Semester of Graduation

Spring 2023


Master of Arts (MA)


Philosophy and Religious Studies

Document Type



In opposition to a tendency present within the history of Western philosophy to regard ‘habit’ as a conservative force (represented by figures including Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant), contemporary philosophers working on habit (including Clare Carlisle and Catherine Malabou) have marshaled the thought of nineteenth century French philosopher Félix Ravaisson. With recourse to the ‘double law of habit,’ Ravaisson, in his 1838 doctoral thesis, depicts habit as both resistance and receptivity to change. I begin, in Chapter One, with a brief overview of the aforementioned negative evaluations of habit, as surveyed separately by Carlisle and Malabou. As these contemporary philosophers observe, Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant (among others) mistake habit for little more than mindless, mechanistic repetition. Habit, in their view, forestalls our efforts to both exercise reason and act freely. So understood, habit consists in a conservative force, capable only of ceaselessly reproducing the same. ‘Habit’ would thus appear synonymous with ‘compulsion.’ In order to rescue habit from this mistaken identification, I offer, in Chapter Two, a philosophical account of compulsion. After isolating the relevant sense of ‘compulsion,’ of which Freud’s theory of repetition-compulsion is exemplary (and which I distinguish from Aristotle’s more originary discussion of compulsion as anankē), I conclude that it is ‘compulsion’ (and not ‘habit’) that more properly names a conservative force marked by a resistance to change. In Chapter Three, I turn to the accounts of habit levied by Hume and Ravaisson to show that the force of habit exceeds mere resistance to change. Hume, emphasizing reason’s limited explanatory power, hypothesizes the existence of a psychological faculty he terms ‘custom,’ or ‘habit,’ which is responsible for supplying us with our beliefs about the future. Ravaisson, exempt from Hume’s restrictive empiricism, goes further by filling in a boldly vitalist account of habit. Attentive to both constancy and change, habit’s plasticity renders it irreducible to the conservative force of compulsion. I conclude, in line with Carlisle and Malabou (and in spite of Derrida’s critique), that habit, in the sense understood by Ravaisson, represents an instance of the pharmakon: at once poison as well as cure.



Committee Chair

Deborah Goldgaber