Habit versus Skill9 min read

Habit versus Skill Ascriptions

Habit and skill tend to be run together in social theory and the philosophy of action (Dalton, 2004). However, there are good conceptual and empirical reasons to keep them distinct (Douskos, 2017b). Notably, the ascription of skill and habits entail different things about action, and only one (habit) is explanatory in the way outlined in a previous post.

When we ascribe a skill to an actor, we are usually interested in making a purely descriptive statement of “capacity ownership” but not putting the action in a larger explanatory scheme. This is generally because skill ascriptions, in contrast to dispositional habit ascriptions, usually speak of potential and not occurrent actions. When we ascribe a skill to an actor, we are simply saying that they can perform it, not that they regularly do so in response to the solicitations of a given context. This gets at the difference between capacity and tendency ascriptions (Schwitzgebel, 2013). Thus, when we say that a person is proficient at something (e.g., playing the piano, tennis, proving mathematical theorems), we do not necessarily mean they are in the regular habit of doing it. A person can possess a skill (being proficient at speaking a foreign language) without being in the habit of exercising it. In this case, the skill (while possessed) does not count as a habit.

In this way, the requirement of having a history of previous repetition and exercise does not work in the same way for habits and skills (Douskos, 2017a). In the case of skills, the link between past repetition and current exercise is a matter of the contingent way biological nervous systems “learn” given their natural constitution (e.g., via Hebbian tuning requiring multiple exposures). If we lived in a world like that portrayed in the science fiction film The Matrix, where skills (e.g., being able to fly a helicopter) can be downloaded directly into the motor cortex of people hooked up to the system in a matter of seconds, then a history of repetition would not be required for skill possession. This is different from the conceptual linkage between a history of repetition and habit ascription. When we explain an action by saying it is a habit, we are necessarily placing it in such a causal history, which requires by conceptual necessity a history of previous repetition (Douskos, 2017a, p. 509).

The same goes for the dispositional nature of actions we call habits. The explanatory advantage of habit explanation is the tight link to context, which allows us to refer to people’s inclinations even before we see them occurring. Thus, action counts as a habit when the agent is disposed to produce it in a given context (as well as reasonably similar contexts). In the case of skill, a person can have the capacity without having the disposition to exercise it in any given context. A skill can become a habit by acquiring this dispositional profile (we get into the habit of playing the piano in the evenings), but it need not have this dispositional profile (we can know how to play the piano without it being triggered regularly by a given context).

In sum, even though current skill possession implies some previous history of skill acquisition via repetitive activity, it does not mean that the skill exercise is a regular practice right now (habit). Nor do we mean the skill is exercised regularly when the person encounters a given set of conditions (disposition). Only habits have these two features.

In this last sense, dispositional (habit) ascriptions are more general than skill ascriptions since they need to be added if we want to explain the occurrence of skilled action. Thus, we may differentiate ascriptions of habitual skills to explain a given action from pure capacity ascriptions that simply posit a person’s capacity to do something. Also, habits can explain action, even if nothing about the action is exceptionally skillful. For instance, we can account for Sam’s habit of regularly driving at 8:00 am by pointing out that the action is a component of Sam’s “driving to work habit,” even if Sam is not a skillful driver. In this sense, calling something a habit implies a holistic and historical take on the action (indicating a regular history of repetition and disposition manifestation) that is partially orthogonal to how well (in the normative sense of skill) an action is performed. Thus, there are both skillful and not necessarily skillful (but still “automatic”) types of habit ascriptions, both of which can be used to explain action.

Habit, Techniques, and Skill

In a recent paper, Matthews (2017) argues that the core or prototypical members of the habit category are what Marcel Mauss called techniques (1973). Ways of being proficient at an action (e.g., tying your shoes), acquired via an enculturation process requiring training and repetition (see here for further discussion). These include both “behavioral” techniques, such as playing the piano, typing, riding a bike, and “perceptual” or “mental” techniques. However, the latter is less central members of the habit category for most people (despite being as pervasive as overt action habits) since habit is usually associated with over action or practice, even though both overt and covert “actions” can become habitual (Matthews 2017: 399). However, the most maximal conception of habits can easily extend the concept to the standard mental items (such as beliefs, desires, emotions, and the like) that figure as part of folk psychology. In that respect, there is no reason to restrict the use of habit to overt actions, even when acknowledging that semantically, over behaviors are more central members of the habit category than covert mental actions, such as believing a proposition or making an aesthetic or moral judgment.

Habitual actions, due to repetition and reinforcement, tend to acquire the facility and fluidity that we associate with skills, even though not all habits are necessarily skillful. So if habits are techniques, they tend toward the skilled end of performance, or at least toward the “good enough” end in performing their assigned function. However, the conceptual distinction between habits and skills needs to be kept since habit ascriptions and skill ascriptions buy you different things from an action theory point of view (Douskos, 2017b). A habit ascription entails conceptually entails a previous history of repetition, regularity of current performance, and a dispositional profile tied to context. It is habit ascription, not skill ascriptions, that offers a workable alternative to the intentionalist idiom when it comes to the explanation of action. All that is implied by skill is flexibility, fluidity, and proficiency in acting. As such, skills are a type of action (e.g., more or less skillful) but in themselves are not a resource for explaining action.

The main reason some analysts tend to insist on the “skilled” nature of most habits, however, is to move away from the misleading idea that only fixed, repetitive action patterns count as habits (Pollard, 2006). Habit theorists in the American-pragmatist (e.g., Deweyian) or French-Aristotelian (Ravaisson, Bourdieu, Merleau-Ponty) mold like to emphasize that when they speak of habit, they speak of flexible dispositions that adapt to their current context of enactment (and thus are different on each occasion) and not mechanical repetitions. As such, sometimes, we find these theorists equating habits and skills or proposing that all habits are skillful or creative (Dalton, 2004).

However, it seems like considering habits as dispositions clarifies their flexible, non-repetitive, non-mechanical nature, without getting into the conceptual hot water (and ultimately unproductive conundra) that equating habits and skills does (Douskos, 2017a, 2017b). As such, I propose to place proficiency as a core characteristic of habit, not skill. Proficiency is a weaker criterion because, while respecting the classic observation that the repetition of habitual action results in facilitation, it does not imply that such facilitation necessarily leads to “skillful” enactment. As noted, many habits are not particularly skillful but get to the point of being “good enough” to get the job done.


Dalton, B. (2004). Creativity, Habit, and the Social Products of Creative Action: Revising Joas, Incorporating Bourdieu. Sociological Theory, 22(4), 603–622.

Douskos, C. (2017a). Pollard on Habits of Action. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 25(4), 504–524.

Douskos, C. (2017b). The spontaneousness of skill and the impulsivity of habit. Synthese. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1658-7

Mauss, M. (1973). Techniques of the body∗. Economy and Society, 2(1), 70–88.

Pollard, B. (2006). Explaining Actions with Habits. American Philosophical Quarterly, 43(1), 57–69.

Schwitzgebel, E. (2013). A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box. In N. Nottelmann (Ed.), New Essays on Belief: Constitution, Content and Structure (pp. 75–99). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

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  1. Pingback: Simmel as a Theorist of Habit – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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