Alexander Technique John Dewey

Preoccupation with the Disconnected

by John Dewey

 The following is a talk given by Dewey to the New York Academy of Medicine, 1928.

The very problem of mind and body suggests division; I do not know of anything so disastrously affected by the habit of division as this particular theme. In its discussion are reflected the splitting off from each other of religion, morals and science; the divorce of philosophy from science and of both from the arts of conduct. The evils which we suffer in education, in religion, in the materialism of business and the aloofness of "intellectuals" from life, in the whole separation of knowledge and practice—all testify to the necessity of seeing mind-body as an integral whole.

The division in question is so deep-seated that it has affected even our language. We have no word by which to name mind-body in a unified wholeness of operation. For if we said “human life” few would recognize that it is precisely the unity of mind and body in action to which we were referring. Consequently, when we endeavor to establish this unity in human conduct, we still speak of body and mind and thus unconsciously perpetuate the very division we are striving to deny.

I have used, in passing, the phrases “wholeness of operation,” “unity in action.” What is implied in them gives the key to the discussion. In just the degree in which action, behavior is made central, the traditional barriers between mind and body break down and dissolve. When we take the standpoint of action we may still treat some functions as primarily physical and others as primarily mental. Thus we think of, say, digestion, reproduction and locomotion as conspicuously physical, while thinking, desiring, hoping, loving, fearing are distinctively mental. Yet if we are wise we shall not regard the difference as other than one of degree and emphasis.

If we go beyond this and draw a sharp line between them, consigning one set to body exclusively and the other to mind exclusively, we are at once confronted by undeniable facts. The being who eats and digests is also the one who at the same time is sorrowing and rejoicing; it is a commonplace that he eats and digests in one way to one effect when glad, and in another when he is sad. Eating is also a social act, and the emotional temper of the festal board enters into the alleged merely physical function of digestion. Eating of bread and drinking of wine have indeed become so integrated with the mental attitudes of multitudes of persons that they have assumed a sacramental spiritual aspect.

There is no need to pursue this line of thought to other functions which are sometimes termed exclusively physical. The trouble is that instead of taking the act in its entirety we cite the multitude of relevant facts only as evidence of influence of mind on body and of body on mind, thus starting from and perpetuating the idea of their independence and separation even when dealing with their connection. What the facts testify to is not an influence exercised across and between two separate things, but to behavior so integrated that it is artificial to split it up into two things.

The more human and civilized mankind becomes, the less is there some behavior which is purely physical and some other which is purely mental. So true is this statement that we may use the amount of distance which separates them in our society as a test of the degree of human development in a given community. There exists in present society, especially in industry, a large amount of activity that is almost exclusively mechanical; that is, carried on with a minimum of thought and of accompanying emotion. There is a large amount of activity, especially in “intellectual” and “religious” groups, in which the physical is at a minimum and what little there is is regretted as a deplorable necessity. But either sort of behavior in the degree of its one sidedness marks a degradation, an acquired habit whose formation is due to undesirable conditions; each marks an approximation to the pathological, a departure from that wholeness which is health. When behavior is reduced to a purely physical level and a person becomes like a part of the machine he operates, there is proof of social maladjustment. This is reflected in the disordered and defective habits of the persons who act on the merely physical plane.

Action does not cease to be abnormal because it is said to be spiritual and concerned with ideal matters—too refined to be infected with gross matter. Nor is it enough that we should recognize the part played by brain and nervous system in making our highly intellectual and “spiritual” activities possible. It is equally important that we realize that the latter are truncated and tend toward abnormality in the degree that they do not eventuate in employing and directing physical instrumentalities to effect material changes. Otherwise, that which is called spiritual is in effect but indulgence in idle fantasy.

Thus the question of integration of mind-body in action is the most practical of all questions we can ask of our civilization. It is not just a speculative question, it is a demand—a demand that the labor of multitudes now too predominantly physical in character to be inspirited by purpose and emotion and informed by knowledge and understanding. It is a demand that what now pass for highly intellectual and spiritual functions shall be integrated with the ultimate conditions and means of all achievement, namely the physical, and thereby accomplish something beyond themselves. Until this integration is effected in the only place where it can be carried out, in action itself, we shall continue to live in a society in which a soulless and heartless materialism is compensated for by soulful but futile idealism and spiritualism.

We need to distinguish between action that is routine and action that is alive with purpose and desire; between that which is cold, and that which is warm and sympathetic; between that which marks a withdrawal from the conditions of the present and that which faces actualities; between that which is expansive and developing (because including what is new and varying) and that which applies only to the uniform and repetitious; between that which is bestial and that which is godlike in humanity; between that which is spasmodic and centrifugal, dispersive and dissipating, and that which is centered and consecutive.

Until we can make such distinctions, and make them in a multitude of ways and degrees, we shall not be able to understand the conduct of individuals, and not understanding, shall not be able to help them in the management of their lives. Because of this lack, education will be a guess in the dark, business a gamble in shifting-about and circulating material commodities and politics an intrigue in manipulation. What most stands in the way of our achieving a working technique for making such discriminations and employing them in the guidance of the actions of those who stand in need of assistance is our habit of splitting up the qualities of action into two disjoined things.

F.M. Alexander has pointed out that until we have a procedure in actual practice which demonstrates the continuity of mind and body, we shall increase the disease in the means used to cure it. Those who talk most of the organism, physiologists and psychologists, are often just those who display least sense of the intimate, delicate and subtle interdependence of all organic structures and processes with one another. The world seems mad in preoccupation with what is specific, particular and disconnected in medicine, politics, science, industry and education.

We are reminded of happier days when the divorce of knowledge and action, theory and practice, had not been decreed, and when the arts, as action informed by knowledge, were not looked down upon in invidious disparagement with contemplation complete in itself; when the knowledge and reason were not so “pure” that they were defiled by entering into the wider connections of an action that accomplishes something because it uses physical means. In Greece, there was a time when philosophy, science and the arts, medicine included, were much closer together than they have been since. One word described both art and science—techné.

There are signs that we are perforce, because of the extension of knowledge on one side and the demands of practice on the other, about to attempt a similar achievement on our own account. The growing interest in pre-school education, nursery schools and parental education, the development of medical inspection, the impact of social hygiene, and the use of schools as social centers are all evidences that the isolation of schools from life is beginning to give way. But not even the most optimistic would hold that we have advanced beyond the outer breastworks. The forces are still powerful that make for diverse education. And the chief of these is, let it be repeated, the separation of mind and body which is incarnated in religion, morals and business as well as science and philosophy. The full realization of the integration of mind and body in action waits upon the reunion of philosophy and science in the supreme art of education.


From “Body and Mind.” First published in the Bulletin of the NY Academy of Medicine, 1928. “Body and Mind” is included within the The Collected Works of John Dewey: Later Works Volume 3: 1927-1928 Essays, Reviews, Miscellany, pp. 25-40. Southern Illinios University Press.
Reprinted with permission of Southern Illinois University Press.


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