The Vault

Body and Mind

In the Thought of F.M.Alexander and John Anderson
 

Graham Pont,
Honourary Visiting Professor, School of Science & Technology Studies, UNSW.

 

Differences Exist between Physical & Mental Events

In his third book, The Use of the Self (1932), Alexander recognised that he had to abandon the traditional division of the human being into "...'body' and 'mind' as separate parts of the same organism...", as well as the assumption that "...human ills, difficulties and shortcomings could be classified as either 'mental' or 'physical' and dealt with on specifically 'mental' or specifically 'physical' lines."1. Practical experience with his technique had by now convinced him that "...it is impossible to separate 'mental' and 'physical' processes in any form of human activity..."2; but this conclusion was too extreme. While it might be true that "...all training, whether it be educative or otherwise... must be based upon the indivisible unity of the human organism..."3, it does not necessarily follow that body and mind are always indistinguishable.

The organism over which we exert conscious control, in the practice of deliberate posture, gesture and movement, might well be an indissoluble complex of physical and mental processes, but that does not prove that body and mind are co-extensive or indistinguishable. Though the extent of conscious self-control may vary considerably from person to person, there will always be some bodily processes that are autonomous, automatic and unconscious, such as the dilation of the pupils, the growth of the hair and nails and, more generally, the working out of our genetic programmes. In rejecting the age-old 'dualism' of body and mind, Alexander certainly established a more rational and unified foundation for the development of his therapeutic technique, but he obviously went too far in denying altogether the observable difference between physical events in general and mental events in particular.

John Anderson: Mind as Feeling

As it happens, Alexander could have easily corrected this error, without in any way affecting the practice of his technique, if he had studied the ideas of another distinguished Australian, his younger contemporary John Anderson, Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1927 until just before his death in 1962. In 1934 Anderson published an influential article on 'Mind as Feeling'4, his main thesis being that minds or mental events are a species of bodily or physical events. According to Anderson's conception of the human being, bodily processes in general are physical phenomena, like all other natural or spatio-temporal events, but among the complex of bodily processes that constitute the human being, there is a sub-set or particular species of processes or events we recognise as distinctively mental—certain physical processes that are marked off or differentiated from the rest by being part of, or having the specific character of what we call the 'mind'.

Though the distinction between human bodily processes in general and mental processes in particular is a matter of empirical fact, it is not always easy to draw the precise borderline between the two: among those who accept Anderson's classification of mind and body, there is still disagreement as to the actual differentia, the additional characteristic that marks off mental processes from the broader class of physical processes or bodily events. In Anderson's view, mental processes are feelings; that is, our minds consist of special kinds of physical events which are usually called the 'emotions'. This theory and the responses of various critics have been sympathetically examined by the Sydney psychologist, Terence McMullen, in "John Anderson on Mind as Feeling", an article forthcoming in the Canadian journal: Theory & Psychology. McMullen's paper, which was originally presented to the John Anderson Centenary Conference (University of Sydney, November 1993), includes a very useful review of the relevant literature— particularly on the thought of Anderson's successors at Sydney University, where his ideas are still being explored and developed.

Anderson and Alexander

It has always seemed to me that Anderson's general account of body and mind is obviously correct, even though one might question his specific theory of 'mind as feeling'. As McMullen brings out, Anderson's realist psychology avoided both the errors of behaviourism, which tried to reduce mind to body and thus deny there was any difference at all, and of more recent subjectivist theories which recognise the reality of mental processes but only at the cost of removing them from the world of space and time. It also seems to me that there is a fundamental sympathy between the views of Alexander and Anderson, and that these two important, though very different Australian philosophies, might well be integrated into a single system of thought and practice -and both perhaps be improved in the process. As I have already indicated, Alexander could well adopt Anderson's general view of the body-mind relationship without in any way detracting from his postural system and its associated techniques and therapies; but one wonders how Anderson's views might be affected by a serious consideration of Alexander's discoveries.

This question immediately exposes their very different backgrounds and points of view. Anderson, the professional philosopher and academic theorist, is in a world apart from Alexander, the self-made man whose original discoveries gave a whole new meaning to the injunction, 'Physician, heal thyself!'. Anderson's main concern is the construction of a systematic philosophy—perhaps the most rigorous and distinctive of any Australian thinker. Within that system, the body-mind relationship is treated mainly as a problem of metaphysics (the nature, reality and interrelationships of physical and mental phenomena) or of epistemology (how and what we know of these processes). Alexander's approach is more practical than theoretical; he developed his technique in order to solve a personal problem—not to answer the grand questions of speculative philosophy. Anderson's conception of body and mind is purely theoretical or 'epistemic': he is interested in how or what to think about these fundamental constituents of human nature, and in whether we rightly know that mind and body are what they appear to be. In other words, Anderson is primarily interested in the science of body and mind, whereas Alexander's discoveries about body and mind are of a very different nature. He accepts the reality of body and mind, without questioning our knowledge of them, because his prime concern is with their correct use and control; that is, the kind of knowledge Alexander seeks to acquire and impart to his disciples is not the philosopher's detached and contemplative science of 'know that', but the therapist's active 'hands-on' knowledge, or practical know-how. Whereas Anderson is more like a physical scientist in his theorising, Alexander is nearer the goal-oriented engineer or problem solving technologist.

Integrating Andersons and Alexander's Philosophies

This profound difference of orientation and approach comes out in the diversity of their observations on body and mind. In trying to characterise the specifically mental features of our bodily processes, Anderson examines the nature of 'affects'; that is, of feelings or emotions like anger, love, curiosity, pride and envy; but when Alexander analyses feelings, he is interested in what they reveal of our body and self-awareness and whether our use of the body 'feels right' or not. These approaches are very different but not necessarily incompatible: one is like that of the physicist or structural engineer who is concerned to know how a building is constructed and whether it will stand up; the other is more like the architect or planner who tries to ensure the building will work for a given clientele or urban context. But, just as our living environment has suffered from lack of integration between engineers and architects, so, it could be argued, our bodies and minds have suffered from the traditional dichotomy of 'body' and 'soul' in Christian thought. A better integration might be achieved through a practical philosophy which incorporates the findings of Alexander and Anderson. That philosophy, I believe, would find its ideal expression in a system of posture and movement or code of dance which, if it fully harmonised these divergent but complementary approaches, could become an important and distinctively Australian contribution to the art of good living.

I would like to conclude by drawing attention briefly to two other relevant contributions which I think could usefully be incorporated in this antipodean code of body-mind management. The first is Lewis Mumford's conception of the arts of body and mind as 'biotechnics' and of the whole human system as a 'biotechnical assemblage'(5). Mumford, an important philosopher of technology, also takes a unified view of the human organism which, through long evolution, has developed as a co-ordinated system of mind-body skills: these ancient biotechnics, he argues, must have achieved a recognisably human character well before the advent of stone tools and material culture. Mumford, therefore, does not define 'man' as a tool-using animal but rather sees the emergence of a biotechnically operational humanity as a prerequisite to the development of tool technology. Since the Alexander Technique is clearly a 'biotechnic', in Mumford's sense, valuable insights might be gained by exploring the ramifications of Alexander's methods in the light of Mumford's ingenious 'speculations on prehistory'. One result might be to lighten Alexander's uncritical dependence on the notion of bodily 'mechanisms' and on the old-fashioned assumptions of mechanistic philosophy (of which Mumford was an eminent and effective critic).

Through abandoning the old mechanistic conception of the human body (and the reductionist assumptions of traditional physiology, medicine, dietetics, etc.), certain advanced, post-mechanistic features of Alexander's thought could be given more prominence and greater relevance to an age which is now rejecting the mechanical world view and reductionist mode of analysis in favour of biological, ecological and holistic models. This modern tendency was strikingly anticipated by Alexander, for example, in his insistence that "there is a working balance in the use of all the parts of the organism, and that for this reason the use of the specific part (or parts) in any activity can influence the use of the other parts, and vice versa..."(6). In this and many other observations, Alexander embraces a global approach to the human organism, which is fundamentally incompatible with the old Cartesian mechanism and its associated dualism of mind and body—and, I would add, considerably in advance of Anderson's thinking. Though both worked without the benefit of cybernetic theory, Alexander's notion of conscious bodily control and of finding the 'right feeling' in posture and movement clearly assumes that the body-mind relationship involves a feedback mechanism—an insight which makes the Andersonian 'theatre of the mind' as a scene confined to the play of the emotions seem curiously abstract and old-fashioned.

Alexander & a National Code of Music and Dance

My second suggestion can only be hinted at here. Alexander originally developed his technique to cure vocal problems encountered as a professional reciter. His solution led him to new and important discoveries which might never have occurred if he had been properly trained in the first place. The art of good speaking and correct posture has for centuries been taught as part of the art of singing; and the best singing masters have long known how to preserve the voice and remedy its defects, how to extend its powers of execution and expression and how to prepare students for the arduous career of the concert hall and stage. Singers (like conductors) are well known for enjoying longer and healthier lives—careers of 50 years or more are not uncommon. Part of the musical art (one of the most ancient biotechnics) is a traditional system of posture, movement and articulation (cf. the all-embracing Italian term of portamento, or 'carriage') which experience has shown to be conducive to the long-term effective functioning of the human organism in harmonious motion and artistic expression. For well over a century, Australia has been a world leader in the production and export of fine singers, many of whom have reached the pinnacle of their profession. Here, then, is another important source of knowledge and know-how that might be incorporated—along with the insights of Alexander and Anderson—into a new, more comprehensive biotechnic or national code of music and dance which, having its roots in the nature of humanity itself, could help to create a naturally healthier, happier and more beautiful society.

FOOTNOTES

1. F. Matthias Alexander, The Use of the Self, Centerline Press: Long Beach, California (1984) p.3.

2. Loc. cit.

3. Op. cit., p.5.

4. 'Mind as Feeling' (1934) republished in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, Angus & Robertson: Sydney (1962) pp.68-78.

5. Lewis Mumford, 'Technics and the Nature of Man', in (ed.) P.H. Oehser, Knowledge among Men Simon & Schuster: New York (1966) pp.123-142.

6. Alexander, op. cit., p.78.

BIOGRAPHY

Graham Pont is a philosopher and musicologist interested in the history of song and dance. Having recently retired after thirty years' teaching in the General Education programme of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), he is now Honourary Visiting Professor in the University's School of Science.

 

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