Newman and Habit

Newman is such a strange, interesting thinker (and person). At a time of growing secularism, when history and historicism was acquiring a force of its own (“the spirit of the age is a novel expression, JS Mill said), Newman legitimated history’s force towards profoundly religious ends.  Newman explains his own conversion as much of a historicist conviction as a religious belief.  He concluded that the Protestant church was not historically continuous, – it was new, an offshoot of a more continuous, more historical, and thereby more ‘true’ church.  If he believed in history, he must be a Catholic.  And so he was one/became one (tenses are constantly confused in his story of his life).

I am attracted to Newman because of his contradictions, and my own contradictory desires and beliefs.  Because, if he is an extremely conservative thinker (belief, manliness, tradition rule supreme), his thoughts on habit, in particular, really radicalize one’s conception of everyday life.  For him, both belief and knowledge are habits.  Not something you learn or practice while in school, at mass, but something that you institutionalize and embody so that the shape one’s very conception of the world (no surprise that Viswanathan has an entire chapter on Newman in Outside the Fold – his belief is world-constituting and then some).  His emphasis on habit reminds me that realism doesn’t just create a world through structures (narrative and otherwise) but by depicting the everyday, the ‘particular’ habits of specific characters.  And we do not need to change structures to change the ways we apprehend the world, we merely need to change our habits.  What we believe, what we know is not what we outwardly dedicate our labour towards, what we attend to, but what we inwardly give time to, what we take for granted.

In our own moment, understanding knowledge as habit is pretty radical because pursuing knowledge is only associated with ends – careers, money, status, cultural capital.  Thus, beneath the gendered language and the somewhat lumbering prose, there’s a pretty interesting thought:

“Hence it is that his education is called ‘Liberal.’  A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.  This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.  And now the question is asked me, What is the use of it?” (58)


Of course, I disagree with the attributes he suggests (who says knowledge leads to “calmness” or “moderation”?), but I do think that a student’s university education should change his/her habits, should shape his/her mind in ways that not only affect how they read texts, but how they apprehend the world.  A cynical person would say that habit is just another word for ideology – and, in some instances, I might agree – but habit is also more than ideology.  Because, if one nurtures a habit of mind that privileges and prioritizes knowledge, one will be led into all kinds of contradictions (just like Newman!).  One will also see how tenuous Newman’s own resolutions are – even in habitualizing an openness to the unknown, an openness to a historical world stabilizes forms and thoughts that are otherwise in flux.

[a small side note: thank you to T. Church for his habits of mind this week.  Much appreciated.]


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