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Dimensions of Embodiment
Towards a Conversational Science of Human Action.

Part 2 of 3

by David M. Mills, Ph.D.


This is the second of three chapters excerpted from my 1996 doctoral dissertation, Dimensions of Embodiment: Towards a Conversational Science of Human Action.

Part 1
Chapter IV: "The Posture of Anticipation: Kelly and Alexander
considers the value of viewing Personal Construct Psychology and the Alexander Technique from each other’s perspective, using John Dewey as the link between them.

Part 2 (This page)
Chapter V: "Evolution of a Technique and a Teaching Method"
considers the scientific character of Alexander’s work. It is based on a paper that first appeared in Marjory Barstow: Her Teaching and Training, Barbara Conable (ed.) 1989.

Part 3
Chapter VI: "Commentary on the Principles Underlying The Alexander Technique"
a brief summary of the central principles underlying Alexander’s work with comments.


Chapter V

Evolution of a Technique and a Teaching Method

V.1 The Alexander Technique as Conversational Personal Science

Alexander, though neither trained nor working within the scientific community, took pride in the assertions of Coghill, Sherrington and others concerning the scientific character of his work. There has been, in addition, a good deal of effort and discussion among his supporters in the years since to establish its specific benefits and, for example, the physiological reality of "primary control." However important the principles Alexander discovered may turn out to be, that they are "in harmony with what physiologists know about the muscular and nervous structure," (Dewey, Introduction to The Use of the Self, p. xvi.) does not imply that Alexander’s work was itself "scientific." Newton’s laws of motion are certainly "scientific principles" of the first magnitude, but what was most important about Newton’s work was not the laws themselves, but the systematic methods that he developed to establish them. Dewey, in particular, was convinced that Alexander’s work has a similar character and potentially a similar value. Dewey’s colleagues and students always assumed that his support for Alexander was merely an expression of gratitude for certain physical relief that he had received, but Dewey’s own view, expressed consistently in his introductions to Alexander’s books and elsewhere, was that what was important about Alexander were precisely the philosophical consequences of the practice of his work and its "unwearied" experimental character. Jones refers to Alexander’s technique as "nothing more than the application of experimental method to problems of everyday behaviour." (Jones, 1976, p. 160) From that viewpoint, Alexander can be viewed as unique kind of "personal scientist." In this section I want to return to the question of just what it was that Dewey saw in Alexander’s work beyond the specific benefits of his technique. Drawing primarily from Dewey’s introductions to Alexander’s books, I will consider this scientific character of Alexander’s work and its importance as such an experimental method for a science of personal action.

The scientific method is generally understood in the natural sciences to consist of a series of interrelated steps:

  1. Observation–we observe some phenomena of interest, gather and attempt to interpret our observations. (Note that even our most basic observations are conditioned by our prior habits of perception and our earlier theories.)

  2. Theorizing–we build a theory to account for the apparent order in our observations. (Note that what kind of theory seems reasonable to us is conditioned by our prior experience and observation.)

  3. Hypothesis–we use our theory to propose claims about possible new observation. That is, we anticipate the character of new experience.

  4. Experiment–we devise and carry out experiments, which are essentially procedures designed to give us new experiences of events as they would not ordinarily happen, to test whether our hypothesis is borne out.

1. Observation–our experiments provide new observations which may or may not support our hypotheses, may or may not fit our current theory.

Since observation is both the first and last step in the procedure, the scientific method is an endless cycle of exploration rather than any kind of completed package, and the process results not in an ever-rising pile of fragments of "truth," but rather in a series of constructed theories that are ever more effective approximations to truth, what Plato called "likely stories." This situation is what Kelly calls "constructive alternativism." As he characterizes it in "The Psychology of the Unknown,"

Our venture as scientists, then is not to press with one hand on what is presumed to be known for sure and reach out with the other into the unknown for more bits of the puzzle, but rather to proceed from propositions which are admittedly faulty, in the hope that we can complete fully the experiential cycles which will enable us to formulate new propositions that are perhaps less faulty.

The central point of Dewey’s argument, in the introductions to Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual and The Use of the Self, is that it is precisely in the bringing together of observation and principle that the scientific character of Alexander’s work is to be found.

Those who do not identify science as a parade of technical vocabulary will find in this account the essentials of scientific method in any field of inquiry. They will find a record of long continued, patient, unwearied experimentation and observation in which every inference is extended, tested, corrected by further more searching experiments. (Alexander, 1932, p. xiv.)

Any sound plan must prove its soundness in reference both to concrete consequences and to general principles. What we too often forget is that these principles and facts must not be judged separately, but in connexion with each other. Further, whilst any theory or principle must ultimately be judged by its consequences in operation, whilst it must be verified experimentally by observation of how it works, yet in order to justify a claim to be scientific, it must provide a method for making evident and observable what the consequences are: and this method must be such as to afford a guarantee that the observed consequences actually flow from the principle. And I unhesitatingly assert that, when judged by this standard, that is, of a principle at work in effecting definite and verifiable consequences, Mr. Alexander’s teaching is scientific in the strictest sense of the word. It meets both of these requirements. In other words, the plan of Mr. Alexander satisfies the most exacting demands of scientific method. (Alexander, 1923, p. xxv.)

Dewey implies in these passages that it is the ongoing detailed interaction of principle and concrete observation that matters, and that the interaction is an ongoing effort, governed by an ethic:

But the essence of scientific method does not consist in taking consequences in gross: it consists precisely in the means by which the causes that are used to explain the consequences, or effects, can be concretely followed up to shew that they actually produce these consequences and no others. (ibid., p. xxviii.)

The method, what Alexander would call "working to principle," is everything. Otherwise we have not science but merely assertion. Dewey makes a prediction:

To this process of simultaneous development of principles and consequences, used as means for testing each other, there is literally no end. As long as Mr. Alexander uses the method, it will be a process tending continually towards perfection. It will no more arrive at a stage of finished perfection than does any genuine experimental procedure, with its theory and supporting facts. (ibid., p xxxvii.)

Indeed one might even say that the importance of the principles discovered is precisely that they generate new observations, and this is the case whether it is Mr. Alexander himself or any other person who uses the method. It is not enough to account for what is already known, nor to speculate about what is unknown. The experimental method is, in a sense, a bridge between the two, and that bridge must be built of real, personal experience. This is true of science generally–but how much more so when the subject of the science is nothing less than the scientists themselves. How can we possibly understand ourselves if we begin by taking our habitual perceptions of ourselves at face value?

This, of course, is precisely as if a scientific man, who, by a process of reasoning had been led to a belief in what we call the Copernican theory, were then to try to test this reasoning by appealing to precisely those observations, without any addition or alteration, which led men to the Ptolemaic theory. (ibid., p. xxxi.)

If we are to come to a fuller understanding of ourselves, much less of a world in which we play an active role, then we require new sense data. It is often forgotten that however "public" scientific knowledge may be, science is always a matter of personal experience. The problem for the scientist is often one of finding the appropriate kind of experience. What then is the kind personal experience appropriate to the study of myself as an active participant in my world, rather than an observer at some remove from it? How, as well, am I to go about gathering such data?

A scientific man is quite aware that no matter how extensive and thorough is his theoretical reasoning, and how definitely it points to a particular conclusion of fact, he is not entitled to assert the conclusions of fact, until his senses have been brought into play. With respect to distinctively human conduct, no one, before Mr. Alexander, has even considered just what kind of sensory observation is needed in order to test and work out theoretical principles. Much less have thinkers in this field ever evolved a technique for bringing the requisite sensory material under definite and usable control.... After studying over a period of years Mr. Alexander’s method in actual operation, I would stake myself upon the fact that he has applied to our ideas about ourselves and our acts exactly the same method of experimentation and of production of new sensory observations, as tests and means of developing thought, that have been the source of all progress in the physical sciences. (ibid., p. xxx)


V.2 Towards a New Science?

In these passages, Dewey has clearly taken the role of apologist for Alexander. My intent in including them here is not to assume that role myself, but rather to extend Dewey’s claims about the scientific character of the work to that of any individual who is willing to carry out such an experimental exploration in their own life. The significance of the method lies not in the fact that they were "applied to our ideas about ourselves" by Alexander, but that it is a method that each of us may fruitfully apply to our own. If I as an individual want to join Kelly in describing myself as a "personal scientist" in a way that is more than vague analogy, I require a method. Every specific scientific discipline requires its own implementation of the scientific method appropriate to the domain of its inquiry, its own special equipment, experimental protocols, theoretical frameworks, etc. An experiment in astrophysics looks very different in many ways from an experiment in molecular genetics. What is needed for a person to live their own life, to reflect on their own experience and to direct their own actions in a way that has a scientific character is an implementation of the experimental philosophy that engages both the continuity and the dimensionality of personal experience. It is my claim that while Kelly’s personal construct theory provides the framework of theory and practice for conversing about the dimensionality, a personal employment of Alexander’s method can provide a way of engaging its embodied continuity. A personal practice of Kelly’s work and of Alexander’s can be viewed as complementary components of a personal experimental science, but if and only if each person as scientist is scientific in Dewey’s sense. An individual person is fully a scientist in their own life only if they are living "scientifically" in a fully embodied way.

It is clearly Dewey’s view that from a methodological stand-point Alexander’s work is science, but more than that, it constitutes a new science. It has importance beyond the needs of the individual. It is indeed a vital missing piece in the larger fabric of Science, a piece that we have acquired none too soon. In a passage which Alexander later quotes in concluding his last book, The Universal Constant in Living, Dewey says,

Through modern science we have mastered to a wonderful extent the use of things as tools for accomplishing results upon and through other things. The result is all but a universal state of confusion, discontent and strife. 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 employment of all agencies and energies, has not even been studied as the central instrumentality. Is it not highly probable that this failure gives the explanation of why it is that in mastering physical forces we have ourselves been so largely mastered by them, until we find ourselves incompetent to direct the history and destiny of man? (ibid., p. xxxii; quoted in Alexander, 1941, p. 240)

There is much at stake in this matter of a new science beyond the development of the quality of life of an individual personal scientist. Science with a capital S is upside down. We have become slaves to our own tools–and that precisely because we have neglected the primary tool, ourselves. Our general predicament is like, in Oppenheimer’s description of the nuclear arms race, being on a train careening toward a precipice–and what is worse, anything we might do about our situation only tends to cause the train’s speed to increase. Our difficulty lies not in our technology, but in ourselves. What is wanted is a science of ourselves, a science that can bring us "under control" and at the same time grant us our freedom. By bringing ourselves and our own personal actions within the domain of science–or rather expanding science to encompass them–we make Science more complete and ultimately more humane:

Mr. Alexander has demonstrated a new scientific principle with respect to the control of human behaviour, as important as 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. (Alexander, 1923, p. xxix)

One of the hallmarks of science has always been that it depended on public "objective" observations. Knowledge which I might have within myself had no place simply because it could not be shared, could not be submitted to the rigour of the scientific method. As the physicist Hermann Weyl describes it, rather plaintively, in an appendix to his Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science,

The way of constructive theory, during the last three centuries, has proved to be a method that is capable of progressive development of seemingly unlimited width and depth; here each problem solved poses new ones for which the coordinated effort of thought and experiment can find precise and universally convincing solutions. In contrast the scope of understanding from within appears practically fixed by human nature once for all, and may at most be widened a little by the refinement of language. (Weyl, p. 283)

Dewey’s claims for Alexander’s work imply that it provides nothing less than a means of applying "coordinated effort of thought and experiment" to "understanding from within."

Mr. Alexander has found a method for detecting precisely the correlations between these two members, physical-mental, of the same whole, and for creating new sensory consciousness of new attitudes and habits. It is a discovery which makes whole all scientific discoveries, and renders them available, not for our undoing, but for human use in promoting our constructive growth and happiness. (Alexander, 1923, p. xxxii)

Dewey seems to have delighted in the opportunity to retrace Alexander’s journey of discovery: "Each lesson was a laboratory experimental demonstration." (ibid., p. xvi) How could it be otherwise? From the beginning, Alexander was applying the scientific method to nothing more or less than himself. What he evolved would remain ever after a science of the human individual, considered whole and in action–and from that individual’s own point of view. I might add, what better vantage point could there be for reconsidering our knowledge and use of the world outside ourselves? Indeed, as Dewey seems to have believed, any science which does not find its ultimate foundation in the scientific quality of just this kind of personal experience, and which thus ignores the "continuity of experience" cannot fail to lead us awry in the end.

How then are we to pursue such a science? Jones described Alexander’s contribution as being like that of Galileo’s at the beginning of modern physical science–that of the pioneer who not only makes fundamental discoveries that begin a new science but, more importantly, establishes methods and/or develops tools or procedures for carrying on that new science. In physics Galileo’s pioneer role can be contrasted with that of Newton, who brought the early discoveries together under a comprehensive theory which in its turn laid the groundwork for an even more detailed and fruitful method. As Jones said, the new science of individual human action that Alexander’s work opens has yet to see its Newton. (Jones, 1974, p. 6) In one sense, filling that role is the intent of my work, but in perhaps a more important sense each individual who accepts the challenge of conversing about their own actions within this reflective experimental framework takes on the role of being their own Newton.

Bibliography of Excerpt

Alexander, F.M. (1910) Man's Supreme Inheritance, Methuen, London (Reprinted by Centerline, Long Beach, 1988).

Alexander, F.M. (1923) Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Dutton, NY (Reprinted by Centerline, Long Beach, 1985).

Alexander, F.M. (1932) The Use of the Self, Dutton, NY (Reprinted by Centerline, Long Beach, 1984).

Alexander, F.M. (1941) The Universal Constant in Living, Dutton, NY (Reprinted by Centerline, Long Beach, 1986).

Dewey, John (1931) Philosophy and Civilization, Minton, Balch and Co., NY, 1931.

Dewey, J. (1957) Human Nature and Conduct, (reprint of 1922 edition) The Modern Library, NY.

Dewey, J. (1958) Experience and Nature, (reprint of Second edition, 1930) Dover, NY.

Harri-Augstein, S. and Thomas, L. (1991) Learning Conversations, Routledge, London.

Jones, F.P. (1974) "Learning How to Learn: An Operational Definition of The Alexander Technique," Sheldrake Press, London.

Jones, F.P. (1976) Body Awareness in Action, Schocken Books, NY.

Kelly, G.A. (1963) A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Norton, NY.

Kelly, G.A. (1969) "Ontological Acceleration," in Clinical Psychology and Personality: Selected Papers of George Kelly, B. Maher (ed.), Krieger Pub., Huntington, NY, 1979.

Kelly, G.A. (1977) "The Psychology of the Unknown," in D. Bannister (ed.), New Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory, Academic Press, London, 1977.

Weyl, H. (1949) Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Princeton U. Press, NJ.

Dissertation Abstract

George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory, especially as subsumed within the "conversational science" paradigm developed by Thomas and Harri-Augstein, is fundamentally a framework for a geometry of personal meaning in which all of the dimensions of distinction within a person’s experience are like the dimensions of geometric space. A person’s system of constructs is not just a framework for predicting the attributes of future events; it is a coordinate system for navigating the dimensionality of experience. The work of F.M. Alexander is primarily concerned with the "psycho-physical unity of the individual," and thus with the continuity of experience.

The present work has two aims. The first, drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey, and culminating in the concept of "Conductive Reasoning," is to lay a theoretical foundation for a synthesis of the practical work of Kelly and Alexander. The primary premise is that the act of comprehending is an embodied act, and as such is as subject to the conditions of the coordination of the whole person as is any other act.

The second, practical, aim has been to develop a conversational methodology for dealing with learning in a more fully embodied way. This method of "conductive conversation," formally derived from the "Learning Conversation," evolved from the author’s teaching experience with the Alexander Technique.

Appendix 1, "A Conversational Introduction to Conductive Reasoning," is an interactive conversational structure which incorporates a development of these concepts in the context of personal experiments for generating the kinds of experiences from which the reader may draw something of the intended meaning, and some skill in using the conductive conversational tools for exploring embodied dimensions in their own meaning. It is intended as a piece that will stand on its own as a conversational research instrument for personal scientists.


About The Writer

David Mills
6836 21st Av. NE, Seattle, WA 98115, USA
Tel: +1 206-522-3584, e-mail: David Mills


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