onsdag 10. juli 2024

Vitalism in the Alexander Technique - Part 1

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2, 7 King James Bible).

The stillness of someone dead in contrast to the ever moving living human being - it is easy to understand why there is a belief that living beings are endowed with a special kind of energy or ‘life force’. This belief is probably as old as humanity itself and prevalent in all cultures. This concept is called vitalism.

Since the time of Aristotle, vitalism was the accepted norm in the philosophy of science. Many well-known scientists can be regarded as vitalists, among them Louis Pasteur. But with the development of modern science, the vitalistic view was increasingly challenged. The discourse between vitalists and mechanists is a recurring theme in the history of science.

Slowly, as knowledge and understanding increased, the ghost of vitalism was exorcised from sciences like biochemistry, physiology, neurology, and medicine. It has long since been declared dead. Today it is understood that vitalism is not compatible with science because it means explaining something you don't understand with something you can't explain.

Vitalism has all but vanished from our modern society, but there is one area where it is still alive and kicking and that is in the world of alternative health.

Alexander's vitalism
The Alexander Technique is commonly labeled as an alternative therapy. Unlike many forms of alternative therapies, the Alexander Technique is not dependent on a vitalistic explanatory model. Still, vitalism is rife among Alexander Technique teachers.

The Alexander Technique demands awareness of ourselves in activity. Ideally, it also requires awareness of our beliefs. Our view of the world may influence how we interpret bodily sensations. Vitalism is a philosophy with implications for how we understand, explain, and practice the Alexander Technique. Yet, there has been little awareness of its role in the history and development of the technique.

In this article, I discuss the vitalism in the writings of Frederick Matthias Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique. In future articles I plan to write about vitalism among the teachers he trained, the vitalism in the Alexander Technique literature, and also discuss the potential problems vitalism poses to the Alexander Technique teaching profession. My aim is to increase the awareness of vitalistic beliefs and inspire a professional discussion.

Vital essence
The strongest evidence for Alexander's vitalism is found in his first book, Man's Supreme Inheritance (1910). He writes:
If we grant the unity of life and the tendency of its evolution, it follows that all the manifestations of what we have called the ‘subconscious self’ are functions of the vital essence or life-force, which functions are passing from automatic or unconscious to reasoning or conscious control (Alexander 1996 p.25; Alexander 2021, p.59).(1)
Alexander's belief in the existence of a ‘vital essence or life-force’, reveals his vitalism.(2)

This quote is from Chapter III, ‘Subconsciousness and Inhibition’. There is a possibility that the text was formulated by Alexander's ghost writer, John Davy Beresford.(3) But according to Jean Fischer's ‘notes to the text’ in the Mouritz 1996 edition it is ‘probable that Beresford's influence was confined to the Preface and to Chapters 1 and 2 …’ (Alexander 1996, p.xxxviii), and since this passage was not changed in subsequent editions we have to conclude that Alexander anyway agreed with this view.

Another quote from Man's Supreme Inheritance reveals more about Alexander's views:
I should like in passing to point out that the theory and practice of my system are influenced by no particular religion nor school of philosophy, but in one sense may be said to embrace them all. For whatever name we give to the Great Origin of the Universe, in the words of a friend of mine, “we can all of us agree… that we mean the same thing, namely, that high power within the soul of man which enables him to will or to act or to speak, not loosely or wildly, but in subjection to an all-wise and invisible Authority.” The name that we give to that Authority will in no way affect the principles which I am about to state. In subscribing to them the mechanist may still retain his belief in a theory of chemical reactions no less than the Christian his faith in a Great Redeemer (Alexander 1996, p.3)(4)
Alexander seems to have wanted a pragmatic and neutral position, serving both the ‘mechanist’ and the Christian.(5) But according to Alexander they both will agree on the existence of a ‘high power within the soul’. To Alexander, it was not a question about vitalism or non-vitalism, but about religious or non-religious vitalism. Non-vitalism was not an option.

Vitalism is often revealed by the way a person uses the word “energy”. Broadly speaking, the word is used in three different ways when describing human experience. Firstly, it can be used for actual physical energy, mostly experienced as bodily heat or through bodily movements, directly or indirectly associated with muscular activity. The source of this energy is the food we eat, which for all practical purposes is our only energy source.

Secondly, the word energy can be used metaphorically about our subjective experiences. We can feel full of energy, or a lack of energy, neither of which necessarily corresponds to the energy actually available.

Thirdly, energy can be used to mean vitalistic energy. The most well known examples are “chi” (from Chinese philosophy) or “prana” (from Indian philosophy). Vitalistic concepts of energy are used to explain and describe both specific and general bodily sensations.

Alexander uses the word energy throughout his writings.(6) The most quoted instance is perhaps Alexander's definition of the concept of direction in a footnote in The Use of the Self:
When I employ the words “direction” and “directed” with “use” in such phrases as “direction of my use” and “I directed the use,” etc., I wish to indicate the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and in conducting the energy necessary to the use of these mechanisms (Alexander 2018, p.35)
This use of the term ‘energy’ could be interpreted as a sign of vitalism. ‘Conducting the energy’ is not necessary. The required energy is stored in our muscles. ‘Projecting messages from the brain’ is sufficient.

Earlier in his career Alexander used the term in a similar way in his 1910 pamphlet ‘Supplement to Re-Education of the Kinæsthetic Systems’:
Door Exercise (standing)
…The teacher should then explain to the pupil that when he is standing near the door in the upright position previous the attempt to cause the hips to move back to the door, there is a continuous energy being sent to the different muscles which enables him to stand in that upright position. All that is necessary is that the pupil shall, as it were, cut off the energy which causes the firm position at the hip joints and other parts,… (Alexander 2022 p.141)
In his last book, The Universal Constant in Living, published 1941, Alexander is still using the word energy in a similar fashion:
Those in need of physical development will always be people whose manner of use of themselves is tending to lower their standard of general functioning, and this will be associated with misdirection of energy to the musculature through unreliable and deceptive sensory guidance (feeling) (Alexander 2000 p.43).
Vitalists may use the word force interchangeably with energy. In physics, they are of course two different concepts. In Constructive Conscious Control, Alexander writes about volition and inhibition as “forces”:
We are not interested here in any controversy concerned with the problem as to whether or not volition and inhibition are different manifestations of the same force, or even as to what this force is, any more than the engineer who is using electricity as a power to a particular end is immediately interested as to what electricity is (Alexander 2004, p.91).
Alexander compares the “force” of volition and inhibition with electricity. It could be that he wanted to appear rational and scientific, but to modern eyes the metaphor is vitalistic.(7)

In his 1907 article ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’ Alexander writes about ‘nerve force’:
Dr Hugh A. McCallum … points out that over 90 per cent of the females suffering with neurasthenia (exhaustion of nerve force) are victims of visceroptosis, … (Alexander 2022, p.92)
The editor of Articles and Lectures, Jean Fischer, explains in the notes:
In the late 19th century many physicians believed there was a fixed supply of nervous energy which acted like a messenger between various parts of the body. It was thought that the stresses and strains of modern life placed too many demands on the limited supplies of nervous energy and that neurasthenia resulted when demand exceeded supply (Fischer in Alexander 2022,p.384).
Alexander saw force or energy as a resource that could be exhausted, and warns against misdirection and waste of energy.(8) To the extent Alexander was a vitalist, he was not into the abundant cosmic energy of modern New Age adherents, as some Alexander Technique teachers claim.(9)

Another example of Alexander possibly trying to give the impression of rationality and scientific thought is his description of cell functioning in The Universal Constant in Living:
The sensory mechanism receives an impression by means of the cell receptors, and this impression is a stimulus to the excitors resulting in a reaction in the form of the production of energy (Alexander 2000, p 112).
Here it seems that Alexander equates energy with nerve signals. This is not entirely wrong as nerve signals must necessarily carry some energy.(10) A few pages earlier, however, Alexander seems to differentiate between the nerve signals and the energy used by the muscles, just as in the first quote from The Use of the Self:
In this whole procedure we see the new principle at work, for if we project those messages which hold in check the familiar habitual reaction, and at the same time project the new messages which give free rein to the motor impulses associated with nervous and muscular energy along unfamiliar lines of communication, we shall be doing what Dewey calls “thinking in activity.” (Alexander 2000, p.86)
Notice that Alexander does not say whether the ‘muscular energy’ is sent to the muscles or already stored there. On page 43 of the same book, Alexander says the energy is sent or ‘directed’ to the musculature.

It is possible that Alexander put different modes of thinking into different categories of “energy”. We saw that volition and inhibition could be different “forces”. Alexander's writing is not clear. It is not possible to say whether this is due to a lack of writing ability or a lack of understanding of the subject, or both.

In Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Alexander argues that ‘the manifestations of what we have called the “subconscious self” are functions of the vital essence or life-force, …’ (Alexander 1996 p.25). This follows, according to Alexander, ‘if we grant the unity of life’ (ibid).

Unity is a recurring theme in Alexander's writing, and he returns to the subject in his second book Constructive Conscious Control. But this time he is unwilling to subdivide “human potentialities”(11) into categories like body, mind and soul. (Vital essence is sometimes equated with “soul”):
In Man's Supreme Inheritance I endeavoured to leave no room for doubt that I base my philosophy and practice on the unity of human potentialities, which, up till now, have been differentiated and represented as “body,” “body and mind,” or” body, mind, and soul.” 
The words “mind” and “soul” are in as common use as the word “body,” and we have all been guilty of using them. Now we do know something about the body, something tangible, but what do we really know about “soul”? And do we know anything more about “mind” as such, than we do about “soul”? ( Alexander 2004 p.46).(12)
Instead, his focus is on practical procedures:
… It will therefore be understood that I have a special reason for giving so many concrete illustrations in my books. Here we have something demonstrable in simple, practical procedures, and free from those intangible phenomena which are too often inseparable from what is known as “mental” or “spiritual” discussion. (Alexander 2004 p.47).
It seems that Alexander by this moves away from overt vitalism. Maybe one of the reasons was to avoid its inherent dichotomy.(13) Alexander did not escape vitalism, however. From the quotes on energy and force, we can see that vitalistic thinking was embedded in his description of human physiology.

Alexander's legacy
When the journalist Ron Brown compiled the Authorised Summaries in the late 1940s he omitted Alexander's ‘vital essence’. The fact that this could be edited out with Alexander's approval shows that the concept was not of vital importance to Alexander nor the Alexander Technique.(14)

Still, his work is based on a vitalistic worldview and lends itself to a vitalistic interpretation. His followers continued in his footsteps to a greater or lesser degree. In the next article in this series I will take a look at vitalism expressed by the teachers he trained.

(1) Alexander continues his explanation of ‘vital essence’ at the end of the chapter:
Returning to my definition of the subconscious self, it will be seen that I regard it as a manifestation of the partly-conscious vital essence, functioning at times very vividly, but on the whole incompletely, and from this postulate it follows that our endeavours should be directed to perfecting the self-consciousness of this vital essence. The perfect attainment of this object in every individual would imply a mental and physical ability, and a complete immunity from disease that is still a dream of the future. (Alexander 1996 p.27, Alexander 2021, p.62).
Note the idea of ‘complete immunity from disease’. Miracle cures are very often associated with vitalism.

(2) We know that an early influence on Alexander's thinking was François Delsarte. Alexander at one point promoted himself as a teacher of the Delsarte Method, and possibly knew Delsarte System of Expression by Genevieve Stebbins:
Every created thing is composed of two parts: a life-power or energy, and a form to show this power in effect (Stebbins 1887, p.33).
(3) It is interesting that the Wikipedia article on Beresford has this comment, mentioning several of his novels:
He has used his novelist's skill to convince the sensitive reader that the age of miracles is not over, and that, in certain circumstances, the spirit may exercise what seem to us miraculous powers over the substance of the body. This he did in 'The Camberwell Miracle' and 'Peckover'; and in this absorbing novel, he returns to the theme, with the study of a man fitting himself to become a great healer.<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._D._Beresford> [accessed 23.04.2024].
If his novels present his personal views, there is no doubt that Beresford was a vitalist.

(4) This paragraph was new to the 1918 edition of MSI. Was it Alexander's intention to prepare the Christian reader for the heavy criticism of ‘faith healing’ later in the book? Or was it an invitation to the non-religious ‘mechanist’? And who was the ‘friend’ Alexander is quoting?

(5) Alexander seems to have had a relatively open mind, but his belief in destiny may be a sign of a vitalistic outlook. Carrington reports:
Yes, he had a thing about fate or destiny. When I was young I used to find it very irritating when he used to say, ‘I believe in everything and I believe in nothing.’ But, looking back, I think it probably was a fair assessment of what he felt about things. There was no-one more rational than he was in the ordinary transactions of life but, at the same time, he had a strong feeling that there is a destiny that shapes our ends (Carrington, Carey 1992, p.16).]

(6) Compilation of Alexander's use of the word energy taken from Man's Supreme Inheritance (MSI), Constructive Conscious Control (CCC), The Use of the Self (UoS), The Universal Constant in Living (UCL), and Articles and Lectures ( A&L). They give an indication of how Alexander used the word. Those concerning conducting, projecting, sending, directing or misdirecting, or cutting off energy are the ones most likely to be associated with a vitalistic concept. (The list is not necessarily complete):
conducting energy UoS 35, confines his energies MSI 38, conflicting energies MSI 116, conscious direction of energy UoS 85, conserving available energy A&L 130, 149, continuous energy being sent A&L 142, cut off the energy A&L 142, directing energy UoS 85, energy and [muscle-] tone MSI 125, energies applied to eradicate the abnormal conditions CCC 148, energies directed into harmful channels (Crisis of 1914) CCC 64, energy directed MSI 136, energy correctly directed MSI 136, energy directed to the proper destination UCL 112, energy more or less misdirected UCL 162, energy of conflict MSI 116, energy only used when accompanied with the wrong thing A&L 267, energy expended in misdirection UCL 16, energy wasted and misdirected MSI 136, expenditure of energy CCC p.116, expenditure of vital energy MSI 111, food procured without energy MSI 18, generating and conducting energy UCL 112, human energy MSI 149; CCC 55, 61, hypertrophy of energy MSI 9, initiative and energy MSI 5, instinctive direction of energy UoS 85, limitation of energy MSI 113, mental and physical energy MSI 136, misdirect energy UCL 62, misdirected energies MSI 38, misdirected energy A&L 206; MSI 161, misdirection of energy UoS 74, 76; UCL 16, 101, 112, 119, misdirection of energy to the musculature UCL 43, misdirection of our energies UCL 101, national energy (of Germany) MSI 103, nervous and muscular energy UCL 86, outlet for my energies UCL 40, production of energy UCL 112, projection of energy UoS 62, psycho-physical energy UCL 177, reserve all thought, energy UCL 81, storing and reserving energy MSI 60, the way energy is directed UoS 62, time and energy A&L 285, time and energy saved CCC 162, waste of energy A&L 114 234; MSI 144, waste of energy due to misuse UCL 3, waste of energy through misdirections A&L 238, waste of time and energy A&L 238, wasting energy MSI xv, will-power and energy MSI 38, 59, [atomic] energy UCL 179.

(7) Alexander Technique teacher Malcolm Williamson is probably referring to this quote, and interprets it as vitalistic, in his article ‘Thinking about thinking’ in Statnews January 2022:
Alexander saw direction as a particular vital energy (see CCC, 91) that we can conduct to the “psycho-physical mechanisms” of our primary control by thinking (wishing, willing) and thereby secure the conditions for optimal functioning in any skilled or normal everyday activity (Williamson 2022, p.21).
(8) See for instance Alexander 2022 p.238 and Alexander 1996 p.136.

(9) In his book Let Your Life Flow, Alexander Technique teacher Alex Maunder puts forward claims that are not supported by evidence:
One thing that Alexander found particularly helpful for this whole process was if he remained connected with the cosmos through mental ‘directions’ projected outwards in space (Maunder 2002 p.19).
… It was the end of the Victorian era. He [Alexander] could not risk explaining his Technique in terms of energy or energy flow for fear of being misunderstood and ridiculed (ibid, p.80).
(10) In the rest of the paragraph on cell functioning, Alexander again writes about energy in a way that could be interpreted as being vitalistic:
The undue and harmful distribution and misdirection of energy for a given need can be prevented by the inhibitor, and in such case the energy required will be directed to the proper destination by the conductor 
If one studies closely the process involved in the generating and conducting of energy as set forth above, it will be evident that it becomes operative through the receipt of sensory impressions, and that only so long as there is unity, and not separation, between the generating and conducting systems can the process remain operative (Alexander 2000, p.112).
Alexander's description of cell functioning is probably derived from a textbook. I have not been able to find a source.

(11) The expression ‘human potentialities’ is interesting. Alexander uses it in CCC and UCL, and John Dewey uses it in his preface to The Use of the Self. ‘Potentialities’ is used throughout MSI, for instance in the chapter Race Culture and the Education of Children.
Alexander's pupil, the author Aldous Huxley was associated with the 1960s ‘human potentials movement’ <https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Potential_Movement> [accessed 10.05.24]. Huxley mentions the Alexander Technique in ‘Human Potentialities’ (in The Humanist Frame, 1961), ‘Latent Human Potentialities’ (in The Human Situation, 1978) <https://mouritz.org/companion/article/aldous-huxley> [accessed 10 May 2024]. The Human Potentials Movement can be said to be associated with vitalism <https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Human_Potential_Movement> [accessed 10 May 2024].

(12) Alexander uses similar wording in The Use of the Self:
It seems strange to me that although man has thought it necessary in the course of his development in civilization to cultivate the potentialities of what he calls "mind," "soul," and "body," he has not so far seen the need for maintaining in satisfactory condition the functioning of the sensory processes through which these potentialities manifest themselves (Alexander 2018, p.107-108).
(13) A friend and colleague suggested that this change from MSI to CCC could be due to the influence by the American philosopher John Dewey. The first part of Man's Supreme Inheritance was first published 1910, Constructive Conscious Control in 1923. Alexander met Dewey around 1916. <https://mouritz.org/companion/article/john-dewey> [accessed 7 July 2024].
Another AT teacher, Amanda Cole, writes about Dewey's influence in her 2016 thesis ‘Marjorie Barstow, John Dewey and the Alexander Technique’. She refers to Thomas Dalton's Becoming John Dewey which cites Alexander's ‘vital essence’. But Cole and Dalton are concerned with Alexander's definition of the subconscious, not his vitalism:
In the 1918 edition of MSI, as Dalton observed, after consultation with Dewey “Alexander no longer imputed immaculate powers to the subconscious. He simply asserted what Dewey had long argued, that the mind and body interact and therefore conscious and subconscious processes both play an important role in human behaviour” (Dalton 119). […] As Dalton observes, Alexander had asserted in the first edition of MSI that “all manifestations of what we have called the ‘subconscious self’ are functions of the vital essence or life force, which functions are passing from automatic or unconscious to reasoning or conscious control” (ibid). Such terminology had already grown in disfavour among philosophers and physicists (ibid) (Cole 2016, pp.91-92).
Cole and Dalton give the impression that the quote containing 'vital essence’ was changed, but only the wording was slightly edited, (compare Alexander 2021 p.59 and Alexander 1996 p.25). (Dalton could have meant to refer to new material on the subconscious added to the 1918 edition, possibly a new paragraph in the chapter on ‘Sub-Consciousness and Inhibition’, see Alexander 1996 p.236).
In her 2022 book Marjory Barstow and the Alexander Technique, Cole describes a possible effect of group teaching and draws a parallel to EFT, Emotional Freedom Technique (Cole 2022 p.201, note 141 p.278). The explanatory model for EFT is based on the existence of “chi”: <https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_Freedom_Techniques> [accessed 7 July 2024]. Cole is probably a vitalist herself.

(14) Compare Alexander 1996 p.25 and p.27 with Alexander 1992 p.15 (Part I, Chapter 3). According to Walter Carrington, Alexander checked and initialled the pages of the manuscript as he read them (Alexander 1992 p.9).

Alexander, F.M., Brown (ed) (1992) Authorised Summaries of F.M. Alexander's Four Books. STAT Books.
Alexander, F.M. (1996) Man's Supreme Inheritance. Mouritz.
Alexander, F.M. (2000) The Universal Constant in Living. Mouritz.
Alexander, F.M. (2004) Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz.
Alexander, F.M. (2018) The Use of the Self. Orion Spring.
Alexander, F.M. (2021) Man’s Supreme Inheritance (1910), Addenda (1911), Conscious Control (1912): Facsimile of First Editions of Books on the F. M. Alexander Technique. Mouritz.
Alexander, FM., Fischer (ed) (2022) Articles and Lectures. Mouritz.
Carrington, W; Carey, S (1992) Explaining the Alexander Technique. The Sheildrake Press
Cole, Amanda Jane (2016) Marjorie Barstow, John Dewey and the Alexander Technique: A philosophical constellation, or “Variations of the Teacher’s Art” [PhD Doctorate, Griffith University] DOI 10.25904/1912/1305
Cole, Amanda (2022) Marjorie Barstow and the Alexander Technique: Critical Thinking in Performing Arts Pedagogy. Palgrave Macmillan.
Maunder, Alex (2002) Let Your Life Flow. The Physical, Psychological and Spiritual Benefits of the Alexander Technique. The C. W. Daniel Company.
Stebbins, Genevieve (1887) Delsarte System of Expression. Edgar S. Werner. New York.
Williamson, Malcolm (2022) Thinking about thinking, in Statnews January 2022, Vol II issue 4.

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