Alexander Technique John Dewey

John Dewey and the Alexander Technique by Jo Ann Boydston

Jo Ann Boydston Ph.D. was the Director of the Center for Dewey Studies and Distinguished Professor Emerita at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois. Professor Boydston was the editor of the 37-volume Collected Works of John Dewey. The following is the keynote address at the International Congress of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, August 1986.

I started taking Alexander lessons at the same age John Dewey started his lessons. As I have since that time strongly supported the Technique, I accepted the invitation to come here with great pleasure. The opportunity to address a large group of Alexander Teachers has given me the extra inspiration I needed to organize some thoughts about Dewey and Alexander that have been on my mind for several years.

This occasion is especially welcome because next month marks the twenty fifth anniversary of my living intimately with John Dewey's corpus—that is, with his awesome philosophical/literary remains. Dewey's works are awesome not only in content but in extent: our Collected Edition will comprise thirty-eight volumes when completed. We have now edited and published thirty of those thirty-eight, with the thirty-first to appear in December.

Like most others who read Dewey and read about Dewey, my acquaintance with his enthusiasm for the Alexander Technique and principles it is based on was, for most of our twenty-five years together, limited to the written word—Dewey's own, in several published sources, and that of others in the few things published by philosophers. However, in the late seventies, I came across some arresting and moving remarks he made about Alexander in correspondence with Joseph Ratner, the man Dewey authorized to write his biography. Also in the late seventies, editing Dewey's previously unknown poems gave me a wealth of new insights into Dewey as a man. Above all, the hands-on kinesthetic experience of the lessons helped me truly understand what Dewey has said about the technique. The lessons and conversations with my teacher, Bob Resnick, and with Alex Murray, sent me back to the research on Dewey and Alexander. I'm indebted to all those who have written, even in passing, about Dewey and Alexander, and particularly Frank Pierce Jones, whose articles and whose book Body Awareness in Action (Shocken Books, 1976), I found most helpful. I think we should note now, however, that with few exceptions those who have written about Dewey and Alexander are outside what might be called the mainstream American philosophical community; they are eminent in such diverse fields as the arts, ethology, teaching, medicine, physiology, and psychology; contemporary American philosophy is a field noticeably deficient in such writings.

The question that has continued to interest me is this: Why have the few professional philosophers who mention Alexander at all disparaged Dewey's endorsement of the man and his discovery? Ask any Dewey student or scholar today about Dewey and Alexander and you're likely to get the answer that Frank Pierce Jones got in response to that question: Oh, yes! Alexander was an Australian doctor who helped Dewey once when he had a stiff neck.

This widespread lack of understanding of the Dewey-Alexander relationship reminds me of what happened when I proposed to edit the collection of ninety-six poems found in Dewey's papers. Noted Dewey scholars assured me that he could not possibly have written those poems. My two-year search for evidence of his authorship was more fruitful than I expected. Not only did I find ample proof that Dewey did write, correct, and re-write the poems, but I also discovered and documented a completely unknown emotional involvement with the woman for whom he wrote the poems (1. The Poems of John Dewey, ed. Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale & Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1977). That research convinced me that all of us have much yet to learn about John Dewey, especially on the personal level where he fiercely guarded his privacy.

Let us review briefly the public image of John Dewey and the record of his association with F.M. Alexander. I believe we can say without qualification that Dewey was America's greatest philosopher. When the University of Paris awarded Dewey an honorary degree in 1930, the citation called him “the most profound and complete expression of American genius.” Few in contemporary American life would quarrel with the assessment that Morris R. Cohen made in 1954:

“John Dewey is unquestionably the pre-eminent figure in American philosophy; no one has done more to keep alive the fundamental ideals of liberal civilization; and if there could be such an office as that of national philosopher, no one else could properly be mentioned for it...That which in [William] James is a matter of vision and intuitive suggestion becomes in the hands of Dewey a well-organized argument that can be learned and taught, expounded and defended, used as a battering ram against sanctimonious complacencies.” (2. Morris R. Cohen, “John Dewey and His School,” in American Thought: A Critical Sketch (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1954), pp. 290-291).

After meeting Alexander in 1916, Dewey and members of his family began taking lessons in the technique. In 1918, when Dutton published a second edition of Man's Supreme Inheritance [F.M. Alexander], Dewey wrote the introduction. When Randolph Bourne, a former Dewey disciple, attacked both the book and Dewey's endorsement of it in the New Republic, Dewey promptly defended Alexander's discovery in the same journal. In Human Nature and Conduct, which appeared in 1922 and which is justifiably considered one of his landmark works, Dewey specifically mentioned Alexander, acknowledging his indebtedness to him—not for the physical benefits derived from lessons, but for philosophical insights. Dewey's 1923 New Republic article "A Sick World" denounced Coueism as a cheap and easy way of dealing with symptoms, contrasting it with Alexander's methods of “organic education and re-education [and] conscious control.” (3. John Dewey, “A Sick World,” New Republic, [24 January 1923], p. 218)

Also in 1923, Dewey introduced Alexander's Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. In Dewey's most comprehensive philosophical statement, Experience and Nature (1925), often called his magnum opus, specific references to Alexander again appear. As major work followed major work from the late twenties to the late thirties, anyone knowledgeable about Alexander's thoughts and practice would find evidence of their impact in Art as Experience, The Quest for Certainty, the 1933 revised How We Think, Experience and Education, and finally in 1939, The Theory of Valuation. Meanwhile, Dewey had in 1932 written his third introduction to an Alexander book, The Use of the Self.

Throughout these years, Dewey continued to take lessons whenever he could, including the period in England when he gave the famous Gifford lectures that become The Quest for Certainty (1929). Not only did he continue the lessons, he also defended Alexander in personal correspondence, and he made statements—in his introductions to Alexander's books and elsewhere—that were, for him, remarkably personal and autobiographical. The single most important of these appeared in his biography, in The Philosophy of John Dewey in 1939. He said there:

“My theories of mind-body, of the co-ordination of the active elements of the self and of the place of ideas in inhibition and control of overt action required contact with the work of F.M. Alexander and in later years his brother, A.R., to transform them into realities." (4. “John Dewey,” “Biography of John Dewey” ed. Jane Dewey, in The Philosophy of John Dewey, The Library of Living Philosophers, Volume I, ed. Paul Schilpp [Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1939], pp. 44-45)

Dewey's public endorsement of the Alexander principle was never in doubt; in the introduction to Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, he described Alexander's discovery as

“a new scientific principle with respect to the control of human behavior as important as any that has been discovered in the domain of external nature.” (5. John Dewey, “Introduction," in Frederick Matthias Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1923), p. xxix. Centerline Press, Long Beach, California, 1985.)

As that statement and others indicate, Dewey's continuing interest and enthusiasm extended well beyond the physical benefits of the lessons. In his last introduction to an Alexander book, he said that

“As one goes on, new areas are opened, new possibilities are seen and realized; one finds himself continually growing, and realizes that there is an endless process of growth initiated.” (6. John Dewey, “Introduction,” in Frederick Matthias Alexander, The Use of the Self: Its Conscious Direction in Relation to Diagnosis, Functioning and the Control of Reaction (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1932), p. xvi. New Edition, Centerline Press, Long Beach, California, 1983)

Although Dewey's last published references to Alexander were in 1939, Frank Jones said that Dewey's letters to him and conversations he had with him as late as 1950 (two years before his death) prove that his interest in the Alexander Technique was unchanged:

“In Dewey's opinion, Alexander has made a discovery of fundamental importance about the integration of human behavior....One of the last letters he wrote was to express his enthusiasm on learning that an experimental study was under way.” (7. Frank Pierce Jones, “Letters from John Dewey in the Wessell Library, Tufts University,” Educational Theory 17 (January 1967), 92)

To me, Dewey's most poignant statement about the Technique came in a letter to Joseph Ratner in 1946. He wrote:

“This is just to say that my confidence in Alexander's work is unabated. He has made one of the most important discoveries that has been made in practical application of the unity of the mind-body principle. If it hadn't been for their treatment, I'd hardly be here today, as a personal matter. I don't talk about it very much because unless one has had personal experience, it sounds to others just like another one of those enthusiasms for some pet panacea.” (8. John Dewey to Joseph Ratner, 24 July 1946. Joseph Ratner/John Dewey Collection, Special Collections, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale)

This then, is in capsule the record of Dewey's position on Alexander, a record I find difficult to reconcile with some of Dewey's followers' condescending assessments of that position. For example, Max Eastman said that “Dewey [was] smiled at in some circles for his adherence to this amateur art of healing.” (9. Max Eastman, “John Dewey,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1941, p. 683.) Even Horace M. Kallen, who had had the benefit of some lessons, later insisted he had been pressured into writing a favorable review of Man's Supreme Inheritance, and said that “Alexander believed that ‘correct posture’...was not only a universal constant, but a scheme of universal salvation. Dewey didn't take to the salvation, but he did get something out of the physiology.”

Those who commented thus on Dewey in turn characterized Alexander as uneducated, unorthodox, quaint, something of a folk-healer. As to Dewey himself, the consensus seems to have been that he was “naive” in his acceptance of Alexander, although one former student is even quoted as having attributed Dewey's convictions to “superstition.”

How is it possible for serious philosophers and personal friends of John Dewey to admire and follow him professionally and at the same time to consider his relationship with Alexander some sort of aberration? Frank Pierce Jones has said that none of these Deweyans gave Dewey credit for intelligent judgment. Eric McCormack's assessment was that those who think of Dewey as having been exploited—at best as having has his kindness turned against him and at worst as having been duped—are in fact imputing serious intellectual dishonesty to Dewey. The traditional explanation of this inconsistent and illogical position is that few of Dewey's followers have had direct experience with the technique. I do agree that sensory experience is important for full understanding of the Alexander Technique, but the lack of direct experience cannot completely justify or explain why so many Deweyans, supposedly well-versed in the scientific method that is the cornerstone of Dewey's philosophy have not seriously examined his hypotheses, why they have dismissed his conclusions without considering the evidence, why they have failed to respect his convictions, and, worst of all, why they have not at least suspended judgment pending further investigation.

I would like to suggest two possible reasons for this lack of sympathy, understanding, and acceptance by Dewey's followers. The first is that they have mis-read his personality and the second is that they have mis-read his work.

The mis-reading of Dewey's personality stems from an image of Dewey that many philosophers use—however unwittingly—to disparage his relationship with Alexander. In this image, Dewey's soft-heartedness, his well-known willingness to write forewords, prefaces, introductions, book blurbs, kind reviews, and encouraging words, sometimes led him into a kind of soft-headedness, making him the victim of flamboyant characters, intellectual conmen, and sycophantic arrivistes. This supposed naivete of Dewey's is a myth. That he was gentle, benevolent, obliging, and encouraging is true, but that he would allow himself to be duped is calumny. To find Dewey naive, one must overlook the essential core of self-reliance and self-confidence that underlay his unassuming manner. Clear clues to his inner resilience and cohesiveness emerge from his early family life. Neil Coughlan wrote in Young John Dewey about the influence of Dewey's mother:

“Finding a self while under the eye of a strong, deep, child-centered woman with an exact and rigid notion of the way things should be cannot have been an easy business, and it must have required of young Dewey a sort of delicate and largely unconscious diplomacy to nurture the makings of a private self while at the same responding to his mother's attentiveness and subscribing to her values. The final fruits of such a process, if all went well, would not be a blithesomeness, but it could be in the long run a carefully constructed, sensitive, stable, even very powerful ego—a clear ‘sense of one's self.’ In Dewey's case, this was precisely the outcome.” (10. Neil Coughlan, Young John Dewey: An Essay in American Intellectual History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 7)

John Dewey was involved with a number of persons who were unusual, certainly unorthodox, and in some cases, what Lewis Feuer has labeled “flamboyant.” The brothers Franklin and Corydon Ford, with whom he planned, in the 1890s, to publish a newspaper entitled Thought News, the Lower East Side Polish immigrant novelist Anzia Yezierska (for whom he wrote a number of the poems mentioned earlier), the naval-engineer–turned philosopher Scudder Klyce, the millionaire chemist-turned-art collecter and educator Albert C. Barnes are examples that readily come to mind. But listen to Sidney Hook's qualified analysis of Dewey's so-called naivite:

“Dewey encouraged and over-encouraged many who showed a glint of promise. Whatever the quality of their work,they achieved more because of his apparent faith in them....There was a simplicity and trustfulness about him, almost a calculated naivete in his relations with people whose ulterior motives were rather transparent. It was as if he were aware of the many ways a person could deceive or disappoint him and yet made that person feel he had perfect confidence in him. He bet on people and was rarely let down." (11. Sidney Hook, “Some Memories of John Dewey,” Commentary 14 (1952), 247)

Dewey was in fact let down occasionally and one can find in his correspondence evidence of disillusionment with some persons in whom he had believed; Alexander was not among them. He was, however, sorely disappointed that his followers never understood his endorsement of Alexander's discoveries and Technique.

But Dewey was, quite simply, strong and secure enough in his convictions to distance himself emotionally from misunderstanding. He provided important clues as to why he did not more aggressively, more publicly, and more often promote his endorsement of Alexander. He wrote to Joseph Ratner (9 March 1931):

“I have great difficulty in seeing anything as a fight. I see things as a slow educative permeating process… Fundamentally I am a lone private and not a co-operator, much less a ‘leader.’ ” (12. Dewey to Ratner, 9 March 1931. Ratner/Dewey Collection, S. Illinois University)

In a clear exposition of his approach to teaching and winning converts, he said to Scudder Klyce in 1915, before he met Alexander:

“The difficulty I have in putting my ideas over is the difficulty in people's willingness to look. Well, naturally, that puts on me the office of refining my method of giving directions; their responsiblity is for a reasonable amount of open-mindedness in catching directions, and looking, being willing. But that is their responsibility, not mine.” (13. Dewey to Scudder Klyce, 6 May 1915. Scudder Klyce papers, Library of Congress)

These are the kinds of insights that lead me to believe that a mis-reading of Dewey's personality has caused many of his followers to devalue the public record of his support for Alexander.

Now I would like to suggest also that the second reason for Dewey's disciples' lack of understanding is their mis-reading of his writings. Here I believe the problem stems not from overlooking the specific references to Alexander or from ignoring Dewey's continuing records of support, but from not recognizing the intimately interwoven influence of Alexander's ideas throughout Dewey's philosophy. Dewey's thoughts unfolded constantly; he certainly was never reluctant to acknowledge the impact of new ideas. He said of his philosophical growth:

“I like to think ... that with all the inconveniences of the road I have been forced to travel, it has the compensatory advantage of not inducing an immunity of thought to experience—which perhaps, after all, should not be treated even by a philosopher as the germ of a disease to which he needs to develop resistance.” (14. John Dewey, “From Absolutism to Experimentalism,” in Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements, eds. George Plimptom Adams and William Pepperell Montague, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930), p. 22)

The outstanding scholarly study by Eric McCormack entitled Frederick Matthias Alexander and John Dewey: A Neglected Influence is the indispensable research on the impact of Alexander's work on Dewey's ever-developing ideas.

When Father McCormack started exploring Dewey's philosophy, he was perceptive enough to detect a wealth of new material about Alexander's influence on Dewey—which is the direction of the “neglected influence” mentioned in his title—not Dewey's on Alexander, but Alexander's on Dewey. McCormack's advisors were hesitant about approving the topic; his correspondence with Frank Pierce Jones at this early stage of gathering data to convince them is absorbing. As Jones encouraged him, and as his collection of evidence grew, McCormack pursued the topic vigorously and thoroughly, his minute examination of all Dewey's work is a model of impeccable and impartial literary/philosophical/historical research. One of his central conclusions was that Dewey's sweeping philosophical work Experience and Nature simply cannot be fully understood without knowing Alexander's own work, a point he illustrates by analyzing Experience and Nature passage by passage, even linguistic expression by linguistic expression.

Dewey said he “saw things as a slow educative process,” and that others had a responsibility for “open-mindedness in catching directions and looking, being willing.” This explains why he never wrote extensively pointing to basic philosophical concepts derived from Alexander. The closest he came, of course, was in the statement already quoted, pinpointing his “theories of mind-body, of the co-ordination of the active elements of the self and of the place of ideas in inhibition and control of overt action.”

As it was not characteristic of Dewey to go back over his own writings to explicate and detail direct influences, we are fortunate that this task of analysis has been so admirably accomplished by Eric McCormack. His study provides a completely new perspective on Dewey's thought; with such a perspective, philosophers could no longer in good conscience speak or write condescendingly of the Dewey-Alexander relationship; McCormack establishes that Alexander's influence clearly pervades Dewey's work.

Reprinted by arrangement with Jo Ann Boydston 

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