Alexander Technique John Dewey

Frederick Matthias Alexander and John Dewey: A Neglected Influence

by Father Eric David McCormack, O.S.B.

Excerpt from a thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Toronto 1958. Reprinted by Mouritz 2014.

Of all of Dewey's published writings, Experience and Nature (1926, 1929) is the one in which Alexander's principles stand out most clearly and have penetrated most deeply. As in Human Nature and Conduct, Alexander is twice mentioned by name. Once more, the limits of this thesis do not permit the extended exploration which this question so well deserves. Nevertheless even in fulfilling our proposal to show that Alexander's theory and practice influenced Dewey's thought in a vital way, we shall uncover enough of this influence to support the assertion already made, viz. that Experience and Nature cannot be fully grasped without knowledge of what Alexander taught.

It is in Chapter VII, “Nature, Life and Body-Mind,” and Chapter VIII, “Existence and Ideas,” that we find the most obvious applications of Alexander's doctrine, frequently made in his own peculiar terminology. There is an introduction to this material at the close of the preceding chapter, however, which sets the stage in a manner now familiar to us. The three final sentences alone are sufficient indications of what is to come:

Till we understand operations of the self as the tool of tools, the means in all use of means, specifying its differential activities in their distinctive consequences in varying qualities of what is experienced, science is incomplete and the use made of it is at the mercy of an unknown factor, so that the ultimate and important consequence is in so far a matter of accident. Intentions and effort bring forth the opposite of what was intended and striven for, and the result is confusion and catastrophe. Thus we are brought to a consideration of the psycho-physical mechanism and functioning of the individual centers of action.

The hand is indeed the hand of Dewey, but the voice is the voice of Alexander.

After considering the history and nature of the classical body-mind problem, Dewey concludes that it is a pseudo-problem. What has happened is that the fact of organization has been misunderstood, and that the organization of some natural events has been hypostatized into an entity. “Organization is a fact, though it is not an original organizing ... special force or entity called life or soul.” The term “psycho-physical” describes the connection more appropriately. If we accept the common denotation of “physical” as coextensive with the inanimate, the prefix “psycho-” may be used to denote the fact that:

Physical activity has acquired additional properties, those of ability to procure a peculiar kind of interactive support of needs from surrounding media. Psycho-physical does not denote an abrogation of the physico-chemical; nor a peculiar mixture of something physical (as a centaur is half man and half horse); it denotes the possession of certain qualities and efficacies not displayed by the inanimate.

The classical mind-body problem thus disappears. Organization replaces entelechy.

We do not propose to follow the development of this complex metaphysical argument in order to show that the shadow of Alexander reaches even to its deepest level. This could be done, though at some length. But when habit and body-mind (the latter as the conserved versus the differential factors in the organism) come to the surface, Alexander's presence is more than his shadow.

The matter of pure dialectic, in contrast with its particular instances or uses, had come up, and Dewey makes the following observations:

Using meanings is a particular act; into this act enter causative factors, physiological, social, moral. The most perfect structure may be employed for purposes to which it is not apt; wrongly employed for the right purpose, it will buckle or default. Thus in dialectic, reasoning may flag because of fatigue; it may take one meaning for another because of perverse sensory appreciations, due to organic maladjustments; haste, due to absence of inhibition, may lead one to take a meaning to be clear when it is cloudy or ambiguous with respect to the purpose for which it is used. (italics added).

Somewhat later we are returned again to the psycho-physical relationship:

Organic and psycho-physical activities with their qualities are conditions which have to come into existence before mind, the presence and operation of meanings, ideas, is possible. They supply mind with its footing and connection in nature; they provide meanings with their existential stuff. But meanings, ideas, are also, when they occur, characters of a new interaction of events; they are characters which in their incorporation with sentiency transform organic action, furnishing it with new properties. Every thought and meaning has its substratum in some organic act of absorption and elimination, of seeking or turning away from, of destroying or caring for, of signalling or responding. It roots in some definite act of biological behavior; our physical names for mental acts like seeing, grasping, searching, affirming, acquiescing, spurning, comprehending, affection, emotion, are not just ‘metaphors.’

This is amplified shortly, during a discussion of the (behaviorist) position on thought as a conditioned laryngeal activities. In protest, Dewey says:

Ideas are qualities of events in all the parts of organic structure which have ever been implicated in actual situations of concern with extraorganic friends and enemies;—presumably in proprio-receptors and organ receptors in all their connected glandular and muscular mechanisms. These qualities give body and stuff to the activity of the linguistic apparatus.

The explicit connection between ideas and proprioceptive (kinesthetic and organic) functions here is significantly Alexandrian.

The chapter concludes with a summary of Dewey's conception of the soul and of the practical consequences of that conception. The soul is not an entelechy “inhabiting the body in an external way,” but “denotes the qualities of psycho-physical activities as far as these are organized into unity.” It is not the nervous system, the brain, or the cortex of the brain, though some physiologists and psychologists have seized upon each of these as the integrating factor of the organism. All such views are particularist, and fail to recognize the interconnections of bodily parts. We need to recover our “sense of the intimate, delicate, and subtle interdependence of all organic structures and processes with one another.” The world is not mad in its fragmentary, disconnected preoccupations, visible in medicine, politics, science, industry, and education. We need to know, abstractly, but we must also do. Alexander, Dewey suggests, has the solution.

In terms of conscious control of inclusive wholes, search for those links which occupy key positions and which effect critical connections is indispensable. But recovery of sanity depends upon seeing and using these specifiable things as links functionally significant in a process. To see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy.

It is immediately after the next two sentences that we are referred to Alexander's first two books, the only ones which had appeared up to this time.

Until we have a procedure in actual practice which demonstrated this continuity, we shall continue to engage in appealing to some other specific thing, some other broken off affair, to restore connectedness and unity—calling the specific religion or reform or whatever specific is the fashionable cure of the period. Thus we increase the disease in the means used to cure it.

The two paragraphs which close this chapter abound with obvious allusions to Alexander's work. We are told that in matters predominantly physical, “all control depends upon conscious preparation of relation obtaining between things, otherwise one thing cannot be used to affect the other.” Our great success in inventing external machines is due to our taking for granted that “success occurs only upon the conscious plane—that conscious perception of the relations which things sustain to one another.” Locomotives, aeroplanes and the like “do not arise from instinct or the subconscious but from deliberately ascertained connections and orders of connection.” But now,

After a period in which advance in these respects was complacently treated as proof and measure of progress, we have been forced to adopt pessimistic attitudes, and to wonder if this ‘progress’ is to end in the deterioration of man and the possible destruction of civilization.

The expressions “deterioration of man” and “destruction of civilization” are not accidentally coupled, as we are promptly shown:

Clearly we have not carried the plane of conscious control, the direction of action by perception of connections, far enough. We cannot separate organic life and mind from physical nature without also separating nature from life and mind. The separation has reached a point where intelligent persons are asking whether the end is to be a catastrophe, the subjection of man to the industrial and military machines he has created. This situation confers peculiar poignancy upon the fact that just where connections and interdependencies are most numerous, intimate and pervasive, in living, psycho-physical activity, we most ignore unity and connection, and trust most unreservedly in our deliberate beliefs to the isolated and specific—which signifies that in action we commit ourselves to the unconscious and subconscious, to blind instinct and impulse and routine, disguised and rationalized by all sorts of honorific titles. Thus we are brought to the topic of consciousness (italics added).

With Alexander's title, Constructive Conscious Control, confronting us at the foot of the page, we are also led to expect further reference to him. In this we are not disappointed.

Turning first to the word "“consciousness,” Dewey distinguishes two quite different senses of the term. It designates (1) certain qualities in their immediate apparency—what, from the psychological standpoint are usually called "feelings." The sum total of these qualities, which are closures or literally “ends” which are just had, constitute consciousness as an anoetic process. (2) The term also designates actually perceived meanings. To be conscious is to attend to the significance of events, present, past, future.

The first sense is the fundamental one, the existential starting point. Even meanings, as existential, are grounded in immediate qualities; “in sentiencies or ‘feelings,’ of organic receptivities.” Meanings as meanings, however, come into being only through language and social, shared activities. "Thus while its direct mechanism is found in vocalizing and auditory apparatuses, this mechanism is in alliance with general organic behavior."

There is also a “subconscious” component in human thinking. Apart from meanings, we are continually engaged in an immense number of immediate organic selections and rejections of the most minute and delicate nature. We are not aware of the objective qualities of most of these, nor do we distinguish among them.

Yet they exist as feeling qualities, and have an enormous directive effect on behavior. If, for example, certain sensory qualities of which we are not cognitively aware cease to exist, we cannot stand or control our posture and movements. In a thorougly normal organism, these ‘feelings’ have an efficiency of operation which it is impossible for thought to match. Even our most highly intellectualized operations depend upon them as a ‘fringe’ by which to guide our inferential movements. They give us our sense of rightness and wrongness, of what to select and emphasize and follow up... among the multitude of inchoate meanings that are presenting themselves.

There is continuity with meanings in this process, for “formulated discourse is mainly but a selected statement of what we wish to retain among all these incipient starts, following ups and breakings off.” But there is also a reciprocal influence of meanings on these “feelings” “Meanings acquired in connection with the use of tools and of language exercise a profound influence upon organic feelings,” and in taking stock of these influences we must include “the changes effected by all the consequences of attitude and habit due to all the consequences of tools and language—in short, civilization.” Now,

Evil communications corrupt (native) good manners of action, and hence pervert feeling and subconsciouness. The deification of the subconscious is legitimate only for those who never indulge in it—animals and thorougly healthy children—if there be any such (italics added).

The sequel to this passage is a monument to Alexander's work and his peculiar use of terms:

The subconscious of a civilized adult reflects all the habits he has acquired; that is to say, all the organic modifications he has undergone. And in so far as these involve mal-coordinations, fixations and segregations (as they assuredly come to do in a very short time for those living in complex ‘artificial’ conditions,) sensory appreciation is confused, perverted and falsified.... It is surest to be wrong in connection in connection with intimate matters of self-regulation in health, morals, social affairs—in matters most closely connected with basic needs and relationships. Where its use is popularly recommended it is most dangerous. To use feelings which are not the expression of a rectitude of organic action, rectitude that in civilized or artificial conditions is acquired only by taking thought... is to act like an animal without having the structural facilities of animal life (italics added).

This is by no means all. Dewey at once declares: “In a practical sense, here is the heart of the mind-body problem.” This is because “activities which develop, appropriate and enjoy meanings bear the same acutalizing relation to psycho-physical affairs that the latter bear to physical characters.” But this explantions is still in the language and context of Alexander's doctrines. We are, in fact, straightway informed of this in a note to the following unmistakable passage:

The actualization of meanings furnishes psycho-physical qualities with their ulterior significance and worth. But it also confuses and perverts them. The effects of this corruption are themselves embodied through habits in the psycho-physical, forming one-sided degraded and excessive susceptibilities; creating both dissociations and rigid fixations in the sensory register. These habitual effects become in turn spontaneous, natural, ‘instinctive,’ they form the platform of development and apprehension of further meanings, affecting every subsequent phase of personal and social life” (italics added).

The note quietly recommends our consulting Alexander's books, already noted.

One might suppose that the reference to Alexander represents a dismissal of his doctrines so that the discussion may go ahead on lines peculiar to Dewey. The contrary is the case. For as Dewey goes on to prepare a new assault on the parallelistic or separatist theory of mind and consciousness, he carries along Alexander's theory and uses it as a platform upon which to build his catapult. by way of transition he reminds us once more that there is unreliability below the “conscious plane,” though this time he does not employ the term:

Thus while the psycho-physical in man, apart from conscious meaning achieves nothing distinguished, the casual growth and incorporation of meanings cause the native need, adjustment and satisfaction to lose their immediate certainty and efficiency, and become subject to all kinds of aberrations. There then occur systematized withdrawals from intercourse and interaction, from what common sense calls ‘reality.’

The list of illustrations which follows show us that Dewey is much in earnest about the consequent dualisms, for it includes “rigidly stereotyped beliefs not submitted to objective tests; habits of learned ignorance or systematize ignorings of concrete relationships,” and terminates with a familiar theme: “dogmatic traditions which socially are harshly intolerant and which intellectually are institutionalized and paranoiac systems; idealizations which instead of being immediate enjoyments of meaning, cut man off from nature and his fellows.”

If we recall Alexander's statement that the “subconscious self,” disconnected from the conscious plane and perverted, is the source of the popular (if primitive) idea of soul as a “hidden entity,” the progress of Dewey's argument is easier to follow. For it becomes clear that the target is the spectator-soul only after Dewy has set forth his description of mind and consciousness. Nevertheless in the prelude to this description there are unmistakable intimations:

Thus the concrete problems of mind-body have their locus and import in the educational procedures by which a normal integration of meanings in organic functions shall be secured and perversions prevented.

To Alexander's work, the remedial operations of psychiatry and the social arts and appliances are now added.

To provide an intelligible basis for explaining the relationship between the “subconscious” and the “conscious” planes without importing an “inner man” or dualistic soul, “united to the body in an external way,” Dewey distinguishes between mind and consciousness:

While on the psycho-physical level, consciousness denotes the totality of actualized immediate qualitative differences, or ‘feelings,’ it denotes, upon the plane of mind, actualized apprehensions of meanings, that is ideas. There is thus an obvious difference between mind and consciousness; meaning and an idea. Mind denotes the whole system of meanings as they are embodied in the workings of organic life; consciousness in being with language denotes awareness or perception of meanings; it is the perception of actual events, whether past, contemporary or future, in their meanings, the having of actual ideas.

This means that “the field of mind—of operative meanings—is enormously wider than that of consciousness;” the greater part of it is only implicit in any conscious act or state. Mind is contextual and persistent, a constant background and foreground which is, so to speak structural and substantial. Consciousness is focal and transitive, an intermittent process; a series of heres and nows.

Neither the nature of consciousness nor that of mind can be conveyed in speech. They are immediate qualitative existences at which words can only hint or point. The indication succeeds when it evokes an actual experience of the thing in question. For the evocation of what is denoted by “consciousness,” such words as apparency, vividness, clearness, etc., and their opposites may be of assistance. For “mind” a different set of names must be used: organization, order, coherence. Hence:

The relation of mind to consciousness may be partially suggested by saying that while mind as a system of meanings is subject to disorganization, disequilibrium, perturbation, there is no sense in referring to a particular state of awareness in its immediacy as either organized or disturbed. An idea is just what it is when it occurs. To call it composed or perturbed is to compare one state with another, a comparison which by the nature of the case can be made only indirectly on the basis of respective conditions and consequences.

Dewey illustrates this relation of mind to consciousness by the act of reading a book, on, say mathematics or politics. Meanings present themselves, and vanish. These meanings occurring existentially are ideas. But the prerequisite of our having them at all is our mathematical or political “mind:” an organized system of meanings which we already possess, of which we are not at any one time completely aware, but which determines our particular apprehensions or ideas. Ideas are thus emergents from the habit systems constituting mind, and are determined by these systems. Once again, it is not a case of spectator-mind gazing at things, acquiring ready-made ideas, and forming habits by their means. The habit already acquired determines the idea, for the idea emerges at the points where habit is being refashioned.

Consciousness, an idea, is the phase of a system of meanings which at a given time is undergoing re-direction, transitive transformation.

With the idea (consciousness) thus located within the systems constituting mind, appearing as signs of readjustments being made there, and fashioned in terms of the aspects of the given system which are not in need of re-direction, the continuity of thinking with habit—and by the same token, if more remotely, of body with mind—is thus safeguarded for Dewey:

There is... a continuum or spectrum between this containing system and the meanings which, being focal and urgent, are the ideas of the moment. There is a contextual field between the latter and those meanings which determine the habitual direction of our conscious thoughts and supply the organs for their formation.

The dualism of theological dogma and of subjective idealism is on this view gratuitous, and runs counter to empirical evidence.

As Dewey marshals the empirical evidence for his position, the shadow of Alexander gradually appears, though he is not mentioned by name again. We shall not follow this in detail, since our purpose is not to delineate that shadow completely, but to offer a sketch sufficient to show its presence and importance.

One of the themes which we know to be connected with Alexander's theories, inhibition, makes its appearance in this chapter in a manner reminiscent of Human Nature and Conduct. It is introduced in connection with “empirical evidence in support of the proposition that consciousness denotes redirection of meanings.” There are, first of all, the obvious facts of attention and interest on one side, and the working of established habits on the other.

The familiar does not consciously appear, save in an unexpected, novel, situation, where the familiar presents itself in a new light and is therefore not wholly familiar. Our deepest-seated habits are precisely those of which we have least awareness. When they operate in a situation to which they are not accustomed, in an unusual situation, a new adjustment is required. Hence there is shock, and an accompanying perception of dissolving and reforming meaning.

This “shock,” the interruption of habitual activity which initiates reflection, is what we may call inhibition materially considered. There is no distinction between the shock that just happens and inhibition as a deliberate act.

Presently, however, still as confirmation of the above hypothesis, it is elaborated psychologically, and then indicated as an element of method.

Confirmation of the hypothesis is found in the fact that wherever perceptual awareness occurs, there is a ‘moment’ of hesitation; there are scruple, reservations, in complete overt action....We have to ‘stop and think,’ and we do not stop unless there is interference. The flood of action at high tide overrides all but the most considerable obstructions. It flows too forcibly and rapidly in one direction to be checked; without inhibition there are not hesitations, crises, alternatives, need of re-direction. Overt action is an enstatement of established and organic-environmental integrations. As long as these can maintain themselves, they do so; then there is no opportunity for transforming meaning into idea. Intellectual hesitations and reservations are used to expand and enrich the field of perception, by means of rendering activity more delicate, and discriminatingly adapted.

Printed with permission of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania


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