Habits of the Mind

habits of mind

It may come as a surprise to realize that HOW we habitually think about anything is just as important, and perhaps more primal, than WHAT we happen to think about many things. Over time we each learn to establish and reinforce certain habits of mind that we take for granted. Indeed, we would be disturbed if others were to dare to question our most repetitive and predictable habits of mind.

The following are six different and contrasting habits of the mind that many people take for granted, no matter what the particular subject matter may be.

The first habit of the mind is identified with “monism.” Metaphysical monism  is the notion that fundamental reality ultimately reduces to one thing. Idealists believe it reduces to spirit, mind, or consciousness. Materialists believe it reduces to nature, matter, substances. Epistemological monism is the notion that our ways of knowing ultimately reduce to one exclusive or supreme way of knowing. Again, idealists believe it is through intuition, revelation and illumination. Materialists believe it is through mathematics, reason and science.

The second habit of the mind is identified with “dualism.” Metaphysical dualism is the notion that there are two separate realities or dimensions of reality, such as spirit and nature, mind and matter, and that it is unknown if and how they may be related. Epistemological dualism is the notion that the two separate realms or dimensions of reality are known in entirely different ways since they are non-overlapping sovereign realms of being and existence. Ethical Dualism is the notion that all ethical issues can be divided into two opposite and opposing camps, and that one of them is categorically right and good while the other is categorically wrong and bad.

The third habit of the mind is identified with “dialectical thinking.” This is the notion that the relationship between different points of view cannot be reduced to either monism or dualism, and that the two must co-exist in a kind of creative tension in which each critiques the other yet cannot survive without the other. Dialectical thinkers such as the philosopher Hegel sought to resolve the dialectical tension between thesis and anti-thesis with the idea of a synthesis that reconciles the polarities. This synthesis becomes a new thesis that in time produces another anti-thesis which must again be resolved through the development of a new synthesis. Marxism is based on dialectical materialism, the opposite of Hegel’s dialectical idealism. There are both idealists and materialists who subscribe to the dialectical rather than the dualistic methodology.

The fourth habit of the mind is identified with “ironic eclecticism.” This is the post-modern notion that every view ultimately reveals its own problematic and self-defeating limitations, and that the best strategy is to embrace an eclectic variety of seemingly contradictory views without attempting to integrate them into a coherent whole.

The fifth habit of the mind is identified with “incommensurable pluralism.” This is the other post-modern notion that the various views constitute different “language games and forms of life” that constitute multiple hermeneutical circles that are not so much true or false as functional narratives and plausibility structures.

The sixth habit of the mind is identified with “integrative pluralism.” This is the trans-modern notion that the various conceptions of reality and ways of knowing are distinctly different paradigms and yet they invite creative attempts at pluralistic integration. This may be attempted through positing multiple dimensions and levels of reality and various corresponding ways of knowing. For example, like Ken Wilber we might imagine that reality is constituted of four ontological quadrants – the psychical, physical, cultural and societal dimensions; that it is constituted by five ontological levels — called matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit; and that each quadrant and level has its own preferred epistemological ways of knowing and perceiving an integral yet diverse aspect of a single reality.

What does all this have to do with how we attempt to understand and assess the legacy and influence of different historical ages, intellectual disciplines or social ideologies?

Monists might say that ultimately we are all talking about the same thing, and that the differences are merely either superficial mental illusions or physical epiphenomena.

Dualists might say that ultimately there are two opposing points of view and that only one of us can be right, and so it is time to choose one and take your stand against error and falsehood.

Dialecticians might say that the seemingly opposing views, such as the views of classicists and romantics, humanists and scientists, traditionalists and progressives, libertarians and communitarians, are both partly right and that they provide a complementary critique of the limitations of each point of view.

Eclectics might say that every point of view is problematic in some way and so the most pragmatic option is to try on a little bit of this and a little bit of that without attempting to integrate them into a greater whole. This is the patchwork or brick-a-brack approach.

Incommensurable pluralists might say that classicists and romantics, humanists and scientists, traditionalists and progressives, libertarians and communitarians are each simply committed to different language games and forms of life, and that there is no objectively neutral and independent way to settle their difference. Therefore, the best policy is to live and let live, and to try to respect each other while living across our differences.

Integrative pluralists might say that the differences between classicists and romantics, humanists and scientists, traditionalists and progressives, libertarians and communitarians are real differences that ought not to be trivialized or brushed aside, but that we may still find the common ground that unites us if we envision “a theory of everything” that encompasses multiple dimensions and levels that constitute “unity within diversity.”

Not all of these six habits of the mind are entirely incompatible with each other. One may attempt a combinationalist approach in which several different paradigms are used at different times and in different ways, or one may simply not be aware that one has shifted from one ontological vision and epistemological method according to the changing time of day.

Of course there are also habits of the mind related to different degrees of optimism and pessimism, and to the different ways we view our relationships with others, whether friendly, hostile, trusting, wary, respectful, admiring, scornful, condescending or indifferent. The point is that our various habits of mind eventually begin to seem as self-evident truths that we take for granted. It is what we assume or take for granted that reveals the fundamental architecture of our mind, and it is precisely here that we encounter our most agonizing conflicts and irreconcilable differences with others. Therefore, it is useful for us to consider what are the unconscious and unspoken habits of our mind, that is, not WHAT we believe about many things but HOW we think about everything.


5 thoughts on “Habits of the Mind”

    1. Thanks for your excellent comments. You’ve done some good research. Your critique was of classical Greek and modern Cartesian dualism, the mind/body split. Modern materialism has relevated spirit or mind to an epiphenoma of material, bodily world.

      Your blog did not address panpsychism or panexperientialism as an alternative to dualism, materialism and idealism. I’ve written about these four schools of thought in other blogs and will not re-hash it. Several of the clearest and best books that set forth the panpsychist view in its many historical and contemporary variations are Radical Nature, and Radical Knowing, by Christian de Quincey, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem, by David Ray Griffin, and Panpsychism in the West, by David Skribina.Other related books include Science and the Reenchantment of the Cosmos, by Ervin Laszlo, The Hidden Connections, and The Web of Life, both by Fritjof Capra. I’ve found that dualists, materialists, idealists and panpsychists rarely read each other but tend to stay in their own worldview and hermeneutical discourse, or if they go outside it is only to briefly critique the other views before returning home to the tribe. I’m sure there are many bloggers on the web who would love to carry on an extended debate regarding which of these interpretive options makes the most sense to them and why. I’m more interested in understanding the debate than choosing sides. It’s curious how certain topics have enormous energy for us for awhile and they we find that we’ve moved on to other topics of seemingly vital interest. My present interest is the history of the literary and cultural essay, and the particular cast of mind that finds this written form most appealing. All the best to you as you continue to explain the hard mind/body problem by reducing spirit to matter and mind to brain.Others who have also spent years studying the brain and consciousness will come to different conclusions. In practical terms, how does any of this actually help us to live more authentic, vital, intelligent, creative, compassionate and fully human lives? I would ask this question of all camps, dualists, materialists, idealists and panpsychists included.”How then shall we live?” What are the implications of our views on the mind/body problem for how we regard ourselves, each other, the natural world, and our highest aspirations? If consciousness is merely the illusionary ghost in the machine, then what’s the point of pretending that any of our thoughts, values, intentions and purposes matter since they are just electrical-chemical neurological transmissions? I wonder if you have attempted to address the existential questions of meaning, value, purpose and hope within the reductive materialist framework? Why isn’t Bertrand Russell right in A Free Man’s Worship where he as a materialist declares that the only future for philosophy is one of unyielding despair? How do you avoid this conclusion?

      1. Thanks for a thoughtful reply. One quick clarification that you might have missed in my post, was that I don’t think dualism being false necessarily entails that religious belief is false. It’s not hard to imagine someone’s brain state being restored in some heavenly environment.

        That said, I myself am unable to believe in an afterlife (unless we can eventually engineer it ourselves). So, how do I avoid despair? I find Epicurean philosophy to be helpful. Epicurus observed that death is simply non-existence, a state we were in before we were born. Subjectively, death is an eternal dreamless sleep that we awaken from at birth, visit every night, and return to in the end. It’s important to understand that we never actually experience death, only life. Our experiences end at death. (Assuming there is no afterlife.)

        On panpsychism and the rest, I couldn’t work all of that end in one post. I think panpsychism can be considered true only with a trivial definition of ‘consciousness’ (such as, anything that interacts with its environment). If we use the common meaning of words, then I can’t see it being true in any meaningful sense.

        Hope this reply helps. All the best.

      2. Thanks, that helps. Yes, Epicurean philosophy is usually the philosophy of choice for materialism or physicalism. And I understand that you could not work in panpsychism in one blog. It seems to me that process philosophers like Whitehead, Hartshorne, David Ray Griffith and other panpsychists like Christian de Quincy and David Skrbina have non-trival ways of thinking about the emerging complexity of sentient and reflexive consciousness in relation to what we might call “matter-energy.” Fritjof Capra has an interesting approach that connect substance, form, process and meaning an interactive, non-linear gestalt. I’ve learned that this is the kind of thing that philsophers and scientists will chase around the barn until the end of time. Thanks for taking the time to respond. One underlying philosophical question that usually surfaces here is whether there is or might be a universal information field that connects particular mind-body entities even non-locally, and also whether there might be “an infinite dimension” that some people call God or Being-in-itself that transcends and indwells the time-space continuum we usually assume to be the ultimate reality. It seems to me that we come up against Mystery in asking such questions that push us beyond what we know with critical reason and scientific experiments. There is also the epistemological question about the various ways of knowing. Rational empirical materialsts take the view that reason and science provide us with the only reliable ways of knowing anything, and that everything else is either speculation, sentimentality, fantasy or superstition. Would that be your view?

      3. That would be my view (which you very fairly state), with one caveat.

        I’m a bit uncomfortable with the ‘materialist’ label. Is gravity materialistic? Or the quantum wave function? Or dark energy? If they are materialistic, then what separates the materialistic from the non-materialistic?

        I do own up to the rationalist and empiricist labels.

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