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tory posture in the head and neck area that constrained his breathing
and thus strained his voice. He described this posture (which he used
in acting but not in ordinary speech) as a “pulling back of the head.”
To his far greater surprise, Alexander then discovered that his conscious
decision not to pull back his head was completely ineffective against his
ingrained habit to do so, thus demonstrating that his habitual, embodied
will was a more basic and powerful part of him than his conscious men-
tal decision (or so-called act of will), even when that conscious desire
was accompanied by strong muscular efforts to keep the head forward.
To his further dismay, Alexander noticed (again through the use of mir-
rors) that even when he felt he was keeping it forward, he was actually
reverting to his habit of pulling back the head. In short, he realized his
sensory awareness of his own posture and movement was extremely inac-
curate. He then studied others and found that most people similarly suffer
from “debauched kinaesthetic systems” whose faulty “sense-appreciation”
and lack of somatic self-awareness seriously hinder their performance
by making them the unconscious victims of unthinking habits of bodily

13 Experiments have indicated that the mind™s own sense of willed effort relies on motor
commands and is physiologically expressed. Merely representing to oneself mentally
the performance of an action one intends to perform, without actually performing it,
activates muscular and other physiological responses related to such an effort of action,
including “changes in cardiac rate.” Even to localize an object in space that one wants to
reach involves the simulated experience of the “muscular sensations” of “the movements
that would be necessary to reach it.” See Alain Berthoz, The Brain™s Sense of Movement,
trans. G. Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 31“32, 37.
14 See F. M. Alexander, Man™s Supreme Inheritance, 2nd ed. (New York: Dutton, 1918), 22,

89. Alexander best describes the process of self-examination and self-correction that led
to the discovery of his theory and technique in the third of his books, The Use of the Self
Body Consciousness

Alexander further observed that eagerness to attain a desired but prob-
lematic end automatically prompts habitual actions to achieve that end,
without our even realizing that we are then falling back into the original
bad habits that have already been frustrating our efforts to achieve it.
“When the end is held in mind, . . . habit will always seek to attain the end
by habitual methods” (MSI, 204). Moreover, our focusing on the desired
ends (which, when habits are well adapted to those ends, are indeed all we
need to focus on) distracts us from attending to what we are really doing
in our bodily posture and performance and therefore prevents us from
seeing how this actually thwarts what we want to do. Our avid desire for
“end-gaining” thus contributes to our distorted “sensory appreciation”
(our ¬‚awed somaesthetic awareness), while diverting our attention from
the needed “means-whereby” the action could be performed properly
(CCC, 151“153; US, 29“30).
Alexander concluded that a systematic method of careful somatic
awareness, analysis, and control was needed for improving self-knowledge
and self-use: a method to discern, localize, and inhibit the unwanted
habits, to discover the requisite bodily postures or movements (the indis-
pensable “means whereby”) for best producing the desired action or
attitude, and ¬nally to monitor and master their performance through
“conscious control” until ultimately a better (i.e., more effective and con-
trollable) habit could be established to achieve the willed end of action
(MSI 181“236). The elaborate method he developed “ emphasizing
heightened somatic self-awareness and conscious control through inhi-
bition, indirection, and a focus on “the means whereby” as crucial, pro-
visional ends “ became the famed Alexander Technique.
Moving to England in 1904 to promulgate this technique (and acquir-
ing such famous students as George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Hux-
ley), Alexander subsequently introduced it to America when he came
to New York City in 1914, vigorously touting his theory not simply as
a body therapy but as a general educational philosophy for improving
the use of one™s entire self, which, he argued, could better not only
individual lives but society as a whole. The mass of kinaesthetic mal-
functions and related somatic-psychic ailments (backaches, headaches,
loss of vitality, nervousness, mental rigidity) that plague contemporary

(New York: Dutton, 1932). His ¬rst book was Man™s Supreme Inheritance, whose ¬rst edition
was published in England in 1910. This was followed by Constructive Conscious Control of
the Individual (New York: Dutton, 1923). References to these books hereafter will use
the abbreviations US, MSI, CCC. Alexander™s ¬nal book, essentially a reformulation of
earlier ideas, was The Universal Constant in Living (New York: Dutton, 1941).
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 193

culture, Alexander explained as resulting from a systematic mismatch
between our somatic tendencies developed through slow processes of
evolution and the very different modern conditions of life and work in
which we are forced to function. Rejecting a regression to primitive life,
he instead sought a method for people to rationally and consciously adjust
their behavior to today™s new and ever more quickly changing conditions
rather than relying on unconscious, haphazard forces to shape such adap-
tations. The ordinary process of habit formation can no longer be trusted
for adjusting to new conditions, because it is so slow, unsystematic, and
uncertain. Given the rapid rate of contemporary change, even if we are
lucky to develop a good new habit unre¬‚ectively, it could easily be ren-
dered obsolete by the time it is successfully achieved. We thus need a
systematic method for the intelligent reconstruction of habit through
the guidance of what he called “constructive conscious control.”
Alexander™s key themes of habit, evolution, meliorism, body-mind
unity, and respect for means and education for rationally reconstructing
self and society were already clearly congenial to Dewey, who soon became
an ardent advocate of Alexander™s views, having been overwhelmingly
won over by his practical technique as a somatic educator-therapist. Dewey
(at the age of 57) ¬rst met Alexander in 1916 through a Columbia philos-
ophy colleague Wendell Bush and soon began taking lessons in the tech-
nique. Having long suffered from eyestrain, back pains, and a painfully
stiff neck, Dewey claimed “that Alexander had completely cured him, that
he was able to read and to see and move his neck freely.”15 Unlike James,
who died only two years after meeting his own postural self-use guru
(Dr. James Taylor), Dewey bene¬ted from Alexander™s work for decades.
Taking lessons from both Alexander and Alexander™s younger brother,
Dewey continued to reaf¬rm (even as late as 1946) that his “con¬dence
in Alexander™s work [was] unabated” and that his sustained health was
deeply indebted to “their treatment.”16 What could be more convincing
to a pragmatist philosopher of embodiment than undeniable, enduring
practical improvements in somatic functioning and the resultant surge
of psychic energy and mood?
In Human Nature and Conduct (1922), Dewey makes Alexander™s
somatic insights the core of his crucial chapter on “Habits and Will,”

15 Corliss
Lamont, ed., Dialogue on John Dewey (New York: Horizon Press, 1959), 27.
16 SeeDewey™s letter to Joseph Ratner, July 24, 1946, cited Rockefeller, John Dewey, 343.
Dewey also took lessons from other teachers of the technique who were trained by Alexan-
der and his brother. See Frank Jones, Body Awareness in Action: A Study of the Alexander
Technique (New York: Schocken, 1976).
Body Consciousness

where he expounds Alexander™s critique of the common presumptions
that our will can work “without intelligent control of means” and “that
[habitual bodily] means can exist and yet remain inert and inoperative”
(MW14:22). It is “superstition” to assume “that if a man is told to stand
up straight, all that is further needed is wish and effort on his part, and
the deed is done. [Alexander] pointed out that this belief is on a par
with primitive magic in its neglect of attention to the means which are
involved in reaching an end.” Such belief blocks progress “because it
makes us neglect intelligent inquiry to discover the means which will
produce a desired result, and intelligent invention to procure the means.
In short, it leaves out the importance of intelligently controlled habit.”
Falsely implying “that 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 opposition to habit,” this blind faith in our pos-
tural pro¬ciency also assumes that the proper means already “are there,
so that the failure to stand erect is wholly a matter of failure of purpose
and desire” (MW14:23“24).
Relying on the lessons he learned from Alexander, Dewey instead
argues, “A man who does not stand properly forms a habit of standing
improperly, a positive, forceful habit.” Hence to assume “he is simply fail-
ing to do the right thing, and that the failure can be made good by an
order of will is absurd. . . . Conditions have been formed for producing
a bad result, and the bad result will occur as long as those conditions
exist. They can no more be dismissed by a direct effort of will than the
conditions which create drought can be dispelled by whistling for wind”
(MW14:24). Habits must intervene not only in the “execution” of our
wishes, but even in “the formation of ideas” that convert vague desires
into concrete acts of will. An explicitly concrete will to stand erect, in
contrast to a mere abstract “wish” to achieve such posture, always involves
some embodied idea “ a proprioceptive notion or kinaesthetic feeling
(however implicit, unnoticed, vague, partial, or misguided) “ as to how
one becomes and feels erect. And such “an idea gets shape and consis-
tency only when it has a habit back of it.” For even if “by a happy chance
a right concrete idea or purpose . . . has been hit upon,” the person™s
entrenched bad habit will tend to override it and frustrate its execution.
Thus, Dewey concludes with Alexander, “Only when a man can already
perform an act of standing straight does he know [in a concrete propri-
oceptive sense] what it is like to have a right posture and only then can
he summon the idea required for proper execution. The act must come
before the thought, and a habit before an ability to evoke the thought at
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 195

will. Ordinary psychology reverses the actual state of affairs” (MW14:25“
Failure to recognize the essential bond between will and habit “only
leads to a separation of mind from body” that undermines the “scien-
ti¬c” status (in Dewey™s scare quotes) of both “psycho-analysis” and the
theories of “nerve physiologists.” While the former wrongly “thinks that
mental habits can be straightened out by some kind of purely psychical
manipulation without reference to . . . bad bodily sets,” the latter falsely
believe “that it is only necessary to locate a particular diseased cell or
local lesion, independent of the whole complex of organic habits, in
order to rectify conduct” (MW14:27). This scienti¬c critique not only of
psychoanalysis (for which Dewey had little regard “ largely because of its
emphasis on the unconscious, the sexual, and the past) but also of neu-
rophysiology (which he clearly respected) should be understood in the
light of his repeatedly ardent yet beleaguered defense of the scienti¬c
status of Alexander™s work, whose persistent failure to win mainstream
scienti¬c acceptance was surely a great disappointment for Dewey, if not
also an embarrassment.17
In William James, advocacy of non-embodied free will is complemented
by the admonishment that somatic introspection constitutes a distraction
and danger for practical life. So in pursuing a course of action, just “trust
your spontaneity,” he urges, and let habit work for you. Not only do “we
walk a beam the better the less we think of the position of our feet,” but
re¬‚ective somatic consciousness also has an “inhibitive in¬‚uence” on our
will that frustrates action, undermines “vitality,” and lowers our “pain-
threshold” thus diminishing our ef¬cacy and energy.18 However, once we
recognize that will is deeply enmeshed in habit, we should appreciate
how inhibition can help us overcome the bad habits that express (and

17 See Jones, Body Awareness in Action, 104“105, who also describes how some of Dewey™s
colleagues “smiled at” the philosopher™s “na¨ve” adherence to Alexander™s theory con-
sidering it a lapse of judgment or even a “superstition” (98). Admitting that Alexander
made no “imposing show of technical scienti¬c terminology of physiology, anatomy and
psychology,” Dewey construed this as a virtue of intellectual “sincerity and thoroughness”
that did not compromise the work™s scienti¬c status. He argued instead that “Alexander™s
teaching is scienti¬c in the strictest sense of the word,” demonstrated by “its consequences
in operation . . . [that can] be veri¬ed experimentally by observation” and by the way those
consequences are shown to logically derive from his theory™s “general principles”; it thus
“satis¬es the most exacting demands of scienti¬c method” (MW15:311, 313).
18 William James, PP, 1128; “The Energies of Men,” in William James: Writings 1902“1910,

ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York: Viking, 1987), 1225“1226. Talks To Teachers on Psychology
and To Students on Some of Life™s Ideals (New York: Dover, 1962), 109.
Body Consciousness

reinforce) themselves in spontaneous behavior and that frustrate our
will. Besides restraining habitual reactions, inhibition provides a space for
re¬‚ective consciousness prior to action so that habits can be monitored
and corrected. Similarly, once we recognize that the will is essentially
embodied, we can see how somaesthetic re¬‚ection provides a valuable
tool for improving voluntary action and thus enhancing practical life.
Convinced, through Alexander™s work, of these central lessons, Dewey
radically diverges from James by extolling the practical merits of re¬‚ective
somatic consciousness and its valuable inhibitory functions, even though,
like James, he was personally wary of the dangers of introspection.19
Dewey echoes Alexander™s ambitious argument that cultivating somatic
self-consciousness is necessary for “promoting our constructive growth
and happiness” because it is essential to improving self-use and because
self-use is essential to our use of all the other tools at our disposal. “No
one would deny that we ourselves enter as an agency into whatever is
attempted and done by us. . . . But the hardest thing to attend to is that
which is closest to ourselves, that which is most constant and familiar. And
this closest ˜something™ is, precisely, ourselves, our own habits and ways of
doing things,” through our primal agency of body-mind. To understand
and redirect its workings requires attentively self-re¬‚ective “sensory con-
sciousness” and control. Modern science has developed all sorts of pow-
erful tools for in¬‚uencing our environment. But “the one factor which is
the primary tool in the use of all these other tools, namely ourselves, in
other words, our own psycho-physical disposition, as the basic condition
of our employment of all agencies and energies” also needs to be “stud-
ied as the central instrumentality” (MW15:314“315). For without “the
control of our use of ourselves,” Dewey concludes in his introduction to
Alexander™s The Use of the Self, “the control we have gained of physical
energies . . . is a perilous affair,” and improved somatic self-awareness is
necessary for this intelligent self-control of self-use (LW6:318).
If re¬‚ective somaesthetic consciousness is essential for understanding
and correcting habits and thus improving self-use, then inhibition proves
an equally crucial tool for such reform, since we need to inhibit the
problematic habits in order to provide the opportunity to analyze and

19 Confessing to a friend that “being too introspective by nature, I have had to learn to
control the direction it takes,” Dewey expresses particular unease about “autobiograph-
ical introspection . . . as it is not good for me.” See his letter to Scudder Klyce, cited in
Rockefeller, John Dewey, 318. Dewey™s idea of controlling the direction of introspection
suggests the useful distinction between disciplined somatic re¬‚ection for self-knowledge
and uncontrolled personal ruminations about one™s life.
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 197

transform them into better ones. Otherwise, these entrenched habits
will continue to be reinforced in our spontaneous unre¬‚ective behavior.
Alexander therefore emphasizes “the process of inhibition as a primary
and fundamental factor in [his] technique”: “the inhibitory process must
take ¬rst place, and remain the primary factor”; “preventive orders” are
the “primary” orders whose restraint and undoing of old habits provides
the necessary clearing for teaching new and better habits or modes of
action (CCC, 152, 161,186). Alexander indeed regards our “intellectual
powers of inhibition” as what “marks the differentiation of man from the
animal world” and underlies the human capacities of “reasoning” and
freedom (MSI, 35). What we uncritically presume to be the freedom of
spontaneous action is in fact enslaved by chains of habit that prevent us
from acting otherwise, even from deploying our bodies in other ways to
perform the very same kind of action but better or differently.
True freedom of will thus involves freeing it from spontaneity™s bondage


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