An ardent Deweyan, and a teacher of the Alexander Technique, wrote: « Pragmatism ..., Instrumentalism, “Piecemeal social engineering” ... the work we do is a near perfect demonstration of these principles in action. »
Is the student a piece of society and the teacher a social engineer? Is the Alexander Technique really John Dewey’s philosophy in action?
Let’s examine Pragmatism — or Dewey’s variant sometimes called Instrumentalism — and see if it has anything to do with us.
During what follows keep in mind that when Dewey writes “ideas,” “knowledge,” etc. he means any kind of knowledge: science, journalism, ethics, daily work — anything.
From Dewey’s book The Quest for Certainty (1929), Later Works, vol. 4:
It is false “that what is known is antecedent to the mental act of observation and inquiry ...” ... It is false “that the object of knowledge is a reality fixed and complete in itself ...”(Page 19.)
“The notion that the findings of science are a disclosure of the inherent properties of the ultimate real, of existence at large, is a survival of the older metaphysics.” ... We should “Drop the conception that knowledge is knowledge only when it is a disclosure and definition of the properties of fixed and antecedent [i.e. already existing] reality ...” (Page 83.)
We should accept “the teaching of science that ideas are statements not of what is or has been but of acts to be performed.” (Page 111.)
“... knowing is itself a kind of action, ... which progressively and securely clothes natural existence with realized meanings. ... There are no sensory or perceived objects fixed in themselves.” (Page 134.)
“... known objects exist as the consequences of directed operations, not because of conformity of thought or observation with something antecedent.” (Page 160.)
We should not “persist in the traditional conception, according to which the thing to be known is something which exists prior to and wholly apart from the act of knowing ...” (Page 163.)
“The doctrine that nature is inherently rational was a costly one. It entailed the idea that reason in man is an outside spectator of a rationality already complete in itself.” ... It is false “that knowledge is ideally or in its office a disclosure of antecedent reality ...” (Page 169.)
Reality is not “fixed and complete in itself,” not “ready-made.” In itself it is “unfinished,” “plastic,” “malleable,” “contingent,” “indeterminate.” These adjectives are found throughout The Quest for Certainty and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.
The mind is not a “spectator.” Knowledge is not “a disclosure of reality, of reality prior to and independent of knowing ... .”(Page 44.) “The business of thought ... is not to conform to or reproduce the characters already possessed by objects ... .” (Page 137.) “... we know only after we have acted and in consequence of the outcome of action.” (Page 276.)
Dewey is less than consistent, but he maintains that objective reality doesn’t exist, only an indeterminate flux that you — or rather society — molds into being by your own consciousness — or rather the collective consciousness — through arbitrary actions.
Sometimes, according to Dewey, the molding — the “reconstruction” — doesn’t succeed and causes discomfort. From Dewey’s book Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920):
“If ideas, meanings, conceptions, notions, theories, systems are instrumental to an active reorganization of the given environment, to a removal of some specific trouble and perplexity, then the test of their validity and value lies in accomplishing this work. If they succeed in their office, they are reliable, sound, valid, good, true. If they fail to clear up confusion, to eliminate defects, if they increase confusion, uncertainty and evil when they are acted upon, then they are false. Confirmation, corroboration, verification lie in works, consequences. ... Now an idea or conception is a claim or injunction or plan to act in a certain way as the way to arrive at the clearing up of a specific situation. When the claim or pretension or plan is acted upon it guides us truly or falsely; it leads us to our end or away from it. Its active, dynamic function is the all-important thing about it, and in the quality of activity induced by it lies all its truth and falsity.”(Page 128.)
Thus you cannot know whether any idea is true or false until you act on it. You cannot predict the result, you must experiment. Actions that were successful, meaning they felt good, are truths; those that failed, that felt bad, are falsehoods.
“We find ... the chief obstacle to the reception of this notion of truth in an inheritance from the classic tradition that has become so deeply engrained in men’s minds. ... [That is:] Beliefs are false not because they mislead us; they are not mistaken ways of thinking. They are false because they admit and adhere to false existences or subsistences. Other notions are true because they do have to do with true Being — with full and ultimate Reality. ... This view is radically challenged by the [above] pragmatic conception of truth ... .”(Page 129.)
A dogmatist is one who says don’t judge or think or look at evidence, just believe it. Dewey sets up a false choice between “dogmatic” objective reality (a contradiction in terms) versus his pragmatic subjective reality. His conclusion is: objective reality does not exist, the mind “reorganizes” or “reconstructs” the environment, and the truth is not correspondence to fact, but rather what works, and works means satisfying an arbitrary desire.
Those who know the history of philosophy will recognize Pragmatism as the Metaphysical Idealism of Kant and Hegel with a sort of activist twist.
Like its German predecessors, Pragmatism is literally insane. Pragmatism — the alleged practical philosophy — is theopposite of what’s advertised. It’s insanity accounts for Dewey’s description being less than consistent.
Is there anything in Dewey’s philosophy even remotely applicable to the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique is predicated on objective reality, reality existing independently of wishes and feelings. The only point of contact between the Technique and Pragmatism is an utterly superficial resemblance in terminology: “thinking,” “action.”
To Alexander, your mind and body, though integrated, are distinct. Thinking is thinking about objective reality, usually in the context of expanding one’s awareness to include the head-neck relationship. And action is action in objective reality, usually referring to a simple act like rising from your chair. Action is not a substitute for thinking, and not a way of reconstructing an indeterminate reality.
I understand Dewey coined the phrase “thinking in activity” to describe the Technique. Alexander infused the phrase with his own ideas, which he had arrived at long before, and in his context the phrase is perfectly legitimate, meaning to remain conscious in the present moment, keeping the aforementioned expanded awareness as you move.
Dewey wrote: “The act must come before the thought, and a habit before an ability to evoke the thought at will.” (Human Nature and Conduct, 1922, chapter “Habits and Will”) This is said first in the context of a man attempting to stand straight, and then generalized in the next paragraph to all of human endeavor. “Means and ends are two names for the same reality.” Both these statements are as false in general as they are in the Alexander Technique. (More on “Habits and Will” in Summation, part 2 on this website.)
Dewey steals some of Alexander’s ideas and shoehorns them into his crazy nomenclature. He tries to make the Alexander Technique an illustration of his philosophy, a philosophy with the hapless applications we have seen in previous pages: a homogenizing pedagogy and a totalitarian politics.
The “ends and means” lingo, “action,” “constructive,” “self-criticism,” etc. — Dewey uses the same phrases to justify the tyranny of the shock troops of Democracy as he does the Alexander Technique. In Dewey’s essay “Means and Ends” in The New International August 1938 (Later Works, vol. 13, page 349) for example, he says:
“the end in the sense of consequences provides the only basis for moral ideas and action, and therefore provides the only justification that can be found for means employed.”
That is, those means “which really lead to the liberation of mankind.” (Dewey quoting and agreeing with Trotksy.) We have seen in earlier pages, abundantly, what Dewey can mean by liberation. As the Marxist revolutionaries say, with upraised fist: “by any means necessary.”
In order to improve your use you require experiences which you’ve never had before and so cannot anticipate. Since you cannot guide yourself properly using your current misunderstanding of where you are in space, you must employ an indirect method, one that Alexander worked out. Alexander used, as you must use, observation and reasoning, not some sleep-walking nightmare of John Dewey’s where you don’t know what you’re doing — doing in the broad colloquial and philosophic sense — until you do it.
Dewey’s philosophy doesn’t apply to Alexander’s concept of direction either. Perhaps no claim has been made that it does because here there is no coincidence in terminology.
A respondent writes that objectivity:
« might conflict with the Alexander Technique’s wariness of abstraction and regard for kinesthetic experience. »
Alexander never said he was wary of abstraction — i.e. finding what is common to different particulars and treating that commonality as a new item of thought.
And why would regard for the importance of kinesthetic experience — where you are in space — be incompatible with objective reality, or the idea that reality exists independently of your kinesthetic appreciation, debauched though it might be? Otherwise how would you know it was in need of correction?
Like all truly practical things, the Alexander Technique is predicated on objective reality and the ability to know it. Dewey’s philosophy is not the philosophical foundation of the Alexander Technique, nor is Dewey’s philosophy (as some have maintained) derived from it.
Suppose you knew nothing about the Alexander Technique. Then you read Dewey’s description of it. Then you read his philosophy books about the pragmatic theory of ends and means and the supremacy of action, and how this justifies certain political views and historical events, and also the Alexander Technique. Wouldn’t you be confused?
Dewey and his admirers force Dewey’s philosophy onto the Alexander Technique, and it doesn’t fit.