John Dewey (1859–1952), American philosopher of education and pupil and supporter of F. M. Alexander.
John Dewey studied at the University of Vermont and at Johns Hopkins University. After two years as a high-school teacher he decided he was unsuited for teaching in primary or secondary education. He received his Ph.D. School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. It was while he was teaching at the University of Chicago (1894–99) that he started writing and formulating his pedagogical beliefs. From 1904 until his retirement in 1930 he was professor of philosophy at Columbia University. Dewey wrote on psychology, ethics, politics, society, religion, but it was his voluminous writings on education which were widely read and which made him famous as the ‘father of progressive education’ and has also been called ‘America’s greatest philosopher’. He published more than 700 articles in 140 journals, and approximately 40 books. His philosophy has been open to many interpretations, re-examined, revisited, and books about him and his philosophy are still being published.
Association with F. M. Alexander
John Dewey met F. M. Alexander around 1916, possibly through Margaret Naumburg who had studied with Montessori in Rome in 1911, and there met and befriended Irene Tasker. Dewey became a pupil of F. M. Alexander and they stuck up a friendship, which despite later differences, lasted the remainder of Dewey’s life. Dewey wrote introductions to Alexander’s next three books, wrote about Alexander in articles and books, and defended Alexander in response to a critical book review of MSI. Dewey’s endorsement of Alexander’s technique was unequivocal, resolute and steadfast all through his life. In his introduction to Alexander’s third book, The Use of the Self, Dewey wrote:
It [the Alexander Technique] bears the same relation to education that education itself bears to all other human activities.
In a short biography from 1939 Jane Dewey quotes her father, John Dewey:
My theories of mind-body, of the co-ordination of the active elements of the self and of the place of ideas in inhibitions and control of overt action required contact with the work of F. M. Alexander and in later years his brother, A. R., to transform them into realities.
F. P. Jones, who corresponded with John Dewey, wrote a chapter on Dewey and Alexander in his Freedom to Change. Jones also covers an overview of the fact that during Dewey’s lifetime his testimony to Alexander’s work was not taken seriously, and that Alexander’s influence on Dewey was belittled. This fact has been examined by several writers, one of them Jo Anny Boydston, who was the editor of John Dewey’s collected works. She provides two possible reasons: one, that his quiet and reticent personality was interpreted as being susceptible to naivety and to being easily duped, and, two, a misreading of his writings, not understanding the extent to which Alexander’s influence permeates Dewey’s thinking.
More recent biographies of John Dewey are more complementary about Alexander. Jay Martin’s biography dedicates a section to Alexander, in which he also quotes the above statement in Jane Dewey’s biography. He adds that John Dewey sent several of his children for lessons.
Dewey and Coghill
G. E. Coghill’s (and M. McGraw, C. J. Herrick and others) work made him conclude that specific behaviour patterns emerged from an integrated state. Alexander saw this as confirmation of his work (see Coghill), and Coghill’s work also influenced Dewey with regard to development of consciousness. Dewey’s interest in the evolution of locomotion and behaviour is not only an attempt to align his philosophy with science, but also to find scientific support for Alexander’s work. This is covered in some detail in Dalton’s Becoming John Dewey (2002).
Dewey’s writings on the Alexander Technique
Dewey wrote forewords to the revised MSI (1918), CCC (1923), and UoS (1932). He wrote an article comparing the difference in public attitude to Alexander and Émile Coué in ‘A Sick World’ (1923) in The New Republic. Dewey refers to Alexander by name in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) and Experience and Nature (1925), and the influence of Alexander can be gleaned in other books.
Dewey’s influence on Alexander
Over and above providing forewords to three of Alexander’s books, and being quoted by Alexander (e.g. the phrasing ‘thinking in activity’), there has more recently been an examination of Dewey’s more indirect influence on Alexander’s writings in terms of vocabulary, psychology, and science. The most comprehensive paper is Malcolm Williamson’s ‘Dewey’s influence on Alexander’. For example it argues that Alexander’s description of his evolution of his technique in UoS follows a scientific step-by-step procedure outlined by John Dewey.
Other writings on Dewey and Alexander
A 1958 Ph.D. thesis by Eric David McCormack analyses in detail the influence Alexander had on Dewey. It has been reprinted several times.
‘John Dewey and F. M. Alexander’ by C. M Turbayne (1948) also examines the influence of Alexander on Dewey.
A chapter in Freedom to Change by F. P. Jones relates Dewey’s and Alexander’s friendship. F. P. Jones trained with the Alexander brothers and also met and corresponded with John Dewey.
‘John Dewey and F. M. Alexander, 36 years of friendship’ by Alexander Murray (1982) examines their long friendship with quotes from numerous sources.
‘The philosopher and the physiologist: The case of John Dewey and F. Matthias Alexander’ by Paul Grimley Kuntz provides possible reasons why contemporaries of Dewey and later some of Dewey’s biographers downplayed or belittled Dewey’s strong endorsement of F. M. Alexander’s work.
‘John Dewey and the Alexander Technique’ by Jo Ann Boydston; on the widespread lack of understanding of the Dewey–Alexander relationship.
‘The nature of habit – F. M. Alexander and John Dewey’ by Serena J. Woolf explores and explains the nature of the theories of habit in both Dewey and Alexander’s writings, and how they relate.
An anonymous writer argues that Dewey’s philosophy has nothing to do with the Alexander Technique, and in many respects is in opposition to it. Only available online:
John Dewey *20 October 1859 – †1 June 1952.