Know Thyself: Habits, Self-Knowledge and Our Future

by Robert Rickover

"In the present state of the world, it is evident that the control we have gained of physical energies, heat, light, electricity, etc., without having first secured control of our use of ourselves is a perilous affair. Without the control of our use of ourselves, our use of other things is blind; it may lead to anything." - Professor John Dewey

John Dewey was America's most prominent philosopher. He was the chief proponent of the branch of philosophy known as Pragmatism and he was also very influential in the development of American public education during the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed he is often referred to as the "Father of American Education".

The opening quote was written during the 1920's and his language now seems a little quaint, particularly today when we are facing far more lethal threats to our security than Dewey could ever have imagined.

But the substance of his warning is more important than ever. Not only do we have control over potentially far more dangerous energies - nuclear and biochemical for example - but we also have more effective means to use them in harmful ways.

And not just long-range bombers and missiles. Equally effective, and far cheaper and more widely accessible methods, are now available to do harm.

As we have seen, all that is needed to convert a commercial airliner into a lethal weapon of mass destruction is a few determined individuals willing to sacrifice their own lives. A single terrorist is capable of spreading deadly poison over a huge area using the decidedly low-tech postal system.

Dewey talks about securing "control of ourselves" if we are to avoid "blind" and "perilous" use of external forces. Just what sort of control was he thinking of? Parental? Societal? Governmental? Psychological?

None of these. Dewey's quote comes from the introduction to Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, a book written by F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of what today is called the Alexander Technique in 1923.

What Alexander was concerned about, above all, was the way in which our thoughts affect or physical actions; how the way we think about the way we move affects the quality of that movement.

Alexander was a very practical and down-to-earth person, not much interested in abstract theories. His great contribution was the development of systematic and effective processes which ordinary people could use to improve the quality of their physical functioning in whatever they were doing.

Not surprisingly, many of his early students were performers - musicians, dancers, actors - for whom movement quality directly affects the quality and safety of their performance. Another group consisted of people suffering from pain - backaches, stiff shoulders, and the like. Pain of this sort is often caused by inefficient posture and movement habits which place harmful pressure of the body.

Dewey himself initially fell into this later category - but he soon recognized in Alexander's work potential benefits that went far beyond the obvious physical ones he experienced. Three aspects in particular caught his attention:

1) The ineffectiveness of what Alexander called "end-gaining" - the pursuit of a goal without paying close attention to way this pursuit is conducted.

2) The futility of solving a problem by attempting to "fix" one aspect at a time, without taking into consideration of the complex web of interconnections between them.

3) The importance of having accurate information about how the system is functioning - of not being deluded by false conceptions.

None of these seems particularly novel when read as abstract principles. But what Alexander did was rediscover them in the context of our own mental/physical ("psychophysical" to use the term Alexander liked to use) functioning. And it is in this arena that these principles are most elusive.

To take one example - the "accurate information" question - it turns out that almost all of us suffer from faulty sensory information. In other words, what we think we're doing at any moment is often quite different what what we're actually doing. For example, we may think we're standing upright when, in fact, we're unconsciously pulling ourselves to one side or the other. Often this is obvious to everyone but ourselves!

What does this have to do with the larger questions Dewey was concerned about?

Well, if we don't realize just how we're doing something as basic as standing, imagine all the other misconceptions about our own functioning that we're suffering from - and how these could easily cause us to act in ways that inadvertently produce harm.

As Dewey points out, modern science allows us to do all sorts of amazing things, but we're often ignorant of our own habits and ways of doing them. And this ignorance can have catastrophic consequences. To quote Dewey again (from the same 1923 Introduction):

"The one factor which is the primary tool in the use of all (external) tools, namely ourselves, in other words our own psycho-physical disposition ... has not 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?

"It is one thing to teach to need of a return to the individual man a the ultimate agency in whatever (we) can is another to discover the concrete procedure by which this greatest of all tasks can be executed. And this indispensable thing is exactly what Mr. Alexander has accomplished."


Resources: The John Dewey and F. Matthias Alexander Technique Homepage

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique

Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique