On Philosophy

June 13, 2007

The Philosophy Of Proust: Habit

Filed under: The Good Life,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:00 am

Note: here I am not trying to explicate the philosophical positions that Proust himself may have had, rather I am using In Search Of Lost Time as a jumping off point from which to investigate various philosophical issues.

Many of Proust’s characters (perhaps all of them in some way or another) are ruled by habit in some aspects of their lives. The aunt, for example, is so locked into her routine by habit that she never leaves the house. And the narrator as a boy has a habit of receiving a goodnight kiss from his mother, a habit which makes him extremely upset when it is broken. Thus we are naturally moved to question whether habit is a good or a bad thing. Should we try to avoid being ruled by habit in any way?

On a first examination it would seem that habit is something that is to be avoided. As is illustrated most clearly by the case of the aunt, habit tends to reduce our freedom. By this I mean to say that it reduces our options, since some options become ruled out by habit, as they would break with it. But, as I have argued elsewhere, having options is important to leading a well-lived life. The well-lived life is one in which we are able to pursue that which brings us satisfaction. And that pursuit requires us to have as many options open to us as possible, since we never know where it will take us, and because the object of our pursuit may change over time. Thus habit is likely to interfere with the well-lived life.

Another problem with habit is that it can be a source of unnecessary misery. This is best illustrated by how bothered the narrator is when his bedtime ritual is broken. Clearly if he hadn’t had this habit then a change in the routine wouldn’t have bothered him. And thus he would have been much happier, at least for that night. So again, it seems that habit just creates problems, and thus that it should be avoided whenever possible.

But of course we haven’t considered the advantages of habit yet, and there must be some, otherwise we would have all given up habit long ago. The first of these advantages is a converse of the previous disadvantage. Although habit can lead to pain that wouldn’t otherwise have existed it can also create pleasure that wouldn’t otherwise have existed, specifically the pleasure of being able to act in accordance with habit. It is true that the narrator would have been able to avoid being upset had he not cared about his bedtime ritual, but if he hadn’t cared about his bedtime ritual then we wouldn’t have taken any joy from it when it had been fulfilled on all those other nights. And given that the ritual is fulfilled much more often then it is broken the habit may thus bring more pleasure than pain, overall.

A second advantage of habit is that it makes people more predictable. Of course predictability can be bad in some situations, because it is possible for predictability to be taken advantage of. But usually we find ourselves in situations where people desire to cooperate with us. And it is easier to cooperate with someone if you can predict how they are going to act. For example, if you know that a person will always be at a certain place at a certain day you can use that knowledge to meet with them without having to go through the trouble of making arrangements. It also reduces the chances of accidentally coming into conflict with someone you wish to cooperate with; if you know that someone always prefers one of two kinds of cookies, and you are both presented with one of each, then you, having no preference, can take the one they won’t choose, and thus the both of you will be better off. In economic terms we could say that habit reduces the barriers to cooperation.

Finally we come to the possibility that habit adds something to life. Proust says of habit: “that skillful but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds suffer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our minds are none the less only too happy to discover at last, for without it, reduced to their own devices, they would be powerless to make any room seem habitable.” Here Proust seems to be saying that without habit we would be in some way lost. Now I don’t know whether Proust is right about this, that we couldn’t feel at home anywhere without habit. However it seems likely that we need some amount of habit simply as a psychological fact. Habit relieves us of the need to think through our actions, and we can’t go around all day thinking about everything we do; it would be mentally exhausting.

Given that there are both good and bad aspects of habit it would seem then that we should neither completely embrace nor reject it, rather we should try to strike some kind of Aristotelian balance. A balance between how many habits we have, and a balance as to how strong those habits are. Sticking to weaker habits makes them easier to break when necessary, and less painful when frustrated. But having some habits allows us to be somewhat predictable to other people and to derive the psychological comfort we need from them.

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