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Habit is an effect of repeated acts and an aptitude to reproduce them, and may be defined as “a quality difficult to change, whereby an agent whose nature it is to work one way or another indeterminately, is disposed easily and readily at will to follow this or that particular line of action” (Rickaby, Moral Philosophy). Daily experience shows that the repetition of actions or reactions produces, if not always an inclination, at least an aptitude to act or react in the same manner. To say that a man is accustomed to a certain diet, climate, or exercise, that he is an habitual smoker or early-riser, that he can dance, fence, or play the piano, that he is used to certain points of view, modes of thinking, feeling, and willing, etc., signifies that owing to past experience he can do now that which formerly was impossible, do easily that which was difficult, or dispense with the effort and attention which were at first necessary. Like any faculty or power, habit cannot be known directly in itself, but only indirectly—retrospectively from the actual processes which have given rise to it, and prospectively from those which proceed from it. Habit will be considered (I) in general, and then in its most important (II) physiological, (III) psychological, (IV) ethical, (V) pedagogical, (VI) philosophical, and (VII) theological aspects.

I. If an attitude, action, or series of actions resulting from a well-formed and deep-rooted habit is compared with the corresponding attitude, action, or series before the habit was contracted, the following differences are generally observed: (I) Uniformity and regularity have succeeded diversity and variety; under the same circumstances and conditions the same action recurs invariably and in the same manner, unless a special effort is made to inhibit it; (2) Selection has taken the place of diffusion; after a number of attempts in which the energy was scattered in several directions, the proper movements and adaptations have been singled out; the energy now follows a straight line and goes forth directly toward the expected result; (3) Less stimulus is required to start the process, and, where perhaps resistance had to be overcome, the slightest cue now suffices to give rise to a complex action; (4) Difficulty and effort have disappeared; the elements of the action, every one of which used to require distinct attention, succeed one another automatically; (5) Where there was merely desire, often difficult to satisfy, or indifference, perhaps even repugnance, there is now tendency, inclination, or need, and the unwonted interruption of an habitual action or mode of thinking generally results in a painful feeling of uneasiness; (6) Instead of the clear and distinct perception of the action in its details, there is only a vague consciousness of the process in its totality, together with a feeling of familiarity and naturalness. In a word, habit is selective, produces quickness of response, causes the processes to be more regular, more perfect, more rapid, and tends to automatism.

From these effects of habit, together with the wideness of the field which it covers, its importance is easily inferred. Progress requires flexibility, power to change and to conquer, fixity of useful modifications and the power to retain conquests. Adaptability to new surroundings, and facility of processes presuppose the power of acquiring habits. Without them, not only mental functions like reflecting, reasoning, counting, but even the most ordinary actions like dressing, eating, walking, would necessitate a distinct effort for every detail, consume a great deal of time, and withal remain very imperfect. Hence habit has been called a second nature, and man termed a bundle of habits; and, although such expressions, like all aphorisms, may be open to criticism if taken too literally, yet they contain much truth. Nature is the common groundwork of all activities and essentially the same in all men, but its special direction and manifestations, the special emphasis of certain forms of activity together with their manifold individual features, are, for the most part, the results of habits. Speech, writing, skill in its varied applications, in fact every complex action of organism and mind, which are matters of course for the adult or the adept, appear simple only because they are habitual; the child or the beginner finds how complex they are in reality. Even in merely physiological functions the influence of habit is felt: the stomach becomes accustomed to certain foods; the blood to certain stimulants and poisons; the whole organism to certain hours for resting and awaking, to the climate and surroundings. All mental functions in the adult are the results of habits, or are modified by them. Habits of thought, speculative and practical, habits of feelings and will, religious and moral attitudes, etc., are constantly shaping man’s views of things, persons, and events, and determine his behavior toward those who agree with or differ from him. Observation and reflection show that the empire of habit is wellnigh unlimited, and that there is no form of human activity to which it does not extend. It is hardly possible to exaggerate its importance; the danger is rather that one may underestimate, or at least fail to fully appreciate it.

Habit is acquired by exercise; in this it differs from the instincts and other natural predispositions and aptitudes which are innate. In a series of actions, it begins with the first act, for, if this left no trace whatsoever, there would be no more reason why it should begin with the second or any subsequent act. Yet at this early stage the trace or disposition is too weak to be called a habit; it must grow and be strengthened by repetition. The growth of habit is twofold, intensive and extensive, and may be compared to that of a tree which extends its branches and roots farther and farther, and at the same time acquires a stronger vitality, can resist more effectively obstacles to life, and becomes more difficult to uproot. A habit also ramifies; its influence, restricted at first to one line of action, gradually extends, making itself felt in a number of other processes. Meanwhile it takes deeper root, and its intensity increases so that to remove or change it becomes a more and more arduous task.

The main factors in the growth of habit are: (I) The number of repetitions, as every repetition strengthens the disposition left by previous exercise; (2) their frequency: too long an interval of time allows the disposition to weaken, whereas too short an interval fails to give sufficient rest, and results in organic and mental fatigue; (3) their uniformity: at least change must be slow and gradual, new elements being added little by little; (4) the interest taken in the actions, the desire to succeed, and the attention given; (5) the resulting pleasure or feeling of success which becomes associated with the idea of the action.

No general rules, however, can be given for a strict determination of these factors. For instance, how frequently the actions should be repeated, or how rapidly the complexity may be increased, will depend not only on actual psychological factors of interest, attention, and application, but also on the nature of the actions to be performed and on natural aptitudes and tendencies. Habits decrease or disappear negatively by abstaining from exercising them, and positively by acting in an opposite direction, antagonistic to the existing habits.

II. All organic functions are due to, facilitated or modified by, habit. Some habits, like those referring to climate, temperature, certain foods, etc., are purely physiological, the mind contributing little or nothing. For instance, the same dose of alcohol or stimulants might be fatal for some organisms, while it is necessary for those which have been used to it. Or again, a bird, confined in an enclosed place in which the air gradually becomes foul, grows so far accustomed to the fetid condition of the atmosphere that it may continue to live for several hours after the air has been so poisoned with carbonic acid as to kill almost immediately another bird suddenly placed therein. In the acquisition of other physiological habits, especially those of skill and dexterity, psychological factors have a great importance, above all the antecedent idea of the end, which directs the selection of the appropriate movements, and the subsequent idea of success associated with them. Moreover a number of such habits are made use of under the guidance of the mind. Thus the acquired facility for writing is adapted to the ideas to be expressed; fencing consists in the adaptation of certain movements facilitated by habit to the perceived or foreseen movements of the adversary. They are therefore mixed habits of organism and mind.

Physiological habit supposes that an action, after being performed, leaves some trace in the organism, especially in the nervous system. In the present stage of physiological science, the nature of these traces cannot be determined with certainty. By some they are described as persisting movements and vibrations; by others, as fixed impressions and structural modifications; by others finally, as tendencies and dispositions to certain functions. These views are not exclusive, but may be combined, for the disposition, which has a more direct reference to future processes, may result from permanent impressions and movements, which have special reference to past processes. Somewhat metaphorically, physiological habit has also been explained as a canalization, or the creation of paths of least resistance which the nervous energy tends to follow.

III. Psychologically habit signifies the acquired facility of conscious processes. The education of the senses, association of ideas, memory, mental attitudes derived from experience and from studies general or special, the powers of attention, reflection, reasoning, insight, etc., and all these complex factors which form man’s frame of mind and character, such as strength of will, weakness or obstinacy, irascibility or calmness, likes and dislikes, prejudices, and so on, are due largely to habits intentionally or unintentionally contracted. Owing to the great variety of conscious processes and the complexity of their determinants, it is difficult to reduce the psychological effects of habit to universal laws. The statement frequently made that habit lessens consciousness cannot be accepted without qualification; for sometimes the being accustomed to a stimulus means ceasing to have a clear consciousness of it, as in the case of the ticking of a clock which little by little ceases to be perceived distinctly, while sometimes on the contrary it means an increase of consciousness, as in the case of the developed keenness of the musician’s ear in discriminating sounds of slightly different pitch. Here a few distinctions must be kept in mind. First, between prolonged sensation, producing fatigue and consequently dullness of the sense-organ, and repeated sensation allowing sufficient rest. A second, between mental processes in which the mind is chiefly passive, and those in which it is chiefly active, as habit lessens passive and augments active sensitiveness. Finally one must see whether conscious processes are ends or simply means. Compared to the quality of the sounds to be produced, the special activity of the pianist’s fingers or the singer’s vocal organs is but a means to an end. Hence the musician becomes less conscious of this activity but more conscious of its result. In any case, since the energy flows naturally in the wonted direction, effort and attention are in inverse ratio to habit.

To pleasures as a rule applies the proverb “Assueta vilescunt” (Familiarity breeds contempt). By being repeated the same experience loses its novelty, which is one of the elements of pleasure and interest. But the rapidity of the decrease depends, not only on the frequency of the repetitions, but also on the wealth and variety contained in the experiences; hence it is that some musical compositions become tiresome much sooner than others in which the mind continues to discover some new pleasurable element. Pleasures resulting from the satisfaction of periodical wants, like resting or eating, undergo no change from the mere fact of repetition. Inclinations (i.e. desire and aversion) decrease; desires frequently change into needs of, or unconscious cravings after, experiences which formerly were pleasurable, but have now become tasteless or are even known to be injurious. Persons or things habitually met with, even if they are the source of no pleasure, are missed if they happen to disappear. Painful impressions become less keen unless they are increased in reality or exaggerated by the imagination. By exercise mental activity is strengthened in proportion to natural dispositions and to the quantity and quality of the energy employed. Hence habit is a force which impels to act, diminishes the strength of the will, and may become so strong as to be almost irresistible.

From the point of view of ethics, the main division of habits is into good and bad, i.e. into virtues and vices, according as they lead to actions in conformity with or against the rules of morality. It is needless to insist on the importance of habit in moral conduct; the majority of actions are performed under its influence, frequently without reflection, and in accordance with principles or prejudices to which the mind has become accustomed. The actual dictates of an upright conscience are dependent on intellectual habits, especially those of rectitude and honesty without which it happens too often that reason is used, not to find out what is right or wrong, but to justify a course of action one has taken or wishes to take. Custom also is an important factor, as that which is of frequent occurrence, even if known at first to be wrong, little by little becomes familiar, and its commission no longer produces in us feelings of shame or remorse. The voice of conscience is stifled; it ceases to give its warning, or at least no attention is paid to it.

By lessening freedom, habit also lessens the actual responsibility of the agent, for actions are less perfectly attended to, and in varying degrees escape the control of the will. But it is important to note the distinction between habits acquired and retained knowingly, voluntarily, and with some foresight of the consequences likely to result, and habits acquired unconsciously, without our noticing them, and therefore without our thinking of the possible consequences. In the former case, actions good or bad, though actually not quite free, are nevertheless imputable to the agent, since they are voluntary in their cause, that is, in the implied consent given them at the beginning of the habit. If on the contrary the will had no part at all in acquiring or retaining the habit, actions proceeding from it are not voluntary, but, as soon as the existence and dangers of a bad habit are noticed, efforts to uproot it become obligatory.

Between the child and the adult there is not merely a difference in the quantity of energy, bodily and mental, which they command, but especially a difference of adaptability, coordination or habit, thanks to which such energy is made more available for a definite purpose. Growth or increase and development or organization must proceed together. The main end of education is to direct the harmonious development of all the child’s faculties according to their relative importance, and thus to do for the child that which it is not yet able to do for itself, namely to fit its various energies for future use, and to select from among the tendencies deposited in its nature those which are to be cultivated and those which are to be destroyed. While the work must proceed gradually according to the increasing capacities of the child, the fact must always be kept in view that in early years both organism and mind are plastic and more easily influenced. Later their power of adaptability is much less, and frequently the learning of a new habit implies the difficult task of breaking off an old one.

As the complexity of functions increases, it becomes imperative, as far as possible, that the new elements find at once their proper place and associations, and take root there, since otherwise it would be necessary later on to eradicate them and perhaps transplant them somewhere else. Hence all habits necessary to human perfection must be cultivated so as to be grooved into one another. Hence also the principle of negative education advocated by Rousseau is inadmissible. In early years, according to him, “the only habit which the child should be allowed to form is that of contracting no habit whatsoever”, not even that of using one hand rather than the other, or that of eating, sleeping, acting at the same regular hours. Up to twelve, the child should not be able to distinguish its right from its left hand. With regard to intelligence and will, “the first education must be purely negative. It consists not in teaching virtue or truth, but in guarding the heart against vice and the mind against error”. To judge this principle, it must be remembered that there are three periods in the development of activity: one of diffusion during which actions take place largely at random, and the energy is dispersed in many channels; the second of effort at coordination during which the proper modes of functioning are selected and practiced; the third of habit which removes everything superfluous, and greatly facilitates correct modes of functioning. To prolong the first of these periods, since the last is the most perfect, would be an injustice against the child, who has a right not only to the necessaries of life, but also to the help required for its development. Moreover, it may be asked, how can the heart be guarded against vice, and the mind against error, without showing what vice and error are, and without teaching virtue and truth? How in general can a bad habit be avoided or combated more effectively than by the acquisition of the contrary habit? Experience shows that many good habits, if not cultivated in childhood, are never acquired at all, or not so perfectly, and defects in the adult may often be traced back to early education.

To obtain the best results, it is important for the teacher to know the natural aptitudes of every pupil, for the effort which is possible for one might be, if required of another, a source of discouragement, or exercise even a still more deleterious influence on the mind of the child. The use of rewards and punishments must always be made in a manner suited to the child’s dispositions, and directed by the general effects of habit upon pleasurable and painful impressions and emotions. At the same time that habits grow, attention has to be paid to their dangers, and the child must not be allowed to become a mere automaton. Habits of reflection and attention, together with determination and strength of will, will enable the child to control, direct, and govern other habits.

VI. In Aristotelean and Scholastic metaphysics habit comes under the category called quality. To be the subject of habits a being must be in potentia (see Actus et Potentia), i.e. capable of determination and perfection; and this potentia must not be restricted to only one mode of activity or receptivity, for, where there is absolute fixity, where one and the same line is invariably followed, there is no room for habit, which implies adaptation and specification. On the strength of this condition, Saint Thomas holds that habit properly so-called cannot be found in the material world, but only in the spiritual faculties of intellect and will. In man, however, we may speak of organic habits for such functions as are under the dependence of these spiritual faculties. Matter, even in plants and animals, is the subject merely of dispositions, and the difference between habit and disposition is that the former is more stable, the latter more easily changed. Against this position several objections have been urged. In the first place, the proposed distinction of habit and disposition is not based on anything essential, but on a difference of degree, which seems insufficient to draw a strict line between beings that are the subjects of habits and those that are the subjects of dispositions only. If it is clear that moral habits of will differ from merely organic habits, it is impossible to say why e.g. the habit of a horse of stopping at certain places, or the habits of trained animals differ radically from human habits of skill and dexterity and why to the latter alone the name of habits can be given. Furthermore it is true, as Aristotle remarks, that, by being thrown in the air, a stone will never acquire any facility for taking the same direction, but will always tend to fall toward the center of attraction according to a vertical line; and that after any number of revolutions in the same direction a mill-stone acquires no facility for that special movement, unless it be an extrinsic one due to the adaptation of the mechanism. Nevertheless, in proportion as the elements of a material system are more varied, there is room for different arrangements, and consequently for new permanent aptitudes. In the sheet of paper which, after being folded, is more easily folded again; in the clothes or shoes which fit better after being worn for some time; in the mechanism which gives the best results after some functioning; in the violin which good use improves and bad use deteriorates, in domestic or trained animals, etc., there is something at least analogical to habit, and which cannot be distinguished from it on the mere ground of greater changeableness.

Hence if habit is considered exclusively from the point of view of retentiveness, there is no reason to deny its existence in the material world. It has been even said that, being simply an application of the law of inertia, it finds its maximum of application in inorganic matter, which, unless acted on by some contrary force, keeps indefinitely its modifications and conditions of rest or movement. Hence James writes that “the philosophy of habit is thus, in the first instance, a chapter in physics rather than in physiology or psychology” (Principles of Psychology, I, 105). However, since habit means essentially the specificizing of that which was indetermined, and the fixating of that which was indifferent, from this point of view of plasticity, adaptability, indetermination, selectiveness, it applies more strictly to organic than to inorganic matter, and more strictly still to the will which is capable even of such contrary determinations as temperance and intemperance, speaking the truth and lying, and, in general, of acting in one or another way and of abstaining entirely from action.

VII. In theology, the question of habits has several important applications. In fundamental morals, its discussion is necessary for the determination of the degree of responsibility in human actions, and the treatise de paenitentid deals with the attitude to be taken by the confessor toward penitents who habitually fall into the same sins, with the rules for granting or denying absolution, and with the advice to be given such persons in order to help them out of their habits. The scholastics, using a terminology which is little in accordance with the modern meaning of habit and somewhat confusing to the lay reader, make a distinction between natural and supernatural, and between acquired and infused habits. Of the natural habits some are acquired by practice, others are innate like the habitus primorum principiorum, that is, the innate aptitude of the human mind to grasp at once the truth of self-evident principles as soon as their meaning is understood. Supernatural habits cannot be acquired, since they direct man to his supernatural end, and, therefore, are above the exigencies and the forces of nature. They suppose a higher principle, given by God, which is sanctifying or “habitual” grace. With habitual grace the three theological virtues, which are also habitus supernaturales, and, according to the more common opinion, the four cardinal virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost, are infused in the soul. Of themselves, such “habitus” give no facility to act, but only the power, the mere potentia. The facility__habit proper, or virtue in the strict sense—is acquired by the cooperation of man with Divine grace and the repetition of acts. By sin, on the contrary, these habitus are lessened or lost.


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