Human Nature and Conduct

Part 1: The Place of Habit in Conduct:
IV. Custom and Habit

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We often fancy that institutions, social custom, collective habit, have been formed by the consolidation of individual habits. In the main this supposition is false to fact. To a considerable extent customs, or widespread uniformities of habit, exist because individuals face the same situation and react in like fashion. But to a larger extent customs persist because individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs. An individual usually acquires the morality as he inherits the speech of his social group. The activities of the group are already there, and some assimilation of his own acts to their pattern is a prerequisite of a share therein, and hence of having any part in what is going on. Each person is born an infant, and every infant is subject from the first breath he draws and the first cry he utters to the attentions and demands of others. These others are not just persons in general with minds in general. They are beings with habits, and beings who upon the whole esteem the habits they have, if for no other reason than that, having diem, their imagination is thereby limited. The nature of habit is to be assertive, insistent, self-perpetuating. There is no miracle in the fact that if a child learns any language he learns the language that those about him speak and teach, especially since his ability to speak that language is a pre-condition of

(59) his entering into effective connection with them, making wants known and getting them satisfied. Fond parent and relatives frequently pick up a few of the child's spontaneous modes of speech and for a time at least they are portions of the speech of the group. But the ratio which such words bear to the total vocabulary in use gives a fair measure of the part played by purely individual habit in forming custom in comparison with the part played by custom in forming individual habits. Few persons have either the energy or the wealth to build private roads to travel upon. They find it convenient, "natural," to use the roads that are already there; while unless their private roads connect at some point with the high-way they cannot build them even if they would.

These simple facts seem to me to give a simple explanation of matters that are often surrounded with mystery. To talk about the priority of " society " to the individual is to indulge in nonsensical metaphysics, But to say that some pre-existent association of human beings is prior to every particular human being who is born into the world is to mention a commonplace. These associations are definite modes of interaction of persons with one another; that is to say they form customs, institutions. There is no problem in all history so artificial as that of how "individuals " manage to form " society." The problem is due to the pleasure taken in manipulating concepts, and discussion goes sin because concepts are kept from inconvenient contact with facts. The facts of infancy and sex have

(60) only to be called to mind to see how manufactured are the conceptions which enter into this particular problem.

The problem, however, of how those established and more or less deeply grooved systems of interaction which we call social groups, big and small, modify the activities of individuals who perforce are caught-up within them, and how the activities of component individuals remake and redirect previously established customs is a deeply significant one. Viewed from the standpoint of custom and its priority to the formation of habits in human beings who are born babies and gradually grow to maturity, the facts which are now usually assembled under the conceptions of collective minds, group-minds, national-minds, crowd-minds, etc., etc., lose the mysterious air they exhale when mind is thought of (as orthodox psychology teaches us to think of it) as something which precedes action. It is difficult to see that collective mind means anything more than a custom brought at some point to explicit, emphatic consciousness, emotional or intellectual.[1]


The family into which one is born is a family in a village or city which interacts with other more or less integrated systems of activity, and which includes a diversity of groupings within itself, say, churches, political parties, clubs, cliques, partnerships, trade-unions, corporations, etc. If we start with the traditional notion of mind as something complete in itself, then we may well be perplexed by the problem of how a common mind, common ways of feeling and believing and purposing, comes into existence and then forms these groups. The case is quite otherwise if we recognize that in any case we must start with grouped action, that is, with some fairly settled system of interaction among individuals. The problem of origin and development of the various groupings, or definite customs, in existence at any particular time in any particular place is not solved by reference to psychic causes, elements, forces. It is to be solved by reference to facts of action, demand for food, for houses, for a

(62) mate, for some one to talk to and to listen to one talk, for control of others, demands which are all intensified by the fact already mentioned that each person begins a helpless, dependent creature. I do not mean of course that hunger, fear, sexual love, gregariousness, sympathy, parental love, love of bossing and of being ordered about, imitation, etc., play no part. But I do mean that these words do not express elements or forces which are psychic or mental in their first intention. They denote ways of behavior. These ways of behaving involve interaction, that is to say, and prior groupings. And to understand the existence of organized ways or habits we surely need to go to physics, chemistry and physiology rather than to psychology.

There is doubtless a great mystery as to why any such thing as being conscious should exist at all. But if consciousness exists at all, there is no mystery in its being connected with what it is connected with. That is to say, if an activity which is an interaction of various factors, or a grouped activity, comes to consciousness it seems natural that it should take the form of an emotion, belief or purpose that reflects the interaction, that it should be an " our " consciousness or a " my " consciousness. And by this is meant both that it will be shared by those who are implicated in the associative custom, or more or less alike it them all, and that it will be felt or thought to concern others as well as one's self. A family-custom or organized habit of action comes into contact and conflict for example with that of some other family. The emotions of ruf-

(63) -fled pride, the belief about superiority or being " as good as other people," the intention to hold one's own are naturally our feeling and idea of our treatment and position. Substitute the Republican party or the American nation for the family and the general situation remains the same. The conditions which determine the nature and extent of the particular grouping in question are matters of supreme import. But they are not as such subject-matter of psychology, but of the history of politics, law, religion, economics, invention, the technology of communication and intercourse. Psychology comes in as an indispensable tool. But it enters into the matter of understanding these various special topics, not into the question of what psychic forces form a collective mind and therefore a social group. That way of stating the case puts the cart a long way before the horse, and naturally gathers obscurities and mysteries to itself. In short, the primary facts of social psychology center about collective habit, custom. In addition to the general psychology of habit — which is general not individual in any intelligible sense of that word — we need to find out just how different customs shape the desires, beliefs, purposes of those who are affected by them. The problem f of social psychology is not how either individual or collective mind forms social groups and customs, but how different customs, established interacting arrangements, form and nurture different minds. From this general statement we return to our special problem, which is how the rigid character of past custom has

( 64) unfavorably influenced beliefs, emotions and purposes having to do with morals.

We come back to the fact that individuals begin their career as infants. For the plasticity of the young presents a temptation to those having greater experience and hence greater power which they rarely resist. It seems putty to be molded according to current designs. That plasticity also means power to change prevailing custom is ignored. Docility is looked upon not as ability to learn whatever the world has to teach, but as subjection to those: instructions of others which reflect their current habits. To be truly docile is to be eager to learn all the lessons of active, inquiring, expanding experience. The inert, stupid quality of current customs perverts learning into a willingness to follow where others point the way, into conformity, constriction, surrender of scepticism and experiment. When we think of the docility of the young we first think of the stocks of information adults wish to impose and the ways of acting they want to reproduce. Then we think of the insolent coercions, the insinuating briberies, the pedagogic solemnities by which the freshness of youth can be faded and its vivid curiosities dulled. Education becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits be comes a guarantee for the maintenance of hedges of custom.

Of course it is not wholly forgotten that habits are abilities, arts. Any striking exhibition of acquired skill in physical matters, like that of an acrobat or

(65) billiard-player, arouses universal admiration. But we like to have innovating power limited to technical matters and reserve our admiration for those manifestations that display virtuosity rather than virtue. In moral matters it is assumed that it is enough if some ideal has been exemplified in the life of a leader, so that it is now the part of others to follow and reproduce. For every branch of conduct, there is a Jesus or Buddha, a Napoleon or Marx, a Froebel or Tolstoi, whose pattern of action, exceeding our own grasp, is reduced to a practicable copy-size by passage through rows and rows of lesser leaders.

The notion that it suffices if the idea, the end, is present in the mind of some authority dominates formal schooling. It permeates the unconscious education derived from ordinary contact and intercourse. Where following is taken to be normal, moral originality is pretty sure to be eccentric. But if independence were the rule, originality would be subjected to severe, experimental tests and be saved from cranky eccentricity, as it now is in say higher mathematics. The regime of custom assumes that the outcome is the same whether an individual understands what he is about or whether he goes through certain motions while mouthing the words of others repetition of formulae lacing esteemed of greater importance, upon the whole, than repetition of deeds. To say what the sect or clique or class says is the way of proving that one also understands and approves what the clique clings to. In theory, democracy should be a means of stimulating original thought,

(66) and of evoking action deliberately adjusted in advance to cope with new forces. In fact it is still so immature that its main effect is to multiply occasions for imitation. If progress in spite of this fact is more rapid than in other social forms, it is by accident, since the diversity of models conflict with one another and thus give individuality a chance in the resulting chaos of opinions. Current democracy acclaims success more boisterously than do other social forms, and surrounds failure with a more reverberating train of echoes. But the prestige thus given excellence is largely adventitious. The achievement of thought attracts others not so much intrinsically as because of an eminence due to multitudinous advertising and a swarm of imitators.

Even liberal thinkers have treated habit as essentially, not because of the character of existing customs, conservative. In fact only in a society dominated by modes of belief and admiration fixed by past custom is habit any more conservative than it is progressive. It all depends upon its quality. Habit is an ability, an art, formed through past experience. But whether an ability is limited to repetition of past acts adopted to past conditions or is available for new emergencies depends wholly upon what kind of habit exists. The tendency to think that only " bad " habits are disserviceable and that bad habits are conventionally numerable, conduces to make all habits more or less bad. For what makes a habit bad is enslavement to old ruts. The common notion that enslavement to good ends converts mechanical routine into good is a

(67) negation of the principle of moral goodness. It identifies morality with what was sometime rational, possibly in some prior experience of one's own, but more probably in the experience of some one else who is now blindly set up as a final authority. The genuine heart of reasonableness (and of goodness in conduct) lies in effective mastery of the conditions which now enter into action. To be satisfied with repeating, with traversing the ruts which in other conditions led to good, is the surest way of creating carelessness about present and actual good.

Consider what happens to thought when habit is merely power to repeat acts without thought. Where does thought exist and operate when it is excluded from habitual activities? Is not such thought of necessity shut out from effective power, from ability to control objects and command events? Habits deprived of thought and thought which is futile are two sides of the same fact. To laud habit as conservative while praising thought as the main spring of progress is to take the surest course to making thought abstruse and irrelevant and progress a matter of accident and catastrophe. The concrete fact behind the current separation of body and mind, practice and theory, actualities and ideals, is precisely this separation ()f habit and thought. Thought which does not exist within ordinary habits of action lacks means of execution. In lacking application, it also lacks test, criterion. Hence it is condemned to a separate realm. If we try to act upon it, our actions are clumsy, forced. In fact, contrary

(68) habits (as we have already seen) come into operation and betray our purpose. After a few such experiences, it is subconsciously decided that thought is too precious and high to be exposed to the contingencies of action. It is reserved for separate uses; thought feeds only thought not action. Ideals must not run the risk of contamination and perversion by contact with actual conditions. Thought then either resorts to specialized and technical matters influencing action in the library or laboratory alone, or else it becomes sentimentalized.

Meantime there are certain " practical " men who combine thought and habit and who are effectual. Their thought is about their own advantage; and their habits correspond. They dominate the actual situation. They encourage routine in others, and they also subsidize such thought and learning as are kept remote from affairs. This they call sustaining the standard of the ideal. Subjection they praise as team-spirit, loyalty, devotion, obedience, industry, law-and-order. But they temper respect for law— by which they mean the order of the existing status— on the part of others with most skilful and thoughtful manipulation of it in behalf of their own ends. While they denounce as subversive anarchy signs of independent thought, of thinking for themselves, on the part of others lest such thought disturb the conditions by which they profit, they think quite literally for themselves, that is, of themselves. This is the eternal game of the practical men. Hence it is only by accident that the separate and endowed

(69) "thought" of professional thinkers leaks out into action and affects custom.

For thinking cannot itself escape the influence of habit, any more than anything else human. If it is not a part of ordinary habits, then it is a separate habit, habit alongside other habits, apart from them, as isolated and indurated as human structure permits. Theory is a possession of the theorist, intellect of the intellectualist. The so-called separation of theory and practice means in fact the separation of two kinds of practice, one taking place in the outdoor world, the other in the study. The habit of thought commands some materials (as every habit must do) but the materials are technical, books, words. Ideas are objectified in action but speech and writing monopolize their field of action. Even then subconscious pains are taken to see that the words used are not too widely understood. Intellectual habits like other habits demand an environment, but the environment is the study, library, laboratory and academy. Like other habits they produce external results, possessions. Some men acquire ideas and knowledge as other men acquire monetary wealth. While practising thought for their own special ends they deprecate it for the untrained and unstable masses for whom " habits," that is unthinking routines, are necessities. They favor popular education— up to the point of disseminating as matter of authoritative information for the many what the few have established by thought, and up to the point of

(70) converting an original docility to the new into a docility to repeat and to conform.

Yet all habit involves mechanization. Habit is impossible without setting up a mechanism of action, physiologically engrained, which operates " spontaneously," automatically, whenever the cue is given. But mechanization is not of necessity all there is to habit. Consider the conditions under which the first serviceable abilities of life are formed. When a child begins to walk he acutely observes, he intently and intensely experiments. He looks to see what is going to happen and he keeps curious watch on every 'incident. What others do, the assistance they give, the models they set, operate not as limitations but as encouragements to his own acts, reinforcements of personal perception and endeavor. The first toddling is a romantic adventuring into the unknown; and every gained power is a delightful discovery of one's own powers and of the wonders of the world. We may not be able to retain in adult habits this zest of intelligence and this freshness of satisfaction in newly discovered powers. But there is surely a middle term between a normal exercise of power which includes some excursion into the unknown, and a mechanical activity hedged within a drab world. Even in dealing with inanimate machines we rank that invention higher which adapts its movements to varying conditions.

All life operates through a mechanism, and the higher the form of life the more complex, sure and flexible the mechanism. This fact alone should save

(71) us from opposing life and mechanism, thereby reducing the latter to unintelligent automatism and the former to an aimless splurge. How delicate, prompt, sure and varied are the movements of a violin player or an en. graver! How unerringly they phrase every shade of emotion and every turn of idea! Mechanism is indispensable. If each act has to be consciously searched for at the moment and intentionally performed, execution is painful and the product is clumsy and halting, Nevertheless the difference between the artist and the mere technician is unmistakeable. The artist is a masterful technician. The technique or mechanism is fused with thought and feeling. The " mechanical " performer permits the mechanism to dictate the performance. It is absurd to say that the latter exhibits habit and the former not. We are confronted with two kinds of habit, intelligent and routine. All life has its élan, but only the prevalence of dead habits deflects life into mere élan.

Yet the current dualism of mind and body, thought and action, is so rooted that we are taught (and science is said to support the teaching) that the art, the habit, of the artist is acquired by previous mechanical exercises of repetition in which skill apart from thought is the aim, until suddenly, magically, this soulless mechanism is taken possession of by sentiment and imagination and it becomes a flexible instrument of mind. The fact, the scientific fact, is that even in his exercises, his practice for skill, an artist uses an art he already has. He acquires greater skill because practice of skill is more

(72) important to him than practice for skill. Otherwise natural endowment would count for nothing, and sufficient mechanical exercise would make any one an expert in any field. A flexible, sensitive habit grows snore varied, more adaptable by practice and use. We do not as yet fully understand the physiological factors concerned in mechanical routine on one hand and artistic skill on the other, but we do know that the latter is just as much habit as is the former. Whether it concerns the cook, musician, carpenter, citizen, or statesman, the intelligent or artistic habit is the desirable thing, and the routine the undesirable thing:— or, at least, desirable and undesirable from every point of view except one.

Those who wish a monopoly of social power find desirable the separation of habit and thought, action and soul, so characteristic of history. For the dualism enables them to do the thinking and planning, while others remain the docile, even if awkward, instruments of execution. Until this scheme is changed, democracy is bound to be perverted in realization. With our present system of education— by which something much more extensive than schooling is meant— democracy multiplies occasions for imitation not occasions for thought in action. If the visible result is rather a messy confusion than an ordered discipline of habits, it is because there are so many models of imitation set up that they tend to cancel one another, so that individuals have the advantage neither of uniform training nor of intelligent adaptation. Whence an intellectu-

(73) -alist, the one with whom thinking is itself a segregated habit, infers that the choice is between muss-and-muddling and a bureaucracy. He prefers the latter, t though under some other name. usually an aristocracy of talent and intellect, possibly a dictatorship of the proletariat.

It has been repeatedly stated that the current philosophical dualism of mind and body, of spirit and mere outward doing, is ultimately but an intellectual reflex of the social divorce of routine habit from thought, of means from ends, practice from theory. One hardly knows whether most to admire the acumen with which Bergson has penetrated through the accumulation of ' historic technicalities to this essential fact, or to deplore the artistic skill with which he has recommended the division and the metaphysical subtlety with which he has striven to establish its necessary and unchangeable nature. For the latter tends to confirm and sanction the dualism in all its obnoxiousness. In the end, however, detection, discovery, is the main thing. To envisage the relation of spirit, life, to matter, body, as in effect an affair of a force which outruns habit while it leaves a trail of routine habits behind it, will surely turn out in the end to imply the acknowledgment of the need of a continuous unification of spirit and habit, rather than to be a sanction of their divorce. And when Bergson carries the implicit logic to the point of a clear recognition that upon this basis concrete intelligence is concerned with the habits which incorporate and deal with objects, and that noth-

(74) -ing remains to spirit, pure thought, except a blind onward push or impetus, the net conclusion is surely the need of revision of the fundamental premiss of separation of soul and habit. A blind creative force is as likely to turn out to be destructive as creative; the vital élan may delight in war rather than in the laborious arts of civilization, and a mystic intuition of an ungoing splurge be a poor substitute for the detailed work of an intelligence embodied in custom and institution, one which creates by means of flexible continuous contrivances of reorganization. For the eulogistic qualities which Bergson attributes to the élan vital flow not from its nature but from a reminiscence of the optimism of romanticism, an optimism which is only the reverse side of pessimism about actualities. A spiritual life which is nothing but a blind urge separated from thought (which is said to be confined to mechanical manipulation of material objects for personal uses) is likely to have the attributes of the Devil in spite of its being ennobled with the name of God.


  1. Mob psychology comes under the same principles, but in a negative aspect. The crowd and mob express a disintegration of habits which releases impulse and renders persons susceptible to immediate stimuli, rather than such a functioning of habits as is found in the mind of a club or school of thought or a political party. Leaders of an organization, that in of act interaction having settled habits, may, however, in order to put over some schemes deliberately resort to stimuli which will break through the crust of ordinary custom and release impulses on such a scale as to create a mob psychology. Since fear is a normal reaction to the unfamiliar, dread and suspicion are the forces most played upon to accomplish this result, together with vast vague contrary hopes. This is an ordinary technique in excited political campaigns, in starting war, etc. But an assimilation like that of Le Bon of the psychology of democracy to the psychology of a crowd in overriding individual judgment shows lack of psychological insight. A political democracy exhibits an overriding of thought like that seen in any convention or institution. That is, thought is submerged in habit. In the crowd and mob, it is submerged in undefined emotion. China and Japan exhibit crowd psychology more frequently than do western democratic countries. Not in my judgment because of any essentially Oriental psychology but because of a nearer background of rigid and solid customs conjoined with the phenomena of a period of transition. The introduction of many novel stimuli creates occasions where habits afford no ballast. Hence great waves of emotion easily sweep through masses. Sometimes they are waves of enthusiasm for the new; sometimes of violent reaction against it — both equally undiscriminating. The war has left behind it a somewhat similar situation in western countries.

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