Explaining Actions With Habits
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From time to time we explain what people do by referring to their habits. We explain somebody’s putting the kettle on in the morning as done through “force of habit”. We explain somebody’s missing a turning by saying that she carried straight on “out of habit”. And we explain somebody’s biting her nails as a manifestation of “a bad habit”. These are all examples of what will be referred to here as habit explanations. Roughly speaking, they explain by referring to a pattern of a particular kind of behaviour which is regularly performed in characteristic circumstances, and has become automatic for that agent due to this repetition. Admittedly, we only use habit explanations in everyday life rather rarely. Standard contexts include drawing attention to some (perhaps objectionable) idiosyncrasy, like nail biting, or when one’s habits lead us astray, as in missing a turning off a familiar route. But habits have the potential to explain a vast number of actions. After all, many habits are not bad, but rather helpful. Think of the myriad habits which help in our morning routines of getting up, dressed, breakfasted, and to work. Habits are often not idiosyncratic, but widely shared. Think of habits of etiquette, language use and even reasoning itself. And, as every sports-person and musician knows, most of the time exercising habits does not mislead us, but is of invaluable help, and frees us to turn our attention to other, more important or interesting things. In this light, habits have the potential to explain many of the vast range of actions which we simply take for granted in our everyday lives. Philosophers, have, however, been slow to recognise this potential.