A Critical Look At American Culture: Robert Bellah's "Habits of the Heart"

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 11th Jan 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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This is an article on Robert Bellah's "Habits of the Heart". Bellah is an American sociologist whose work focuses on ethical and moral problems. Habits of the Heart was published in the 1980s.Bellah's work is in part inspired by the 19th French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville's observations of America

Habits of the Heart: The Problem of Moral Language

Habits of the Heart presents an interesting but disheartening perspective on American culture. The picture that emerges is a culture totally saturated in self-interested individualism. Bellah argues that Americans lack the moral language that would allow us to articulate anything but self-centered values. At the same time, the people interviewed for the book exhibit feelings which seem to be motivated by something other than self interest. Nevertheless, the ability to articulate or express moral values tends to flounder. "In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right and wrong, good or evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide." One of Bellah's essential theses is that moral language depends on the community rather than the individual. With the loss of community we have also lost any sense of shared or common values.

Bellah argues that the moral dimension of human experience used to be far more rich because it was rooted in the values that grew out of community. Bellah adopts the phrase "habits of the heart" from Tocqueville . Bellah observes that In the 19th century "Tocqueville described the mores - which he called on occasion 'habits of the heart' - of the American people and showed them how they helped to form the American character." Tocqueville located these "habits' in the realm of communal; the family, religion, the political, local communities and so forth, The fundamental feature is a commitment to the idea of a moral good. The philosopher Charles Taylor makes a similar argument in Sources of the Self. Taylor uses the phrases moral resources.

Tocqueville identified another aspect of American culture which he saw both as progressive but threatening at the same time; the phenomenon of individualism. Tocqueville thought that the individualistic aspect of the American character may eventually result in the alienation and isolation of individuals. This observation serves as the point of departure for Bellah's observations. Bellah characterizes the conclusions he draws in Habits of the Heart in the following way:

"The central problem of our book concerns the American individualism that Tocqueville described with a mixture of admiration and anxiety. It seems to us that it is individualism, and not equality, as Tocqueville thought, that has marched inexorably through out history. We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous - that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself. We want to know what individualism in America looks and feels like, and how it appears in its light.


Alexis De Tocqueville, Morality And Ethics, Robert Bellah, Social Philosophy, Social Theory

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author avatar Robert Russell
I play guitar professionally in a Cajun/zydeco band named Creole Stomp. We are a nationally touring band that have been together ten years. I also have a PhD in philosophy.

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author avatar Val Mills
12th Jan 2012 (#)

Habits of Heart is taught in many NZ schools

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author avatar Robert Russell
12th Jan 2012 (#)

Thanks Val, I didn't know. That's a very interesting thing to find out about.

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author avatar Denise O
12th Jan 2012 (#)

I must read this book, habits of a heart. I find it hard to sum up over 300 million by just a few. It looks like it is worth the read though. Thank you for sharing.:)

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