathers together (mostly) philosophers and (a few) sociologists to discuss the ever fascinating yet surprisingly underplayed theme of habit: its history and place in the western philosophical tradition, from the ancients to the contemporary scene. A collection such as this has been long overdue, and surprisingly so, given the centrality of habits in our understanding and organization of ourselves and of the world. We human beings are in fact complex bundles of habits embodied in practices. Hence, our limits and possibilities are at least partially governed by the way in which we habituate, dishabituate, and re-habituate ourselves. Although their presence is widely acknowledged, what such bundles of habits are and even more interestingly what we can make of them (and of ourselves through them) [End Page 635] have been puzzling to the greatest minds of the past and present. By assembling together a variegated lineup of scholars with both historical and theoretical interests, the editors successfully managed to offer the reader a sweeping fresco of the diverse yet at times converging uses of the notion of habit, which will be of great interest to philosophers, sociologists, historians of ideas, and the learned public at large.

In their useful introduction to the volume, the editors do not offer a definition of the master concept of habit, pointing to the fact that the book seeks no easy consensus over its most effective characterization but rather an articulation of the variety of usages in the history of western thought. The editors wanted to be inclusive and do not rule out from the start any particular understanding of habit, and yet it would have been useful to have a working definition in order to better grasp their own understanding of it and the way they see the various chapters blending together. In the absence of such working definition, the reader is left wondering how the many different things that have been called habit can be compared to each other, and how this concept relates to cognate terms such as custom and mores. One might in fact ask whether habit is a unique concept, only employed differently—that is, for different purposes—in the history of philosophy, or whether the various surveyed thinkers talk about and deal with different concepts altogether. A working definition would have been of help here. We offer one to the reader, so to make clear which is our starting point from which we approach the book: a habit is a reiteration of a pattern that gets solidified in the body, and which acquires a place in our discourses and social practices. In this sense habits are an abstraction from a series of activities, both discursive and gestural, and as such they are always part of an ethical practice understood as an unfinished work of self on self.

Even if no strict definition of habit is offered, the editors stress the centrality of habit in our understanding of human agency, since what it means for us to act or conduct ourselves in a certain way seems to be internally related to the process of habituation: if it is true that each and every bodily movement and line of action is an unprecedented thing taking place in ever new situations, still we generate and test such deeds against previously experimented with habitual responses. It is in this sense that habits become “second nature” to us, contributing to the practices defining the way in which we live our lives. Consequently, habits seem to lie at the very heart of our moral life, although one can ask in this respect whether habits are already morally charged—so that we should distinguish between good and bad habits—or whether they are morally neutral—and it is what we make of them that makes them good or bad from an ethical point of view. In the chapters of the book we find...


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