Habit, competence, and purpose: How to make the grades of clarity clearer

Vincent Colapietro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Habit plays a central role in Peirce's pragmatic account of human signification. What he means by meaning is, hence, fully intelligible only in reference to the role he accords to habit in this account. While the main focus of Peirce's critical attention is, especially in the mature articulation of his thoroughgoing pragmatism, upon deliberately acquired habits, it is reasonable to suggest that often his concern is actually with something broader in one sense and narrower in another than individual or isolated habits. Any given disposition to act in certain ways in certain circumstances is taken by him to be an integral part of more or less integrated dispositions to act, feel, and even imagine: it is not taken to be operative apart from these other habits. In this sense, then, his concern is primarily with such integrated dispositions, not isolated habits. Thus, it is broader than the inattentive reader is likely to suspect. But, since those deliberately cultivated dispositions of rational agents that are at the center of Peirce's concerns are ones specifiable only in reference to some human practice such as experimental inquiry or everyday conversations, religious worship or artistic innovation, these dispositions are appropriately taken to be not simply habits in any way whatsoever but primarily habits to act in a competent or expert manner. More simply put, these deliberately cultivated dispositions are, in many instances, best conceived as competencies or expertise. While not all habits equip agents with expert or even competent ways of addressing the shifting demands of experiential situations (that is, while not all habits are instances of competence or expertise), all cases of competence and expertise are, at bottom, more or less harmoniously integrated clusters of flexible, nuanced, and alterable habits. Accordingly, any account of Peirce's conception of habit, especially as it pertains to his pragmatic theory of meaning, must bring into sharper focus the complex relationship among habits, competence, and expertise than Peirce and even his most imaginative expositors have done thus far. The aim of this paper is to push our investigation of the Peircean notion of human habituation in precisely this direction. Against an evolutionary background, the historical foreground of historically evolved and evolving practices will be sketched. Habits in their guise as competencies and expertise will then be seen in the context of such practices, with equal emphasis on initiation into a practice and the open-ended process of acquiring ever more refined expertise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)348-377
Number of pages30
JournalTransactions of the Charles S Peirce Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy


Dive into the research topics of 'Habit, competence, and purpose: How to make the grades of clarity clearer'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this