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Habits of Transformation




This essay argues that according to feminist existential phenomenology, feminist pragmatism, and feminist genealogy, our embodied condition is an important starting place for ethical living due to the inevitable role that habits play in our conduct. In bodies, the phenomenon of habit uniquely holds together the ambiguities of freedom and determinism, transcendence and immanence, and stability and plasticity. Seeing habit formation as a matter of self-growth and social justice gives fresh opportunity for thinking of “assuming ambiguity” as a lifelong endeavor made up of many small projects and practices of situated resistance to stagnation. Transcendence, understood as ameliorative transformation, is found in cultivating habits of learning from our bodily living. I articulate this argument via a reading of Simone de Beauvoir's The Coming of Age, John Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct, and Ladelle McWhorter's Bodies and Pleasures. I discuss two domains wherein the ethical significance of habit formation appears: cognitive psychological research on neural plasticity, and certain projects of self-cultivation that risk turning into overdetermining “cult of the self ” practices that close off possibilities for personal and collective transformation.