Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Virtue as Habitus: The Problems with Habit

WHAT IS VIRTUE? How does it differ from modern psychological or sociological techniques, which advance an ersatz virtue, that is, "human dependability with the least cost in effort to individuals"? How does the notion of virtue that Simon has in mind, one based upon the Aristotelian concept of it, differ from the Socratic notion that virtue is knowledge or science? How is this virtue something objective, something other than mere habit, a more or less subjectively necessary disposition present in the mind without reference to any extrinsic objective necessity or standard?

For Simon, the answer begins with a proper grasp of the Aristotelian notion of virtue. "Virtue for Aristotle is a special kind of quality," says Simon, one which Simon recruits the Latin word "habitus," which is the traditional Latin translation for the Greek concept of hexis or hexeis, to explain the concept so as to disassociate himself from modern notions of "habit." The Aristotelian word underlying Simon's use of the term habitus--ἕξις or hexis (plural ἕξεις or hexeis)*--is clearly related to some objective rational order or reality. Though there is some similarity between "habit" and the the Aristotelian notion of ἕξις or hexis, the latter concept is simply not sufficiently translated by our modern notion of "habit." The modern notion of "habit" is not coterminous with the Aristotelian hexis, but is much more narrow. The modern notion of habit has become more focused on biological and psychological habituations, and has largely lost the objective notions which informed the Aristotelian notion of hexis.

David Hume and William James: Enemies of Objective Thought

The modern, restrictive notion of habit may be the result of Humean empiricism and Deweyian or Jamesian pragmatism. It seems to be limited, moreover, to biological or somatic and psychological and intellectual realms, without reference to the moral realm. But perhaps the most significant restriction upon habit may have been the result of Hume's skeptical thinking, which denuded the notion of habit by removing any notion of objectivity from it. Thus Simon sees the modern term "habit" as having the following characteristics:
  • Habit is not an activity, but a disposition to act. Habit is "something much like an intermediary potency." Simon, 51.
  • Habit is stabilized through the repetition of acts. "the law of habit calls for repetitions." Simon, 51.
  • The "necessity of habit . . . is not of an objective character." Simon, 51-52. This is David Hume's particular contribution, and is what renders the word "habit" unserviceable in understanding the Aristotelian notion of "habit," that is, the notion of hexis.
  • Habit excludes voluntariness and freedom; consequently, an act done strictly by force of habit is not an voluntary or free act.
Hume's unique contribution to the notion of "habit" is his specific insistence that intellectual habit, while it imposes a necessity to a greater or lesser degree depending upon the strength of the habit, does not mean objective necessity. It is just, at best, a subjective necessity. Habits of the mind are sort of like dry creek beds furrowed out as if by a plow by the habitual flow of water following torrential rains. Water tends to flow down these dry creek beds, but the necessity is arbitrary, a matter of chance, not one of objective necessity. The necessity belongs to our minds, and not to things. It is the seeming easeful necessity of having been down the same way below. What happens to the waters on the Western plain after a torrential rain happens with the thoughts of causality in our mind. Furrowed water, furrowed thoughts.

Speaking plainly, that is the idea of the theory of knowledge proposed by Hume: the only kind of necessity our mind can establish in relations among things is that of habit. While we may think that we observe relations that are intelligible because they are objectively necessary, this really is not so. What actually happens is that repeated observations establish in our minds certain habits, which give the impression of objective necessity.

Simon, 53. William James's pragmatism and his "radical empiricism" differ little from Hume's "ordinary empiricism": "On this point, American pragmatism differs little from English empiricism," Simon observes. Indeed, the rejection of any relationship between knowledge and things is, if such a thing were possible, even more tenuous in the pages of James than in the pages of Hume:
Theoretic truth is thus no relation between our mind and archetypal reality. It falls within the mind, being the accord of some of its processes and objects with our processes and objects. . . ."
Simon, 68, n. 9 (quoting William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (New York: Longmans, Green 1912), 264). British empiricism and American pragmatism, therefore, share in this common view: we are condemned never to know the world by objective necessity. And this is true for the speculative sciences as it is for the moral sciences.

It is this notion of the word "habit" that makes it uniquely unqualified to carry the connotations included in the Aristotelian concept of hexis. The Aristotelian concept includes a notion of objectivity which clearly is rejected by Hume's notions of habit. Whatever the Aristotelian notion of hexis is, it is not the Humean notion of habit. For this reason, Simon recruits the word "habitus."

The notion of habit, moreover, which is largely mechanical, is also burdened by rejections of finality. But even habits "[a]utomatic as they may be," "cannot be explained without reference to finality." The very purpose of habits--whether they are the habits of learned swimming strokes or of looking at one's mailbox--have reasons or ends, i.e., final causes attached to them.

Finally, habits (in the modern sense) appear to exclude voluntariness or freedom. But truly moral action is never involuntary and are always free. "Insofar as an act is done purely and simply out of habit, it is neither free nor voluntary. Habit excludes choice as well as intention." Simon, 55.

All these considerations, therefore, make the notion of "habit" something outside the notion of Aristotelian hexis. Whatever virtue is, and whatever hexis is, it is not "habit" as modernly understood. Modern notions of habit--mechanical, lacking finality, freedom, voluntariness, and, most important, lacking a relationship to things, that is lacking a relationship to an objective order--make the word habit entirely unfitting a vehicle to understand the habitus of virtue.

*E.g., εἰ οὖν μήτε πάθη εἰσὶν αἱ ἀρεταὶ μήτε δυνάμεις, λείπεται ἕξεις [hexeis] αὐτὰς εἶναι. ("If then the virtues [aretai] are neither emotions [pathē] nor capacities [dynameis], it remains that they are dispositions [hexeis]." Nicomachean Ethics, 1106a (H. Rackham, trans.)

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