William James on Habit

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“Dr. Carpenter’s phrase that our nervous system grows to the modes in which it has been exercised expresses the philosophy of habit in a nutshell. We may now trace some of the practical applications of the principle to human life.

The first result of it is that habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate and diminishes fatigue.

“The beginner at the piano not only moves his finger up and down in order to depress the key, he moves the whole hand, the forearm and even the entire body, especially moving its least rigid part, the head, as if he would press down the key with that organ too. Often a contraction of the abdominal muscles occurs as well. Principally, however, the impulse is determined to the motion of the hand and of the single finger. This is, in the first place, because the movement of the finger is the movement thought of, and, in the second place, because its movement and that of the key are the movements we try to perceive, along with the results of the latter on the ear. The more often the process [p.113] is repeated, the more easily the movement follows, on account of the increase in permeability of the nerves engaged.

“But the more easily the movement occurs, the slighter is the stimulus required to set it up; and the slighter the stimulus is, the more its effect is confined to the fingers alone.
The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.”

James, William James (1890) “The Principles of Psychology. Volume One”; Chapter V: Habit New York. Dover Publications, Inc. The material originally appeared in “Popular Science Monthly” for February 1887.
William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist who was also trained as a physician. The first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labelled him the “Father of American psychology”. Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, he is considered to be one of the greatest figures associated with the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of the functional psychology. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James

see further http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/09/25/william-james-on-habit/

““We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle famously proclaimed. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Perhaps most fascinating in Michael Lewis’s altogether fantastic recent Vanity Fair profile of Barack Obama is, indeed, the President’s relationship with habit — particularly his optimization of everyday behaviors to such a degree that they require as little cognitive load as possible, allowing him to better focus on the important decisions, the stuff of excellence.”

See also a review of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg at https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/03/15/a-matter-of-course/:
power of habit
““William James,” writes Duhigg early in the book, “—like countless others, from Aristotle to Oprah—spent much of his life trying to understand why habits exist. But only in the past two decades have neurologists, psychologists, sociologists, and marketers really begun understanding how habits work—and more important, how they change.” I admit I was skeptical of Duhigg’s claims on behalf of contemporary science and advertising, so I decided to read for myself James’s chapter on habits in his Principles of Psychology, to see if he hadn’t reached insights about human behavior deeper even than Oprah’s. He’s pretty good, I have to say, on the critical importance of habits in our lives—all living creatures are “bundles of habits,” he writes—and even beats today’s neurologists to the punch by insisting on habits’ material essence.”


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