Saturday, November 15, 2008

Remembering and forgetting, Part II: Habit

In my last post, I claimed that a child's initiation into her community requires that she internalize the community's rules and customs, in such a way that they become obvious, taken for granted, and therefore invisible. And the name I gave to this kind of internalization was "habit".

I'm going to return to the issue of cultural transmission, but first, in this post, I want to say more about the structure of habit. (These thoughts owe a lot to John Russon's Human Experience.)

Consider what is involved in learning a new skill or becoming comfortable in a new environment. For example, think about what it's like to learn to drive a car. At first, I have to concentrate on every individual movement, from pressing on the pedals to turning the wheel to checking my mirrors. This makes it difficult to do all these things at once, let alone do them while planning a route, looking for a parking spot, or singing along to the radio. With practice, though, these basic movements become automatic, and this frees me up to focus my attention on other things. The acquisition of these basic habits also endows me with powers of perception that I didn't have before: I can feel the road though the car's tires and see around me through its mirrors; I can feel the intentions of other drivers, and see whether spaces are wide enough for my car.

What I want to call attention to here is the way that skillful conduct must become largely automatic in order to be effective. When I'm driving, I'm for the most part unaware of exactly what I'm doing—and this is precisely what make successful driving possible. Not only am I unaware of my actions in the moment, but in many cases I simply don't know, and couldn't explain, how I do the things I do. Thus habit is a kind of productive forgetting, in which deliberate actions and small discoveries become sedimented or absorbed, through repetition and familiarity, into my body and my world.

This way of carrying forward past accomplishments as forgotten is what gives habituation its power and utility. It's intrinsic to the structure of human learning and development. However, it carries with it certain dangers.

First, the fact that our own habits are invisible to us makes them very hard to change. To be habituated is to find that the world simply calls for certain actions, and that my body has already begun to respond to this call, before any conscious decision on my part. This would be no problem if our habits never needed to change, but as we constantly enter new and more sophisticated situations, we find that the habits that got us here are no longer adequate, and are even in conflict with the new habits we need to develop. The conversation style that worked well with my parents doesn't work when I start school, but I am not free to simply change my way of talking—and even worse, I am probably not even aware that I have a "style" of talking, since for me this is simply the obvious and necessary response to the demands of conversation.

Second, when we want to pass on our skills and discoveries to other people, the fact that we do not know how we do the things we do is a serious obstacle. I know how to write a philosophy paper, but I have yet to figure out how to explain to someone else just how this is done. I learned to do it over time, through a series of steps, corrections, errors and discoveries. But these discoveries have, of necessity, been forgotten, since it was only as forgotten that they could serve as the basis for further learning.

This issue of teaching and transmission will be the subject of my next post.