Habit and History

Ethical Perspectives 8 (3):156-167 (2001)
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In 1919 Emily James Putnam gave twelve lectures at the New School under the title of “Habit and History.” The course description is as follows:The long predominance of habitual conduct over individual initiative in primitive society and in the early empires; the biological and social limitations which tend to foster habit and develop it beyond its proper sphere; the technique of habitbreaking inaugurated by the Greeks and becoming a characteristic of western society; an effort to appraise the amount of excessive and undesirable habit in thought and action generally connected with such concepts as nationalism, religion, the status of women, etc.It is an interesting challenge, eighty-two years later, to try to understand what Mrs. James meant by that description and how to think about those issues today. Mrs. James contrasts the term `habitual conduct' to the term `individual initiative,' and finds the former more characteristic of primitive society and the early empires whereas the latter, beginning with the habit-breaking Greeks, is more characteristic of Western society. She does not reject habit altogether, indicating that it has a `proper sphere,' but only `excessive and undesirable habit,' and she suggests that nationalism, religion and the status of women are spheres where such excessive and undesirable habits are to be found.Without being able to peruse her lectures in detail, I cannot be sure of all that she is implying. One might note that in her contrast between habit and individual initiative she privileges, as until recently we have been wont to do, the West as against the rest. This contrast, with its whiff of Orientalism, might serve to warn us that, although the contrast at the heart of her lecture series is still part of our common sense today, it, like the contrast between the West and the non-West, ought not be affirmed until subjected to a degree of critical suspicion



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