Mark Johnson is an associate professor of Theology at Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI). His specialization is in St. Thomas Aquinas.

Habits and muscle memory

I’m teaching a graduate seminar this semester on St Thomas’s general discussion of the virtues in the Summa theologiae, I-II, qq. 55–70. But to get up to speed we’ve started with a generous consideration of his account of the habits (ibid., qq. 49–54). Part of that discussion has focused on the generation of habits through repeated actions, and how muscle memory needs to be directed by a higher, more powerful cause (generally reason, or even ratio particularis), and that passive powers can be directed towards different objects (and therefore be the subject of diverse habits), such as playing the guitar or playing the piano (see I-II, q. 54, a. 1). Had a fascinating experience this morning, which I absolutely had to report to my students in an e-mail:

So I’m here in my basement rec room working away, with my favorite Italian artist on the stereo (Nek, a.k.a., Filippo Neviani), when I hear a chord progression that I liked and wanted to learn. I dashed over to my guitar, pulled it out, and figured the progression out, and then headed over to my cheapo electric keyboard and riffed on the same chord progression. Well, the song ended, and the next song immediately provided another neat progression that I figured out (after testing out some permutations of the progression). After five minutes of this I realize, “Hey, buddy, tempus fugit!,” so I stop, and head back to my computer to get stuff done.

I could not type a thing. Not. a. single. word. Habits and muscle memory. Life is so interesting.

Ralph del Colle (Oct. 3, 1954–July 29, 2012)

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