Habitus and Learning to Learn: Part I9 min read

In this and subsequent posts, I will attempt to revise, reconceptualize and update the concept of habitus using the theoretical and empirical resources of contemporary cognitive neuroscience and cognitive social science.

I see this step as necessary if this Bourdieusian notion is to have a future in social theory. Conversely, if no such recasting is coherent or successful, then it might be time to retire the idea of habitus.

My reconstruction of habitus in what follows is necessarily selective. I keep historical and conceptual exegesis to a minimum (see e.g. Lizardo 2004 for that), and I will not engage in an attempt to convince you that the concept of habitus is a useful one in social science research. I presume that my undertaking this effort presupposes that the notion of habitus is useful and that its “updating” in terms of contemporary advances in the cognitive sciences is a worthwhile exercise.

Moreover, I believe that the ultimate conceptual payoff comes from showing how by connecting the notion of habitus as conceptual tool for social analysis with these emerging developments in the cognitive social sciences a lot of standing problems in social scientific conceptualizations of cognition, perception, categorization, and action are shown to be either pseudo-problems, or are actually resolved in a way that is more satisfactory than the extant proposals that have been made from non-cognitive standpoints. In what follows, I address a series of the theoretical issues that I believe are properly recast using a version of the habitus concept informed by cognitive neuroscience, beginning with the notion of “learning” and ending with a reconsideration of the notion of categories and categorization.

The habitus as a “learning to learn” cognitive structure

The habitus is a set of durable cognitive structures that develop in order to allow the person to exploit the most general features of experience most effectively. These structures are constitutive of our capacity to develop an intuitive, routine grasp of events, entities, and their inter-relations and yet are also the product of experience. As the economist and social theorist Friedrich Hayek once put it, “the apparatus by means of which we learn about the external world is itself the product of a kind of experience” (Hayek 1952, 165).

The experience-generated cognitive structures constitutive of habitus are designed to capture the most significant axes of variation–in essence the abstract causal and temporal signatures–of the early environment (Foster 2018). They make possible subsequent practical exploitation and even the fairly unnatural contemplative “recording” of later experiences in the form of episodic and semantic learning. The cognitive structures constitutive of habitus themselves, are a product of a special kind of learning, which I refer to as “procedural learning;” essentially the process of “learning to learn” (something that the anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972) once referred to as “deutero-learning”).

The habitus itself is not a repository of “contents” in the traditional sense (e.g., a “storehouse” of individuated beliefs, attitudes, and the like) but it is generative of our ability to actively retrieve the experiential, mnemonic and imaginative qualities that form the core of our everyday experience. From this point of view, “the process of experience does not begin with sensations or perceptions, but necessarily precedes them: it operates on physiological events and arranges them into a structure or order which becomes the basis of their `mental’ significance” (Hayek 1952: 166). This presupposes “a durable transformation of the body through the reinforcement or weakening of synaptic connections” (Bourdieu 2000, 133).

Beyond Plasticity

From the point of view of a neuro-cognitive construal of habitus as a learning-to-learn structure, extant notions of learning (or socialization) in sociology come off as impoverished. Most consist of vague accounts regarding the “plasticity” of the organism (Berger and Luckmann 1966), and are usually anxious to separate whatever is innate or biologically specified from that which comes from experience. At the extreme, we find accounts suggesting that nothing specific comes from biology and that all specific content is, therefore, “learned.”

Most social theorists, after making sure to set down this rather crude division, are satisfied in having secured a place for the cultural and social sciences in having delimited the scope of that which can be directly given by biology or genes. Most analysts are thus satisfied to point to some vagaries about how humans are unique because so much of their cultural equipment has to be acquired from the world via experience, or how the human animal is essentially incomplete, or how biological evolution and the biological “inner code” requires reliance on externalized, epigenetic cultural codes for its full expression and development (Geertz 1973). The actual experiential and cognitive mechanisms making possible learning in the first place and the constraints that these mechanisms pose on any socio-cultural theory of learning are thought of as exogenous. Learning from experience just “happens” and the role of social science is simply to keep track, document and gleefully acknowledge the existence of the external origins of the contents so learned.

What is missing from these standard accounts? First, that persons are capable of learning or that the brain is plastic is a very important but preliminary point. Only the most narrowly misinformed nativist argument would fall when confronted with this fact. Second, the issue is not whether persons learn, but how to account for this ability without begging the question. In this respect, standard definitions of culture as that which is learned and standard definitions of persons as essentially “cultural animals,” are well-taken, but ultimately fail to make a substantively consequential statement. The root of this failure lies, in my view on the failure to disaggregate the notion of “learning” in order to make room for the distinction between different forms of learning (the accomplishment of which are presuppositions for others). In failing to make this distinction cultural analysts actually fail to specify what learning actually is.

A neuro-cognitive conception of habitus can serve to usefully re-specify the notion of learning in cultural analysis. From the point of view of a neuroscientifically informed social theory (Turner 2007), it is not enough to acknowledge the commonplace observation that persons are modified by experience or that the current set of skills and abilities that a person commands is indeed a product of modification by experience.

Instead, the key is to specify what exactly this modification consists of, and how it differs, for instance, from the experiential sort of “modification” we are constantly exposed to in our everyday life by virtue of being conscious creatures or the modification that happens when learn a new propositional fact, or when form a new episodic memory as a result of being involved in some biographically salient event.

The neuro-cognitive recasting of habitus as learning-to-learn structure improves the standard account of learning by suggesting that learning involves the early, systematic and relatively durable modification of the person as a categorizing and perceiving agent. That is, before learning of the “usual” kind can begin (e.g. learning about propositional facts to be “stored” in declarative memory) a different sort of “learning” has to occur: the person must learn to form the pre-experiential structures that will have the function of bringing forth a comprehensible world (in the phenomenological). This procedural learning needs to be distinguished from the sort of recurrent experience-linked modification resulting in the acquisition of episodic (having a factual account of our personal biography) or propositional/declarative knowledge (knowledge that).

In a follow-up post, I’ll develop the implications of this distinction for contemporary understandings of enculturation and socialization in cultural analysis.


Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press.

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Anchor Books. New York: Doubleday.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Stanford University Press.

Foster, Jacob G. 2018. “Culture and Computation: Steps to a Probably Approximately Correct Theory of Culture.” Poetics 68 (June): 144–54.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Hayek, F. A. 1952. The Sensory Order: An Inquiry Into the Foundations of Theoretical Psychology. University of Chicago Press.

Lizardo, Omar. 2004. “The Cognitive Origins of Bourdieu’s Habitus.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34 (4): 375–401.

Turner, Stephen P. 2007. “Social Theory as a Cognitive Neuroscience.” European Journal of Social Theory 10 (3): 357–74.

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