John Dewey and Frederick Matthias Alexander

By Mary Cohen

“The technique of Mr. Alexander gives to the educator a standard of psycho-physical health—in which what we call morality is included.  It supplies also the `means whereby' this standard may be progressively and endlessly achieved, becoming a conscious possession of the one educated . . . It bears the same relation to education that education itself bears to all other human activities.”--John Dewey(1)

This paper explores Frederick Matthias Alexander's (1869-1955) influences on John Dewey (1859-1952).  Section one of the paper is Alexander's story, and describes how Alexander and Dewey meet.  Section two illustrates Dewey's experiences with the Alexander Technique and notes influences on Dewey including his quality of life, learning struggles, ideas of habit, concept of inhibition, present moment awareness and experience, and mind-body unity.  Alexander's specific experiences and discoveries become apparent to some degree in Dewey's theoretical ideas.   Dewey, who prior to meeting Alexander thought and wrote about the value of experiential education, discovers through his lessons with Alexander how he can physically and mentally integrate an experience in the context of his whole self, precisely a unity of body and mind considered vital to his philosophy.

Section One: F.M. Alexander's Story

Frederick Matthias Alexander, born in Wynyard, Australia, loved the theater and the art of recitation even as a youth.  He worked for the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company at the age of seventeen for three years.  During this time, in addition to earning money for his family, he also saved money for himself so he could travel to Melbourne to pursue his own personal pleasures and to perform as a professional actor.  As a result of such performing, Alexander began to experience periods of hoarseness which impacted the course of his life.  Following advice from medical doctors, Alexander rested his voice so his voice would be strong through an entire performance that was especially important for his career.  He became hoarse halfway through this crucial performance. Since vocal rest allowed his voice to work adequately during the first half of the performance, yet he experienced hoarseness toward the latter section, he concluded that he was doing something during his performance that impacted proper vocal use.  Instead of having surgery on his vocal folds as one doctor suggested, he decided to discover for himself why his voice underwent such challenges.(2)

Through an in-depth self evaluation by using mirrors and closely noting his actions, Alexander discovered that each time he spoke, he audibly gasped for air, pressed his head down and back when he recited, and gripped his feet.  He noticed similar patterns in himself to a lesser degree in his daily dialogue.  His decision to eliminate these poor habits was, however, more easily conceptualized than accomplished.

It took nine to ten years for him to explore these habits in depth and discover how to correct them.(3)  During this time he experimented with techniques such as primary control, constructive conscious control, means whereby, inhibition, directions, delicacy of movement, thinking in action (coined by John Dewey), end gaining, and debauched kinesthetic awareness which later contributed to the philosophy known today as the Alexander Technique.

The Alexander Technique is perhaps best understood by experiencing a lesson from a trained Alexander teacher.  It is a process of experiencing present moment awareness which requires conscious control of actions. A simple explanation of the technique is movement reeducation.  Many dancers, actors, and musicians study the technique to improve their performances, but any person may benefit by incorporating Alexander's methods into daily life.  John Dewey was one of the many people who benefited from interactions with Alexander and the Alexander Technique. 

Section Two: F.M. Alexander's Influences on John Dewey

 F.M. Alexander, age 47, and Dewey, age 57, first met in 1916.  The story started in 1913 when Ethel Webb, an assistant of Alexander travels to Rome to study with Montessori.  There she showed Alexander's book, Man's Supreme Inheritance, to a group of people including one of Dewey's students, Margaret Naumberg.  Margaret went to London in 1914 to study with Alexander.  After Margaret founded the Walden School in New York, she requested Alexander to come to New York and teach.  There Professor Wendell Bush gave a dinner where Dewey and Alexander meet (1916). They discovered similarities in their ideas.  Soon, Dewey and others who attended the dinner party began taking lessons from Alexander.(4)  Dewey continued to study with F.M. for the next twenty-five years when F.M. is in New York, and he also took lessons from F.M.'s brother, Albert Redden Alexander.

In his introductions to three of Alexander's books, Dewey describes how his lessons with Alexander improve his quality of life.(5)  Dewey credits the technique for markedly improving his health.  In fact, Dewey gives his longevity 90% credit to Alexander and 10% to his regular physician.(6)  Alexander's lessons also open up Dewey's awareness of a whole domain of knowledge.  It was not an easy task for Dewey to practice the technique.  In the introduction to The Use of the Self, Dewey describes some of the challenges of his experiences as a student:

"I had the most humiliating experience of my life, intellectually speaking.  For to find that one is unable to execute directions, including inhibitor ones, in doing  such a seemingly simple act as to sit down, when one is using all the mental capacity which one prides himself upon possessing, is not an experience congenial to one's vanity." (7)

Through this practice of gaining conscious control of seemingly simple daily activities, Dewey realizes the many negative impacts of misguided habit.  He learns through his lessons with Alexander that simply choosing to act a certain way does not necessarily guarantee that one is successful at gaining that end.  False notions of proper physical alignment and attempts to ratify poor posture by effortful actions negatively impact one's quality of movement.  These misguided efforts result in an assumption that the means to do an activity exists apart from one's fixed habits.  Dewey states: “It is as reasonable to expect a fire to go out when it is ordered to stop burning as to suppose that a man can stand straight in consequence of a direct action of thought and desire.  The fire can be put out only by changing objective conditions: it is the same with rectification of bad posture.”(8)  Careful steps are necessary to move past the stage of bad habits.  In order to change objective conditions, Alexander's concept of inhibition is necessary.

Frank Pierce Jones, a student of Alexander, describes inhibition as “the postponement of immediate action upon desire until observation and judgment have intervened.” (9) The idea of inhibition is fundamental for changing objective conditions.  Dewey warns Alexander against using the term inhibition due to the potential confusion with the Freudian term inhibitions, but Alexander uses it because according to Alexander it projects the idea of pausing before moving into an activity most appropriately.(10)  Dewey describes the need for inhibition in educational growth in chapter five of Experience and Education:  “Natural impulses and desires constitute in any case the starting point.  But there is no intellectual growth without some reconstruction, some remaking, of impulses and desires in the form in which they first show themselves.  This remaking involves inhibition of impulse in its first estate.”(11)  Dewey sees the need for inhibition in the sense of educating youth, to allow them a means to use intellectual freedom appropriately, and Alexander demonstrates the need for inhibition in order to improve one's use of self. Inhibiting or pausing in order to choose constructive actions are evident in both Dewey and Alexander's ideas.

The nature of present moment awareness is key in the several Alexandrian and Deweyan ideas.  For example, Dewey states “But, while the principle of continuity applies in some way in every case, the quality of the present experience influences the way in which the principle applies.”(12)  Here Dewey describes how awareness of present experiences enhances potential for growth.  Alexander notes the need for similar awareness in his technique.  His concept of primary control is a consistent awareness of one's head, neck, and torso relationship. This relationship changes in every passing moment. When one allows for delicacy of movement in this area of the body in the present moment, one achieves a greater ease in one's whole self. The idea of allows rather than doing plays a crucial role in supporting the idea of mind-body unity.

When Alexander tried to eliminate his own habits of pulling his head down and back before reciting, each effort resulted in more strain.  It was not until he successfully practiced inhibiting his end goal that he was able to retrain himself to achieving his goal without unnecessary effort.  Through these experiences he came to the full realization that one's mind and body are inseparable entities.  Dewey celebrated this connection of mind and body in his philosophy of educational experience:  “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.”(13)  Mind-body unity or whole self awareness is a central concept in both Dewey's and Alexander's philosophies.   

Because of F. M. Alexander's specific need to improve his vocal use, his approach starts with a concrete experience and moves to the abstract.  Dewey, on the other hand, begins with educational theory and through his work with Alexander, among other experiences, constructs concrete experiences to illustrate his ideas.  These two thinkers complement each other's work.  Both Dewey's philosophy of learning and the Alexander technique require purposeful experiences in order to grow or learn.

(1) Dewey, J., introduction to The Use of the Self by Alexander, F.M. (London: Orion Books Ltd., reprinted in 2001), 12.

(2) Alexander, F.M. The Use of the Self.  In chapter one, “Evolution of a Technique,” Alexander describes this experience in detail.  Maisel, Edward, The Alexander Technique: The Essential Writings of F. Matthias Alexander (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1989), vii-xii.

(3) Maisel, Edward, The Alexander Technique: The Essential Writings of F. Matthias Alexander (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1989), xiii.

(4) Mathew, Ann, “Implications for Education in the Work of F.M. Alexander: An Exploratory Project in a Public School Classroom” (Master's Thesis, Bank Street College of Education, New York, 1984), 88. Mathews references a letter Lucy Sprague Mitchell writes to E.D. McCorkmack dated May 19, 1958.

(5) See introductions to Man's Supreme Inheritance, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, and The Use of the Self all by F.M. Alexander.

(6) Eastman, Max, “John Dewey,” Atlantic Monthly 168 (November 1941), 683.

(7) Dewey, John, Introduction to The Use of the Self, 10.

(8) Dewey, John, in “The Barrier of Habit,” from Human Nature & Conduct, 1921, in booklet “John Dewey and F.M. Alexander, volume one, 20.

(9) Jones, Frank Pierce, “The Work of F.M. Alexander as an Introduction to Dewey's Philosophy of Education.  Dewey approved this article for publication in School and Society, January 2, 1943. He shared positive reactions to Pierce's ideas about how beliefs take on concrete meaning after a related experience in a letter to Pierce dated October 5, 1942.

(10) Maisel, Ed. The Alexander Technique, xxxiv.

(11) Dewey, John, Experience and Education (Simon & Schuster, Inc.: New York, 1997), 64.

(12) Ibid, 37.

(13) “Biography of John Dewey” in The Philosophy of John Dewey, (Northwestern University, Evanston & Chicago, 1939), 44-45.

Mary Cohen is currently pursuing doctoral studies in music education at The University of Kansas with a minor in philosophy. She is fascinated with how FM Alexander and Dewey influenced one another's ideas. Presently she is doing research on prison choirs in Kansas. She is a fitness instructor and loves to practice yoga.