Philosophy, Pragmatism, & Habits

Things have been busy lately, but I’ve decided to write a bit on all the fascinating things I have been reading for school. The text* for my history of psychology class covers Socrates, Aristotle, Cynicism, Renaissance Humanism, Ptolemy, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Empiricism, Positivism, Spinoza, Kant, Rousseau, Nietzsche… and on and on and on. Impressed? I am. It feels like the philosophy degree I was supposed to get as an undergrad. Now if I can just remember any of it for the midterm.

One figure who does stand out for me is William James. Wikipedia can tell you more about his life than I can, so I’ll get to some points that I liked.

James went through a period of deep depression in his life when he became convinced by some of the prevailing scientific thought of his day (hurrah for dogmatic science, bleh) that everything is predetermined, i.e. there is no free will. He was able to finally break out of this by taking a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” in free will, and decided he would act from that point forward as if it did exist. This subjective experience cured his depression, and fueled his career as a psychologist and philosopher.


James’s pragmatism basically states that if something works, it is valid or true. Everything should be judged by its usefulness. James believed this philosophical approach, as well as science, should be used in study. It is also important to note that to James, ALL knowledge was tentative, and NO question was completely and finally settled. These ideas resonated with me because I have a similar view when dealing with “knowledge” in that I value subjective experience and usefulness, and I almost never feel something is absolute or settled. We always have more to learn, and sometimes that new knowledge shapes or even changes what we have learned in the past.


While James believed that humans are like animals in that they are governed by their instincts, he believed that humans have the capability to modify those instincts into new habits. Habits are formed as we repeat any activity. Energy in our brains passes more easily through pathways that have been formed by years of habitual action.

Habits are important for a number of reasons. They simplify our lives, make us more accurate in our behavior, make us less tired in carrying out everyday tasks, and diminish the need to consciously focus on certain actions. For example, can you imagine having to strongly focus every time you went to brush your teeth? It would be tiring. However, once something is repeated enough and becomes a habit, it is not as taxing.

Through forming habits, our brains will become our ally rather than our enemy.

“…we must make automatic and habitual…as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.”

James gives 5 tips to develop GOOD habits and eliminate negative ones:

  1. Put yourself in circumstances that encourage good habits and discourage bad ones. Surround yourself with those who support you. Make the new habit easier to keep and don’t fight unnecessary battles. If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t keep bad foods in your home.
  2. Do NOT allow yourself to act in any way contrary to the habit you are trying to develop. If you have had a habit for years or even a lifetime and are trying to change it, it will take a significant amount of time. If you have a goal to exercise, and don’t follow through when you don’t feel like it, you are only strengthening your habit to NOT exercise.
  3. Engage in positive habits completely to begin with. I can see the importance of this one, but relapse can lead to guilt or shame. In this case, I think we should all work towards perfection in our new habit, but also know the difference between a lapse (minor slip into old habit which is stopped immediately), relapse (a fall back into an old habit), and a collapse (completely starting over).
  4. Intention to engage in good habits doesn’t matter at all. It is the actual doing so. Duh. At the same time, I am often guilty of this. I talk a lot about doing this or that, but actually carrying things out seems to be a different story.
  5. Force yourself to act in ways that are beneficial to you, even if doing so is excruciating or requires a lot of effort. Is the new habit hard to keep up? Of COURSE it is!! You are trying to rewire your brain, and it will take time. But force yourself to act in a way that is aligned with your core values or goals, and eventually it WILL get easier.

* Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An introduction to the history of psychology. 6th ed.

About shenpa warrior

"Patience is not learned in safety." View all posts by shenpa warrior

8 responses to “Philosophy, Pragmatism, & Habits

  • Jen


    I don’t know about this in relation to exercise. Even though I always feel better after I exercise (except when I lift weights) I still have to force myself to do it everyday. I have been doing this for quite some time now. I guess my brain is slow in the rewiring process! πŸ™‚

  • adamf

    That’s discouraging! πŸ™‚ (I’m just getting started on a semi-regular exercise plan) … I wonder, is there anything you are thinking or doing that is reinforcing the habit of having to force yourself to do it everyday?

  • Jen

    I think it is probably because I have so many things I need or want to be doing that it is cutting into that time and so I have to stop myself from doing other things to go and exercise. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the benefits of it, it is just the time factor. Maybe if I change my thinking in some way, I am not sure how to though. I’m the type of person who likes to get a lot done everyday, so I don’t know how to change that about myself.

  • Seth Payne

    Do you think W. James would be upset if I claimed Pragmatism was true in an objective sense? πŸ™‚

  • AdamF

    Not if you found some use by making that claim! πŸ˜‰

  • George

    You sometime must get “The Fingerprints of God” by Barabara Bradley Haggerty. James is mentioned in her book along with a number of others including a slew of doctors, psychologists, religionists, and scientists. Republican Mormons can no longer claim the exclusive venue to God. Very refreshing reading and fits in with my cosmology. I have four copies in my keeping. Three are about to be mailed and given strategically for a few I know who know not how to find Him and doubt that He exists, like James, before his epiphany

  • John

    “if something works, it is valid or true”

    This is interesting. I like this. It is appealing. It may not actually be “true,” but, hey, it might work. I might add the word “enough” at the end. True enough. True enough to work.

    AdamF, have you just begun your PhD this semester? Remember that song from Aladdin? Nail on head. Over sideways and under…a whole new world…

  • adamf

    Just started a few weeks ago!

    I like the “true enough” idea as well. Mind if I borrow that?

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