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Habit

from ENTRIES

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2016

Patricia Easton
Affiliation:
Claremont Graduate University
Lawrence Nolan
Affiliation:
California State University, Long Beach
Lawrence Nolan
Affiliation:
California State University, Long Beach
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Summary

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle famously says that virtue is a hexis. This term, which comes down to us from the Latin habitus, is often transliterated in English as “habit,” though some commentators note that Aristotle is claiming that virtue is something active requiring attention, practice, and reflection, whereas the word “habit” suggests something passive and involuntary. Descartes’ use of the term habitus, or habitude in French, is more complex. He sometimes uses it to refer to our natural dispositions or to ones that we formed in childhood prior to being in full possession of our reason. Typically, these are vicious habits that Descartes encourages us to overcome by replacing them with virtuous ones, but unlike the former the latter must be actively cultivated. Habits play a prominent role in two aspects of Descartes’ philosophy: his account of happiness and virtue on the one hand and his epistemology on the other. What follows is a separate discussion of each.

1.Virtue and Habits

Although Descartes often treats habits as obstacles to the search after truth, habits are instrumental and essential to living a virtuous and happy life. Descartes’ treatment of habits within his moral psychology and philosophy is developed most fully in his final work, Passions of the Soul (1649). There, Descartes explains that humans are a union or composite of mind and body, and passions are modes of this union (see human being). Passions and actions that promote the preservation of the union are virtuous and good, and those that harm the union are bad. Because humans cannot directly arouse or suppress passions or directly will the body to move, they must do so indirectly by means of representing things that are joined to certain passions (Passions I.45). The joining of particular ideas to particular passions results from habit – a disposition to act in a certain way that is acquired by nature or by repetition. Thus, habit formation is a key ingredient in the training and guiding of our actions. In the pursuit of happiness, habits serve as the mechanism for regulating our passions – instituting the right idea-passion couplings (by nature or repeated experience) that produce beneficial actions.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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References

Davis, Richard. 2001. Descartes: Belief, Scepticism and Virtue. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Easton, Patricia. 2012. “Descartes on Moral Judgment and the Power of the Passions,” in Essays on Neuroscience and Political Theory: Thinking the Body Politic, ed. Valk, F. Vander. London: Routledge, 74–90.Google Scholar
Nolan, Lawrence. 2005. “The Ontological Argument as an Exercise in Cartesian Therapy,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 35: 521–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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  • Habit
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.125
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  • Habit
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.125
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Habit
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.125
Available formats
×