Frederick Matthias Alexander and John Dewey: A Neglected Influence
by Father Eric David McCormack, O.S.B.
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:
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:
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:
Somewhat later we are returned again to the psycho-physical relationship:
This is amplified shortly, during a discussion of the (behaviorist) position on thought as a conditioned laryngeal activities. In protest, Dewey says:
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.
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.
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,
The expressions “deterioration of man” and “destruction of civilization” are not accidentally coupled, as we are promptly shown:
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.
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:
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 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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Printed with permission of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania