Monday, 15 December 2008

Mere habit?

I am used to thinking about habit as the underpinnings of normatively or conceptually structured action and thought. As an ex-Wittgensteinian, I think of habit as a surrogate for a Platonic foundation for our concepts. Against the idea that habitual action might be a middle ground between conceptually structured activity and mindless doing, I see conceptual structure in the habits. And, of course, this invocation of custom and habit to underpin concepts has familiar Humean echoes. Mere habit escalates into something normatively richer.

Two things brought this to mind this weekend. The first was the need to stack the winter’s load of firewood for the stove. Delivered as a loose pile on the garage floor, I needed to stack it more tightly and higher against a wall. I thus spent an hour or so mindlessly stacking. But not in fact mindless. After only a few minutes a pattern began to appear: unconsciously I found myself slotting the differently shaped bits of wood into a more rather than a less appropriate gap, a particular way up and round, so as to keep the wood stable. Norms simply appeared, loosely fossilised in the final pattern of wood.

The second was taking part in a 10km organised run in Langdale, the first such event I’ve taken part in. I half wondered whether some further structure of thought – some sort of implicit plan – would simply appear during the course of running. I’m sure it does for fitter people in the way that in, eg., learning to ski one learns to individuate ones actions as ‘going to that tree’ rather than turning one’s skis. But I found I lacked the extra capacity necessary to do anything other than mindlessly stagger to the end. There was no further room for doing it right or wrong. Mere habit, it turned out.