Normally, my posts on this site have been directed toward readers in philosophical circles. Having recently learned of Robert Rickover’s excellent blog on the Alexander Technique, I’d like change things up a little and engage the AT crowd on the subject of psycho-physical unity.
My view may well prove controversial: after many years of practicing AT, I’ve come to the conclusion that the mind simply cannot be unified well enough to merit speaking of its unity with the body. I quite agree that every physical use has its counterpart in the mind. Where I part ways with orthodoxy is on the matter of how many minds there are.
The philosophical figure most closely associated with the Alexander Technique is the pragmatist John Dewey. Like Alexander himself, Dewey left no doubt that he stressed the unity of mind and body, and like a good philosopher, he defended his view against possible objections. In his 1928 lecture “Preoccupation with the Disconnected,” to take one of countless examples, Dewey responds to the objection that our bodies digest food without our awareness by pointing out the tendency of people to eat in groups. His argument here suggests a kind of irresistible attraction between mind and body. But this only shows that we can pair a conscious activity with a non-conscious one. While socializing during meals might well aid digestion, the enzymes happily continue to elude our awareness. The question is the same whenever we arrive at a certain biological threshold: What is it that knows what to do?
In one sense, everything will hang on our definition of knowledge. We might invert the argument for intelligent design and wonder, not at that which made things so well, but at that which knows so well what needs to be done next — when the heart should beat and the skin cell should die.
In another sense, everything will hang on the meaning of “doing.” Neither Alexander nor Dewey, nor anyone at all for that matter, has been able to explain how language translates into actions. There is an explanatory gap between symbol and motion.
It’s certainly plausible that motions exhibiting some degree of organization involve knowledge. One inhibits and gives the directions, and there ensues a complex array of motions that we give the label “standing up.” To argue that this outcome is simply the result of good adaptive design doesn’t seem quite right. After all, we’re patently capable of standing up badly, using the very same design! Already we see the claim for unity falling apart. If my habitual mind is the consequence of adaptation, and standing up badly is a consequence of my habitual mind, then there must be separate adaptations for standing up well and standing up badly. So it seems that there must be two different adaptations operating within one body, which resist being merged into one. The premise of adaptive behavior, or habit, actually leads us to reject a holistic view of the self. So it’s not crazy to assert the existence of two minds in one body. In fact, it makes more sense than any other explanation.
In the analytic philosophy tradition, the puzzle presented by the “intelligence” of the reflexes is a variation on the problem of too many thinkers, or coincident entities. Analytic philosophers usually frame the problem with draconian scenarios involving brain transplants or severed body parts, but the upshot is the same: identity is not easily reduced to one per body. AT has this advantage to offer the current philosophical debate: it demonstrates empirically what writers such as Dean Zimmerman and Eric Olson have only been able to describe through thought experiments. It might even be said to have solved the problem empirically. (Note that the problem of too many thinkers is not the same as the problem of dualism. It is possible, for example, to argue that two coincident entities are both entirely material.)
In promoting a thesis of coincident entities, I’m admittedly going against conventional AT wisdom, including the view taken by one of my Alexander teachers, Ted Dimon, who has written at length on the ability to achieve a total comprehension in the use of the self. Yet I don’t know of any Alexander teacher who would reject the assertion that the reflexes operate beyond our direct powers of reason. Nor do I know of any teacher who would deny that something resists the unimpeded response of the reflexes, as Alexander’s own lengthy ordeal in discovering the technique attests.
Of course, it could be argued that any split in our consciousness is a temporary phenomenon, or even an error brought on by incidental factors that are eventually solvable by the technique itself. I disagree with this view, simply because it doesn’t gibe with the technique as Alexander originally developed it. The directions, even if they extend to widening the back, even if they extend further than that, never arrive at the doing that gets done, nor are they designed to. The directions do not establish unity, but rather operate within strict limits that assume an unbreachable division between the primary control and any end for which I can give an account. The primary control, after all, cannot be an end in itself (or the procedure collapses), and the means-whereby initiated by its continual re-introduction is exactly what dissolves any ends to be gained. Yet I can still verify that an end has been achieved. As a result, I’m left with the realization that there is another way of thinking in which my body is involved that is constitutionally foreign to me.
To many, the possibility of a non-unified consciousness will be at least a little unsettling. To some, the proposal can only lead to incoherence, or even madness. What Alexander showed, however, is that one can start from an idealist position (in which the senses are deemed unreliable) and confirm that something outside the mind is reliably there. In this respect, my relation to another entity in my body need not be anxious, but can be founded instead on trust. Indeed, without the existence of two entities, it isn’t clear how the principle of trustworthiness can be made comprehensible.
Everything I’ve put forward here leaves the actual practice of AT intact. Someone might well ask, then, whether my thesis makes any difference. Does AT with coincident entities provide any benefit to a procedure that already works quite well? Before offering my own thoughts on the matter, I’d like to open the floor to others, some of whom will certainly have more experience and expertise than I. Who knows? Alexander himself wrote that the implications of his discoveries might not be fully understood for years. Maybe this line of inquiry will help shepherd those implications a little further along.