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by Will Jakes

It is as reasonable to expect a fire to go out when it is ordered to stop burning as to suppose that a man can stand straight in consequence of a direct action of thought and desire. - John Dewey

John Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher and educator whose writings and teachings have had a profound influence on education in the United States. Dewey's philosophy of education, instrumentalism (also called pragmatism), focused on learning-by-doing rather than rote learning and dogmatic instruction, the current practice of his day. A concise summary and explanation of Dewey's educational philosophy can be found in the International Encyclopedia of Education.

F. Matthias Alexander(1869-1955) was an Australian who developed the educational process that is today commonly called the Alexander Technique - a method of helping people learn how to improve their posture, balance and coordination. The two men met around 1918 in New York City when Dewey had a series of lessons with Alexander. These, and subsequent lessons and conversations and correspondence, had a profound impact on Dewey. He felt that his lessons taught him how to stop and think before acting and enabled him to hold a philosophical position calmly once he had taken it or to change it if new evidence appeared.

They also helped him with his posture, breathing and eyesight for which he was equally grateful. In his book Human Nature and Conduct, published a few years after meeting Alexander, he wrote a short section which gets right to the heart of the problem faced by anybody who wishes to improve their own posture:

Recently a friend (F. Matthias Alexander) remarked to me that there was one superstition current among even cultivated persons. They suppose that if one is told what to do, if the right end is pointed out to them, all that is required in order to bring about the right act is will or wish on the part of the one who is to act. He used an illustration, the matter of physical posture; the assumption is that if a man is told to stand up straight, all that is further needed is wish and effort on his part, and the deed is done. He pointed out that this belief is on a par with primitive magic in its neglect of attention to the means which are involved in reaching an end.

A man who has a bad habitual posture tells himself, or is told, to stand up straight. If he is interested and responds, he braces himself, goes through certain movements, and it is assumed that the desired result is substantially attained; and that the position is retained at least as long as the man keeps the idea or order in mind. Consider the assumptions which are here made. It is implied that the means or effective conditions of the realization of a purpose exist independently of established habit and even that they may be set in motion in opposition to habit. It is assumed that means are there, so that the failure to stand erect is wholly a matter of failure of purpose and desire. It needs paralysis or a broken leg or some other equally gross phenomenon to make us appreciate the importance of objective conditions.

Now in fact a man who can stand properly does so, and only a man who can does. In the former case, fiats of will are unnecessary, and in the latter useless. A man who does not stand properly forms a habit of standing improperly, a positive, forceful habit. The common implication that his mistake is merely negative, that he is simply failing to do the right thing, and that the failure can be made good by an order of will is absurd. One might just as well suppose that the man who is a slave of whiskey-drinking is merely one who fails to drink water. Conditions have been formed for producing a bad result, and the bad result will occur as long as those conditions exist. They can no more be dismissed by a direct effort of will than the conditions which create drought can be dispelled by whistling for wind. It is as reasonable to expect a fire to go out when it is ordered to stop burning as to suppose that a man can stand straight in consequence of a direct action of thought and desire. The fire can be put out only by changing objective conditions; it is the same with rectification of bad posture.

Of course, something happens when a man acts upon his idea of standing straight. For a little while, he stands differently, but only a different kind of badly. He then takes the unaccustomed feeling which accompanies his unusual stance as evidence that he is now standing straight. But there are many ways of standing badly, and he has simply shifted his usual way to a compensatory bad way at some opposite extreme. (from the Chapter "Habits of Will")

What then is the solution for someone who wants to improve their posture if "direct action and thought" alone won't work? From Dewey's personal experience, the way out of this dilemma was to be found in Alexander's method of re-training, now commonly called the Alexander Technique. This method doesn't rely on simply wanting to have better posture. Alexander's method seeks to carefully identify and then eliminate the underlying causes of poor posture - a procedure very different than the usual "direct attack" on the problem.

For example, if your postural pattern is to slouch your shoulder's forward and collapse into your chest, an Alexander Technique teacher will show you how to stop doing that so that your torso naturally expands to its full size. He or she will not ask you to straighten up as that simply re-arranges tension, as Dewey so well described.

Dewey wrote the introductions to three of Alexander's books and referred to his experience a number of times in his own writings - although Alexander's influence on Dewey is often ignored by Dewey scholars. The best place to find out more about the Alexander Technique is: That site includes a section on the Dewey-Alexander connection:

Jack Walters, a colleague of mine, has posted a very nice article about fitness and the Alexander Technique at

The book Freedom to Change - The Development and Science of the Alexander Technique, by Frank Pierce Jones, Professor of Classics at Tufts University, contains quite a bit of information about the Dewey/Alexander connection. Information on ordering this book (and many other Alexander Technique books) can be found at

A lot of general information about Dewey can be found at:

Will Jakes is a writer and student of philosophy and the Alexander Technique in Boston, Massachusetts.