Academic journal article Style

William James's Narrative of Habit

Academic journal article Style

William James's Narrative of Habit

Article excerpt

Amidst a wracking melancholia that revealed to him "that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life," a young William James found rescue from his own "ontological wonder-sickness" in a definition of free will posited by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier (Varieties 135; Will 63). In James's 1870 diary entry that records this remarkable instance of mental and moral resummoning, he enlists Renouvier's concept of free will - "'the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts'" - in a grim struggle against his own morbid degree of "mere speculation and contemplative Grublei" (Letters 1: 147). Having previously determined suicide to be "the most manly form" to put his daring into, James now vows to direct his "free initiative" towards staunch belief in his "individual reality and creative power" (148).

While scholars have often fixed on this passage for its nascent markers of a pragmatism James most famously lodged in his celebrated declaration that "my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will," they tend to give only a nod to what James attests will be his means to subsequent acts of free will (147). Citing the English psychologist Alexander Bain and his postulates for the acquisition of habits, James writes, "I will see to the sequel" (148). Recollect, he instructs himself,

that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action - and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number. (148)

Hence James rediscovers in habit, that usually so stolid affair, not only a newly valiant source for the homecoming of his very being, but also a language with which to express his restored creative energy. From this point on James begins with quiet urgency to develop a narrative of habit, one that proves integral to his writing on the processive self and challenges our assumptions about habit's aesthetic force.

Perhaps because we tend to dress habit in so prosaic a mood, readers of William James have neglected to address fully the range of its significance in his writing. More often than not habit's importance to his work is generally dealt with straightforwardly as constituting the topic of his engaging "Habit" chapter in The Principles of Psychology, or is handled as a building-block philosophical concept on the way to grander ideas - its function, for instance, in the tychistic ideas with which James worked. In his bench mark 1935 study of the philosopher, Ralph Barton Perry writes of James's "Habit," curiously, with no further analysis, that "it is not without bearing on its success that it should have sprung from an early and lifelong faith of his own in the benign effect of routine and the cumulative significance of little acts" (2: 90). Gerald Myers, who presents a more recent and deeper interpretative analysis, still only mentions the concept as a physiological layer underlying the will's "psychological habit" (199). George Cotkin, on the other hand, does recognize James's emphasis upon "the salutary role of habit formation," hearing in it an echo of the Victorian predilection to regard habit's disciplinary function as "an anodyne for doubt," yet he keeps his inquiry trained on the influences of "Scottish common-sense philosophy" and the principles of science (69-70). Even in as involved a cultural critique as Ross Posnock's, which at its core places James's work within a genealogical model of human thinking that presents the historical conditions of how we think, there is no intensive examination of habit's presence or power in that kind of human shaping; again, habit becomes subsumed by other ideas, as it does in the work of Bruce Kuklick, James Kloppenberg, and Kim Townsend. Only Joseph M. Thomas's searching exploration into how James's writerly reliance upon habit issues from his deeper and conflicted involvement with the concept stands as the welcome exception. …

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