The Practical Philosophy of F. Matthias Alexander
"The valuable but difficult process of converting to practical use each and every original idea (opinion)."
Let’s Get Practical
Are your ideas practically useful? Probably not, unless you do something with them to find out. What about your favourite philosophers – are their ideas practically useful? Or do they just give you a nice warm feeling and a few new words to feel superior to the normies?
Imagine if a drone followed you around all day, hovering above your head with a camera underneath recording everything you do. Would you ever be seen doing anything differently after all these daily sessions of “stare at square object with symbols on it?” Or are you still just living out the same old patterns, in the same old way – just like all those automatons you say you don’t want to be like.
With this in mind, I want to introduce one of the most important practical philosophers of the twentieth century: F. Matthias Alexander. You won’t have heard him described like this before, because he was too practical for the philosophers and too philosophical for the practitioners. This includes both some well-known philosophers who were his private pupils at the time, and most of his followers who teach (a version of) his technique to this day.
F. Matthias Alexander
Here is a quick (and controversial!) bio – plus my relationship to his work. I’ve also added a long quote from one of his books underneath.
F.M. Alexander was a Shakespearean actor who had lost his voice due to bad posture and breathing habits, and wanted to get back on stage. All attempts at “treating the symptoms” did nothing or made things worse. Eventually, through many daily hours of self experimentation, he learned/discovered/invented(?) a method for taking conscious control of his mind and body, of his thoughts and movements, and removed the root cause of the lost voice. He then taught his method to other people, first privately and then in training courses.
But it’s complicated. The original technique in which,
(a) he taught himself, experimenting in front of mirrors, directing his own mind and movements,
Later evolved into a very different method where,
(b) a teacher puts his hands directly on the pupil, and does the movements FOR them
This later method is what is now known as “The Alexander Technique” and is taught on all the training courses, and is what you’ll find in 99% of videos, books, websites – or private lessons with modern teachers.
Just to complicate things, there also seems to be a different understanding of the human anatomical structure in the earlier and later versions of the technique. Alexander’s own posture and poise – as seen in photos and videos of him, and a few of his very earliest pupils – is not the same as you will see in his immediate followers, modern AT teachers, or in most modern humans for that matter :)
Relationship status: It’s complicated.
So, although I was also trained in and worked as a teacher of the later hands-on version, I am now much more interested in rediscovering his original self-directed version – and integrating this with some related ideas and methods, both ancient and modern.
I’m now convinced Alexander’s earlier, almost forgotten technique is the key to a practical philosophy of life – and a daily movement practice for developing mind-body unity – which is especially suited to modern westerners.
I will write more about my complicated relationship with F. Matthias Alexander and his technique(s!) in future essays. But this is the first in a new series and I want to let the man speak for himself.
The Practical Philosophy of F. Matthias Alexander
So let’s start with this long(ish) quote from his neglected masterpiece Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual – it makes a good entry point into his practical philosophy:
“To a certain point I am in sympathy with all workers in either "physical," "mental," or "spiritual" spheres, for I believe that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy," but it has always seemed to me that the first duty of man was and is to understand and develop those potentialities which are well within the sphere of his activities here on this earth.
For this reason I intend, in this volume, to adhere to my earlier scheme of practical illustration, endeavouring, as far as possible, to give a demonstrable illustration in connexion with statements and arguments. This formula, I venture to predict, will prove to be more and more the rule and not the exception as we progress towards a plane of constructive, conscious guidance and control.
It has two advantages over other formulas. In the first place, it forces the philosopher or teacher to give to the world practical procedures, which may be applied to the actual activities of life, instead of theoretical conclusions which too often have no practical bearing upon life.
In the second place—and this is all-important—it transfers his work from the doubtful field of individual or collective opinion to the more reliable field of demonstrable conclusion, inasmuch as he is in duty bound to devote years of labour and investigation to the valuable but difficult process of converting to practical use each and every original idea (opinion).
This is a process of years, but if at the end of each experiment he gives to the world only those ideas which he has succeeded in reducing to practical procedures, rejecting all others, he will be making a great contribution to humanity: he will be offering practical experiences in a field where for centuries we have too often been offered little but personal opinions.”
F. Matthias Alexander;
Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (1923/1946; 8th ed; p.xii)
Being a good Alexandrian, I have attempted to convert his ideas into practical procedures. See my course Principles of Posture: a Practical Guide for Self-Experimenters. You get all 10 lessons when you become a paid subscriber.
Thanks for reading,