Theory, Habit and Agency

There is one image of the relationship between theory and human agency that I would like to problematize. This image suggests that human beings have certain theories and as a result of these theories they act in certain ways. On this image it as if the person engaged in sexual ecstasy is applying a theory of how to engage in sex. This image not only seems wrongheaded because it gives an implausible image of our agency, it is also problematic because it makes us think that the theories that people seem to buy into are what is fundamentally responsible for the state of the world. Theories certainly influence the world, but are rather one factor among many, rather than the dominant factor ruling our world.

It should seem obvious that while the theories we have influence our action they are often not the sole guide to our action as human agency tends towards the habitual and prereflective. We go about our day to day lives doing things habitually without really thinking about what we are doing. It is only at particular moments like when we encounter a problem or find ourselves captured by an insight that we begin to think theoretically about what we ought to do. At these moments theory seem to be the fundamental cause of our action, but when we are actually habitually we are acting on a prereflective understanding of the world which is often opaque to ourselves and not linguistically articulated. For example, when I play my guitar I do not think in order to play this song I need to hold my hand in this way, and move my hand this many times. Instead I have an embodied understanding of how to play this song and I can thoughtlessly engage in playing it. In fact it is when I start thinking about how to play the song that I stop being able to play the son well because my mind is then split between this embodied prereflective understanding of playing the song and more explicit thoughts. Of course when we learn to play a song on the guitar we have to think to get through it, but once we have developed the capacity to play it our understanding is a prereflective (or nonreflective) embodied understanding, as opposed to a theoretical understanding. Furthermore, this is not unique to the playing of instruments. When a kind person offers their seat to someone who needs it on the bus they typically do not do so thinking I ought to be kind, but rather just respond to the situation based on a prereflective sense of what they ought to do. Consequently, this theorycentric view of agency seems deeply problematic and implausible. For the sake of consistency I will refer to the view of agency critiqued above as “the theorycentric view.”

Nonetheless, while the theorycentric view seems implausible when we reflect it still seems to be the underlying assumption of a lot of social criticism and commentary on society. For example, we often hear that the reason for the decay of modern society is that the theories that people accept such as the notion of authenticity, or the theory of liberal individualism leads people to be selfish, narcissistic and vapid. These critiques seem to suggest that what is afflicting modern society is bad theories that are leading us to act badly. But if my critique of theorycentric view of agency is correct than it seems that this positing of theory as the reason behind modern problems is at best hyperbole, and at worst deeply misleading.

Certainly, the theories that people adopt will impact their actions but this is not the only factor impacting their action. Instead, in addition to the theories that people hold, the traits, habits, dispositions, qualities and embodied understandings that people possess will also impact their activity. For example, I can think of many times in my life where I have engaged in some action as a result of a habit or disposition that was opposed to one of the theories that I held about the world. In particular, I loathe cowardice at a theoretical level, but because I have developed the habit of being agreeable, polite and somewhat conflict averse I sometimes will not challenge people’s ideas even when I find them repugnant. On reflection this failure to challenge is a mark of cowardice, as at that moment I lacked the courage to stand up for what I believe in. As a result we can see that theories are not the fundamental cause underlying the state of the world, as there are other factors at play, such as habit and embodied understandings, which seem to be at least equally determinative of our actions and consequently the state of the world. Therefore, it seems that social criticism cannot just focus on being critical of people’s ideas, but rather must focus on fully understanding and critiquing the habits, dispositions and embodied understandings that people have, as these nontheatrical elements of agency impact action and are not reducible to any particular theory that people hold.


2 thoughts on “Theory, Habit and Agency

  1. Very interesting points; I find myself in agreement with you. One thing that I want to bring to the fore in what you said is that theory seems to guide our critique of our actions more than our actually performing that action. This seems implied in your statement, “while the theorycentric view seems implausible when we reflect it still seems to be the underlying assumption of a lot of social criticism and commentary on society”. This suggests the asymmetrical nature of unreflective action and theory. Our unreflective actions should ground our theories, and our theories do not seem to completely ground our unreflective actions, as your claim in this essay, but it seems implied by what you have said that theories are used to change our unreflective actions, whether by macro-level social commentary, or individual self-transformation through reflection on the person we want to be in our actions.

    One begins to wonder whether we can extend the combinations further. Surely we can change our theory on the basis of other theory, but is it possible to change our unreflective actions on the basis of other unreflective actions? It seems that we do and must. There would certainly seem to be some benefits to this, being more embodied in the situation itself than a generalist theoretical approach. But it would seem that changing unreflective actions on the basis of other unreflective actions would it self have to be an unreflected upon process, and thus, not something we can control or provoke. How do we develop such abilities? This would have to be something of a virtue, perhaps even a chief virtue.

    Hmm. Sorry for rambling. Needless to say I find your essay thought-provoking and exciting.


    • You make some interesting points.

      Your first paragraph sums up my position far more clearly than I did in my entire post. The only thing I would add is that while theory can serve to transform action, once the theory has transformed our action that new form of action that we have taken will over time, and with habituation become nonreflective. We can imagine that someone might initially try to be courageous based on some theory, but over time courage will become part of their constitution and so become nonreflective.

      You bring up a really interesting point in your second paragraph. One way in which I can see nonreflective action transforming other nonreflective actions is through the way in which forms of action are transmitted from one sphere of life to another. For example, a business person must view everything in terms of efficiency and profit in his professional life, but this kind of activity seems inappropriate in other spheres such as in friendship, family relations or political life. But yet it seems that forms of activity are unconsciously transmitted from one sphere to another. To return to the example, when one spends much time thinking in terms of efficiency and profit it becomes a part of one’s disposition to think this way in general such that other forms of activity are excluded. So it seems that nonreflective action can alter other nonreflective actions.

      Thanks for your insightful comments.

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