Study Guide: Introduction

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

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.” [1]

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…” (CCCI, p. 105). 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 unamed 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 the Introduction 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 co-ordinated indivisible whole” (p. xxx-xxi).

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 til you get to the end of the sentence. To do this, it is helpful to answer the question posed by each clause as you go along. For example, here is the first sentence from the second chapter of The Use of the Self, “Use and Functioning in Relation to Reaction:” “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” (p. 39).

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.”

Now go back and re-read the entire quote without the commentary and see if it isn’t more readily understood.

Although seemingly tedious, this method of taking apart what Alexander wrote is one good way to understand how he constructed his ideas, and thus better understand what he meant. Another helpful method is reading aloud to another person. We all tend to read too quickly, especially when something is “hard.” Alexander warns in the chapter “Memory and Feeling” in CCCI 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” (p. 274-273). If however we have to read something aloud so that it makes sense to another person, we will (presumably) go more slowly, and do some of the same analysis while reading so that the inflections we use make the material understandable.

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” 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” (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.

How to Use This Book (and Have Fun Reading F.M. Alexander)

There are two types of questions in this book. The first type are what I have called Study Questions. They were originally written for the students in my Seminar classes at The Performance School, who wanted some guide to make their way through Alexander’s writings. Questions that pointed to the important ideas in each section seemed to be the best way to give them a structure within which to study. To the best of my ability I have not written questions that I think are important. I have tried instead to figure out what Alexander thought were the important points, analyzing the structure and language he used to do so, always keeping in mind the whole of the book, chapter, paragraph and sentence from which the question came. They are questions that I hope Alexander would have written had he wanted to write a study guide for his books.

The Study Questions are taken, for the most part, directly from Alexander’s writing and can be used a number of ways. They can be read before a chapter, or section of a chapter is read, as a guide that will highlight the major points that Alexander makes. They can be used to organize your reading around certain “themes” or major ideas. They are primarily intended however to be written and answered by copying, word for word and comma for comma what Alexander wrote. If for example the question (from CCCI) is “What is memory?” the written answer would be “Memory is the impression which is registered as the result of some stimulus or stimuli.” Actually writing down (in longhand) what Alexander actually said serves a number of purposes. First of all, it will slow you down. As I mentioned above, too many of us have the habit of reading so fast that we literally do not see, let alone understand, what has been written. Secondly, although we only have the final draft, it will put you through the same process that Alexander went through when writing his books. Although you did not originate the words, you will have written them, just as Alexander did. And thirdly, if you should happen to disagree with what Alexander wrote, having just written it yourself will give you pause to think about what he and you have just written, and give you a chance to formulate and write what you believe he should have said.

The second type of question is what I have called Thought Questions. Not every chapter has these questions. They are most often questions about ideas that have puzzled me in Alexander’s writings. They will often refer to research that has been done in the fields of cognitive science, linguistics and psychology since Alexander wrote. I offer these questions because I believe that we need to discuss, ponder and work with Alexander’s ideas to better know and understand what he believed, the better to be able to learn and teach this technique to others. They are intended to stimulate people’s thinking on various topics, to question the ideas that Alexander offers. They are not intended to be exhaustive in any sense; everyone will have their own area of interest and will, I hope, come up with many more questions than I have offered here. The other reason for the Thought Questions is that although I may have a certain bias about in what direction I believe the answers to some of these Thought Questions lie, I don’t know “the answer” to any of them. My hope is that people will consider the questions and everyone, myself included, can learn from the discussion of them.

At the end of the book there is a section of Supplemental Thought Questions which can be used to bring together ideas from across the four books.

This book is both for people who want go through Alexander’s books from beginning to end, and also for those who want to “dip into” a chapter here and there, or put together several chapters from different books for a class. For that reason, people who do begin at the beginning and go through to the end (whether with one book or all four) will find a fair amount of repetition. But as Irene Tasker wrote in her talk “Connecting Links,” “On the question of repetition, F.M. was insistent that you had to say things over and over again if you wanted them to sink in” (p. 15). If Alexander repeated it, he probably thought it was important. By leaving in the “repetitious” questions, readers can decide for themselves whether or not something is important and bears answering more than once.

Because I wanted to be thorough, and because I find Alexander’s ideas endlessly fascinating, I have tended to write more questions than may strictly be needed. The chapter “Evolution of a Technique” for example has 151 questions. Ultimately of course, it is each reader who must decide which questions it is valuable to write out and which not, or which ones to write out on a first or second reading. By providing a wide array of questions, readers have the most flexibility of choice.

In compiling these questions I used the Centerline Press first editions, not because I feel they are in any way definitive–in fact I would suggest having another edition handy to check for typos and deletions–but because they are generally easily available (at least in the United States) and unlike with my hardback editions, I felt perfectly comfortable marking them up. All the page numbers on the quotes refer to these editions.

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 writing these questions was to help my own students, I found that they helped me as well in understanding Alexander and his ideas. I hope they will also encourage you in your study of the principles that Alexander himself spent his lifetime teaching and studying.


In some ways the genesis of this book extends to my first contact with the Alexander Technique when I took a workshop offered by Marjorie Barstow at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. That experience made the decision to go to Lincoln, Nebraska the following summer and study with Marj very easy.

It was Marj’s teaching and emphasis on thinking, however, which helped me see that this work is not “body work,” and that understanding the principles underlying the work was most important. There is no better way to do that, I believe, than by reading and studying the writings FM Alexander, preferably with other people, so that you can have the benefit of their work and ideas, and by making experiments to put those principles into practice. Alexander’s ideas were debated and discussed at length during the summer workshops in Lincoln, and because a number of us returned each year, we were able to have the benefit not only of studying these ideas with new people, but seeing how our understanding of them had increased over time. I am greatly indebted to all my friends for this opportunity.

I am also indebted to my colleagues at The Performance School in Seattle. Their continuing study and questioning always encourags me to perservere.

Lastly, many, many thanks to David Mills, for whom discussion is always an adventure.

[1] Maisel, Ed.  The Resurrection of the Body, p. xvi.

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