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Though his sober, logical temperament was not prone to fervent hyperbole, John Dewey passionately exalted the human body as “the most wonderful of all the structures of the vast universe.” [1][1] John Dewey, The Middle Works, vol. 11 (Carbondale :... In his metaphysical masterpiece, Existence and Nature, where he argues that mind emerges from body’s more basic physical and psycho-physical functions, Dewey speaks of “body-mind” (LW1 : 199-225) as an essential unity, rejecting the idea that mind and cognition are superimposed on the soma by transcendent powers of reason emanating from a spiritual world beyond nature. Opposing the “contempt for the body…and the opposition of flesh to spirit” that sadly dominates philosophy (even in the sensory-centered field of aesthetics), Dewey’s Art as Experience insists that “biological” factors lie at the “roots of the esthetic,” contributing to even our most spiritual experiences of fine art and imaginative thinking (LW10 : 20,26).


Dewey was not always so appreciative of the biological body. He began his career as a neo-Hegelian idealist, affirming a transcendent soul in contrast to the body and giving clear primacy to immaterial spirit as the essential shaping force of life. Rather than understanding mind as emerging from bodily existence, he viewed the human body as the emergent creation and tool of a transcendent soul that makes itself immanent in the body in order to use it. In an 1886 essay, “Soul and Body,” he claims, “The body is [the soul’s] organ only because the soul has made the body its organ. … The body as an organ of the soul is the result of the informing, creating activity of the soul itself. In short, the soul is immanent in the body, not by virtue of the body as mere body, but because, being transcendent, it has expressed and manifested its nature in the body” (EW1 :112-113).


This formative primacy of the transcendent soul is even expressed by Dewey in distinctively theological language that includes an endorsement of ancient Christian doctrine : “Lo, see what the soul has done. It has tabernacled in the flesh and transformed the flesh into its own manifestation. The body is the bodying forth of the soul. … Let it be no surprise that physiological psychology has revealed no new truth concerning the relations of soul and body. It can only confirm and deepen our insight into the truth divined by Aristotle and declared by St. Paul, and with good reason. Das Wahre war schon laengst gefunden” (EW1 :114-115). This backward-looking attitude – that the truth has already long been discovered and that Darwinian evolutionary theory and contemporary physiological research provide nothing to modify or challenge St. Paul’s vilifying view of the flesh – is contrary not only to Dewey’s subsequent celebration of the body but also to the progressive, scientific spirit for which he is justly famous.


What changed Dewey’s vision of the body and its import for understanding the mind ? One crucial factor was William James. Dewey’s “official” biographical sketch (formulated by his daughters with his approval) clearly affirms that “William James’s Principles of Psychology was much the greatest single influence in changing the direction of Dewey’s philosophical thinking” from its earlier idealism. [2][2] In P. Schilpp and L. Hahn (eds.), The Philosophy of... Though Dewey pointedly claimed his philosophical inspirations derived from life experience rather than from philosophical readings, he made a special exception for James’s Psychology, crediting it as the “one specifiable philosophic factor which entered into my thinking so as to give it a new direction and quality.” In particular it was James’s “biological conception of the psyche” whose “new force and value [was] due to the immense progress made by biology since the time of Aristotle,” and this new conception “worked its way more and more into all my ideas and acted as a ferment to transform old beliefs” (LW 5.157-8). [3][3] LW5 : 159 “The objective biological approach of the...


Once convinced that our mental and spiritual life was deeply rooted in the physiology and bodily behavior that shape human experience, Dewey applied James’s biological naturalism with greater consistency than his mentor to provide a more unified vision of body and mind. Challenging James’s notion of a self (or ego) outside the realm of natural causal conditioning, he likewise rejected the idea that will was ever a purely a mental affair, independent of the physical modalities of its efficacy and expression. While defending James’s insistence on the physiological aspect of emotions, Dewey provided a better balanced theory that more clearly affirmed emotion’s essential cognitive dimension while integrating both cognition and physiological response into a larger unity of behavioral response. In contrast to James’s emphasis on the privacy of consciousness, Dewey realized that the biological approach logically implied the social nature of mind. This is because an organism’s survival depends on interaction with (including incorporation of) its environment, and a crucial part of the human organism’s environment is the society of other humans, without which a newborn human organism could never survive and acquire full human identity. Finally, Dewey avoided the Jamesian inconsistency of superbly deploying somatic introspection in psychological theorizing while rejecting such reflection in practical life because of his ardent advocacy of uninhibited spontaneity, habit, and pure will. Instead, Dewey wisely affirmed somatic reflection for both theory and practice.


Dewey’s unifying improvements on James were in part due to his avowed “temperament” for making “logical consistency…a dominant consideration” (JD 45). But they also reflect the impact of another mentor whose influence may have been as beneficial and inspirational as that of James. I refer to the somatic educator and therapist F.M. Alexander, whose ideas and practice Dewey frequently cited and tirelessly advocated (despite the skeptical objections of friends and colleagues). Dewey was very explicit about his debt to Alexander not only for improving his health and self-use and thus promoting his longevity, but also for providing concrete “substance” to fill in the “schematic form” of his theoretical ideas. “My theories of mind-body, of the coordination 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”(JD 44-5).


Here again, Dewey was inspired to hyperbole. In one of the three prefaces he provided for Alexander’s books, he boldly claimed : “Mr. Alexander has demonstrated a new scientific principle with respect to the control of human behavior, as important any principle which has ever been discovered in the domain of external nature. Not only this, but his discovery is necessary to complete the discoveries that have been made about non-human nature, if these discoveries and inventions are not to end by making us their servants and helpless tools” (MW15 : 311). [4][4] The books are F. M. Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance... Though an outrageous overstatement (that ranks Alexander Technique with Newtonian physics), it clearly suggests that Dewey’s philosophy of mind and body cannot be properly appreciated without some understanding of Alexander’s views and methods.


This paper examines Dewey’s body-mind theory in terms of the Jamesian and Alexandrian pillars on which it is built. After showing how Alexander’s teaching helped Dewey improve on James and realize the practical value of somatic reflection, I argue that Alexander’s doctrine and influence were not entirely beneficial and that Dewey’s somatic theory could have profited by distancing itself from some of Alexander’s one-sided, rigidly rationalistic views.



In his Psychology, James emphasized the essential correlation of mental life and bodily states and argued for a substantive bodily presence in the experience of mental phenomenal usually thought to be wholly spiritual. But he nevertheless “allowed himself the conveniences of dualism”, in which mind and body could be conceived as distinctly different kinds of things, however closely they interacted with each other. [5][5] R. B. Perry, The Thought and Character of William James... He did so not only because dualism was the standard commonsense view that would make his book (commissioned as a teaching text) clearer and more palatable, but because he was unwilling to endorse a more thoroughgoing naturalism that would threaten his existentially crucial belief in free will and foreclose his fervently hoped for possibility of spiritual consciousness beyond the bounds of our mortal, bodily life. Even when he gave up the dualism of subjective mental consciousness and its objective material content in order to adopt (in 1904) his theory of “radical empiricism” in which mind and matter were just different ways of parsing a fundamentally unified field of pure experience, James did not forsake his commitment to free will as something that can effectively intervene in the physical world to determine action but that is not in turn determined by that world’s causal chains.


Once converted to James’s embodied perspective, Dewey plied a more consistent nondualistic naturalism. Instead of speaking of body and mind as two distinct or separable things whose reciprocal influences could be traced and correlated, Dewey insisted on treating them as a fundamental unit, condemning their established division as a pervasive flaw that plagues both theory and practice, and claiming he did “not know of anything so disastrously affected by the tradition of separation and isolation as is this particular theme of body-mind” (LW3 :27). Recognizing that linguistic tradition both reflects and reinforces this separation, he complained that “we have no word by which to name mind-body in a unified wholeness of operation” that characterizes human life. Convinced of “the necessity of seeing mind-body as an integral whole,” Dewey was thus willing to flout conventional usage by lexicographically asserting their oneness through such locutions as “body-mind” and “mind-body” (LW1 : 217; LW3 :27).


Rather than an interaction between a distinct body and mind, we have a transactional whole of body-mind. However, this fundamental ontological union of body-mind does not entail that a satisfactory degree of harmonious unity in our behavior as body-minds is always guaranteed or achieved. Dewey’s forwardlooking, melioristic pragmatism sees body-mind unity less as an ontological given in which we can smugly rest than as a desired, progressive goal of dynamic, harmonious functioning that we should continually strive to attain. So more important than new terminology to suggest body-mind unity, more urgent than metaphysical theories to counter dualism, Dewey affirms that “the integration of mind-body in action” is most crucially a practical question, “the most practical of all questions we can ask of our civilization,” and one that demands social reconstruction as well as individual efforts to achieve better unity in practice (LW3 :29-30). But practical improvement of mind-body integration is harder to sustain when, metaphysically, voluntary action is divided into a purely mental act of chosen purpose (performed by a disembodied free will) that is then followed by a separate bodily execution of that purpose. James affirmed this dualistic account, claiming that in explicit acts of will “volitional effort lies exclusively within the mental world. The whole drama is a mental drama” with free will as the heroic protagonist (PP 1167,1168). Though granting that science requires the methodological presumption that everything, even our choices, can in principle be explained or predicted in terms of causal conditions, “that the world must be an unbroken fact, and that prediction of all things must be ideally, if not actually, possible,” James countered, there is a contrary and ultimately overriding “moral postulate about the Universe” that is essential to our entire conception of ethics and action and that demands free will. It is “the postulate that what ought to be can be, and that bad acts cannot be fated, but that good ones must be possible in their place” (PP 1177). We not only feel the exercise of free will in our choices, James argued, but without it, “the whole sting and excitement” in choice of action would disappear, so “life and history” would simply be “the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable years ago.” Without free will, life would thus lose its “tragic zest,” and moral responsibility would be stifled under determinism’s causal chains (PP 429).


Dewey responds that the determinism of modern science allows enough “uncertainty” of causal connections and of results in its probabilistic laws to provide our actions with the sense of excitement and zest that James felt required an unconditional free will (EW4 : 94). Moreover, Dewey argues, the idea of a purely immaterial, independent free will is inadequate and unnecessary for explaining the ethical sense of free and meaningful choice. If free choice of a hot or cold drink meant one that is wholly unconditioned by material factors, then it would require disregarding one’s prior preferences, habits, current desires, bodily state, and environing physical and social conditions. But such freedom of choice would simply be the “freedom of indifference” or arbitrary randomness (EW4 :93). Such arbitrary choice is not the meaningful exercise of will that defines ethical action. Besides, how could such choice be the individual’s free will, since it is unconditioned by all the conditions that define one’s individuality as an agent ? But if choice is meaningful and important to ethical life precisely because it is guided by a person’s conditions and desires, then choice or will cannot be unconditionally free.


Nor is such total liberty necessary to explain our real sense of freedom and moral responsibility. Choices are not unreal merely because they are conditioned. The mere awareness of choice and conscious deliberation between alternative actions is sufficient to establish a measure of felt freedom, “because the presence in consciousness of alternative ends with the reflection which that calls out, is freedom” of a sort (EW4 :95). And such freedom, though not devoid of causal conditions, allows for a distinct, future-looking sense of moral responsibility. By treating people as responsible and thus assigning them praise or blame for their actions, they can be influenced to make better use of reflection and judgment in making better choices. The moral issue is “prospective,” a question “of modifying the factors which now influence future results”, and our practices or “schemes of judgment, of assigning blame and praise, of awarding punishment and honor, are part of these conditions” (MW14 :18). As Dewey elsewhere puts it, “Holding men to responsibility may make a decided difference in their future behavior; holding a tree or a stone responsible is a meaningless performance” because there is no comparable influence on choice and conduct (LW3 :94).


A second axis of critique more specifically challenges the Jamesian view that will is an exclusively mental affair not essentially relying on bodily means for its intrinsic performance but simply deploying them after the act of will is successfully achieved in its pure mentality. In refuting this position, Dewey relies heavily on F.M. Alexander’s insights concerning the power of bodily habits and indispensability of somatic means in willed action.



Our voluntary action is not a product of isolated moments of purely mental decision; it relies on the habits of feeling, thinking, acting, and desiring that constitute us as the selves we are. Most of our willed acts are habitual and unreflective. Walking is a complex mechanical matter involving the coordinated the movement of many bones and muscles while maintaining balance. But in normal circumstances, our ordinary habits of walking simply respond to our desire to go somewhere without requiring any special conscious act of willing, with every step, the series of lifting, lowering, and forward movements of each hip, leg, and foot, along with the necessary attendant movements of the pelvis. In the vast bulk of our voluntary behavior, our unreflective habits spontaneously perform our will. Indeed, as Dewey remarks, because “habits are demands for certain kinds of activity…, they are will,” and their “projectile power” of “predisposition … is an immensely more intimate and fundamental part of ourselves than are vague, general, conscious choices.” Habits thus “constitute the self. … They form our effective desires and they furnish us with our working capacities. They rule our thoughts determining, which shall appear and be strong and which shall pass from light to obscurity” (HNC, 21-22).


Habits cannot be purely mental and autonomous, since they always incorporate aspects of the environment within themselves. One’s habitual way of walking depends not only on one’s particular physical structure (itself partly shaped by habits of nutrition and movement which shape muscle and eventually even bone) but also on the surfaces on which we walk, the shoes we walk in, the exemplars of walking we witness and attune ourselves to, and the situational purposes that frame our customary gait (rushing through the crowded streets to work versus leisurely strolling barefoot on the sand). [6][6] If the habits that constitute the self also incorporate... One’s habits of thought necessarily incorporate those aspects of the environment that are necessary or important or simply available to think about. Moreover, since habits are formed over time, they incorporate environmental histories and thus can persist even when the original conditions are no longer present, as we sadly know from victims with histories of abuse and oppression. If will is constituted by habits, and if habits always incorporate environmental features, then it follows that will cannot be an entirely autonomous and purely mental affair. Willing cannot be a wholly disembodied act of abstractly wishing or desiring an end (even if we could even speak of wish and desire as disembodied), because it requires some incorporation of material means in the environmental context of action. Willing (rather than merely wishing) to walk means somehow engaging our habits and means of bodily movement, of making some bodily effort of concentration and flexing of muscles, even if we are deprived of the habitual use of our legs, even if our legs are entirely paralyzed and our muscular efforts are expressed only in other places. Dewey credits Alexander for explaining most clearly the indispensable, inescapable role of habit and bodily means in effective will, but also the consequent but paradoxically converse power of habit also to frustrate our wishes and intentions by derailing the will.


Who was Alexander and what were the origins and principles of his somatic theory and practice ? Born in 1869, he began his career as an Australian actor who mysteriously kept losing his voice, but only when performing and despite his normal vocal cords. Finding no help or explanation from medical experts, Alexander systematically studied his speech behavior in a mirror, and came to see that his voice problems in acting were due to his assuming a habitual declamatory 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 “pulling back of the head”. To his far greater surprise, Alexander then discovered that his conscious decision and mental wish not to pull back his head was completely ineffective against his ingrained habit to do so, thus demonstrating that his habitual, embodied will was more a more basic and powerful part of him than his conscious mental 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 mirrors) that even when he thought and felt that he was keeping his forward, he was actually reverting to his habit of pulling back the head. In short, he realized that his sensory awareness of his movement was extremely inaccurate; and by subsequently studying others, he came to see that the overwhelming majority of people, through lack of cultivated body awareness and unthinking habits of bodily misuse, similarly suffer from “debauched kinaesthetic systems” or consistently faulty “sense-appreciation” that seriously hinder their performance (MSI, 22,89).


Alexander further observed that eagerness to attain a desired end automatically prompts habitual actions to achieve that end, without our even realizing that we are falling back into the original bad habits that frustrate our doing what we want to do. “When the end is held in mind, instinct or long 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 actually doing in our bodily posture and performance and from seeing how this thwarts what we want to do. Our avid desire “to gain the ‘end’” thus contributes to our flawed sensory awareness, while distracting our attention from the needed “means whereby” the action could be performed properly (MSI 266; 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 indispensable “means whereby”) for best producing the desired action or attitude, and finally to monitor and master their performance through “conscious control” until ultimately a better (i.e. more effective and controllable) habit could be established to achieve the willed end of action (MSI 57-72,89,189). The elaborate method he developed – emphasizing heightened somatic awareness and conscious control through inhibition, indirection, and focus on “the means whereby” as crucial, provisional ends – became the famed Alexander Technique.


Moving to England in 1904 to promulgate this technique (acquiring such famous students as George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley), 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 and foundational tool for improving the use of one’s entire self – body and mind. Such improved use, he argued, could better not only individual lives but society as a whole. The epidemic proportions in modern society of kinesthetic malfunctions and related somatic-psychic ailments (backaches, headaches, loss of vitality, nervousness, mental rigidity), Alexander explained, were due to a systematic mismatch between 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 instead of relying on blind, unconscious, haphazard forces to shape such adaptations. The ordinary process of habit formation cannot be trusted for adjusting to new conditions, because it is so slow, unsystematic, and uncertain, that (given the rapid rate of contemporary change) even if we are lucky to develop a good new habit unreflectively, it could easily be rendered 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, means, evolution, meliorism, body-mind unity, and education for rationally reconstructing self and society were already clearly congenial to Dewey. But the philosopher was overwhelmingly won over by Alexander’s practical technique as somatic educator-therapist. Dewey (at the age of 57) first met Alexander in 1916 through a Columbia philosophy colleague Wendell Bush and soon began taking lessons in the technique. Dewey, who had long suffered from eyestrain, back pains, and a painfully stiff neck, claimed “that Alexander had completely cured him” taking lessons from both Alexander and Alexander’s younger brother, confessing at the age of 87 that “if it hadn’t been for their treatment, I’d hardly be here today.” [7][7] See C. Lamont (ed.), Dialogue on John Dewey (New York :Horizon... 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”. “A man who does not stand properly forms a habit of standing improperly, a positive, forceful habit.” Hence to assume “he is simply failing 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 be no more dismissed by a direct effort of will than the conditions which create drought can be dispelled by whistling for wind.” 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 kinesthetic feeling (however implicit, unnoticed, vague, partial, or misguided) – as to how one becomes and feels erect, and such “an idea gets shape and consistency 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 proprioceptive 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 will. Ordinary psychology reverses the actual state of affairs” (HNC 24-7).


Failure to recognize the essential bond between will and habit “only leads to a separation of mind and body” that undermines the “scientific” status (in Dewey’s scare quotes) of both “psycho-analysis [which] thinks that mental habits can be straightened out by some kind of purely psychical manipulations without reference to…bad bodily sets,” and the theories of “nerve physiologists [who think] 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” (27). This disparagement of the science 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 neurophysiology (which he clearly respected) should be understood in the light of his repeatedly ardent yet beleaguered defense of the scientific nature of Alexander’s work (e.g. MW14 : 311-313) whose persistent failure to win mainstream scientific acceptance was surely a great disappointment for Dewey, if not also an embarrassment.


In William James, advocacy of the will as purely mental is complemented by his admonishment that somatic introspection constitutes a distraction and danger for practical life. So in pursuing a course of action, just “trust your spontaneity,” he urged, 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 reflective somatic consciousness has an “inhibitive influence” on our will that frustrates action, undermines “vitality,” and lowers our “pain-threshold” thus diminishing our efficacy and energy. [8][8] See PP 1128, and “Energies of Man,” in William James,... However, once we realize that the will is essentially embodied, then somatic reflection should be seen as a very helpful tool for improving practical life. Likewise, once we realize that will is so deeply implicated in habit, we should appreciate how inhibition is valuable for overcoming the bad habits that express (and reinforce) themselves in spontaneous behavior and for providing a space for reflective consciousness prior to action. Convinced of these central lessons of Alexander, Dewey sharply departs from James by extolling the practical merits of reflective somatic consciousness and its valuable inhibitory functions, though, like James, he was personally wary of the dangers of introspection.


Confessing to a friend that “being too introspective by nature, I have had to control the direction it takes”, Dewey expresses particular unease about “autobiographical introspection…as it is not good for me.” [9][9] Letter to S. Klyce, cited in Rockefeller, 318. But realizing, through Alexander’s work, the beneficial effects of critical somatic introspection, Dewey echoed Alexander’s ambitious argument that systematic somatic reflection is indeed necessary “for human use in 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 constant is precisely, ourselves, our own habits and ways of doing things,” through our primal tool or agency the body-mind. To understand and redirect its workings requires attentively self-reflective “sensory consciousness” and control. Modern science has developed all sorts of powerful tools for influencing 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 “studied as the central instrumentality” (MW14 :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 somatic self-reflection is necessary for this intelligent self-control of self use. (LW6 : 318).


If reflective somatic 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 transform them into better ones. Otherwise, these entrenched habits will continue to be reinforced in our spontaneous unreflective behavior and thus continue to govern us. Alexander therefore emphasized “the process of inhibition as a primary and fundamental factor in [his] technique.” “Inhibitory processes take first place” and “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 vii, 186). Alexander indeed regards our “powers of intellectual 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, from deploying our bodies in other ways to perform the same function but better or differently.


True freedom of will thus involves freeing it from bondage to unreflective habit so that one can consciously do with one’s body what one really wants to do. Such freedom is not a native gift but an acquired skill involving mastery of inhibitory control as well as positive action. As Dewey puts it, “True spontaneity is henceforth not a birth-right but the last term, the consummated conquest, of an art – the art of conscious control,” an art involving “the unconditional necessity of inhibition of customary acts, and the tremendous difficulty of not ‘doing’ something as soon as the habitual action is suggested” MW11 :351-2; LW6 : 318). These inhibitory difficulties, which he first came to recognize through his Alexander training, Dewey described as “the most humiliating experience of his life, intellectually speaking.” (LW6 : 318)


Not only essential in restraining problematic habits, inhibition is also necessary for the very effectiveness of somatic reflection that allows us to observe our behavior accurately so that we can inhibit the problematic habit and replace it with a superior mode. We cannot reliably change our actions if we do not really know what we are actually doing, yet most of us are very unaware of our habitual modes of bodily behavior : Which foot do you use when taking your first step in walking; which leg bears the most weight in standing; on which buttock do you more heavily rest in sitting; where do you initiate the action of reaching to pick up an object (in our hand, elbow, shoulder joint, pelvis, head)? We are not at all inclined to pay attention to such things, because as active creatures striving to survive and flourish within an environment, our sustained attention is habitually directed primarily to other things in that environment that affect our projects rather than to our bodily parts, movements, and sensations. For good evolutionary reasons, we are habituated to respond directly to external events rather than analyze our inner feelings; to act rather than to carefully observe, to reach impulsively for our ends rather than holding back to study the bodily means at our disposal. Thus inhibitory power is needed even to break our habits of attending to other things so that we can sustain a focus on reflective somatic consciousness.


Based on his own experience of self-transformation and his subsequent work with others, Alexander asserts that the initial focus for such training of postural coordination should be in the head and neck area. For it is there he identifies the “primary control of the use of the self, which governs the working of all the mechanisms and so renders the control of the complex human organism comparatively simple.” “This primary control”, Alexander continues, “depends upon a certain use of the head and neck in relation to the use of the rest of the body, and once the pupil has inhibited the instinctive misdirection leading to his faulty habitual use, the teacher must begin the process of building up the new use by giving the pupil the primary direction towards the establishment of this primary control” (US 32). As explained above, the pupil will then project this direction but not act on it; instead he will let the teacher’s hands bring about the corresponding desired posture or movement which “though unfamiliar at first, will become familiar with repetition” (US 32). Once this primary control is established, the fundamental key to coordination has been achieved, so the teacher can then give further directions to the pupil (e.g., how to use his wrists in swinging). But the pupil “must keep the primary direction going” while he projects these secondary directions and the teacher “brings about the corresponding activity” (US 32-33). As long as the primary control is maintained, Alexander claims, the individual will be able to use himself more consciously and skillfully, thus enabling him to learn with greater speed and ease whatever specific modes of somatic “means whereby” he or his teacher discover.


Alexander equated “this primary control” with the important discovery (by neurophysiologist Rudolph Magnus in 1924) of an anatomical “central control” in the brain (US 32) that governed the righting reflex and all other reflex postural coordinations and that Magnus called the Zentralapparat. [10][10] Rudolph Magnus, Körperstellung (Berlin : Springer,... Though having frequently emphasized the importance of head and neck posture in his earlier work, Alexander did not introduce the term “primary control” until Magnus’s theory became well known, so he may well have used this term precisely to give his own theory more scientific credibility through identification with Magnus’s research (of which Alexander never demonstrated a substantive understanding). Dewey, always concerned with the scientific respectability of Alexander’s work, was keen to follow suit with this identification, while also suggesting that Alexander’s discovery was prior and more powerfully potent through its personally experiential knowledge. “Magnus proved by means of what may be called external evidence the existence of a central control in the organism. But Mr. Alexander’s technique gave a direct and intimate confirmation in personal experience of the fact of central control long before Magnus carried on his investigations. And one who has had experience of the technique knows it through the series of experiences which he himself has. The genuinely scientific character of Mr. Alexander’s teaching and discoveries can be safely rested upon this fact alone” (LW6 :317).


Magnus defines the Zentralapparat as “a complicated central nervous apparatus that governs the entire body posture in a coordinated manner” and that is located “in the brain stem, from the upper cervical cord to the midbrain…This is the apparatus on which the cerebral cortex plays, as complicated melodies are played on a piano” (653), and it provides the basis of unreflective postural stability and reflex coordination that enables the deliberate, thoughtful action that “can be carried out only when the cerebrum is intact” (5). There are obvious resemblances between Alexander’s notion of primary control and Magnus’s Zentralapparat for both focus in the head-neck area and serve as a primary coordinative control on which further coordinative behavior needs to be based. But there are also clear differences between the two notions. Magnus identifies an anatomical mechanism in the brain stem, while Alexander is speaking of a behavioral use of holding a certain postural relation between the head and neck and the rest of the body. Magnus’s control is concerned with automatic, unthinking reflexes, while Alexander’s is instead a function of reflective conscious control that highlights rational thinking, distinctively conscious inhibition, and methodical awareness of one’s will in deliberative action, all of which go beyond the Zentralapparat because they require the intact cerebral cortex. [11][11] Magnus notes that without an intact cerebral cortex,...


If inhibition and the primary control constitute two key pillars of Alexander Technique, his work also rests on a theoretical commitment to the supreme value and potentially all-pervasive power of rational consciousness. Call this the premise of total conscious control. Expressing Alexander’s evolutionary vision of human progress through conscious “reasoning inhibition”, it 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 control there may in time be evolved a complete mastery over the body, which will result in the elimination of all physical defects” (CC 44; MSI 56). Such “complete conscious control of every function of the body” he insists, involves no “trance” (MSI 41) but rather relies on use of one’s reflective, inhibiting consciousness to attain a heightened, rational somatic awareness that presupposes the possibility of observing every function of our body. This is because, by Alexander’s principles, we can consciously control only that of which we are conscious, since if we are not conscious of it, we cannot observe and inhibit it. Realizing that life would be impossibly unwieldy if we had to reflect on every movement, Alexander grants the value of positive, effective habits that can function unreflectively beneath our focused consciousness. But he stresses that that the essence of such positive habits is that they always remain accessible for consciousness to monitor and revise. His whole project of reconstructing habit is aimed at transforming ineffective, “unrecognized”, and thus fixed and uncontrollable habits into habits that are effective and adaptable because they are essentially governed by “conscious control” even though they are not constantly held in the focus of our reflective consciousness. Though “working quietly and unobtrusively” beneath the conscious level, proper habits may be checked and altered by conscious control “at any moment if necessary” (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).



Yet how could such total transparency ever be possible ? Not only have we noted the practical difficulties of sustaining attention and perceptual acuity for a detailed, accurate body scan, but the very figure/ground structure that is essential to any consciousness implies that there will always be something in the somatic background of consciousness that shapes that consciousness but does not appear as an object within its field. Total somatic awareness and control are simply impossible, even if every particular somatic element is in principle available for such awareness and control. There will always be something that escapes our attention, as we focus attention on some other body part or function. Dewey clearly recognized this limitation of conscious reflection when he emphasized the indescribable, ungraspable immediacy of qualitative feeling as the essential glue that binds an experience together but cannot appear as one of its elements, for it is precisely what underlies and shapes the very attention to those elements that enables our awareness and identification of them as elements (LW12 :73-76) [12][12] For critical discussion of his arguments that such... Dewey was also more appreciative of the positive value of habit, affirming its fundamental primacy over reason and consciousness, which cannot be regarded as autonomous entities for controlling habit, since they themselves emerge from habits and have no real existence apart them : “habits formed in process of exercising biological aptitudes are the sole agents of observation, recollection, foresight, and judgment : a mind or consciousness in general which performs these operations is a myth. … Concrete habits do all the perceiving, recognizing, imagining, recalling, judging, conceiving and reasoning that is done” (HNC 123-124). And they also do the work of inhibiting other habits. It is therefore wrong to oppose habit to reason and conscious control, Dewey argues, the real opposition is “between routine unintelligent habit and intelligent habit or art,” between blind, fixed habit and “flexible, sensitive habit (HNC 51). The art of somatic reflection and conscious control is thus itself a refined, intelligent habit emerging from and coordinating a background of countless other habits that constitute 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 self-consciousness that can monitor them all (HNC 97).


Though he does not share the problematic premises of total transparency and conscious control, Dewey declines (perhaps out of politeness) to challenge them in his discussion of Alexander’s work. But he should have, just as he should have been more prudent in endorsing Alexander’s theory of “primary control” and its identification with Magnus’s Zentalapparat. “This discovery… of a central control which conditions all other reactions”, Dewey rejoices, “brings the conditioning factor under conscious direction and enables the individual through his own coordinated activities to take possession of his own potentialities” (LW6 : 319). But the central control of Magnus was not at all a matter of “conscious direction” or “the consummated conquest… [of] the art of conscious control” (MW11 :352); it was an instinctive, unconscious mechanism deployed even by animals suffering 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. Alexander undermines the positive power of his insight by overstatement. Though the posture of the head and neck are certainly extremely important for our sensory and motor functioning, it is far from clear that the particular “primary direction” of the head-neck area that Alexander recommends as the primary control – i.e. 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 sleep, we obviously do not need to have the head forward and up to achieve the regularity of our breathing and heartbeat, and we still more obviously do not require conscious control of this head position. Even in clearly voluntary movements, such as rolling oneself over in bed, the postural orientation of the pelvis is often equally or more important than holding the head forward and up; indeed for some movements (like swallowing or doing a back flip), it is typically advantageous to pull the head back and down.


In pointing to the limits of Alexander’s primary control, I am not contesting the primal importance of the head and neck area for proper posture and sensorymotor functioning. How could it not be most important, since it houses not only the brain, vision, hearing, taste, and the vestibular system of the inner ear (that provides for stability of posture and gaze), but also the first two cervical vertebra (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 primary control of keeping the head forward and up does seem primary in postures and movements involved with holding ourselves erect and balanced, where sensory mechanisms in the head and neck are of crucial importance. But other parts of the body’s nervous system—notably receptors of touch on the skin – also play a significant role in such matters, as recent neurophysiological experiments have shown. The postural righting reflex of animals can be inhibited by pressure to its flank. [13][13] See A. Berthoz, The Brain’s Sense of Movement (Cambridge,... “Haptic information from hand contact can have a profoundly stabilizing effect on body posture”, even overriding or correcting deficiencies in the vestibular and visual nervous system. [14][14] See J.R. Lackner and P. A. DiZio, “Aspects of body... Sensory cutaneous input from the foot’s plantar region and proprioceptive input from the ankle also have been shown to guide posture, so that stimulation of these areas can create whole-body tilts. [15][15] See A. Kavounoudias, R. Roll, and J-P. Roll, “Foot...


In short, rather than reliance on one central position of head and neck, our human mastery of upright postural control relies on the integration of multisensory information from a variety of body areas. This not only provides some redundancy of postural information that enables an individual to function when one sensory channel is blocked or impaired, but the complex combination of partially overlapping sensory input with respect to posture also allows for more comparative feedback on body orientation and hence a more accurate, fine-tuned, system for postural control. Somatic philosophy and reconstructive therapy should respect such pluralism. The practical corollary is that somatic awareness must not always be narrowly – or even first and foremost – focused on Alexander’s primary control, but should be directed to whatever bodily parts and postures require attention in order to achieve functional adjustment. 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 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. For example, if the neck-head area of a given individual is already associated with pain, stress, and rigidity because of its history of misuse and hypertension, then an immediate focus of intense attention or manipulation is likely only to heighten his tension, anxiety, or pain instead of achieving the desired aims of releasing tension and achieving clearer awareness of what such relaxation of contractions 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 can experiment (in a zone of greater comfort) with the adjustments and sensations of relaxation and flexibility. And once these methods and feelings become familiar, they then can be more easily extended to the more problematic head-neck area. [16][16] I draw here on my research in somaesthetics (cf. Performing... The living, moving body constitutes a multi-faceted, complexly integrated, dynamic field rather than a simple, static, linear, system. Though some body parts are more primary or essential than others in motor control, somatic reflection cannot be confined to one somatic region or relationship defined as the “central control”. It requires the pragmatic pluralism that James most strongly stressed and that Dewey generally advocates. [17][17] For further discussion of the somaesthetic issues in...



John Dewey, The Middle Works, vol. 11 (Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 351. Further Dewey references are to his collected works in this edition of Early, Middle, and Later Works, here abbreviated EW, MW, and LW.


In P. Schilpp and L. Hahn (eds.), The Philosophy of John Dewey (LaSalle IL : Open Court, 1989), 23; hereafter JD. I will refer to William James, Principles of Psychology (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1983) as PP.


LW5 : 159 “The objective biological approach of the Jamesian psychology led straight to the perception of the importance of distinctive social categories, especially communication and participation.”


The books are F. M. Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance (New York : Dutton, 1918); Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual (New York : Dutton, 1923) and The Use of the Self (New York :Dutton, 1932); hereafter abbreviated MSI, CCC, US


R. B. Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (Nashville : Vanderbilt University Press, 1996),273.


If the habits that constitute the self also incorporate the environment, it follows that the self is partly an environmental product. Our bodies, just like our thoughts, incorporate our surroundings going beyond conventional body boundaries its essential needs of breathing and nutrition. We live, that is, “as much in processes across and ‘through’ skins as in processes ‘within’ skins.” As our skin is a semi-permeable boundary, so we are only semi-autonomous individuals. Dewey thus speaks of a “transactional” self constituted in large part by its environmental relations (LW16 :119). For elaboration of the ethical and environmental consequences of this view, see Richard Shusterman, Body Consciousness : A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics (Cambrigde : Cambridge University Press, 2008).


See C. Lamont (ed.), Dialogue on John Dewey (New York :Horizon Press, 1959), 27; and Dewey’s letter to J. Ratner in 1946, cited in S. Rockefeller, John Dewey (Columbia University Press, 1991), 343.


See PP 1128, and “Energies of Man,” in William James, Writings, 1902-1910 (New York : Vintage, 1987), 1225-1226.


Letter to S. Klyce, cited in Rockefeller, 318.


Rudolph Magnus, Körperstellung (Berlin : Springer, 1924). I cite the English translation, Body Posture : Experimental-Physiological Investigations of the Reflexes Involved in Body Posture, Their Cooperation and Disturbances (Springfield, VA : National Technical Information Service, 1987).


Magnus notes that without an intact cerebral cortex, an animal with a functional Zentralapparat can right themselves, walk instinctively, and give reflex responses to external stimuli but cannot initiate voluntary action, which Magnus calls “spontaneous movements”; “external stimuli are required every time to set the animal in motion “(5).


For critical discussion of his arguments that such feeling necessarily underlies the coherence of all our thinking, see my Practicing Philosophy (New York : Routledge, 1997), ch. 6.


See A. Berthoz, The Brain’s Sense of Movement (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2000), 106.


See J.R. Lackner and P. A. DiZio, “Aspects of body self-calibration,” Trends in Cognitive Science, 4 (2000), 282. Lackner and his colleagues also showed the contribution of tactile sensations in bodily orientation. Their “rotisserie” 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 : e.g., pressure on the buttocks induced the sensation of sitting and spinning, pressure to the feet of tipping up and rotating vertically.


See A. Kavounoudias, R. Roll, and J-P. Roll, “Foot sole and ankle muscle inputs contribute jointly to human erect posture regulation”, Journal of Physiology, 532.3 (2001), 869-878.


I draw here on my research in somaesthetics (cf. Performing Live, Cornell University Press, 2000), and on my practical experience as a professional Feldenkrais Practitioner.


For further discussion of the somaesthetic issues in this paper, see my Body Consciousness.

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Shusterman Richard, « Dewey's Somatic Philosophy », Revue internationale de philosophie, 3/2008 (n° 245), p. 293-311.


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