The Great Conversation:
Custom & Convention

By Matt McKeown

Habit is second nature. But what is habit?

One of the oldest conversations in philosophy is about the contrast—to some minds, conflict—between custom or convention on the one hand and nature on the other. The pre-Socratics, including the Sophists, took a keen interest in the difference between νόμος (nomos), meaning law or custom, and φύσις (phusis), meaning nature. The salient difference between the two categories is, in a sense, being interfered with: the natural is anything which happens “by itself,” while customs and conventions are things that curb, direct, and regularize human behavior.

A favorite tactic of certain Sophists to discredit νόμος was to point out the divergence between customs in one place and customs in another, or in the same place but at different times. These observations are of course correct. Aristotle expressed the same truth in pointing out that fire burns both in Greece and in Persia, but Persian laws differ from Greek laws, showing the one to be natural and the other conventional. However, it does not really follow (as Aristotle knew very well) that customs or conventions are inherently bad; customs usually have causes and often very good ones, representing intelligent adaptation to circumstances. Taking a modern parallel, much chaff is thrown around when certain academics refer to this or that thing as a “social construct,” but in fact this is a term of description, not of abuse.

One way to understand this “interefered-with-versus-happening-by-itself” distinction is as deliberate, rationally chosen behaviors over against instinctive ones. Table manners are an example. Dictated partly by æsthetics (most of us do not enjoy seeing others’ food during the chewing process) and partly by other, more arbitrary customs (slurping is rude in North America but polite in East Asia), table manners interfere pretty strongly with instinctive behavior and require a good deal of repetitive mental attention to learn, as anyone who has cared for children knows. Establishing these customs as habits, a third term that often functions as a synonym to custom and convention, can also illustrate the proverb that “habit is second nature”: good table manners, once settled, become almost instinctive in their own right, and cease to require the same degree of attentive effort.

But to my mind, though I am native here,
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honor'd in the breach than the observance.

Custom and convention, as mentioned above, are often synonyms. The term convention more obviously evokes human arrangements that are debatable or amoral, especially when we speak of defying or being liberated from it. “Defying custom” sounds more obviously rude and disrespectful than “defying convention,” for instance. In some cases, convention can represent an actual obstacle; Sigmund Freud believed that one major cause of neurotic behavior was the tension that many people feel, and that a minority feel very intensely, between their natural inclinations and the expectations of society. The issue was not merely that these expectations curbed their behavior, but that these patients had internalized these curbs in such a way that they could no longer consciously recognize their own impulses—the correct meaning of repression. Freud attributed irrational phobias, dreams, and certain other personal issues to the patient’s mind attempting to “release” the energies trapped by repression, and believed that psychotherapy could help patients recognize anew what they had repressed and integrate it in a healthier way.

This also hints at the interesting question of social progress. Progress implies both retaining good things and achieving better ones, which can change circumstances and thus render customs obsolete or even destructive. There is, of course, a cartoonish idea of progress, which treats anything socially new as enjoying the moral high ground, without further investigation; there is also the dubious Hegelian idea that social progress is in some sense inevitable, a metaphysical or spiritual phenomenon that advances, as it were, inexorably. But we need subscribe to neither to accept the notion that real social progress is possible. The legal abolition of slavery around the world, beginning in the late eighteenth century and culminating in the mid-twentieth, represents a real advance in justice for the entire human race (though a limited one, insofar as illegal traffic in human beings persists). This is a major change in convention, and a positive one, but one achieved by the same means that differentiate custom from nature: deliberate choice.

Suggested Reading:
Confucius, Analects
Plato, Gorgias
Aristotle, Politics
Michel de Montaigne, Essay 30: Of Cannibals
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything


If you enjoyed this piece, try some of our other pieces on the history of Western thought, like this one on the idea of evolution or this one on the concept of beauty. And be sure to take a listen to our weekly podcast, Anchored, where our CEO and founder Jeremy Tate interviews leading intellectuals on education, policy, and culture.

Published on 11th February, 2021.

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