Personal Acts, Habit, and Embodied Agency in Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception

In Jeremy Dunham & Komarine Romdenh-Romluc (eds.), Habit and the History of Philosophy. New York, NY: Rewriting the History of Philosophy. pp. 152–165 (2022)
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In Aspiration, Agnes Callard examines the phenomenon of aspiration, the process by which one acquires values and becomes a certain kind of person. Aspiring to become a certain type of person involves more than wanting to act in certain ways. We want to come to see the world in a certain way and to develop the dispositions, attributes, and skills that allow us to seamlessly and effectively respond to situations. The skilled athlete or musician, for example, has developed the muscle memory and the perceptual equivalent to naturally see what a situation requires and to respond well, whether playing a Rachmaninoff concerto or returning a tennis volley. I use Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception to flesh out the process of becoming, through which aspired-to values, skills, and characteristics become part of one’s embodied being-in-the-world. Although some rightly focus on Merleau-Ponty’s efforts to avoid over-intellectualizing skillful action, without appreciating his distinction between habitual actions and human (or personal) acts, we overlook an important aspect of robust human agency—the way “a human act becomes dormant and is continued absent-mindedly as a reflex” (90). Merleau-Ponty’s account of habit and its relation to personal acts offers a rich and phenomenologically sensitive picture of aspiration.

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Justin F. White
Brigham Young University


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