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of Moshe Feldenkrais, which is rich in explanations based on anatomy,
physiology and psychophysics.26 A pragmatic pluralism should encourage
such interdisciplinary expression. Most damning, however, is Alexander™s
stubborn refusal to pursue (or even allow) the exploration and testing of
his theories through standard scienti¬c techniques of experimentation
and analysis. This attitude “ that ¬‚ies in the faith of Alexander™s commit-
ments to rationality and ¬‚exible open-mindedness “ eventually exasper-
ated even Dewey, though he expressed his frustration only privately.27
If inhibition and the primary control constitute two key pillars of
Alexander™s Technique, his work also rests on a commitment to the sup-
reme value and potentially all-pervasive power of rational consciousness,
an ideal of total conscious control. Expressing Alexander™s evolutionary
vision of human progress through conscious “reasoning inhibition,” it

26 See, for example, Moshe Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex,
Gravitation and Learning (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949).
27 For example, in a letter to Frank Jones, Dewey describes Alexander™s negative attitude to

scienti¬c testing as the product “of early obstinate prejudices “ whose formation or persis-
tence is readily understandable on any theory except his own.” See Jones, Body Awareness
in Action, 105. A recent biography of Dewey indicates that Dewey succeeded in convincing
the Macy Foundation to fund a scienti¬c investigation of the Alexander Technique but
that the Alexander brothers refused to cooperate and opposed the initiative. See Thomas
C. Dalton, Becoming John Dewey: Dilemmas of a Philosopher and a Naturalist (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2002), 233.
Body Consciousness

fuels the meliorist passion of his project: “there is no function of the body
that cannot be brought under the control of the conscious will . . . and I
claim further that by the application of this principle of conscious con-
trol there may in time be evolved a complete mastery over the body,
which will result in the elimination of all physical defects” (CCC, 44;
MSI, 56). Such “complete conscious control of every function of the
body,” he insists, involves no “trance” (MSI, 41) but rather requires using
one™s re¬‚ective, inhibiting consciousness to attain a heightened somatic
self-awareness that presupposes the possibility of observing every bodily
function. This possibility is crucial, because by Alexander™s principles, we
can consciously control only that of which we are conscious, for otherwise
we cannot observe and inhibit it.
Realizing that life would be impossibly unwieldy if we had to re¬‚ect on
every movement, Alexander grants the value of positive habits working
unre¬‚ectively beneath our focused consciousness. But he stresses that
the essence of such positive habits is their always remaining accessible for
consciousness to monitor and revise. His whole project of reconstruct-
ing habit is aimed at transforming ineffective, “unrecognized,” and thus
uncontrollable habits into habits that are effective and adaptable because
they are essentially governed by “conscious control,” even though not con-
stantly held in the focus of re¬‚ective self-consciousness. Though “working
quietly and unobtrusively” beneath the conscious level, proper habits may
be checked and altered by conscious control “at any moment if neces-
sary” (MSI, 90“92). Thus, Alexander insists his “method is based . . . on
the complete acceptance of the hypothesis that each and every movement
can be consciously directed and controlled” (MSI, 199).28
Yet how could such total transparency ever be possible? Not only have
we noted the practical dif¬culties of sustaining attention and perceptual
acuity for a detailed, accurate body scan, but the very ¬gure/ground
structure that is essential to any focused consciousness implies that there
will always be something in the somatic background of consciousness that

28 Perhaps one could, in principle, consciously but indirectly control somatic functions of
which we are not conscious, if such functions are linked in an essential and stable way
to functions that we are indeed conscious of and can consciously control. In the section
“Notes and Instances,” toward the end of Man™s Supreme Inheritance, Alexander seems to
recognize this option of indirect control, while admiting that “it may not be possible to
control directly” every body part (e.g., “each separate part of the abdominal viscera”)
and body function (e.g., “the lower automatic functions”). Yet, he does not question that
one can be directly conscious of all these parts and functions. See MSI, 291“292.
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 205

structures that consciousness but does not appear as an object within its
¬eld. Even if every particular somatic element were in principle available
for such attentive awareness and control (itself a questionable hypothe-
sis), some bodily part or function will always escape our attention as we
focus on some other or attend to something else.
Dewey recognized such limitations of conscious re¬‚ection when he
emphasized the indescribable, re¬‚ectively ungraspable immediacy of
qualitative feeling as the essential glue that binds an experience together
but cannot be attended to as one of its elements, since that immediately
experienced quality is precisely what shapes the very attention to those
elements that enables our awareness and identi¬cation of them as ele-
ments. Such immediate feelings, Dewey insists, are had but not known,
yet underlie our every effort of thinking and knowing.29 Habit™s unre-
¬‚ective “mechanism is indispensable,” because “if each act has to be
consciously searched for at the moment and intentionally performed,
execution is painful and the product is clumsy” (MW14:51). Reason and
consciousness, moreover, cannot be regarded as autonomous entities for
controlling habit because they themselves emerge from habits and have
no real existence apart them. For Dewey, “habits formed in process of
exercising biological aptitudes are the sole agents of observation, rec-
ollection, foresight and judgment: a mind or consciousness or soul in
general which performs these operations is a myth . . . Concrete habits
do all the perceiving, recognizing, imagining, recalling, judging, con-
ceiving and reasoning that is done” (MW14:123“124). And they also do
the work of inhibiting other habits. It is therefore wrong, Dewey argued,
to oppose habit to reason and conscious control. The real opposition is
between “routine,” unintelligent habit and “intelligent or artistic habit”
that “is fused with thought and feeling,” between blind, ¬xed habit and
“¬‚exible, sensitive habit” (MW14:51“52). The art of somatic re¬‚ection
and conscious control is thus itself a re¬ned, intelligent habit emerging
from and coordinating a background of countless other habits that con-
stitute the developing bundle of “complex, unstable, opposing attitudes,
habits, impulses” we call the self. “There is no one ready-made self behind
[a person™s] activities,” and no single self-consciousness that can monitor
them all (MW14:96).

29 See John Dewey, “Qualitative Thought,” in LW5:243“262; and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry,

LW12:73“76. For critical discussion of his arguments that such qualitative immediate
feeling provides the underlying unity necessary for the coherence of all our thinking, see
my Practicing Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1997), 162“166.
Body Consciousness

It is disappointing that Dewey did not challenge the ideal of total
transparency and conscious control in his discussions of Alexander™s
work. His celebration of Alexander™s theory of “primary control” and its
identi¬cation with Magnus™s Zentralapparat is likewise unfortunate. “This
discovery . . . of a central control which conditions all other reactions,”
Dewey rejoices, “brings the conditioning factor under conscious direc-
tion and enables the individual through his own coordinated activities to
take possession of his own potentialities” (LW6:319). But the central con-
trol of Magnus was not at all a matter of “conscious direction” or “the con-
summated conquest . . . [of] the art of conscious control” (MW11:352);
it was an instinctive, unconscious mechanism deployed even by animals
suffering from substantial brain damage, so long as the key area in their
brain stem was functionally intact.
More troubling than its differences from Magnus are the inherent
limitations in Alexander™s idea of primary control, an insight marred by
overstatement. Though the posture of the head and neck is extremely
important for our sensorimotor functioning, it is far from clear that the
particular “primary direction” advocated by Alexander as the essential
primary control “ that is, keeping the head forward and up “ is always
the most indispensable, primal, and dominant factor for effecting all our
movements. In many positions of untroubled rest, there is obviously no
need to hold the head forward and up to achieve the regularity of our
movements of breathing, and still more obviously no need for conscious
control of this position. Even in consciously willed movements, such as
rolling oneself over in bed, the postural orientation of the pelvis (or
other body parts) can be equally or more important than holding the
head forward and up; indeed for some movements (like swallowing),
pulling the head back can be more advantageous.
I am not here contesting the primal importance of the head and neck
area for proper posture and sensorimotor functioning. This area houses
not only the brain, the organs of vision, hearing, taste, and the vestibular
system of the inner ear (that provides for stability of posture and gaze) but
also the ¬rst two cervical vertebrae (the atlas and axis), whose articulations
and attached ligaments and muscles are what enable us to raise, lower,
and rotate the head, thus affording greater scope for the sensory organs
of our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Alexander™s insistence on keeping
the head forward and up is brilliantly insightful for postures and move-
ments concerned with holding ourselves erect and balanced, in which
sensory mechanisms in the head and neck are of crucial importance. But
other parts of the body™s nervous system “ notably receptors of touch
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 207

on the skin “ also play a signi¬cant role in such matters of balance and
body orientation, as recent neurophysiological experiments have shown.
“Haptic information from hand contact can have a profoundly stabilizing
effect on body posture,” even overriding or correcting de¬ciencies in the
vestibular and visual nervous system that would otherwise cause one to
fall.30 Sensory cutaneous input from the foot™s plantar region and pro-
prioceptive input from the ankle also have been shown to guide posture,
so that stimulation of these areas can create whole-body tilts.31
In short, rather than absolute reliance on one central position of head
and neck, human mastery of upright postural control relies on “the
integration of multisensory information” from a variety of body areas.32
This not only provides some redundancy of postural information that
enables an individual to function when one sensory channel is blocked
or impaired. The complex combination of partially overlapping sensory
inputs with respect to posture also allows for more comparative feedback
on body orientation and hence a more accurate, ¬ne-tuned system for
postural control. Somatic philosophy and reconstructive therapy should
respect such pluralism.
One practical corollary is that somatic consciousness must not always
be narrowly or primarily focused on Alexander™s primary control. We
should instead direct it to whatever bodily parts and postures require
attention in order to achieve functional adjustment. This, I think, is why
body scans are particularly useful. Working on the primary control of
keeping the head forward and up will not automatically release a rigid
rib cage or a frozen pelvis or increase the ¬‚exibility of stiff ankles and
chronically contracted toes. Conversely, working on these other areas can
often be good preliminaries for making adjustments to head and neck
posture. As I know from my Feldenkrais practice, if the head and neck

30 See J. R. Lackner and Paul A. DiZio, “Aspects of Body Self-Calibration,” Trends in Cognitive

Science, 4 (2000): 279“288, quotation, 282. Lackner and his colleagues also showed the
contribution of tactile sensations of other body parts in bodily orientation. Their “rotis-
serie” experiments demonstrated that when subjects were deprived of ordinary visual
and vestibular clues by being rotated horizontally on a machine in the dark, the pressure
of touch to different body parts created very different senses of bodily orientation. For
example, pressure on the buttocks induced the sensation of sitting and spinning, pres-
sure to the feet of tipping up and rotating vertically. See also Berthoz, The Brain™s Sense
of Movement, 106, who notes how the postural righting re¬‚ex of animals can be inhibited
by pressure to its ¬‚ank.
31 See A. Kavounoudias, R. Roll, and J.-P. Roll, “Foot Sole and Ankle Muscle Inputs Con-

tribute Jointly to Human Erect Posture Regulation,” Journal of Physiology, 532.3 (2001),
32 Ibid., 870.
Body Consciousness

area of a given individual is already associated with pain, stress, and rigid-
ity because of its history of misuse, injury, and hypertension, then an
immediate focus of intense attention or manipulation there is likely only
to heighten that person™s tension, anxiety, or pain. This would under-
mine our therapeutic and educational aims of releasing the problematic
tension and bringing clearer awareness of what such relaxation feels like
and how it can be induced. In such cases, it is more prudent to begin by
directing somatic attention to less-sensitive areas of the body, where the
individual being treated can experiment (in a zone of greater comfort)
with the adjustments and sensations of relaxation and ¬‚exibility. Once
these methods and feelings become familiar, they then can be more easily
extended to the more problematic head and neck area.
The living, moving body constitutes a multifaceted, complexly inte-
grated, dynamic ¬eld rather than a simple, static, linear system. Though
some body parts are more basic or essential than others in motor control,
somaesthetic attention should not be con¬ned to a single body region or
relationship de¬ned as the “primary control.” It requires the pragmatic
pluralism that James most strongly stressed and that Dewey generally
The Alexander Technique is especially focused on upright posture,
and Dewey shares an appreciation of its crucial importance.33 There is no
contesting that this posture has essentially shaped human experience and
even modi¬ed our anatomy. Our ability to stand not only frees the hands
to explore objects haptically, to carry and manipulate things, to gesture,
and to develop tools. It also greatly extends our range of vision, whose
increased distance perception provides for foresight and thus promotes
planning and re¬‚ection. By liberating us from total absorption in what
is of immediate concrete contact, it further provides the possibility for
abstraction, symbolization, and inference. Moreover, by making us less
dependent on the sense of smell and on carrying with the mouth, erect
posture enabled humans to develop facial structures and muscles that are
more capable of articulate speech, which in turn tremendously enhanced

33 Besideshis engagement with Alexander™s work on erectness, Dewey was very closely
involved with the empirical research of the developmental psychologist Myrtle McGraw
concerning children™s acquisition of erect locomotion. This relationship is presented in
great detail in Dalton, Becoming John Dewey, chs. 9 and 10, who claims that Dewey regarded
“the mastery of erect locomotion” as what “gave birth to inquiry” by providing the pri-
mal neurological resources for developing consciousness, reconstructive, equilibrium-
oriented problem solving, and also providing “stride and pace [which] furnished rudi-
mentary methods of measurement” (200, 208).
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 209

our capacities of thought and behavior. If being upright helped generate
human language and rationality that mark our evolutionary advantage
over lower animals, it also seems linked to our ethical transcendence that
is enabled by thought and language.
The idea of physical, cognitive, and moral improvements through supe-
rior posture and self-use constitutes the core of Alexander™s vision. Erect-
ness and elevation are also key features of his practical technique.34 His
“primary control” of keeping the head “forward and up” (MSI, 284; CCC,
180) is thus emblematic of his avid commitment to humanity™s continu-
ing evolutionary progress: up from the lowly, impulsive, unthinking ani-
mal existence of our origins and forward to ever-increasing transcendence
toward perfection through rational inhibition and conscious control. His
radically rationalist ideal rejects any reliance on emotions or spontaneous
feelings for guiding behavior. Activities that stimulate emotional excite-
ment are therefore condemned as cognitive and moral dangers, even
when such activities include the ¬ne arts. Branding the arts of “dancing
and drawing . . . as the two D™s, . . . two forms of damnation when employed
as fundamentals in education,” he also cautions against music™s emotional
excitement whose “overexaltation of the whole kinaesthetic system” tends
to undermine the control of the reasoning faculties (MSI, 124“125).
Though granting these artistic “arti¬cial stimuli may be permissible” for


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