the habit of things

Teaching American philosophy this semester has given me an opportunity to revisit the texts of Peirce. I’ve long drawn great intellectual sustenance from Peirce’s thought, using some of his concepts for example as part of a general critique of Badiou in an essay I published a few years back in the Southern Journal of Philosophy. But I’ve not read Peirce recently and in the interim I’ve been delving into speculative realism, Latour, Hume, and a number of other areas not directly connected to Peirce. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise to come across this passage from “Synechism, Fallibilism, and Evolution”:

If all things are continuous, the universe must be undergoing a continuous growth from non-existence to existence. There is no difficulty in conceiving existence as a matter of degree. The reality of things consists in their persistent forcing themselves upon our recognition. If a thing has no such persistence, it is a mere dream. Reality, then, is persistence, is regularity.

Upon reading this I immediately thought of Latour’s concept of relative existence (which I discuss here in an earlier post). For Latour, as for Peirce, existence is not an all or nothing affair but is a matter of degree. For Latour a thing gains in relative existence as it gains in the number of associations and loses relative existence as these associations decline. For Peirce, moreover, and as is true for Latour as well, this is not a matter of a thing’s gaining or losing in relative existence as they gain or lose associations relative to us. Relative existence is not correlated with human access. For Peirce it is in the nature of things themselves to settle into habits, and when they do so they acquire greater persistence and regularity — that is, greater reality. Peirce is quite clear on this point:

The hypothesis suggested by the present writer [Peirce referring to himself] is that all laws are results of evolution; that underlying all other laws is the only tendency which can grow by its own virtue, the tendency of all things to take habits…In view of the principle of continuity, the supreme guide in framing philosophical hypotheses, we must, under this theory, regard matter as mind whose habits have become fixed so as to lose the powers of forming them and losing them, while mind is to be regarded as a chemical genus of extreme complexity and instability. It has acquired in a remarkable degree a habit of taking and laying aside habits.

The difference between mind and world, or mind and things is simply a difference in the habits of things themselves, whereby grey stones (to use Whitehead’s famous example) have well-entrenched habits and humans have, among their many habits, the habit of laying mental habits aside. We humans are the type of thing that can change its mind, or we can dump the cartload of beliefs as Peirce puts it.

There are many things about Peirce, however, that I find problematic. For one, I find that he is too quick to dismiss Aristotle. In his inimitable way, Peirce rejects Aristotle’s philosophy, seeing in it a philosophy ‘that has dominated the world for so many ages and still in great measure tyrannizes over the thoughts of butchers and bakers that never heard of him…’ Aristotle has thus become for Peirce the metaphysical bad habit that has spread throughout society, such that butchers and bakers (and candlestick makers?) simply interpret the world through an Aristotelian metaphysical lens. One should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, and there is much in Aristotle that we should continue to draw from, especially his concept of substance (this is especially important, for me, in understanding the intellectual tension between Spinoza and Leibniz). The other area I find problematic (and there may be more) is his conception of truth and reality. As Peirce puts it,

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.

The real, in short, is in the end correlated with what we take to be true at the end of the road of inquiry, when all the surprises of the real have been overcome. Peirce, it turns out, despite his claims regarding the habits of things, is thus a correlationist in the end, and yet I don’t think he needed to go down this path. If he had stuck to his guns regarding the habit of things the real could be understood without reducing it to being what we ultimately agree to be real. This is the path Latour took, at least as I understand it.

4 thoughts on “the habit of things

  1. Hi Jeffrey – Very nice post. Regarding the last point, however, I’ve always thought that what he meant is not that the real is “correlated with what we take to be true at the end of the road of inquiry”, as if it were a matter of consensus (“because we agree on this, it must be the truth”), but rather that the road of inquiry, *if* it is to lead to the real (the truthful), would converge on the particular consensus that corresponds to it. In other words, the real is what it is, and inquiry (on the part of anyone) would ultimately converge on it to the extent that the inquiry is adequate to it. The real isn’t dependent on the inquiry converging on it — it’s just defined as that which would be converged on if genuine/adequate/truthful inquiry were given enough time to get to it. It’s kind of a circular definition, and still a correspondence theory of truth (statements are true if they correspond to reality), but this doesn’t preclude a dynamic and changeable real, nor does it *depend* on the human access to the real (i.e. “correlationism”). OF course, I think there’s plenty of room for alternative interpretations of Peirce, given how much he wrote (and how much of it remains unpublished!).


    • Hi Adrian, thanks for this and I suspect we are agreed. You are certainly right that the real is the opinion we are fated to converge upon, but then Peirce often sounds as if that is a limit we may approach and never reach, which leaves him with a pragmatist understanding of truth and reality as that which ultimately bears upon our habitual expectations and behaviors. As Peirce puts it in his “essentials of pragmatism,” the experimentalist, of which it is safe to assume Perice considers himself to be, accepts the theory whereby ‘a conception, that is the rational purport of a word or other expression, lies exclusively in its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life; so that…if one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept, and there is absolutely nothing more in it. For this doctrine he invented the name pragmatism.’ For me what I think is going on is that Peirce is trying to steer a path between the scylla of continuity and realism and a Humean nominalist anti-realism of the discrete. Depending on how charitably I read Peirce determines how successful Peirce is able to avoid a nominalist anti-realism. When Peirce discusses the habits of things I think Peirce is quite successful, or one can push his thought in a direction that will be (as I think Latour does), but when he talks about the convergence of opinion I think he is less successful. But as you note, there is room for alternative interpretations and I’m open as always to hear how others understand Peircean realism.

  2. Here’s a case study:

    How is it Anonymous remains a thing and not a thing (leaderless), yet self-regulates?

    I’ve seen it with my own eyes, subgroups dispersing and regrouping when erratic and obnoxious influences came into the operations, like people say about the Internet – it sees censorship as damage and routes around it.

    I’m also trying to put Object Oriented and Process Relation material to use in my own project, Magnanimous. I don’t attack or deface. I write patent sniffers.

    Things just got real. Pun intended.

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