- Consensus on Peirce’s Concept of Habit: Before and Beyond Consciousness ed. by Donna E. West, Myrdene Anderson
Donna E. West and Myrdene Anderson, editors. Springer, 2016.
The concept of habit supplies one of the key ingredients not only of Charles Peirce’s philosophy, but of philosophical pragmatism more generally. In this volume, the emphasis is placed squarely on Peirce. The essays collected here represent the perspectives of a truly impressive group of Peirce scholars, working in a great variety of academic disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, biology, linguistics, anthropology, semiotics, literary studies, and aesthetics. This community of scholars is also broadly international, with essayists from a dozen different countries in Europe and North and South America. The result of their collective labor is a substantial and important book, one that illuminates not only some of the complex details of Peirce’s thought, but also a wide range of issues in pragmatism, semiotics, and philosophical anthropology for which his thinking about habit is shown to be relevant.
No review of this length and scope can pretend to do justice to all twenty-three essays incorporated in this volume, or to its twenty-seven contributors. My strategy will be to hover at an altitude just low enough to give potential readers an overview of the book’s contents, the basic topics addressed, and the themes developed. I will on occasion drop to a lower altitude in order to comment on certain features of some of the individual essays, selected not necessarily for their greater importance but rather because of the special interests and concerns that I bring as a reader to my own encounter with the text.
The book’s two editors, Donna E. West and Myrdene Anderson (both also contributing essayists), identify its “overarching themes” in the preface as consisting in “the etiology of habit, its characterization as continua, and the mental perpetuation of habit as a self-modifying system, incorporating conscious and unconscious patterns of behavior/reasoning” (vii). Among these three themes, it is the development of the third that emerges as the book’s most valuable contribution. Habit is typically conceived as operating below the level of consciousness, so that what we do habitually is often done automatically and without deliberation. This observation can represent good news, as when William James characterized habitual behavior in terms of adherence to the “principle of parsimony in consciousness” (see Erkki Kilpinen’s [End Page 112] remarks about James on pages 210–11). If one had always to deliberate about the minute details of everything that one now does habitually—such as driving a car or speaking a language or playing a musical instrument—then one would no longer be free to direct attention elsewhere. Habit in this sense is to be regarded as a type of skill, and it can have a liberating effect on human consciousness.
Yet there is also bad news to tell about the automatic nature of much of what we do by habit, news that Samuel Beckett was eager to report when he wrote in an essay on Proust about “the great deadening of habit”; rather than being a source of liberation, here, habit is portrayed as “the guarantee of a dull inviolability,” or somewhat more colorfully as “the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit” (Beckett, Proust, Grove Press, 1931, 7ff.). This is very bad news indeed! Acting according to habit on such a view is the very opposite of what Thoreau advocated when he encouraged readers to live their lives deliberately or what Buddhists extol as mindfulness.
As a number of the essays in this volume demonstrate, Peirce’s concept of habit was more nuanced and complex than such straightforward evaluations, either positive or negative, might suggest. Peirce was less interested in habit as something fixed and established in behavior than he was in the process of habit formation and, correspondingly and perhaps even more importantly, also in the process of habit dissolution. To the extent that one engages in such a process deliberately and reflectively, habit is best to be regarded as a “self-modifying system,” as “self...