Reading Alexander: Some Historical Context
Alexander was basically a 19th century and early 20th century man. He was raised in a century when British sea power allowed it to control countries and territories across the globe. This control enabled Britain to create a global system of commerce, and build an empire. “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was literally true. This trade had an early start: the East India Company was chartered in 1600.
What fueled British expansion, as well as the colonial ambitions of other nations? I think to understand this expansion, and Alexander’s ideas about “conscious control” and the power of rational thought, one has to go back to the Enlightenment, also called The Age of Reason. This movement, which occurred basically between 1688 and 1789 in France, Germany and England, was initially response to new political, social and cultural ideas from different civilizations around the globe. As David Graeber and David Wengrow elaborate in their book The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity, a significan t impact on Enlightenment thinkers was the critique of European societies made by Indigenous Americans who believed that their values of freedom and personal liberty, mutual aid, religion and flexibity in political systems was clearly superior to anything Europe had to offer.
Enlightenment thinkers believed in improving society through reasoned debate and rational thought. Ideas of the Enlightenment inspired leaders of the American Revolution and French Revolution.
A century earlier, in the mid-1500s, the Scientific Revolution was beginning. In part This was a response to authority, particularly the authority of the Church, which explained natural phenomena using the Bible. While Roger Bacon, who died at the end of the 13th century, was the first person to write that one could use empiricism—the actual observation of the natural world—to reveal natural laws, the beginning of the Scientific Revolution is usually attributed to the work of scientists (at the time called natural philosophers) such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. Clearly the idea of using empiricism fit easily into Enlightenment ideals.
The third important influence that helped shape the modern world was the Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-18th century. Britain was the first country to adopt its principles, and invented much of its machinery. By this time, Britain also had the sea power and control of colonies and territories from which it could extract raw materials.
Whether he was aware of it or not, Alexander was clearly immersed in the sea of these ideas. We can clearly see the Enlightenment influence when he writes about reason, conscious control, and a plane of conscious control that one can reach by using reason. Instinct, subconscious thought and, one assumes, emotion, were to be dominated.
We must also remember that although scientists believed that they could observe nature objectively, and reveal natural laws from their observations, they were doing those observations using their own unconscious biases, including the 2,000 year old tradition of the objectivist paradigm. As an example, many scientists tried to categorize the “races of man” from the primitive to the most advanced, believing that these divisions were real categories that existed in the world and that evolution created these “natural” divisions. Eugenics was another idea that drew support from the ostensibly scientific discoveries about humanity. The term eugenics was originally coined by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, who, after reading On the Origin of Species, believed it supported the idea that the “fittest” survive and the “weakest” naturally die out. Unfortunately, he (and others) saw many “weak” members in society, and supporters of eugenics believed humanity could best be improved by “selective parenthood,” where only the fittest and best exemplars would have children, thus creating a genetically superior group of people.
The practice of eugenics led to many abuses, especially in the United States, which had a sustained program of sterilizing the “unfit,” a category that included people with disabilities, people deemed mentally ill and, generally, people who were poor and not white. Hitler admired the eugenics movement, and used the practices developed in the United States as a template for his Final Solution.
When you read Alexander’s books, keep this historical context in mind. We all live in a society and culture and are influenced by its mores, whether we believe we are or not. Both as a person, and a teacher of the Alexander Technique, we must continuously and honestly examine what beliefs and biases underlie our actions, including the biases in how we were trained.
Many people, Alexander Technique teachers included, believe that while Alexander was a genius, he was also a rather poor writer. It could not have helped his reputation when in the Introduction to the only excerpts of his writings available at the time in the United States, Ed Maisel pronounces that Alexander's books are "devoid of grace, style or shape," and are "the earnest patching together of observation and experience by a unique authority who had never received any real instruction in the mechanics of writing." (p. xvi.)
I have often read, and heard commented, similar opinions, and I think they stem largely from frustration at not being able to immediately or easily understand what Alexander wrote, and perhaps also a repugnance at some of his obviously racist statements.
We do, however, know that Alexander’s life encompassed the last 30 years or so of the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th (1869—1955). We also know that two of his favorite authors were Shakespeare and Herbert Spencer. One can assume he was also well-read in the King James Version of the Bible. These texts are not “easy” reads. One has to pay attention to fully understand them.
Alexander writes in a similar style. In addition, he was trying to describe new ideas about psycho-physical unity, about how we function, how we interfere with that functioning, and what the results of that interference are. He also wanted to place his ideas into the philosophical context of evolution, both how we evolved to our current state, how we could evolve to a plane of conscious control, and why that is important. The full title of Man’s Supreme Inheritance: Conscious Guidance and Control in Relation to Human Evolution in Civilization, makes this idea abundantly clear.
So, with that background, what can we do to help us understand his writings?
Alexander: Some Tips
To read Alexander's long sentences with understanding, you have to be willing to go a bit slowly, figure out the subject and verb, see the different clauses and figure out their subjects and verbs, and hold them all in relation to one another until you get to the end of the sentence.
Here is an example, the first sentence from the second chapter of The Use of the Self, "Use and Functioning in Relation to Reaction:"
"The reader who reviews the experiences that I have tried to set down in the previous chapter will notice that at a certain point in my investigation I came to realize that my reaction to a particular stimulus was constantly the opposite of that which I desired, and that in my search for the cause of this, I discovered that my sensory appreciation (feeling) of the use of my mechanism was so untrustworthy that it led me to react by means of a use of myself which felt right, but was, in fact, too often wrong for my purpose" (p. 49).
Here it is, deconstructed (beginning on the next page). Read the bold parts first, then go back and read it all together, then reread the whole paragraph as quoted above.
The reader who reviews the experiences
that I have tried to set down in the previous chapter
will notice that
at a certain point in my investigation
I came to realize that my reaction
to a particular stimulus
was constantly the opposite of that which I desired
in my search for the cause of this,
I discovered that my sensory appreciation (feeling)
of the use of my mechanisms
was so untrustworthy that it led me to react by means of a use of myself which felt right,
in fact, too often
wrong for my purpose.
What did you notice, as you did this experiment of reading the quote three times? What did you notice about how I took it apart? Basically, we are looking for subjects (who did what); verbs (what they did); and results of those actions. Words like “that,” “but,” and “and” mark new clauses (that) or a new idea (and) or different idea (but).
It also helps to read aloud to another person. If we read something aloud so that it makes sense to another person, we will go more slowly, and do some of the same analysis while reading so that the inflections we use make the material understandable. And while you are reading, notice the words he uses. Words have meaning; relax your neck is an imperative, an order to do something, and very different from “let your neck relax.” What we say reveals how we understand teaching; see if you can understand what Alexander believes that one must do to teach.
As you read his books, notice when he uses italics. Anything in italics is important! (We will see in The Use of the Self, Chapter 1, that he also uses italics to step back from the chronological narrative).
One last tip: Reading the chapters in Freedom to Change by Frank Pierce Jones where he writes about each of these books will be very helpful for historical context, and some background about what Alexander and his brother, A.R. Alexander, were doing at the time.
How to Use This Book (and Have Fun Reading F.M. Alexander)
There are two types of questions in this book. The first type are what I call Study Questions. They were originally written for the students in classes at The Performance School, who wanted some guide to make their way through Alexander's writings. Questions that pointed to the important ideas in each section seemed to be the best way to give them a structure within which to study. With the Study Questions, I have tried to figure out what Alexander thought were the important points, analyzing the structure and language he used to do so, always keeping in mind the whole of the book, chapter, paragraph and sentence from which the question came. I also include questions that that I hope will encourage students to go beyond the simple: “What did Alexander say about this?” to include questions about why he may have thought or believed what he seemed to be saying in a particular paragraph; how what he writes reveals his beliefs about the world in general and how it is arranged; and what his teaching model is.
The second type of question is what I have called Thought Questions. Not every chapter has these questions. They are questions that tend to refer to a section or possibly a chapter as a whole, and will often refer to ideas that were current when Alexander was writing and research that has been done in fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, biology and psychology since Alexander wrote. They are intended to stimulate people's thinking on various topics, to question the ideas that Alexander offers.
I offer these questions because I believe that we need to discuss, ponder and work with Alexander's ideas to better know and understand what he believed. Whether we agree with him or not, understanding what he believed will make it much easier to understand what we believe about the Technique and how to teach it.
The editions I used for the Study Guide are: Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual and Universal Constant in Living, Mouritz editions; The Use of the Self, Orion or Gollancz. (The page numbers are conveniently the same).
Finally, while my original reason for writing these questions was to help my own students, I found that they helped me as well in understanding Alexander and his ideas. I hope they will also encourage you in your study of the principles that Alexander himself spent his lifetime teaching and studying.
In some ways the genesis of this book extends to my first contact with the Alexander Technique when I took a workshop offered by Marjorie Barstow at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. That experience made the decision to go to Lincoln, Nebraska the following summer and study with Marj very easy.
It was Marj's teaching and emphasis on thinking, however, which helped me see that this work is not "body work," and that understanding the principles underlying the work was most important. There is no better way to do that, I believe, than by reading and studying the writings F.M. Alexander, preferably with other people, so that you can have the benefit of their work and ideas, and by making experiments to put those principles into practice. Alexander's ideas were debated and discussed at length during the summer workshops in Lincoln, and because a number of us returned each year, we were able to have the benefit not only of studying these ideas with new people, but seeing how our understanding of them had increased and changed over time. I am greatly indebted to all my friends for this opportunity. I am also indebted to my colleagues at The Performance School in Seattle. Their continuing study and questioning always encourages me to persevere.
Lastly, many, many thanks to David Mills, for whom discussion is always an adventure.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Francis Galton". Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Francis-Galton.
Spencer, J. Brookes , Osler, Margaret J. and Brush, Stephen G.. "Scientific Revolution." Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Nov. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/science/Scientific-Revolution
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. 1859
Graeber, David and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity
Maisel, Ed (ed). The Resurrection of the Body. Delta, 1969.
Manjeshwar, Shanjana. America’s Forgotten History of Forced Sterilization – Berkeley Political Review 4 November 2020.
Snyder, Laura J. The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World. Crown Publishing, 2011.
Test Your Implicit Biases Take a Test (harvard.edu)