Nature / nurture

The distinction between nature and nurture seems as impossible to justify as it is to let go. It rarely holds up in controversial cases but we keep appealing to it anyway.

Nature-nurture suggests something of the old distinction between nature and art, though Aristotle divided them primarily so that  what we knew about art could illumine things that arose from nature. We, however, don’t want art to illumine nature but to be sharply contrasted to it out of a determinist account of nature that makes it the irresistible or “hard-wired” in opposition to the social or chosen area of causes under our control. The older distinction between nature and art didn’t see nature in this determinist way nor did it see free choices – even for God – as entirely independent from the determined or necessary.

In the face of what we want to say about nature (as opposed to nurture) Aristotle and his tradition would have just spoken of a hexis or a disposition differing from other dispositions by its relative fixity. Latin Aristotelianism called this a habitus, which is within calling distance of the English habit, though a habitus includes any stable disposition to some activity, e.g. rocks have the habitus of falling, falcons of flying, drunks to drinking, extroverts to positive feelings, etc. The stability of the habit is its relevant note and not the principle of the habit in nature or nurture. Oddly, this stability seems to be what we’re driving at in the “nature-nurture” distinction, though it would be clearer and more exact for us to stop trying end the trial of nature v. nurture and just speak of a habitus. What we call a sexual orientation, for example, is clearly a habitus while the question of its principle in nature or nurture is probably both unanswerable and not-universal. In general, any habitus could also be our identity.

But if all we can agree on is that something is a habitus this leaves it an open question whether it is good or bad, which is, one supposes, what we really want to talk about in the first place.


Source: Nature / nurture | Just Thomism