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Getting in the Habit of Better Explaining Written Thoughts

Penguins's picture

 As some of you from our class know, I had originally planned to write a more ‘Choose-your-own-adventure’ style narrative as a conversation with William James, with several different choices leading to different outcomes, depending upon which philosophical direction the readers’ conversations with him took. However, due to my own difficulty grappling with and understanding his texts, I (and our Professor Anne) decided that this was perhaps too ambitious a project for me to successfully complete, so I scaled back quite a bit, and ended up with a one-way conversation with Mr. William James (yes, not quite as exciting as three-way, I know…). Therefore, in the spirit of attempting to become better acquainted with his texts, I decided to choose one (being “Habit”), and re-read it, visiting several points and having ‘William James’ better explain passages that either gave me trouble in the past, or that I already did understand well, but would have liked a bit more exposition on. So, without further ado, here follows a transcript of a conversation between William James and myself, concerning his not-so-recent essay “Habit”.


Getting in the Habit of Better Explaining Written Thoughts

Myself: Hello, and welcome Mr. James! It’s so good to have you visit, especially to explain a good several things to me concerning your writings.

William James: Certainly; but only, of course, if you draw your own conclusions from what I have to say. It does not seem very practical to follow every word that I say to the letter, since in doing so you would only be compromising the idiosyncratic nature of your own personal philosophy.

Myself: I suppose so. However, in reading your essay “Habit” (among others) I found myself rather confused during several passages, and would like to begin with this sentence, “That is, they [outward forces or inward tensions] can do so if the body be plastic enough to maintain its integrity, and be not disrupted when its structure yields.” (James, 10) I was hoping that you would be able to clarify what exactly you mean by the body being ‘plastic’?

James:Plasticity…in the wide sense of the word, means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” (James, 10) For example, were you to press your thumb into a mound of clay, it would yield only so much in that it would not promptly fall apart by virtue of the fact that you are attempting to mold it. In this sense, “Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity of this sort; so that we may…lay down…as our first proposition the following: that the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed.” (James, 10) Does that answer your question?

Myself:  Most unfortunately no, although I do now have a general idea of the term. However, something else that also confused me a bit was, “The most complex habits, as we shall presently see more fully, are, from the same point of view, nothing but concatenated discharges in the nerve-centres, due to the presence there of systems of reflex paths, so organized as to wake each other up successively—the impression produced by one muscular contraction serving as a stimulus to provoke the next, until a final impression inhibits the process and closes the chain.” (James, 11) Aside from the fact that this was obviously a run-on sentence, could you possibly tell me more about what you were trying to convey in here?

James: Should you look further within the essay, you will find a diagram marked with the letters A-G’, along with a-f. Here, I elucidate that the beginning of the sequence, V, represents the impulse that carries out the command to begin a series of conditions and sensations that result in some sort of habitual action. For since “In habitual action…the only impulse which the intellectual centres need send down is that which carries the command to start.” (James, 14) this concludes that habitual actions are in fact the most simple, requiring only a single process in order for them to be carried out.

Myself: Alright, although now that you mention ‘sensations’, is there any particular meaning that you would be ascribing to this word?

James: In the context of my essay, ‘sensations’ are the sort of nerve-currents running through our minds that we do not consciously pick up on, since should we do so, would be a sign that something is not performing correctly. A favorite illustration of mine concerning this context comes from Schneider, as he states that, “…even when our attention is entirely absorbed elsewhere, it is doubtful whether we could preserve equilibrium if no sensation of our body’s attitude were there, and doubtful whether we should advance our leg if we had no sensation of its movement as executed, and not even a minimal feeling of impulse to set it down.” (James, 15)

Myself: Okay, thanks for the clarification! I found something a little later on that interested me, however. While describing habits as second nature, you provide the examples that, “Men grown old in prison have asked to be readmitted after being once set free. In a railroad accident a menagerie-tiger, whose cage had broken open, is said to have emerged, but presently crept back again, as if too much bewildered by his new responsibilities, so that he was without difficulty secured.” (James, 16) Would you happen to have a theory on why this is so?

James: While it may not be my own, there is another theory that describes this psychological phenomenon by Plato, better known as the “Allegory of the Cave”. Suppose that we have rows of prisoners confined to a certain part of a cave, condemned to only view and define as reality shadows of props and puppets moving against the wall. Should a prisoner be released for whatever reason, “…he is forced to look upon the fire and objects that once dictated his perception of reality, and he thus realizes these new images in front of him are now the accepted forms of reality. Plato describes the vision of the real truth to be ‘aching’ to the eyes of the prisoners, and how they would naturally be inclined to going back and viewing what they have always seen as a pleasant and painless acceptance of truth.” (Rice, par.4) When we attribute this theory to mine of ‘habit’, it reinforces then my point that habit is a deeply-ingrained set of nerve-currents in the mind that for better or for worse, are there to command down to our most basic of actions.

Myself: True, that does make sense. I do have to point out another passage within your essay that I particularly liked, “There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.” (James, 19) While I personally think the word ‘manly’ could be omitted, I appreciated the way it advocated being straightforward, and quite frankly, practical, especially as your main school of thought is Pragmatism. I am quite curious, however, as to how you could so easily slip this thought into your essay, considering your own tendency to be incredibly indecisive within your own life (Shall I dare mention the constant name-changing you performed for your youngest son…?).

James: Eschewing that more personal attack, I wrote this declaration in condemnation of habits held by others that are either hypocritical, or utterly disregarding of others’ wellbeing. For example, “Rousseau, inflaming all the mothers of France, by his eloquence, to follow Nature and nurse their babies themselves, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital, is the classical example of…” (James, 19) when I describe one who prescribes others to work to form a beneficiary habit, while he himself, mired so in his emotion, makes no move to do so himself. In terms of this habitual failure to act in favor of indulging in one’s fruitless emotions, I also present to you the example of, “The weeping of the Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale.” (James, 19) This trend is what I find utterly detestable, and is regretfully the negative side of this theory of habit I had written on.

Myself: It was fairly enlightening, however! Thank you again for taking the time to better examine your essay of “Habit” with me, and I shall hopefully as a result find your essays that much more accessible in the future!

Works Cited

James, William. The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1977. Print.

Rice, Brian. "Plato's Allegory of the Cave: Analysis and Summary." AssociatedContent01Mar2006: n. pag. Web. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

Getting out of the cave

What is tickling me most in your return to William James, Penguins, is the sense of friendly "visiting" with which your essay begins: its clear recognition, for example, that James doesn't want to you to bow down to, or even to write down, all that he says, but rather to filter his suggestions through your own "idiosyncratic nature."

So let's talk some more about those points where your questions--for example, about the meaning of "plasticity" (a key term in James's vocabulary) or the way in which "complex habits" are just a sequence of muscular contractions which "wake each other up successively"--don't seem to be adequately answered by your return to the text. Where I'd especially be interested in more conversation is the point where James claims that tigers and prisoners (both Plato's and our contemporaries) prefer their cages to freedom, would rather live within the confines of what they already know, of what is habitual, than risk the uncertainties of the world outside .... How might you apply such an analysis to your own intellectual life here, or to that of Mawrtyrs more generally?

There are also no transitions as you move from one passage to another....does each of these passages seem to you discrete? Can you begin linking them together, making them less into independent statements, more into a "stream" of thought, in which each idea leads logically to another?

Are you really calling James a hypocrite, as you conclude, because he, like both Rousseau and the Russian lady, advised others to act in a way he would-or-could not himself? Because finally you don't actually do, either, what James challenges you to do: "draw your own conclusions from what he has to say." You quote him, and say yes-you-get-what-he-says-or-no-you-don't. But you don't actually respond and make this material your own, with applications in your own life, or extensions of his ideas into your own contemporary world. Do you want to take that step in your next project? Get out of the cave....?