The Vault

Great Writers of the Western World: F. M. Alexander

By Catherine Kettrick


Many people, Alexander Technique teachers included, believe that while Alexander was a genius, he was also a rather poor writer. It could not have helped his reputation when in the introduction to the only excerpts of his writings available at the time in the United States, Ed Maisel pronounces that Alexander’s books are “devoid of grace, style or shape” and are “the earnest patching together of observation and experience by a unique authority who had never received any real instruction in the mechanics of writing” (The Resurrection of the Body, p xvi).

I have often read, and heard commented, similar opinions, and I think they stem largely from frustration at not being able to immediately understand what Alexander wrote. Alexander, however, was not writing about commonplace ideas, and commonplace solutions. He was offering a totally new way of looking at the problem of human behavior. He was talking about a principle of unity that few if any people knew about, let alone understood or put into practice. And Alexander believed that “...where misunderstanding occurs, there is present some impeding factor (or factors) which interferes with the process of reasoning, a process inseparable from what is called understanding or ‘mental conception’” and furthermore, “...that this conception, in its turn, is conditioned by the standard of the psycho-physical functioning of the individual...” (Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual [CCCI], p. 105)1 I have often had the experience of reading a passage he wrote, puzzling over it and ‘trying my best’ to understand it, feeling that I had understood it, and two, three or four months (or years) later, re-reading it and thinking, “Oh. That’s what he meant.” The fact that the same experience can happen repeatedly with the same passage further inclines me to believe that as our psycho-physical co-ordination improves, so will our understanding of what he wrote. It also inclines me to act on my understanding of what I believe he meant, while always keeping that understanding open to change.

Another reason people have cited for having difficulty understanding Alexander’s writing is his long and complex sentences. Alexander talks of challenging an un-named student (whom many believe to have been John Dewey) to pick any sentence he liked and shorten it, while still retaining its meaning. The student was unable to do so. As Alexander explains in his ‘Introductory’ to The Universal Constant in Living:

…it is comparatively simple to express some idea or experience in a short sentence or in several short sentences if the idea or experience represents something specific, or something that can be done or gained by the direct method, for this involves the concept of separation and disconnectedness. But ideas or experiences concerned with unified phenomena and which involve the indirect method for general, instead of specific, application can only be fully expressed by a sentence that conveys the meaning of such ideas and experiences so that there can be no doubt that the concept on which they are based is that of a coordinated indivisible whole. (p xx-xxi).

Given that Alexander often wrote about co-ordinated indivisible wholes, it is not surprising that his sentences seem to us ‘long’ and ‘complex.’

A third reason we may find Alexander difficult to understand is that most people today are not accustomed to reading difficult material of any kind. In “Memory and Feeling,” also in CCCI, Alexander also wrote that:

…there can be little doubt that the growing habit of newspaper reading and light literature, and the accompanying decline in the reading of books or matter which is to be retained as valuable knowledge, has been accompanied by harmful psycho-physical habits which to-day are seriously affecting the human memory. (CCCI, p. 274).

In this day and age, one might applaud that even newspapers get read at all. Small wonder that most initial efforts to understand him prove futile!

A fourth factor that needs to be taken into consideration when reading Alexander is the fact that Alexander was born in the nineteenth century. He cut his teeth, so to speak, on writers like Shakespeare, Spencer and Darwin, and his own writing style reflects this study. It is a style to which we are not accustomed, and which we tend to dismiss as ‘too difficult,’ ‘too convoluted’ or ‘too stilted.’ Furthermore Alexander, like all of us, accepted as true the mores of his culture. If we allow ourselves to be offended by what we perceive to be his beliefs and prejudices, we can totally miss the beauty and insight of his writing. I personally believe that only after we can truly say that we fully understand to the best of our ability what Alexander meant can we take him to task for any shortcomings we perceive.

Given all of the foregoing, and the many other reasons people may have for feeling Alexander’s writings are difficult, what approach can we take to increase our understanding of what he wrote? First and foremost, I feel, is to begin operating on the assumption that he was in fact a great writer. Great writers write well. They choose their words with care, and have good reasons for what they write and how they write it. If we begin with the assumption that Alexander is understandable, we will more easily be able see how he constructed what he wrote, and to find understanding in his writing. A simple way to begin this process is by reading aloud, preferably to another person. We all tend to read too quickly, especially when something is ‘hard.’ Alexander also warns in “Memory and Feeling” that “‘Skimming…’ is a harmful habit, which, if indulged in, rapidly becomes established, and very soon the person concerned is aware of a growing loss of memory in all spheres.” (CCCI, pp. 273-274). If however we have to read something aloud so that it makes sense to another person, we will (presumably) go more slowly, which will give both reader and listener time to comprehend the material.

Another good method for analyzing Alexander’s writing is to outline a given chapter. Outlines force us to choose the most important points, and organize supporting points under the main ones. To make these decisions, we must commit to a certain understanding of the chapter and its organization, based on some kind of reasoned analysis of how the sentences, paragraphs and whole chapter fit together.

Prior to outlining however, one might actually want to write down (in longhand) various passages which seem particularly difficult. Actually writing down what Alexander wrote serves a number of purposes. First of all, it will slow you down. As mentioned above, too many of us have the habit of reading so quickly that we literally do not see, let alone understand, what has been written. Secondly, although we only have the final draft, it will put us through the same process that Alexander went through when writing his books. Although we did not originate the words, we will have written them, just as Alexander did. Somehow the process of thoughtfully writing what another person believes improves our ability to understand that person’s reasoning. And thirdly, if we should happen to disagree with what Alexander wrote, having just written it ourselves will give us pause to think about what he (and we) have just written, and give us a chance to formulate and write what we believe he should have said. Having gone through this step, outlining will be much easier.

If you do choose to write out some of what Alexander wrote, you will probably still find some sentences difficult to understand, most likely those which fall into the ‘too long’ category. To read Alexander’s long sentences with understanding, you have to be willing to go a bit slowly, figure out the subject and verb, see the different clauses and figure out their subjects and verbs, and hold them all in relation to one another until you get to the end of the sentence. One way to do this is to actually diagram the sentence, to put the subject and verb and all the clauses in some kind of graphic relationship to each other so you can literally see how they are connected. Here is an example of a not so lengthy sentence, but one with lots of commas, from “Use and Functioning in Relation to Reaction,’ Chapter Two of The Use of the Self (p. 44):

Unfortunately, with the increasing prevalance of untrustworthy sensory appreciation, this instinctive direction of use tends, as time goes on, to become more and more a misdirection, having a harmful effect, as was proved in my own case, upon functioning and, consequently, upon the reactions which result.

Because of all the clauses set off by commas, this sentence, at first glance, may appear more difficult, especially for novice readers of Alexander, than it actually is. The place to start is with the simple subject which is “direction” and the simple verb, “tends.” Adjectives tell us that the “direction” is “this instinctive direction,” and a prepositional phrase tells us it is “this instinctive direction of use,” not some other instinctive direction. The verb “tends” requires an object. (You can’t have a complete sentence: “He tends.”). So what does this instinctive direction of use tend to do? “to become more and more a misdirection.” The only other clause in this first part of the sentence is “ time goes on” which tells us when it happens. (A similar clause is in the second part of the sentence “as was proved in my own case.” These type of clauses can be ‘ignored’ in the initial analysis of the sentence).

Now that we have the complete subject and verb, we can look at the rest of the sentence. “...having a harmful effect” might at first glance seem to refer back to the verb as if Alexander could have written, and meant the same thing, “ become more and more a misdirection, to have a harmful effect...” However, using the form “having” not only shows the continuousness of the harmful effect, it also clearly relates the harmful effect to the misdirection, rather than to subject and verb “direction...tends.” In other words, the direction tends to become a misdirection, and it is the misdirection which has a harmful effect. Now we only need to know where this harmful effect is taking place, and we find that it is a “harmful effect...upon functioning...and [a harmful effect] upon the reactions which result.” 

If it seems a bit difficult at first to see the relations between the parts of the sentence, try to see the questions posed by each part of the sentence as you go along. For example, here is a much longer sentence, the first sentence from “Use and Functioning in Relation to Reaction” (The Use of the Self, p. 39):

The reader who reviews the experiences that I have tried to set down in the previous chapter will notice that at a certain point in my investigation I came to realize that my reaction to a particular stimulus was constantly the opposite of that which I desired, and that in my search for the cause of this, I discovered that my sensory appreciation (feeling) of the use of my mechanism was so untrustworthy that it led me to react by means of a use of myself which felt right, but was, in fact, too often wrong for my purpose.

Taking this sentence apart we find “The reader (subject) will notice” (verb). What reader you ask? “The reader who reviews the experiences…” What experiences? “…that I have tried to set down in the previous chapter…” So: “The reader who reviews the experiences that I have tried to set down in the previous chapter will notice…” What? “…that at a certain point in my investigation I came to realize…” Realize what? “…that my reaction to a particular stimulus was constantly the opposite of that which I desired…” Here is the end of the first major thought grouping in this paragraph. The “and” is used to mark the division between the two major thoughts in the paragraph. “…and that in my search for the cause of this, I discovered…” Discovered what? (Here comes the second major thought) “…that my sensory appreciation (feeling) of the use of my mechanisms was so untrustworthy that it led me…” Led me where? “…to react by means of a use of myself which felt right, but…” (Pay attention—“But” signals a contrast—) “…but was, in fact, too often wrong for my purpose.”

If you go back now and re-read the sentence, you will probably find it much easier to understand. If you are willing to make a practice of doing this kind of analysis many times, you will find that any paragraph is more readily (and more quickly) understood, and that although seemingly tedious, this method of taking apart what Alexander wrote is one of the best (and quickest) ways to understand how he constructed his ideas, and thus better understand what he meant. You will also probably find yourself able to develop your own ‘shorthand’ diagramatic notes to use when you encounter other ‘baffling’ sentences. Developing this kind of graphic representational system, where all of the ideas of the sentence are put in concrete relation to one another, will demand a commitment to a certain meaning for the sentence. This kind of commitment to meaning will not only clarify your understanding of the sentence, but will also allow you to examine and challenge that meaning. 

When you have improved your skill in understanding what and how Alexander wrote, you may wish to take one particular idea—sensory appreciation, inhibition, references to teaching, etc.—and trace it throughout his writings, by copying out any excerpts that pertain to it. Putting all references to one topic together will let you see how he treated it at any given time, and how the idea may have changed and developed. It may also give you an interesting perspective, especially if you couple this work with a bit of historical research on current events and thinking.

Anyone who is willing to do this kind of work in understanding Alexander’s writing will, I believe, reap tremendous rewards, not the least of which is a significant improvement in the quality of their thinking about and teaching of the Technique. Obviously the more clearly one understands a given concept, the more clearly one can present it, and presumably the more readily our pupils will understand it also (although given the incorrect conceptions most people have this corollary may not be valid). What I have found to be true, however, is that the more I actually use Alexander’s writings in the course of teaching, the more quickly students grasp the concepts of the Technique. The first chapter of The Use of the Self, “Evolution of a Technique,” is a good example. I most often teach this chapter, especially to ‘beginners,’ because it is where Alexander began, and it traces his discoveries, step by step, and the procedures he followed. Pupils will invariably need to learn to observe themselves, which is where Alexander started, and they will fall into the same pitfalls that he did. Using Alexander’s own words as a guide through this pitfall laden process, and actually writing down on a chalk board, or easel pad, some portions of the text where he describes his experiments and lays out his concepts helps students tremendously to sharpen and clarify their thinking. It also somehow validates the process they are going through, and often reassures them, particularly the portions of the text where he writes “This made me suspicious that I was not doing what I thought I was doing...” or “...all my efforts up til now...had been misdirected” or “If ever anyone was in an impasse, it was I.” It is one thing to tell a pupil that Alexander had difficulty too, and took a ‘long time’ to learn this Technique; it is quite another to let them see it themselves in his own words. Explicitly using Alexander’s writings to guide your pupils through this process themselves will greatly develop their skills, and you will find that when you get to the end of the chapter, where Alexander details his plan for making the changes in use he desires, pupils will be well prepared to begin doing this kind of thinking themselves.

In ‘beyond beginning’ classes it is also very productive to teach from a particular text. An excellent one to use is “Incorrect Conception,” from CCCI. It works well because pupils will readily provide you (whether they want to or not) with exactly the behavior Alexander talks about in that chapter. If you are familiar with the chapter, you will easily recognize what part of it the pupil is illustrating, and be able to use the text as a starting point for a lesson, as support for points you may explain, and as a basis for further exploration and discussion.

If you have taken one theme—inhibition, sensory appreciation, teaching—and found the references to it throughout Alexander’s writings, you can use these as a basis for a series of classes. Make the experience of teaching from your understanding of Alexander’s explanation of how to teach a lesson, and do this for each of the examples of how to teach a lesson you have found. What happens to your teaching? Does it change, and if so how? (This particular topic is most interesting and informative (and possibly safest) to do with a group of teachers or trainees).

Finally, I would like to say that I believe that not only can Alexander be read and understood, he can be read for pleasure and enjoyment. While my original reason for reading Alexander was to deepen my own understanding, I found that the more I shared what I had learned from his texts, including how I had come to understand them, the better my teaching became, and the more thorough my students’ understanding as well. I hope these ideas will also encourage you in your study of the principles that Alexander himself spent his lifetime teaching and studying. 


1. All page references are from Centerline Press first editions.


Catherine Kettrick has had a long-standing fascination with language and language learning, particularly how we use language to decide who we are and how we function. She is an American Sign Language/English interpreter, has authored two textbooks on ASL, and has taught ASL, interpreting, and worked as an interpreter for over fifteen years. She recently completed “What A Piece of Work…” A Study Guide To the Major Writings of F.M. Alexander, and is working on developing a study guide to Alexander’s writings for people whose first language is not English. She is also developing a workshop/seminar “Thinking for the 21st Century” where Alexander’s ideas on conception, behavior and psycho-physical unity can be used by people to examine and change their own ideas and behavior. She currently teaches the Technique in workshops, classes and privately, as well as at The Performance School, Seattle, Washington.


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