I posted the following status to Facebook this morning:

William James apparently said that people are “mere walking bundles of habits.” Am currently contemplating that idea. Corresponding idea, also from James: “my experience is what I agree to attend to.” Still deciding to what extent the latter statement comforts me, in light of the potentially depressing implications of the former.

I wanted to expand a little on what I was thinking.  I’m going to try very hard to not make this an “Oh look, it’s New Years Eve, let’s reflect on things” post, but the topic is already leaning in that direction a little bit…

Another way of stating the first position articulated above is that “you are what you do.”  We do (and DON’T do) certain things over and over again, every day, and clearly those actions shape who we are, both in the simplistic sense of regular exercise changing our bodies into ones that can do exercise, and in the more complicated sense of channeling our thoughts, emotions, and impulses through the “terministic screen” of our experience.

[Brief tangent: I have always been fascinated by Burke’s concepts of the terministic screen and the representative anecdote.  They both seem like powerful ways of describing one of the fundamental aspects of humanistic study: accounting for, and attempting to better understand, the different perspectives we each occupy/accumulate over time.  A brief definition for those who aren’t familiar: the terministic screen is simply a term for the process by which language not only attempts to reflect reality, but also (necessarily) selects some portion of it, thus deflecting other portions.  In other words, our perception of the world is limited/inflected/altered by the language we have to describe it.  The representative anecdote is a specific kind of language selection, an idea or story or image that is at once representative of a larger discourse, and yet is reductive/compressed.  The representative anecdote allows one to characterize a topic, to suggest a certain way of approaching it, while also not claiming a comprehensive or totalizing point of view.]

I’m a bit frightened by the idea that my day-to-day habits are directly connected to my personality/self-hood.  I have two reasons for my fear.  The first is rather abstract, and stems directly from philosophy courses I took in college (which, when done properly, seem like they should be a source of paralyzing fear: what 18-year-old wants to contemplate the size of the Universe, their role in it, and their ethical imperative to live a “good” life and attempt to better the human condition?  well, all of them, really, but that’s because they have no idea what they’re getting into).  The second reason stems from a conversation I had with a friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in about 10 years (since graduation, essentially).

The abstract reason:  I took a class entirely on Friedrich Nietzsche when I was a sophomore at Haverford.  One concept in particular made an impression on me: the idea of the eternal recurrence.  Essentially, Nietzsche posits a scenario in which the world repeats an infinite number of times; everything that has happened or will happen, from the creation of the Universe to its dissolution, happens an infinite number of times.  As a standard for judging the worth of an action, he suggests that one ought to be able to look back on one’s life and reaffirm each action one has taken; on a grander scale, the measure of human greatness, then, is to look at one’s life and actively desire the exact same actions and outcomes.  The actual metaphysical nature of the eternal recurrence is irrelevant (who cares if the Universe is actually recurring, we certainly can’t know if is), but the implication for day-to-day life are a bit burdensome: would you look back and affirm watching that tv show?  Or taking a nap instead of going to the gym (or vice versa)?  This one maybe doesn’t make as much sense yet.  Maybe explaining my second fear will help.

I got together with a bunch of friends from high school two nights ago.  Some I have seen a lot over the intervening years; others (and one in particular) I had not seen at all.  My friend Dugan has been living an interesting life since we all graduated: he dropped out of college (though I got the impression he later got a degree from somewhere?), wandered around the country working in a variety of trades, and eventually landed in Texas working in Oil and Gas (as a “Penetration Expert,” a title he still blushes at when he tells people).  He has recently left that profession, though, and has moved back to Mystic, Connecticut (his home town), looking to change careers.  In the course of the ten years since I’ve seen him, though, he has experienced quite a lot of “life” in the perhaps-cliched sense: his travels, his variety of occupations, his (apparently numerous) romantic liasons, all of these things he described to me in an enthusiastic, but also rather matter-of-fact, way.  He had enjoyed the tumult and the constant movement, but he also just thought of that as “life.”  I, in turn, was able to say something to the extent of: “I’ve spent the past ten years in school.”  And certainly, my current occupation is not just “school,” and I have experienced a great deal of growth and development, but of the kind that involves a lot of staying in one place, not meeting a ton of people, and mostly experiencing the world through a rather narrow academic lens.  I chose that life, and chose it pretty early-on, knowing that it was what I was best suited for.  I don’t think I could handle having the less-settled life that Dugan has lived; I’d probably be a wreck by now, worrying about what I was doing with myself.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if, in the final analysis, I will affirm my choices in the context of the eternal recurrence, if the path I’ve chosen has lead to habits that have created the me that I wanted to be.

Which brings us back to James, from above: the purpose of the second quotation is, I should think, to mitigate some of the scariness attendant on a description of life that seems to lead pretty easily into thoughts of predestination: we are each a bag of habits, formed by past experience, and as such our free will is an illusion created by the aggregation of pre-determined emotional responses (or, perhaps at best, we are constantly losing more and more of our free will, as each decision that we make is determined by more and more previous experience).  But predestination is not something that concerns me; I almost can’t fathom it as a reality.  I feel inclined to treat the subject in the same way Johnson did Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism: I “refute it thus” by simply making a decision, and being as satisfied as I can about anything that my decision was not pre-determined (a simplistic treatment, but I don’t really want to go into more detail here).

No, what bothers me is not predetermination, but the rather hefty significance these philosophical theories seem to place on each particular moment.  James’ point that “my experience is what I choose to attend to” is no help there; if I make a bad choice, I have only myself to blame.

In more concrete terms (since the ramblings above might not be immediately recognizable as being related to real things), I’m brought back to a conversation I had with friends while at a wedding recently: we were talking (perhaps too academically/pedantically) about the possibility of having a profession in which one does not engage in activity that one would define as “drudgery.”  My argument was, put as simply as possible, that I think it possible there are people for whom their work, even the parts that are repetitive or painful, is thoroughly enjoyable, AND (this is perhaps the important part) NOT just in a Protestant-Work-Ethic kind of way where you enjoy the thing because you are thinking about what it will eventually get you (Michael objects to the idea that those two are separable, arguing that what the thing will get you is too closely connected to your experience of it, but my own lived experience disagrees with that assertion, though I have yet to articulate that fact to him).

Whether or not I’m right about the *possibility* of such a supremely satisfied and self-actualized worker (if we include artists, I’d assume my point to be less controversial, but maybe not?), the question seems to remain of how close to that ideal one should want/need to get in one’s own life.  Clearly drudgery of some sort is unavoidable.  Michael, though, makes the point (and again, one I’m not sure I agree with) that “there are no boring things, only boring people” (meaning boredom is an over-focus on being uninterested, when there is pretty much always something to be interested in, if not in a given thing then in life more generally).  So at what point does a change of life involve a change of attitude as compared to a change of habitus?  Are the two the same?  (I think there is a paper, somewhere, in Burke’s discussion of Attitude–as the missing term to be added to the Pentad–in relation to action and motion.  I should say: there are already several papers, and I tried to write another one, and failed, but I believe there is still something to be said on the topic).

Enough.  My New Year’s reflections have remained pretty firmly in the realm of the intellectual rather than the practical, which is perhaps where they belong.  Time, though, for me to put in a more concrete effort to actually make the new year some little bit better than the old year.

*Wikipedia disambiguates “habitus” in a rather interesting way, listing two primary senses: the sociological term that, though traced as far back as Aristotle, relates mostly to Bourdieu (as well as Mauss, Husserl, and Weber), and describes “a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste,” and the biological term that “refers to the instinctive actions of animals and the natural tendencies of plants.”  That distinction itself seems worthy of a post, or at least of inclusion in my imagined paper on Burke.