A Study Guide to the Major Writings of FM Alexander

Illustrations by Shoko Zama

Introduction to the Study Guide

Reading Alexander:  Some Historical Context  

Alexander was basically a 19th century and early 20th century man.  He was raised in a century when British sea power allowed it to control countries and territories across the globe. This control enabled Britain to create a global system of commerce, and build an empire.  “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was literally true.  This trade had an early start:  the East India Company was chartered in 1600.   

What fueled British expansion, as well as the colonial ambitions of other nations?  I think to understand this expansion, and Alexander’s ideas about “conscious control” and the power of rational thought, one has to go back to the Enlightenment, also called The Age of Reason.  This movement, which occurred basically between 1688 and 1789 in France, Germany and England, was initially response to new political, social and cultural ideas from different civilizations around the globe.  As David Graeber and David Wengrow elaborate in their book The Dawn of Everything:  a New History of Humanity, a significan t impact on Enlightenment thinkers was the critique of European societies made by Indigenous Americans who believed that their values of freedom and personal liberty, mutual aid, religion and flexibity in political systems was clearly superior to anything Europe had to offer.

Enlightenment thinkers believed in improving society through reasoned debate and rational thought.  Ideas of the Enlightenment inspired leaders of the American Revolution and French Revolution.   

A century earlier, in the mid-1500s, the Scientific Revolution was beginning.  In part This was a response to authority, particularly the authority of the Church, which explained natural phenomena using the Bible.  While Roger Bacon, who died at the end of the 13th century, was the first person to write that one could use empiricism—the actual observation of the natural world—to reveal natural laws, the beginning of the Scientific Revolution is usually attributed to the work of scientists (at the time called natural philosophers) such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler.  Clearly the idea of using empiricism fit easily into Enlightenment ideals.   

The third important influence that helped shape the modern world was the Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-18th century.  Britain was the first country to adopt its principles, and invented much of its machinery.  By this time, Britain also had the sea power and control of colonies and territories from which it could extract raw materials.   

Whether he was aware of it or not, Alexander was clearly immersed in the sea of these ideas.  We can clearly see the Enlightenment influence when he writes about reason, conscious control, and a plane of conscious control that one can reach by using reason.  Instinct, subconscious thought and, one assumes, emotion, were to be dominated.    

We must also remember that although scientists believed that they could observe nature objectively, and reveal natural laws from their observations, they were doing those observations using their own unconscious biases, including the 2,000 year old tradition of the objectivist paradigm. As an example, many scientists tried to categorize the “races of man” from the primitive to the most advanced, believing that these divisions were real categories that existed in the world and that evolution created these “natural” divisions. Eugenics was another idea that drew support from the ostensibly scientific discoveries about humanity.  The term eugenics was originally coined by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, who, after reading On the Origin of Species, believed it supported the idea that the “fittest” survive and the “weakest” naturally die out.  Unfortunately, he (and others) saw many “weak” members in society, and supporters of eugenics believed humanity could best be improved by “selective parenthood,” where only the fittest and best exemplars would have children, thus creating a genetically superior group of people.      

The practice of eugenics led to many abuses, especially in the United States, which had a sustained program of sterilizing the “unfit,” a category that included people with disabilities, people deemed mentally ill and, generally, people who were poor and not white.  Hitler admired the eugenics movement, and used the practices developed in the United States as a template for his Final Solution.    

When you read Alexander’s books, keep this historical context in mind.  We all live in a society and culture and are influenced by its mores, whether we believe we are or not.  Both as a person, and a teacher of the Alexander Technique, we must continuously and honestly examine what beliefs and biases underlie our actions, including the biases in how we were trained.     

Reading 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." (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 or easily understand what Alexander wrote, and perhaps also a repugnance at some of his obviously racist statements.     

We do, however, know that Alexander’s life encompassed the last 30 years or so of the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th (1869—1955).  We also know that two of his favorite authors were Shakespeare and Herbert Spencer.  One can assume he was also well-read in the King James Version of the Bible.  These texts are not “easy” reads.  One has to pay attention to fully understand them.    

Alexander writes in a similar style.  In addition, he was trying to describe new ideas about psycho-physical unity, about how we function, how we interfere with that functioning, and what the results of that interference are.  He also wanted to place his ideas into the philosophical context of evolution, both how we evolved to our current state, how we could evolve to a plane of conscious control, and why that is important.  The full title of Man’s Supreme Inheritance:  Conscious Guidance and Control in Relation to Human Evolution in Civilization, makes this idea abundantly clear.     

So, with that background, what can we do to help us understand his writings?