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The Danger of Conceptual Ubiquity, Essay Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1799

Essay

Within Garrison’s account of habit, the author includes an expansive set of concepts, such that his philosophical anthropology can be abstracted as a form of reductionism, whereby the essence of the human being is reduced to his or her habits. In the following paper, Garrison’s account of »habit«, as grounded in the philosophical framework of American pragmatism, will be criticized on the basis of this reduction, insofar as habit is reified to an extent that precludes a more heterogeneous picture of human existence. In particular, potential lacunae within this approach, such as an inadequate account of human freedom following Garrison’s particular elision of the mind-body distinction, the conflation of ontology and anthropology, and the absence of a theory of value following the ubiquity of habit, shall be expanded upon. In essence, Garrison’s account of habit is so all-encompassing, that any theoretical upshot the concept may possess is undercut by a universalization that renders it ambiguous.

Garrison advances three main arguments for the relevance of habit to a prospective rigorous account of philosophical anthropology. Firstly, habit cancels the classical distinction of mind-body dualism, such that the latter is overcome by a pragmatist standpoint that fuses the two notions together, thus demonstrating the efficacy of his approach. Nevertheless, as corollary of such an action, the ubiquity of habit infers that human beings are reduced to a type of automaton, an account which Garrison himself seems to deny with his emphasis on the potential for changing habits through reflection on habits, thus leaving his argument in a contradictory state. Secondly, Garrison extends the notion of habit outside of the anthropological form, so as to include the human’s existence within an environment as itself an instance of habit. This hypothesis is arguably crucial to the author’s reading, since it demonstrates the universality of his schema in terms of its all-permeating effectivity. However, with this gesture, Garrison can be said to enact an anthropocentric reification of habit, whereby the human trait of habit is projected unto ontology itself, thus making it too general to yield theoretical value. Thirdly, Garrison’s ubiquity of habit is to perform a valuable therapeutic function in occupational therapy (thus echoing Garrison’s pragmatic background), as the therapeutic process entails that the client re-think his or her habits so as to improve quality of life. Nevertheless, the consequence of the universal reification of habits is that it is unable to advance a theory of value that distinguishes between habits, thus negating the very pragmatic character of this account.

Garrison (2002) maintains that the distinction of mind-body dualism is archaic, insofar as the prima facie purely cognitive process of “learning has a firm biological basis; mind is not separate from bodily needs, desires, and interests.” (p. 125) Accordingly, there exists a fundamental relationship between mind and body that belies their strict separation. Garrison (2002) chooses to re-formulate this dualism in terms of “the relationship between learning and habit” (p. 125), as based on the pragmatism of William James. In this reading, the understanding of the body, i.e., the nervous system, provides a critical key as to how human beings function in general. Nevertheless Garrison also wishes to avoid a biological reductionist account, because, following both James and Dewey, habits are as much the product of a social context, as they are the result of biological processes. Following William James, habit is also  “the enormous fly-wheel of society” (2002, p. 125), such that habit defines the entirety of human existence: it recapitulates both our social relations and the functioning of our individual bodies. In this regard, however, it can be suggested that Garrison’s account of habit functions as a placeholder for any type of human ontology, to the extent that everything becomes interpreted in terms of habit. Although this is not a biological reductionism, it is nevertheless a reductionism, towards habit as the explicator of human existence in toto. In addition, following such a definition of habit, there is a certain mechanism at stake in this account, whereby an individual is nothing but his or her habits. In other words, if the human being is nothing but his or her habits, where is the possibility for freedom in Garrison’s account? While it could be argued that Garrison does not need an account of freedom, and furthermore, that such a mechanistic functional account is perfectly compatible with current empirical data from, for example, neuroscience, Garrison (2002) nevertheless argues that one can change one’s own habits: individuals “may create a new self by changing their habits of conducts.” (p. 125) However, if the self is essentially, habit what is this supplement of the self that “creates” in light of the ubiquity of habits? With this interpretation, Garrison seems to re-introduce the very dualism he seeks to avoid, as some variant of a disconnected self exists in relation to its habits with the potentiality to change them – in this case, the self would play the very role of a soul or mind, whereas the habit would play the role of the body within such dualisms. Accordingly, habit seems to force the dichotomy between, on the one hand, a form of mechanism, an option which Garrison denies following the potentiality to change habits, and on the other hand, a re-introduction of a mind-body dualism in the form of a self that decides between habits that the author has already posited as ubiquitous. This evinces the inconsistency of this argument.

Garrison further argues that habit is not merely contained within the human subject, but moreover denotes the human subject’s relationship to his or her environment. Thus, Garrison (2002) claims that “researchers and clinicians will never understand habits completely if they insist on divorcing habits from the environment with which they must coordinate to function.” (p. 125) Hence, habit itself is conditioned by the environment. Yet this seems to belie the centrality of habit to Garrison’s account, as something non-habitual, that of the environment, conditions human beings – habit is no longer central to his philosophical anthropology, but rather the environment. Accordingly, the notion of habit seems to lose its very explanatory purchase. Garrison (2002) would nevertheless conceivably oppose this argument by noting that “we humans functionally inhabit our world: we move thought it, and it moves through us”, (p. 125) thus using the word play between inhabit and habit to show that how we live in the environment is also an instance of such habit. Accordingly, habits in “in an organic, functionalist, theory, things are not simply inside or outside; such a world is without withins.” (Garrison, 2002, p. 125) Nevertheless, Garrison essentially performs a fallacy of reification with this argument, whereby he ascribes to nature itself the notion of habit. In other words, if the habitual subject does not live “within” the world, this means that habits constitute the world itself. Accordingly, the term habit is used to explain the entire spectrum of ontological existence; in short, everything is habit. The lucid problem with this reification is that it projects a prospective account of human existence unto the entirety of nature –  in consequence, all science would become the status of habit. Following this definition, we precisely lose critical distinctions between human and nature, between the anthropological and the general ontological, distinctions that help us advance rigorous theories concerning particular regional fields and sub-fields: the account of habit is too expansive to provide any theoretical value following his universalization of the concept.

Such an omnipresence of habit further complicates the pragmatist core of Garrison’s paper, which intends to argue for the efficacy of the concept of habit in understanding the therapeuatic relationship within the setting of occupational theory. The intended payout of his conceptual schema exists in treatment techniques whereby “therapists most often disrupt their clients’ habits to engender reflection” (2002, p. 135, Garrison), such that the client can now critically evaluate his or her own habits with the aim of a therapeutic cure. In other words, the basic reduction of the human being to habit within the therapeutic context now calls for a technique whereby the client essentially breaks from their everyday habits so as to analyze them from a radically different perspective. Nevertheless, for Garrison (2002), this is also a form of habit, insofar as he describes this therapeutic process as “the habit of discerning reflection, as well as the habit of canvassing habits”. (p. 135) In Garrison’s schematic, habit is thus clearly ubiquitous – the reflection on habit is itself a type of meta-habit, from which we analyze the latter. The problem with this ubiquity of habit is as follows: from where does the evaluation of habit itself come from, if everything is only habit? Garrison perhaps would argue that this type of habit could be understood as radically critical, or a habit that is an entirely different type of habit, such that one is able to analyze more mundane habits of the everyday in order to discern potential difficulties. Nevertheless, in this account the only possibility for therapy for Garrison would lie in a theory of value that is somehow inherit to habit, meaning that one can therefore discern a so-called negative habit or delineate habits, through different habitual perspectives. Yet this analysis of the negative habit is performed from merely another habitual level, such that the superiority of the latter would merely be inherent to this type of habitual practice, much like the negative habit itself maintained its own dominance by the fact that it was the habit the client practiced. In other words, Garrison’s notion of habit is so extensive, that it provides little room for a critical reflection on habits, since this critical reflection is a habit itself. Garrison would essentially have to establish a hierarchy of habits that corresponds to a theory of value that is necessary to make judgments between good and bad habits within the context of the therapeutic relationship.

The underlying problem with Garrison’s account is that he applies habit as a universal category that is designed to explain every facet of human behavior. However, by performing this fallacy of reification, Garrison runs into inevitable problems, such as failing to account for changes in habit without re-enforcing mind-body dualism, infusing the environment itself with an anthropocentric character defined by habit, and failing to provide any critical apparatus with which to critically evaluate certain habits, without referring back to another form of habit. Accordingly, following the universalization of his utilization of the concept, the author is unable to provide a rigorous philosophical anthropology, insofar as he performs the reduction of the human being to a concept of habit that includes every aspect of our ontological existence. In this account, the diversity of life is reduced to the monolith of habit.

Works Cited

Garrison, J.W. (2002). Habits as Social Tools in Context. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health Winter, Volume 22 · Issue 1, Supplement, 115-175.

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