For quite some time I haven’t been posting here about focal practices, but I’ve been thinking about them. I’m going to share some of those thoughts now, in a discursive, associative, Adam-Robertsy kind of way.

Let’s start by looking at a passage from Jacques Maritain’s 1920 book Art and Scholasticism:

There is … a fundamental incompatibility between habitus and egalitarianism. The modern world has a horror of habitus, whatever ones they may be, and one could write a very strange History of the Progressive Expulsion of Habitus by Modern Civilization. This history would go back quite far into the past. We would see – “a fish always rots by the head first” – theologians like Scotus, then Occam, and even Suarez, ill-treat, to begin with, the most aristocratic of these strange beings, namely the gifts of the Holy Spirit – not to mention the infused moral virtues. Soon the theological virtues and sanctifying grace will be filed and planed away by Luther, then by the Cartesian theologians. Meanwhile, natural habitus have their turn; Descartes, with his passion for levelling, attacks even the genus generalissimum to which the wretches belong, and denies the real existence of qualities and accidents. The whole world at the time is agog with excitement over calculating machines; everybody dreams only of method. And Descartes conceives method as an infallible and easy means of bringing to the truth “those who have not studied” and society people. Leibniz finally invents a logic and a language whose most wonderful characteristic is that it dispenses from thinking. And then comes the taste, the charming curiosity, the spiritual acephaly of the Enlightenment.

Thus method or rules, regarded as an ensemble of formulas and processes that work of themselves and serve the mind as orthopedic and mechanical armature, tend everywhere in the modern world to replace habitus, because method is for all whereas habitus are only for some. Now it cannot be admitted that access to the highest activities depend on a virtue that some possess and others do not; consequently beautiful things must be made easy.

If we’re going to grasp what Maritain says here, we’ll need some context for this passage. Early in his argument, Maritain makes a distinction between the speculative order – which requires virtues directed towards one end: knowledge – and the practical order – which sometimes requires other virtues. He then argues that “the practical order itself is divided into two entirely distinct spheres, which the ancients called the sphere of Doing (agibile, prakton) and the sphere of Making (factibile, poiêton).”

In his next chapter, on “Art as an Intellectual Virtue,” Maritain gets to the point that I am especially interested in here:

The ancients termed habitus (hexis) qualities of a class apart, qualities which are essentially stable dispositions perfecting in the line of its own nature the subject in which they exist. Health, beauty are habitus of the body; sanctifying grace is a habitus (supernatural) of the soul. Other habitus have for their subject the faculties or powers of the soul, and as the nature of these faculties or powers is to tend to action, the habitus which inhere in them perfect them in their very dynamism, are operative habitus: such are the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues.

The Wikipedia page on this complicated word habitus is quite useful. It rightly points out that contemporary use of the term is almost wholly due to the influence of Pierre Bourdieu, and adds that Bourdieu seems to have used the term for the first time in writing about Erwin Panofsky’s 1951 book Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which he translated. Here’s a key passage from his “postface” to that translation:

Mais en outre, en employant pour désigner la culture inculquée par l’école le concept scolastique d’habitus, M. Erwin Panofsky fait voir que la culture n’est pas seulement un code commun, ni même un répertoire commun de réponses à des problèmes, ou un lot de schémas de pensée particuliers et particularisés, mais plutôt un ensemble de schèmes fondamentaux, préalablement assimilés, à partir desquels s’engendrent, selon un art de l’invention analogue à celui de l’écriture musicale, une infinité de schémas particuliers, directement appliqués à des situations particulières.

My translation:

Moreover, by employing the scholastic concept of habitus to describe the culture inculcated by the medieval Schools, Panofsky shows that culture is not merely a common code, or a common repertoire of answers to problems, or a set of particular and particularized schemes of thought, but rather a set of fundamental schemes, assimilated beforehand, from which are generated – through an art of invention analogous to that of musical composition – an infinite number of particular schemes that can be directly applied to particular situations.

Panofsky’s book doesn’t use the word habitus but rather the phrase “mental habit”; also, Panofsky never mentions Maritain, even though some of his comments on “mental habit” seem to be drawing on connections between moral/spiritual formation and artistic practice that (I believe) Maritain first made. For example:

During the “concentrated” phase of this astonishingly synchronous development, viz., in the period between about 1130–40 and about 1270, we can observe, it seems to me, a connection between Gothic art and Scholasticism which is more concrete than a mere “parallelism” and yet more general than those individual (and very important) “influences” which are inevitably exerted on painters, sculptors, or architects by erudite advisers. In contrast to a mere parallelism, the connection which I have in mind is a genuine cause-and-effect relation; but in contrast to an individual influence, this cause-and-effect relation comes about by diffusion rather than by direct impact. It comes about by the spreading of what may be called, for want of a better term, a mental habit — reducing this overworked cliché to its precise Scholastic sense as a “principle that regulates the act,” principium importans ordinem ad actum. Such mental habits are at work in all and every civilization.

The sentence I quoted from Bourdieu’s Postface to his translation of Panofsky is a kind of expansion of this passage, an unpacking of its implications. Maybe Bourdieu hadn’t read Maritain, but, like Panofsky, he sure sounds like someone who has. Bourdieu unpacks further in his book The Logic of Practice:

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor.

Okay. So where are we?

  1. The medieval schools were strongly formative institutions: through their commitment to certain spiritual and moral practices – prayer, memorization, contemplation, withdrawals and constraints of various kinds – they formed in their members certain strong dispositions of attitude and behavior.
  2. This is not a matter of making people follow rules; indeed, a rule-based order relies upon a debased or degraded model of shaping human behavior, and in the end can, as Charles Taylor has written, do nothing more or other than inculcate “code fetishism” or “normolatry.”
  3. If instead of articulating and enforcing rules, institutions emphasize being formed by certain ongoing disciplined practices, then a genuine habitus can emerge. And one way to know that someone exhibits genuine habitus is to see in him or her what Bourdieu calls “transposable dispositions”: that is, we’ll see a thematic consistency in that person across various contexts. If a person behaves one way at work and a wholly different way at home, or one way in person and a wholly different way online, then we have good reason to suspect that that person has failed to develop a genuine habitus and is at best following certain rules. (I feel seen.)
  4. As Lauren Winner has shown, practices, however necessary, are dangerous.
  5. Nevertheless, habitus is a step towards having something to do rather than a merely a set of responses to stimuli.

All this deserves further reflection.