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Tracing The Force Of Habit Through The History Of Philosophy: An Interview With Dr Clare Carlisle Tresch


It’s one of the most haunting passages in Seneca‘s writings. He says if you were to stop most people as they were going about their day, and “you ask one of them…‘Where are you going? What do you have in mind?’ he will reply, ‘I really don’t know.'” So many people, he continues, unthinkingly gravitate from one thing to the next, they react rather than being proactive, “they scurry around without aim or purpose like ants crawling through bushes.” He’s talking about the power of habit. There is nothing more powerful than a good habit. Nothing that holds us back quite like a bad habit. We are what we do. What we do determines who we can be.
In her award-winning bookOn Habit, Dr. Clare Carlisle Tresch provides an incredibly extensive analysis of habit and its role in the works of history’s greatest minds. Tracing it from ancient Greece to present day, Carlisle gives readers a guide on how to live a good life with good habits. So how do we avoid unthinkingly lapsing into habit? What are the different schools of thinking about habit? What do we commonly misunderstand about the role of habit in our everyday lives? What tools and tactics help us quit a bad habit? Clare answers those questions and more in our interview below. Please enjoy!

You studied philosophy in both undergraduate and postgraduate, and have been a professor now for over a decade. Before we go into the nitty-gritty, why did you get into this line of work? What piqued your interest first in philosophy and then habits specifically?

I fell into studying philosophy: it wasn’t taught at my high school, but when I encountered it at university, in Cambridge, I immediately changed my course from History to Philosophy.  I was fortunate to have some inspiring teachers at Cambridge, including George Pattison, an expert on Kierkegaard, and Susan James, who gave fantastic lectures on Spinoza.  But I wasn’t very focused on my career as a student and I only gradually drifted into academia after finishing my PhD, which was on Kierkegaard. During my early 20s a combination of factors drew me to the question of habit: reading Proust, who gives a lot of emphasis to the force of habit; learning yoga and meditation, which are concerned with the formation of the mind and body through practice; and my personal experience: I had some bad habits that I found frustratingly difficult to change, even though I wanted to, and I wondered why it was so difficult to break free from them.

Early on, looking at the great philosophers throughout the ages, what were some things about habit or behavior change that you were surprised to learn? Anything you think most people don’t understand about habit?

I was surprised to find that habit raises such deep, complex philosophical questions, when it seems to be such an ordinary thing. Habit is deceptively simple: on one level, we all know what habit is, but the more we reflect on it the more mysterious it becomes. When I started thinking philosophically about habit, I saw it as quite a negative force, an obstacle to living a freer, better life. Plenty of philosophers do take this negative view of habit – particularly modern philosophers, such as Kierkegaard and Kant. But I discovered an alternative tradition, beginning with Aristotle and running through the Stoics and later figures like David Hume, Félix Ravaisson, and some of the 20th-century phenomenologists, which took a much more positive view of habit. I became fascinated by this ambivalence towards habit that I traced through the history of philosophy.  The dual character of habit, as potentially both a blessing and a curse, became a focus of my research – so my own perspective and approach changed a lot as I learned more about the philosophy of habit.

The Stoics talk about how if you can your day right, you can get your life right. Can you tell us about some of your essential daily habits? What are the key practices and activities that make up a good day?

A walk round my local park is a good start to the day: it combines fresh air and exercise with connecting to nature, and I think all three of these things is really important.  I’m a morning person and I like to do my writing in the morning.  Ideally I’ll save less creative work for the afternoon, when I feel more jaded.  A swim late afternoon is very good for re-setting that mental tiredness.  If I’ve not managed to swim, a bath or a slow yoga class early evening is a nice way to relax.  But sometimes I don’t have time for any of these things, as I’m often rushing around taking my son to school and cycling into central London, where I work, then dashing back to collect my son and make dinner.  One of my favorite parts of the day is watching a film or TV show with my husband at night, but I’m not sure if this qualifies as a good habit!

In your book On Habit, you look at nearly all of the great philosophers and the interesting things they had to say about habit. But their views varied quite widely. Is there a habit school of thought you bend towards? 

I admire philosophers who recognize the double nature of habit: the way it can be both liberating and oppressive, for example.  Hegel is one of those thinkers, though I find him a difficult thinker to connect with. Spinoza, who is my favorite philosopher anyway – and influenced by Stoicism – gives a very interesting and compelling account of habit in his great work, the Ethics.  While he sees the danger of habit, Spinoza also recognizes that habit is vital to the good life: he shows that you have to harness the mechanism of habit in a way that will be empowering.  I discuss his account of habit in one of the chapters of On Habit, but I also try to develop it in new ways, partly by emphasizing the distinction between habit and practice, which I think is very important and not always appreciated when people talk about habit.  There is a big difference between lapsing into a habit without thinking, and deliberately cultivating skills and virtues through practice.

You talk about how some great thinkers like Kant and Nietzsche believed the force of habit to be an obstacle to the good life. Could you elaborate on that for our readers? Can habit become a curse?

Actually, Nietzsche has a very interesting idea about habit: he advocates “brief habits” as a way of having the best of both worlds – because sheer novelty is exhausting, yet long-term habits make life dull and hamper creativity.  Kant certainly thinks habit can be an obstacle to the good life, because he associates morality with a kind of pure, disembodied freedom.  Kant’s philosophy is really very subtle so it’s difficult to sum it up quickly without getting it wrong – but I would say that he represents a view, which is quite widespread, that habit is incompatible with freedom.  So, for example, we become trapped by our own habits, or we simply don’t bother making choices because it’s easier to act through habit, the path of least resistance.  I think habit certainly can become a curse, if it’s not dealt with skillfully: some psychological therapies are basically methods for unravelling damaging habits, because the people who are trapped by these habits don’t feel able to change them by themselves.

We talk a lot about how the Stoics were big on habits and routine. Fueling the habit bonfire, they called it—we become what we repeatedly do. But we’d love to learn about your examination of habit from a Stoic standpoint. 

Yes, the Stoics were so important not only because they recognized the force of habit, but because they devised practical techniques, or exercises, for living well with habits.  And they approached philosophy as a way of life, not just a theoretical discipline, and that’s a conception of philosophy I really value.  I am drawn to philosophies like Stoicism that insist on ethical, existential engagement with the question: how should we live?  This is why I like both Kierkegaard and Spinoza, even though on a theoretical level they have very different views of the world.  One significant Stoic contribution to the philosophy of habit was their concept of “second nature” which perfectly captures the way our selves and our societies are formed by what we repeatedly do, both individually and collectively, as you say. However I think modern Stoicism can be too humanistic, and perhaps too modest in its aspirations for a good life.

The Stoics promoted elimination and deciding what is essential. This can be a real struggle for people. What are some tips and tactics you’d recommend to someone wanting to quit a bad habit?

The habit is, for the moment, a part of you, and it’s essential to treat it with kindness and gentleness, rather than as an enemy or a monster – otherwise you turn your own soul, or psyche, or mind, into a battleground.  The habit needs to be accepted without being indulged: ok, it is here, it is the present reality, and I would like it to change.  This attitude can promote calmness and clarity, which then allow you to look at the habit very carefully, to understand how it arises, whether it is some kind of defense mechanism, for example, and how it makes you feel.  The very nature of habit means that you have to be patient with it, and patient with yourself as you’re dealing with it.

The Daily Stoic community is always eager about reading recommendations. Can you offer some suggestions? What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?

I definitely recommend Spinoza’s Ethics, which is not only a brilliant work of philosophy but very therapeutic – especially Part 3, on the emotions.  It’s not an easy read, unfortunately, but it is so rewarding.  George Eliot’s novels are also very wise: she has a compassionate, expansive narrative voice.  It’s not widely known that George Eliot translated Spinoza’s Ethics, and I think she channeled some of its philosophical insights into her novels.  I also highly recommend Kierkegaard’s discourses, which are a bit like sermons, though you don’t have to be religious to learn from them: begin with his collection of three discourses on “The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air,” which explores what it means to be human.  But to be honest it’s other people, more than books, who have most influenced the way I think and the way I live.  In my experience, when you meet people who embody wisdom or kindness or courage, or some other noble quality, like being a great listener, they teach you something about how to live that is probably very difficult to learn any other way.

P.S. if you want to channel the power of habit and learn how to cultivate the right habits in your life to be the person that you want to be—check out our Habits for SuccessHabits for Happiness course!