The Laws of Habit

The Laws of Habit

Henry M. Cowles

Victorian Britons and their American contemporaries were obsessed with habit. The term served as a catch-all category for a host of anxieties—from manners to moral theory—and captured the attention of philosophers, physicians, men of science, and literary figures for much of the nineteenth  century.  The  study  and  policing  of  habit  linked  technical  studies  in  nervous physiology and asylum reports on the treatment of disinhibition to literature in the new self-help tradition and social analyses of etiquette and dress. In other words, habit was a boundary object of sorts, under the banner of which diverse practitioners pursued the improvement of individuals and of society as a whole. The history of habit can thus serve as a history of the lines separating the moral and the material, the public and the private, the natural and the artificial.

This book project is an attempt to write a history of habit in a period—the nineteenth century—in which the use of the term remained constant even as its meaning radically evolved. Nothing captures this transformation better than the fate of the so-called “laws of habit”—which, in the early-nineteenth century, were subject to social control, but by century’s end had been pushed out of reach of conscious choice and imbued with the power of social determinism and nervous physiology. From a set of choices to be cultivated or expunged, habit became a system of unthinking behaviors. The history of habit, then, is also a shadow history of choice and its limits. The shifting moral inflection of habit in the nineteenth century indexes prevailing views of human agency and the increasing conflation of freedom and reason with (limited) choice.

The project will cover the nineteenth century in Great Britain and the United States, countries in which interest in habit was particularly pronounced and between which a transatlantic dialog about its nature and control flowered from the reception of David Hume’s “science of man” in the late-eighteenth century to the medical politicization of addiction in the Progressive Era. Part I of the book focuses on the relationship between habit and “economy,” meaning both the personal economy of hygiene and daily routine and the political economy of liberal governance and social reform. Part II turns to the rise of a midcentury “self-help” literature, which urged the cultivation of particular habits as a sort of complement to social requirements in ways that both echo and depart from the earlier emphasis on shared economy. Part III addresses the political neurology that took hold at the turn of the twentieth century, when physiologists and psychiatrists recast habit as a pathological network rooted in the nervous system.