Habits in Mind

Integrating Theology, Philosophy, and the Cognitive Science of Virtue, Emotion, and Character Formation

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Gregory R. Peterson, James A. Van Slyke, Michael I. Spezio, Kevin S. Reimer
Philosophical Studies in Science and Religion
  • Boston, MA: 
    , June
     303 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Interest in character formation is long-standing. Back in the early 1900s, Edwin Diller Starbuck (1866-1947), one of the pioneers in the psychology of religion, developed a program for character formation centered on reading literature. Contemporary concern with moral development and the cultivation of virtues has sparked renewed interest in character and how it develops. Recent investigations build on the work of Alistair MacIntyre in After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and others such as Pierre Hadot, Pierre Bourdieu, and Craig Dykstra who argue for the crucial role of disciplines or spiritual practices for shaping and forming a moral person. This edited volume advances understanding of the topic of character formation significantly through sustained attention to virtue and the process of becoming virtuous. The fifteen essays found in the volume are engaging interdisciplinary explorations of the role of habit and habitus in moral formation and ethical living. The effort throughout is to bridge a divide which exists at times between the theoretical and the concrete by bringing into fruitful dialogue theology and philosophy on the subject of habit and virtue, on the one hand, and with moral psychology, on the other hand. The result is a multi-faceted study that touches on the foundations of virtue ethics in Aristotle and Aquinas but engages the evolving contributions of neuroscience in understanding dispositions and their role in early moral development. The title, Habits in Mind, references the increasing attention directed at habits and virtues in multiple disciplines.

The opening part of this collection draws on philosophy and theology and sets forth the foundational contributions of Aristotle and Aquinas to the understanding of virtue and habit. Other essays flesh out this historical backdrop to virtue theory with the appreciation of the role of habit in spiritual reformation put forward by Evagrius Ponticus, a prominent spokesperson for the desert monasticism of the fourth century, and also the critiques of virtue put forth during the Reformation by Luther and other reformers. In the second part of Habits in Mind, the spotlight is on cognitive science and how it illuminates the moral decision making process while at the same time showing the continuing relevance of the more classical philosophical and theological efforts for probing virtue and habit.  

Challenges to virtue theory are the subject of the third part of Habits in Mind, where contributors address the issue of the particular situation of a moral subject as influencing an individual more than character traits or virtuous habits, and explore the relationship of free will and character. An essay by Adam Martin attends to the role of paying attention in the formation of moral conscience and underscores how neuroscience helps us understand the role of narratives in shaping moral character. The final part of this volume provides insightful essays on the virtues of charity, humility, and gratitude. These contributions carry forward the integration of the cognitive and affective, and of philosophy and theology with psychology, which is characteristic of the book. This stimulating collection of essays presents a strong argument for further research on virtues and character formation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raymond Studzinski is associate professor of religion & personality at the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gregory R. Peterson is professor of philosophy and religion at South Dakota State University. He is the author of numerous publications on philosophy, religion, and behavioural and cognitive science.

James A. Van Slyke is assistant professor of psychology at Fresno Pacific University. His research primarily focuses on psychology of religion, moral psychology, and religion & science. 

Michael L. Spezio is associate professor of psychology & neuroscience at Scripps College and Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Systems Neuroscience, University of Hamburg Medical Center.

Kevin S. Reimer is director of undergraduate programs in the UC Irvine School of Education. A development psychologist and former academic dean, his research has been profiled on NPR.

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