Human Nature and Conduct and Alexander
by Father Eric McCormack, O.S.B.
An excerpt from Frederick Matthias Alexander and John
A Neglected Influence by Eric David McCormack.
There are echoes of Alexander's ideas throughout Human Nature and Conduct, but it is in the second chapter of Part One that he, so to speak, makes his personal appearance. He is twice cited by name, and in the second instance is explicitly designated as the source of the theory of the role of inhibition in the indirect process or "flank movement" which Dewey has now come to see as the only way in which habit can be changed.
The stage had been set for the whole work—and for Alexander's early appearance—in the preceding chapter, where we are at once confronted with the conception of habit as essentially interaction, and not a "subcutaneous," private possession. Though acquired, habits resemble physiological functions in that they are both "ways of using and incorporating the environment in which the latter has its say as surely as the former." Habits are arts, involving skill of sensory and motor organs, cunning or craft, and objective materials and energies which they assimilate in order to command the environment. They require order, discipline, and manifest technique. Also, "they can be studied as objectively as physiological functions, and they can be modified by change of either personal or social elements." But "personal traits are functions of social situations," so that habit has, so to speak, two faces. The one looks toward the social side, the other toward the individual or personal side.
Cognate to this distinction, yet another is offered to us in the interest of clarifying the types of conditions which need to be controlled in the changing of habit. This is the distinction between the physical and the moral question.
Although habits are arts involving skill of sensory and motor organs, requiring order, discipline and manifest technique on the part of the individual agent, the objective materials and energies which they incorporate provide the sole means of changing habit. That is to say, we cannot simply replace one habit by another in ourselves, others, or in society (custom) by attempting to manipulate the mechanism itself already established:
Since the physical question is prior to the moral one and must be answered first, we must inquire what habit is and how it operates, and this in the individual human being, the smallest unit of conduct. In other words, we must ask an account of habit in terms which are primarily those of physiological psychology. The social side of habit temporarily recedes.
What, then, are habits? As bad habits illustrate so well, habits are affections that have projectile power.
But, though we have narrowed our view to its psycho-physical side, i.e., its workings in the individual, we still find habit to be a means.
To expect to get results without intelligent control of means, or to suppose that means can exist and remain inert and inoperative, we are again reminded, is to appeal to magic. This superstition is nevertheless current even among cultivated persons, continues Dewey, which fact had been recently brought home to him forcibly by a friend, Mr. F.M. Alexander, an explicit exposition of whose doctrine occupies most of the fifteen pages which follow.
Presumably to allay any suspicion that we are being referred to a health faddist, Dewey at once sets Alexander in a context which can hardly fail to interest the social psychologist of even the philosopher. Alexander had said that these cultivated, superstitious people
One wonders if the former actor himself could have contrived a more dramatic entrance, or a more impressive introduction to his audience. But it is only an introduction. Performance follows.
These two assumptions really amount to this, when generalized: (1) The means or effective conditions of the realization of a purpose exist independently of established habit and even that they may be set in motion in oppositon to habit; and, (2) The means are already there, so that the failure to stand erect is entirely due to failure of purpose and desire. Yet in the case of paralysis or a broken leg we make no such assumptions; we appreciate the importance of subjective conditions.
In the ten pages which follow this presention of Alexander, Dewey himself presides over the discussion in his own name, not only as a commentator, but as a philosopher who, through Alexander, has suddenly experienced what the Gestaltists call "closure," or what other psychologists call the "aha!" One might say that a Copernican Revolution has taken place as a result: thought now revolves around habit, instead of habit around thought as hitherto and in "ordinary psychology." The elements have been prepared, to be sure, and one would have to be tone deaf indeed not to recognize the idiom of James, the antipathy to Watson's position, and a new bias against psycho-analysis. The philosophical generalizations are somewhat startling, but to grasp them we must follow Dewey's argument in detail, in its winding course. The alternative is to stand aside and criticize from without.
The exposition continues with Alexander's example of posture and its conditions. "A man who can stand properly does so, and only a man who can, does. In the former case fiats of will are unnecessary, and in the latter useless." By standing improperly, a man forms a positive, forceful habit of so doing. Commonly, thought incorrectly, it is supposed that such a person is simply failing to do the right thing, and that this can be remedied "by an order of will." This is absurd.
The meaning of this is of course not that one with a bad postural habit is unable to make a change at will; it is that he cannot make the correct change.
This is the familiar Alexandrian thesis that the change is made under the "subconscious" guidance of "debauched" kinesthetic habits, and that an attempt to rectify such a habit directly usually results in merely exerting force in the opposite direction. The result is still "wrong" because it is made under the old (unreliable) objective conditions: the bad "instinctive" habit pattern.
Dewey pauses at this point to insert some psychological remarks which have important philosophical implications. When we realize that the direct, voluntary attempt to rectify incorrect posture is unsatisfactory, we are likely to conclude that "control of the body is physical and hence is external to mind and will." If we transfer the command inside character and mind, we may still fancy that an idea of an end and the desire to realize it will take immediate effect. And even when we recognize that habits must intervene between wish and execution in the case of bodily acts, we retain the illusion that we can by-pass habit in the case of mental and moral acts. This sharpens the distinction between non-moral and moral activities, and we tend to confine the latter strictly within a private, immaterial realm.
The spontaneous generation of ideas, meanings, purposes, in a reason pure of all influence from prior habit is fiction.
To admit that the idea of say, standing erect depends on sensory materials is equivalent to recognizing that this idea depends on habitual attitudes which govern concrete sensory materials. Habit is a medium which filters all material which reaches our perception and thought, but it also adds qualities and rearranges what is received. Ideas and sensations alike depend on experience, but "the experience upon which they both depend is the operation of habits—originally of instincts" (italics added).
What moralists have construed as a necessary conflict between flesh and spirit is really just a disproportion between conscious purpose and established organic habit. The moralists, with their reversed psychology, have simply failed to see this. As Dewey sees it, "only the man who can maintain a correct posture has the stuff out of which to form that idea of standing erect which can be the starting point of a right act. Only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is." The immediate, seemingly instinctive or intuitive element in judgements of action—the feeling of direction and the end of various lines of behavior--is in reality the feeling of habits working below direct consciousness. This intuitive element is valuable or the reverse in accord with the quality of dominant habits. Aristotle seems to have had something like this in mind when he remarked that the untutored moral perceptions of a good man are usually trustworthy, those of a bad character, not. But, adds Dewey, Aristotle's defect at this point is his not having noted "that the influence of social custom as well as personal habit has to be taken into account in estimating who is the good man and the good judge."
Returning now to habit as means or mediating function, Dewey reminds us that there are two ways in which this is so.
That is to say, habits give shape to the discriminated materials of sensation and perception from which an idea (plan of action) is formed, (thus, be it noted, operating as a determining factor in cognition itself) and habit likewise determines the manner in which an idea is executed in activity. This latter aspect is next examined in an Alexandrian atmosphere, and presently it affords Dewey an equally Alexandrian "insight" into the mind-body relation.
Let us suppose the chance existence of a right, concrete idea in a human subject; not just the words, but a concrete idea leading to action. When the possessor of this idea tries to act upon it, its execution must be by means of a mechanism already there.
The doctrine, the language, and even the example of the "engine" leave no doubt as to the influence of Alexander here.
If we refuse to recognize this fact, continues Dewey, we are lead to a separation of mind from body, and to the supposition that mental or "psychical" mechanisms are different in kind from those of bodily operations and independent of them. This supposition is found in more subtle form even in "scientific" theories. Psychoanalysis, for instance, supposes that mental habits can be straightened out by purely psychical manipulation without reference to the distortions of sensation and perception due to bad bodily sets. "Scientific" nerve psychologists, on the other hand, suppose that they can rectify conduct by curing a particular diseased cell or local lesion.
There follows a generalized, and therefore, in Dewey view philosophical discussion of the terms "means" and "ends," and their relative denotations. In this case we need not call attention to the influence of Alexander, for Dewey does this explicitly himself.
If one grasps the fact that means are means; that is, intermediates, middle terms, one has done with the ordinary means-ends dualism. "The terms denote not a division in reality, but a distinction in judgement"; if we fail to understand this fact, we cannot understand the nature of habits, nor pass beyond the usual separation of moral and non-moral in conduct. The "distinction arises in surveying the course of a proposed line of action, a connected series in time. The 'end' is the last act thought of; the means are the acts to be performed prior to it in time." More technically, "'end' is a name for a series of acts taken collectively—like the term army. 'Means' is a name for the same series taken distributively—like this soldier, that officer." To think of the end is to see the next act in perspective, not permitting it to occupy the entire field of vision.
Exception is of course made for cases where automatic or customary habit determines the course of the series; then all that is needed is cue to set it off.
To call an end distant or remote, or in fact to call it an end at all, is to imply that obstacles intervene between ourselves and it. If it remains a distant end, it becomes a mere end: a dream.
In any course of action, the thing which is closest to us, the means within our power, is a habit. In fact, some habit impeded by circumstances is the source of the projection of the end, and is also the primary means of its realization. The habit is propulsive and moves anyway toward some end or result, whether it is projected as an end in view or not. Moreover, " in actuality each habit operates all the time of waking life," in some degree; but to this point we shall return. Meanwhile we must inquire into what happens when a proposed end involves some change in usual action, or, more succintly, some change in habit.
Once more we are invited to consider Alexander's case, the action involved in standing straight. In deviating from the habitual pattern, or in rectifying it, the main thing is to find some act which is different from the usual one. As different, it will be also an unaccustomed act, and its discovery and performance is the "end" to which we devote all our attention. Otherwise we shall simply reenact the old pattern, no matter what is our conscious command.
Take the case of the hard-drinker. If he keeps thinking of not drinking, he is really starting with the stimulus to his habit: the idea of drinking. If he wishes to not drink, he must find some positive interest or line of action having nothing to do with drinking or standing straight, which will inhibit the drinking series, and which will bring him positively to his end by instituting another, different course of action. "The discovery of this other series is at once his means and his end." More simply, and also more generally,
Dewey does not draw the points together at this juncture, but they seem to be these: In the case of an established, automatic habit, the idea of the terminal end ("end-in-view") suffices to initiate the complete series of intermediate acts leading to is without the intervention of conscious acts. Hence, in the changing of an undesirable habit of this automatic sort, there is need to interrupt or inhibit this series by depriving the idea of the terminal end of its "ideo-motor" efficacy at the point where overt action begins, and also need to replace it by another idea which will initiate a new motor series. The first act in the projected new series thus becomes the end to be accomplished, although, since it will be followed by others, it is intermediate—a means—in respect to the series "taken collectively." Thus it is not enough merely to reject or negate the old terminal end, for merely to hold it in view is to provide the stimulus for the old, automatic, propulsive habitual series leading to it. To change the habit one must take one's attention entirely from the end to be gained and direct it to the next act to be performed, the "means-whereby." In thus instituting a change of habit it is not even necessary to know in advance what the new terminal end will be. Any act which is not part of the old series will do in breaking up the undesirable habit.
If habit is propulsive and moves toward some end whether or not we project this an an end-in-view, so that the man who can walk does walk, the man who can talk does talk, and so on, how does it happen, asks Dewey, that we are not always walking and talking? Why do our habits seem so often to be latent and inoperative? The answer lies in the distinction between overt, visibly obvious operation and latent operation. Habits are like members of a crew, each taking his turn at the wheel: the operation of a given habit "becomes the dominantly characteristic trait of an act occasionally or rarely." But their work is always team work. The familiar combination of locomotion and sight in the perception of distance is chosen as an illustration, and it is explained in terms of habit, as opposed to an association of sensations.
The reason for this last dart, as we know, is that Dewey held sensations and perceptions to be discriminations which presuppose habits already formed, which habits "filter" and even add qualitative determinations to the acts denoted by sensation and perception. It is habit that is prior and basic, not sensation and perception.
It is this constant latent operation of habit, as well as overt operation, that makes character possible. For habits do not simply act: they interact; if this were not so, "there would be simply a bundle, an untied bundle at that, of isolated acts." "Conduct would lack unity, being only a juxtaposition of disconnected reactions to separated situations." As things are, however, environments overlap. "Situations are continuous, and those remote from one another contain like elements, [so that] a continuous modification of habits by one another is constantly going on."
There remain to be mentioned on the side of the "personal elements" of habit some further details which led Dewey to define the moral situation as viewed from this side. Alexander's influence in the closing pages of what might be called the Alexander chapter of Human Nature and Conduct is perhaps more subtle because the issue is complex and technical beyond Alexander's own resources. Yet closer inspection strongly suggests that Alexander provided Dewey with the organic cue that confirmed the latter's shift in emphasis from habit as mind, cumulatively funded meanings which are the outcome of previous inquiries, to habit as will, the more dynamic view.
This interpenetration is not merely a process of osmosis; it is an achievement requiring thought and effort to bring competing tendencies into a unity. Routine specialization works against this process, as does the inertia or bias which produces "pigeon-hole" minds, in which diverse standards and methods of judgment for scientific, religious and political matters are kept in isolated compartments. Characters so stigmatized may maintain this separation of ways of reacting in consciousness, but not in action; inconsistencies are bound to result from their alternation, since there is really no total pattern of interaction—no strong character.
The mutual modification of habits by one another enables us to define the nature of the moral situation. This concerns the effect of a given part (a habit or an act) upon the whole (character, the total interaction of habits). It is neither necessary nor good to be continually scrutinizing the interaction of habits with one another. At any given time, certain habits must be taken for granted and left to work out their automatic course, or, in the case of acquiring a new habit such as learning French or chess, must be given full attention on their own account. If one were to consider the effect upon his character of each move in chess, or of each new irregular French verb, his skill in chess or French might well be late in arriving. In other words, these acts are not a matter of moral judgement.
Hence, a large factor in morality is to know when to subject acts to a distinctive moral judgment, and when to leave them alone. This implies that the distinction between the moral and the non-moral is relative, pragmatic, or intellectual. It cannot be solidified into a fixed and absolute distinction which puts some acts forever within and others forever without the moral domain, without regard for their place in the context of experience. We cannot commit this error once we understand the relations of one habit to another: that of fluid interaction and mutual modification within the unity which is character. In the interest of preserving and developing this working interaction of habits,
Dewey concludes this chapter with a protest against the widespread practice in psychological literature of identifying habit with routine and the repetition of acts. The tendency to repeat acts is in no sense the essence of habit, though it is an incident of many habits.
Thus a man with the habit of yielding to anger may show this habit in only one act of murder, but this act is nonetheless due to habit.
Here then, in the final word, is Dewey's new concept of habit. It was also one of the initial words of this chapter: "Habits are demands for certain kinds of activity; ...they constitute the self. ... they are will." Between these two occurrences of the word, and presumably as part of the explanation of the doctrine implied, Alexander's theory and practice were presented. A brief glance back over this interval, then, should enable us to suggest at least some of the reasons why his ideas were introduced, and why Dewey was so interested in his technique.
Habits are acquired series or courses of activity, complex modifications of native instincts or impulses, which in turn are rooted in structure. They are demands for certain types of activity, projective, energetic, ready for overt activity. They are means for achieving certain ends when they enter operationally into organizations with elements of the physical or social environment which have their own independent activities. As channeled, vital impulses, they tend constantly toward some specific end, whether an end-in-view or not. But habit (and terminal end) can be changed only by altering the objective conditions of its organization, either on the personal or the environmental side. Intelligence, which is on the personal side, has the task of controlling these objective conditions, thus indirectly modifying the habit, in indirectly achieving the terminal end to which the habit is a means.
Human (i.e. foreseen) ends are achieved only as termini of processes already in motion. The organized interaction of processes in the individual and in the out-door world controls the occurence of these termini, so that Dewey calls this organization both habit and means. Now, if the processes on the side of the psycho-physical organism are not interacting efficiently with those of the environment, the foreseen end can occur only by chance. Hence the end as outcome and the end as foreseen can be made to coincide only if they are construed in terms of the process which generated them. This process is a course of action, a connected series leading de facto to some concrete outcome. The series can be viewed as a whole ("collectively"), and in this aspect called an end; but it can occur only "distributively," that is, one act of the series at a time. Manipulation of the series can accordingly be applied only to each member as it occurs, so that each successive "means" must be treated as the immediate end. The end as outcome cannot be really "known" until it is experienced, and then it is known as the process itself taken collectively. Known this way, it is capable of being projected into the future as a coordinated series of means to subsequent realization: an end-in-view.
Each habit is a propulsive series in its own right, always active latently, needing only its proper stimulus and the absence of inhibitory forces to release it into overt activity and to run its course. But a habit is not an isolated system. It interacts with others by reinforcing, inhibiting, or combining with them. The totality of interacting habits is character or the self, and efficiency requires that the member of this totality be coordinated and intergrated. It happens, however, that through early training, habituation or other agencies, physical or mental habits can be acquired which are maintained in isolation from the general pattern. Given their cue, they operate automatically, for the most part unconsciously, coming into conflict with other activities, conscious or not. The consequent impeding of habitual activity generates a situation and an idea, which means that there is a problem to be solved.
It is here that Alexander enters, by showing Dewey the physiological and psychological technique by which the modification and ultimately the integration of habits is to be accomplished.
It is important to note that Dewey's interest as he introduces Alexander is habit as will; that is, in the relation of psycho-physical mechanisms already established and operating to a purpose or aim and its execution. The problem is exhibited by the case of an aim (end) which is not framed in terms of the conditions of its successful execution. When action follows directly on such an aim, the aim is simply not accomplished, whether or not the agent is aware of this fact. As Alexander pointed out, all the while the agent thinks he is achieving a new end, his habits are carrying on business as usual. The proof is that Alexander needed mirrors to find this out. Thus ends must be gained indirectly, by attention to the means: the habits themselves.
Habit is the proximate means to the next act. Hence to inhibit this act is to inhibit the entire series of which it is the first member. Something must be done which will at once check this first act and evoke an act foreign to the series which is or will be part of another series or habit. The question which remains unanswered is how this can be done. In the matter of poor posture and locomotion, Alexander demonstrated in Dewey's own experience that it can be done, thus settling the question of fact. But we shall have occasion to observe that in Human Nature & Conduct Dewey's explanation of the processes involved did not yet touch the central feature of Alexander's system: the "primary control" as the absolutely fundamental and necessary habit, the primary means to any other habit, idea, or act, and the only basis of psycho-physical integration.
Before we leave the special topic of habit as will, it is useful to append some observations on the significance of what Dewey saw as Alexander's contribution to this question. There is of course a philosophical background: a historical context, and Dewey alludes to it in this same chapter, though not explicitly as historical.
Since the turn of the century Dewey had vigorously opposed all dualism, such as mind versus body, thought versus reality, end versus means, and the like, which he always represented as irreconcilable dichotomies resulting from nebulous and even undemocratic "Metaphysics," in the perjorative sense of the word. Dewey refers in this "Alexander chapter" ('Habits and Will') to two of these dualisms, both of which he says are obviated by the correct notion of habit which he is explaining. These are the separation of mind from body and the separation of ends from means. The two pairs are correlative.
The dualism of mind and body Dewey here attributes to a refusal to recognize the importance of the design and structure of the agency employed in executing ideas or aims. This leads to the supposition that mental and bodily operations are different in kind: the one stratospheric and the other terrestrial, if we may put it that way. This of course puts ideas and aims outside the physcial process. Similarily, if we conceive of ends as distinct from means in reality instead of only in judgment, we place the end outside the process of change and construe it as an immutable, fixed thing.
When affairs are set up this way, one of the traditional moves has been to posit an immaterial fiat of will outside, before, and independent of the "ongoing process" at one end, and a fixed end outside, after, and independent of the change at the other end. The next step is to arrange a transaction between these two extrinsic terms directly, expecting this transaction somehow to effect appropriate and contributory adjustments in the process of the aim (so we suppose) turns into the outcome. For both Dewey and Alexander, however, to attempt to execute a direct act of will (aim) which is not framed in terms of the conditions of its execution is more than the metaphysical error of reaching for an end without considering the means. What it really amounts to is to by-pass what is actually happening and is going to happen, and thus have not effect on it—at least not by way of intelligent, conscious control.
In order to resolve these dualisms—mind and body, ends and means—it is necessary to locate ends, motives, aims, outcomes, and even the self entirely within the process. That is, they must not only operate there; they must exist there. In fact, the existence is the process. The self, for instance, is not ready made, but a "self still making through action, ...an ongoing process." "It is absurd to ask what induces a man to activity generally speaking. He is an active being and that is all there is be said on that score." One cannot get behind the activity to ask questions about it. Elements are defined operationally; mind ("minding") and will ("willing") become specific manifestations of habit, deriving their dynamic character by being grafted on native impulse. Motive is the element in man's total activity which, upon stimulation, results in an act having specific consequences; it does not exist prior to an act and produce it: "It is an act plus a judgment upon some element of it, the judgment being made in light of the consequences of the act." Ends, too, "arise and function within action." Ends are foreseen consequences which arise in the course of activity and which are employed to give activity added meaning and to direct its further course. They are in no sense ends of action. In being ends of deliberation they are redirecting pivots in action. A curious thing happens also to the commonly presupposed identity of the end-in-view of desire with the object achieved.
By different dimensions Dewey of course is not referring to diverse kinds of existence. The object desired is not desired for itself, but for its capacity to close the temporarily open "ongoing, unified system of activities" by removing the obstruction and restoring the system to balance.
In either sense, the end is terminal in only a relative, restricted sense. It is not quiescence, for that is Buddhist nirvana or death.
Since all is now contained in the process, one never quite arrives. "What is attained is a state of habits which will continue in action and which will determine future results." "It is better to travel than to arrive, ... because traveling is a constant arriving, while arrival that precludes further traveling is most easily attained by going to sleep or dying."
Alexander, in fine, seems indeed to have given concrete form and substance to many ideas which Dewey had been holding in an abstract way. He provided the technique by which fixed and rigid habits could not only be made supple, but could also be brought into the integration which he had called mind. Mind is considered anew in a dynamic way, as character, the working interaction of propulsive habits and instincts under intelligent, conscious control, in interaction also with the environment. The social aspects of habit, which is also its moral aspect, now receives greater emphasis. There were other reasons at this time for Dewey's emphasis on the social character of behavior, but Alexander appears to have enabled Dewey to see how the psycho-physical individual, acting as a whole, could be successfully readjusted to environmental conditions, physical, social, and even moral, by beginning on the side of applied physiological psychology.
Printed with permission of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania.