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William James View on Nature and Nurture

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In 1890, William James made the argument in The Principles of Psychology that ‘intellectual and professional habits’ and ‘personal habits’ are set early in the development of a person, and as such, are almost immutable. James argues that the individual must then take command of their personal habits, ‘{making} our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy’ (23). Although James put forwards a reasonable demonstration of how behavioral patterns shape who we are and what we do, his argument is inherently flawed. James describes ‘habit’ both as an ‘invisible law’ and as something that is plasticine, something that must be ‘made our ally’ (23) and guarded against (25). James fails to make apparent the connection he outlines, that our behaviors are not immutable, people grow and develop, and that intellectual, personal, and professional habits can be refined.

James defines ‘habit’ as the ‘most precious conservative agent’ (1) that holds all people to the same standards and expectations that are made of them early in life. Before the age of twenty, a person develops personal habits such as ‘vocalization and pronunciation, gesture, motion and address’ (13). After the age of twenty, and most definitively before the age of thirty, a person develops their intellectual and professional habits (12). James argues a series of absolutes but supports it with purely conditional evidence. James states that habit ‘prevents the hardest and most repulsive’ (3) jobs from having no one to complete them. However, professional habits are not formed until personal habits have taken hold. Would it not be possible for the habits learned in a person’s youth to be applied no matter what their chosen trade? James assumes that the experiences of a person presuppose their ability to accomplish.

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James argues that people have a hard time mastering a new language, particularly their accents, once they are adults. He goes further and states that although a person may be able to afford to do so, they could never dress ‘like a gentleman-born’18. If his logic is continued, no person would be able to master anything they did not learn in their youth. No person would be able to change and develop. No person could exercise free will to the extent of forwarding their position in life.

James provides the fodder for his argument’s demise when he puts forward that ‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher power of the mind will be set free for their proper work. (26) Here, he admits that the individual can exercise control over their habits. As such, they can master and change themselves, overcoming whatever disadvantages James’ worldview has ascribed them.

James equates to lack of habit with indecision (29) and lack of developed personal and professional habits with the inability to change a person’s station’ in life. Although he demonstrates effectively that behavior can be attributed to success, James fails when he assumes that people are condemned to their condition. For him, nature and nurture are the same.


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