Dispositions and Habits of Mind, Part 2

Here is what Henry says about the connection between a disposition of mind and a habit of mind:
"A habit and a disposition are in the very same thing, and they differ only as complete and incomplete, such that what began in an incomplete and imperfect manner is called a disposition. When, through a received augmentation, it will reach a perfection [that is] determined and complete, the name 'disposition' no longer applies, and it is called a 'habit'. In this way, the disposition itself becomes a habit in the way that a child is to an adult, and when one becomes an adult the name 'child' no longer applies."
Why is it that John at age 25 can think about Aristotelian metaphysics, but John at age 10 cannot? There are different ways one could interpret what it means to say that someone 'can think about' Aristotelian metaphysics. In the most basic sense it means that someone is the kind of being that, if in the right situation, could be thinking about Aristotelian metaphysics. Humans are the kinds of being capable of thinking of Aristotelian metaphysics in this basic sense of 'able to think about'. Further, suppose a human has never heard of, let alone read, Aristotle or any Aristotelian. Suppose that John at age 10 was entirely ignorant of Aristotle or any Aristotelian ideas. Nonetheless, since John at age 10 is capable of thought, it is not impossible for him to have such thoughts; it's just unlikely.

However, suppose John at age 19 goes off to college, studies Philosophy, and is introduced to Aristotle and Aristotelian metaphysics. Imagine that on the first day of class John hears lots of words, lots of interesting ideas, and he 'kind of gets it'. The ideas are present to his mind in such a way that he is thinking them while the teacher lectures. Nonetheless, John faintly 'gets' what he's being taught. We might say that at this point in time, John has the condition or disposition for thinking of Aristotelian metaphysics. The content is present to him right now, but it won't be for long--unless John does something: John must desire to understand Aristotelian metaphysics if he is going to retain the content (and in turn get an 'A' on the final exam). And, because John desires to understand this, he spends his semester reading various treatises by Aristotle: Categories, Physics, and Metaphysics, and maybe some secondary literature too, perhaps things that Terrence Irwin has written. By the end of the semester, John has a basic grasp of what Aristotle was up to. But he realizes that there is a lot more to figure out. We might say that at this point, John has moved from having a disposition for thinking of  Aristotelian to a habit for thinking of Aristotelian metaphysics.

According to Henry of Ghent, a disposition of the mind is a quality that inheres in a person's mind. To say that John has the disposition of Aristotelian metaphysics present to his mind during the first day of philosophy class means that John thinks of Aristotelian metaphysics but he could very easily forget what he was thinking about, and his grasp of it is weak. But because John wanted and tried to figure this stuff out, he turned that disposition into a habit. This is exactly how Henry thinks of the connection between a disposition and habit. A disposition for thinking X and a habit for thinking X are numerically the same quality; at time t1 the disposition is flimsy and with simple content, but at time t200 the quality has turned into a habit. The quality of mind literally grew from simple contents to propositional contents that display understanding.

Henry adds the following: the growth of the quality (from disposition to habit) entails that the ease with which John thinks about Aristotelian metaphysics grew. When John first encountered Aristotelian metaphysics, he could not very easily call it to the forefront of his mind; but through the process of studying John can easily call it to the forefront of his mind. John has a habit that enables him to think complex contents and to think of them at will. It's this latter claim that I find particularly interesting. But why would Henry think this? It seems to me that Henry has got an assumption: if someone keeps practicing at something, it will be easier for him or her to do it on later occasions. Perhaps our mental habits come about only if we've desired and tried to figure something out.

For Henry, the conjunction of complex propositional contents and ease of access to these contents are grounded in a habit that exists in someone's mind.

Consequently, one might ask, "is it impossible for a person to have complex propositional contents present to her mind and that she cannot easily access them?" It seems to me that Henry's response to this kind of objection would be the following. "What do you mean by 'ease of access'?" Easy access to propositional contents is relative. Some contents can be at your finger-tips, so to speak; some contents might be buried deep in your mind because you haven't thought those contents in a long time. Still, if you've got a habit of mind for thinking of an object X you can think many things about X relatively easily compared to someone that has only a disposition for thinking of X or not even a disposition for thinking of X present to mind. Easy access to intentional contents stored in your mind is relative to people ignorant of what you know.

Next time: Henry's account of how a disposition becomes a habit.

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