6/16/11

Prophetic Peirce - how we can change habits with body and mind



Charles Sanders Peirce: … the event that causes a habit-change may be a muscular effort, apparently. If I wish to acquire the habit of speaking of "speaking, writing, thinking," etc., instead of "speakin', writin', thinkin'," as I suspect I now do (though I am not sure) -- all I have to do is to make the desired enunciations a good many times; and to do this as thoughtlessly as possible, since it is an inattentive habit that I am trying to create. Everybody knows the facility with which habits may thus be acquired, even quite unintentionally. But I am persuaded that nothing like a concept can be acquired by muscular practice alone. When we seem to do that, it is not the muscular action but the accompanying inward efforts, the acts of imagination, that produce the habit. If a person who has never tried such a thing before undertakes to stand on one foot and to move the other round a horizontal circle, say, as being the easier way, clockwise if he is standing on the left foot, or counter-clockwise if he is standing on the right foot, and at the same time to move the fist of the same side as the moving foot round a horizontal circle in the opposite direction, that is, clockwise if the foot is moved counter-clockwise, and vice versa, he will, at first, find he cannot do it. The difficulty is that he lacks a unitary concept of the series of efforts that success requires. By practising the different parts of the movement, while attentively observing the kind of effort requisite in each part, he will, in a few minutes, catch the idea, and will then be able to perform the movements with perfect facility. But the proof that it is in no degree the muscular efforts, but only the efforts of the imagination that have been his teachers, is that if he does not perform the actual motions, but only imagines them vividly, he will acquire the same trick with only so much additional practice as is accounted for by the difficulty of imagining all the efforts that will have to be made in a movement one has not actually executed. There is an obvious difficulty of determining just how much allowance should be made for this, in the fact [that] when the feat is learned in either way, it cannot be unlearned, so as to compare that way with the other. The only resort is to learn a considerable number of feats which depend upon acquiring a unitary conception of a series of efforts, learning some with actual muscular exercise and others by unaided imagination, and then forming one's judgment of whether the greater facility afforded by the actual muscular contractions is, or is not, greater than the support this gives the imagination. …It is from such experiments that I have been led to estimate as nil the power of mere muscular effort in contributing to the acquisition of ideas. CP 5.479

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