Wednesday, December 3, 2008

De l'Habitude

In a book store yesterday, looking for something else, I ran across Félix Ravaisson’s De l’Habitude. There were two editions, a PUF edition that also included a much later essay (De l’Habitude was first published in 1838), and a colorful and glossy little Rivages edition that was a few euros cheaper. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking to have bought the Rivages. I think it’s the same house that put out a similar-looking edition of a few Bergson essays on politesse that I also bought on impulse, and with which I was not especially impressed (probably because they were not serious essays at all, but discourses given on the distribution of prizes at lycées—fascinating documents, but not for their deep thoughts on politesse). All evidence suggests that their strategy—slim volumes in attractive packaging—is successful.

In this particular case, I don’t mind. The essay is perhaps best described, despite the anachronism, as a phenomenology of habit. On one level, Ravaisson means by habit just what is meant by common usage: one becomes ‘used to’ doing certain things in certain ways. In order to explain what habit is more deeply, however, Ravaisson is obliged to explain the nature of being. The text begins and ends, circling back on itself, with a consideration of being, “la loi universelle, le caractère fondamental de l’être, est la tendance à persister dans sa manière d’être” (32). The last sentence of the essay summarizes the connection of being to habit, and is a nice example of Ravaisson’s prose: “La disposition dans laquelle consiste l’habitude et le principe qui l’engendre ne sont qu’une seule et même chose: c’est la loi primordiale et la forme la plus générale de l’être, la tendance à persévérer dans l’acte même qui constitue l’être.” (111-2).

The generative principle of habit is the same as that of being, but habit is available to us in as much as we live, and therefore move and change. Ravaisson says, “l’habitude n’implique pas seulement la mutabilité; elle n’implique pas seulement la mutabilité en quelque chose qui dure sans changer, elle suppose un changement dans la disposition, dans la puissance, dans la vertu intérieure de ce en quoi le changement se passe, et qui ne change point” (31). So habit cannot be discussed without setting out a whole doctrine of being in the world, a whole anthropology. This Ravaisson does in wonderful apperçus, and in a few lucid assertions, drawn from the medical science of his day, some of which we might no longer accept—but this doesn’t make a great deal of difference.

I cannot reproduce the remarkable analyses and assertions at which Ravaisson arrives. Habit is what develops when, through the repetition of action, the resistance and effort required to overcome it, decrease, and the action becomes dissociated from the will (volonté). The will, rather than intelligence, is the seat of the individual personality, so habit is really the dissolution of this personality, and the distribution of the intelligence that carries out action into the parts of the body that act. An example much less poetic than those that Ravaisson suggests would be tying one’s shoes. At first you had to think hard to do it, but eventually the active thought gets in the way, you let your hands take over—we’d call that muscle memory today, though habit implies a great deal more than muscle memory.

Because habit is the dissolution of the individual will into the organs of the body, it can become the principle of living being which allows us, or our understanding (entendement), to get a glimpse of that which is otherwise far below it. One’s instincts, Ravaisson says, were never habits, but our habits can become so like instincts as to be nearly indistinguishable from them (82, 95). Habit, then, is access to nature, “l’habitude peut être considérée comme une méthode, comme la seule méthode réelle, par une suite convergente infinie, pour l’approximation du rapport, réel en soi, mais incommensurable dans l’entendement, de la Nature et de la Volonté” (83). It is Ravaisson’s philosophical heritage, I think, to be concerned about effort and resistance (how are we to know we are, if there is not resistance to our will?) and to therefore place the individual with the will. What requires, for me, a real intellectual leap, is the radical separation between will and nature. By the end of the 19th century, and I think still today, resistance and will is equal not to understanding, but to life itself. When, I wonder, did the change take place?

In the paragraph following the above quote, there is a passage that I suspect, if I really understood what Ravaisson means by ‘Nature,’ I would understand. He says, “L’habitude...C’est une nature acquise, une seconde nature, qui a sa raison dernière dans la nature primitive, mais qui seule l’explique à l’entendement. C’est enfin une nature naturée, oeuvre et révélation successive de la nature naturante” (83). What are all these verbal forms doing ? I understand the force of the passage, I think, but not what he is doing with the concept of nature.

The cosmology that emerges from this is something like the great chain of being. The spectrum of being is united by a single principle of life, “La limite inférieure est la nécessité, le Destin si l’on veut, mais dans la spontanéité de la Nature; la limite supérieure, la Liberté de l’entendement. L’habitude descend de ‘une à l’autre ; elle rapproche ces contraires, et en les rapprochant elle en dévoile l’essence intime et la nécessaire connexion” (97). What I find fascinating about this is the suggestion, made here and there, that this chain of being, united in principle, is in fact united only by habit. It is united in appearance; the nature of our access to it guarantees its unity.

In a bold move that is perhaps in keeping with certain tropes of Cousinian philosophy as I recall it (effort and resistance and will), Ravaisson makes the mindlessness to which habit reduces us the condition of distinct thought. Ravaisson rejects the possibility for pure thought to generate change:

Avant l’idée distincte que cherche la réflexion, avant la réflexion, il faut quelque idée irréfléchie et indistincte, qui en soit l’occasion et la matière, d’où l’on parte, où on s’appuie. La réflexion se replierait vainement sur elle-même, se poursuivant et se fuyant à l’infini. La pensée réfléchie implique donc l’immédiation antécédente de quelque intuition confuse où l’idée n’est pas distinguée du sujet qui la pense, non plus que de la pensée. C’est dans le courant non interrompu de la spontanéité involontaire, coulant sans bruit au fond de l’âme, que la volonté arrête des limites et détermine des formes (107).

My impulse is of course to historicize this. I want to know what other people were saying, and the degree to which this was a creative distortion and unlawful extension of the ideas current at the time (which is, I think, a possible description of what Bergson accomplished in his Essai). I know relatively little about this period in French philosophy (now I know more), and I read this little essay only yesterday and today. So I am in no position to accomplish that historicization—perhaps it has already been done.

I think my next steps will be to read the essay Bergson wrote on the occasion of Ravaisson’s death, and perhaps parts of Ravaisson’s 1867 book on 19th century French philosophy. Since I went with Rivages rather than PUF (never again!), I don’t have real notes or bibliographic material, but the avant-propos (not dated, but I assume written recently) does mention these texts. It is otherwise intent on establishing a Ravaisson-Bergson-Heidegger lineage, which, I must say, I hope I would have arrived at without its help. Certainly one could go through and match passages in this essay to similarly worded ones in the Essai sur les donnees immediates de la conscience--they'd mean different things, but sound the same. Similarly, the author of the avant-propos (Frédéric de Towarnicki, who I suppose was one of the French delegation to Heidegger after the war, along with Jean Beaufret) mentions that Proust met Ravaisson in 1899, and gives us a pretty line from A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. Proust must certainly have known this essay. I am surprised, actually, that I hadn’t heard of it in connection with him, but perhaps I have and just don’t remember.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

By a curious coincidence, this book came out in English for the first time the other day: Also, given what you say, I think Janicaud's "Une généalogie du spiritualisme français" would be worth a look.