A genealogical map of the concept of habit

Genealogical map for the concept of habitTogether with Ezequiel Di Paolo, we have just published a paper that is the result of a long lasting research (it is more than 6 years now since we started this project!) of doing a history of the notion of habit, to rescue it as a theoretical primitive for cognitive (neuro)science. The paper is entitled “A genealogical map of the concept of habit“, published at Frontiersin, within a special issue on habit. The work is presented as a mini-review focusing on a genealogical map of the historical trends and influences of the habit concept from Greece to 1980s. Different versions of the map of the genealogy of the concept of habit are available to donwload for future development.

ABSTRACT: The notion of information processing has dominated the study of the mind for over six decades. However, before the advent of cognitivism, one of the most prominent theoretical ideas was that of Habit. This is a concept with a rich and complex history, which is again starting to awaken interest, following recent embodied, enactive critiques of computationalist frameworks. We offer here a very brief history of the concept of habit in the form of a genealogical network-map. This serves to provide an overview of the richness of this notion and as a guide for further re-appraisal. We identify 77 thinkers and their influences, and group them into seven schools of thought. Two major trends can be distinguished. One is the associationist trend, starting with the work of Locke and Hume, developed by Hartley, Bain, and Mill to be later absorbed into behaviorism through pioneering animal psychologists (Morgan and Thorndike). This tradition conceived of habits atomistically and as automatisms (a conception later debunked by cognitivism). Another historical trend we have called organicism inherits the legacy of Aristotle and develops along German idealism, French spiritualism, pragmatism, and phenomenology. It feeds into the work of continental psychologists in the early 20th century, influencing important figures such as Merleau-Ponty, Piaget, and Gibson. But it has not yet been taken up by mainstream cognitive neuroscience and psychology. Habits, in this tradition, are seen as ecological, self-organizing structures that relate to a web of predispositions and plastic dependencies both in the agent and in the environment. In addition, they are not conceptualized in opposition to rational, volitional processes, but as transversing a continuum from reflective to embodied intentionality. These are properties that make habit a particularly attractive idea for embodied, enactive perspectives, which can now re-evaluate it in light of dynamical systems theory and complexity research.

Systematicity of thought and systemicity of habits

I just got back from the workshop “Systematicity and the post-connectionist era“, where I presented a talk entitled “From systematicity of thought to systemicity of habits“. Congratulations to the organizers for this extraordinary experience.

My talk started by assuming the real challenge of systematicity for dynamical approaches. The work of René Thom and Jean Petitot on morphodynamics and cognitive grammars serves as a powerful framework to solve this problem. In the second part of the talk I defend a contemporary re-appraisal of the notion of habit within the Piagetian framework, with illustrations from evolutionary robotics. You can download the pdf of the slides bellow:

Phylogeny of the notion of Habit

Together with Ezequiel Di Paolo we embarked into a historical research on the notion of Habits as theoretical building blocks for cognitive science. Far from the simplified stimulus-response pairing conception of habits defended by behaviorism, we found that habits have long been a very rich conceptual category at the root of the sciences and philosophies of mind, until very recently. Here is a preliminary graph that summarizes some of our results (that would hopefully be published as a paper some time soon):

Phylogeny of the concept of Habit. The graph is still under development but captures the most important trends.

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