COMPANION

Communication – Words

The issue of communication here is chiefly divided into 1. the use of words, 2. the use of hands (see Hands-on work), 3. the use of observation, i.e. demonstration, illustrations, or video (see Observation work). This entry deals with the use of words in general.

F. M. Alexander on the use of words

Alexander’s terminology changed over the years as he developed his practice and theory.[1] There are several instances of Alexander alerting the reader to the inadequacy of words, for example, when using the words ‘physical’ and ‘mental’:

I am forced to use the words ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ here and throughout my argument because there are no other words at present which adequately express the manifestations of psycho-physical activity present at these various stages . . .[2]

In CCC he several times makes reference to the shortcomings of words, for example writing on ‘head forward and up’, he states:

This is one of the most inadequate and often confusing phrases used as a means of conveying our ideas in words, and it is a dangerous instruction to give to any pupil, unless the teacher first demonstrates his meaning by giving to the pupil, by means of manipulation, the exact experiences involved.[3]

He also points out that our conception of the written or spoken word ‘is conditioned by the standard of the psycho-physical functioning of the individual’.[4]

The problem of words continued to plague him. As he wrote in the 1941 UCL:

Another source of misunderstanding has arisen through my choice of words for which I have often been criticized.[5]

In a private letter Alexander also wrote: ‘You are right, words are a curse and for the reason given in CCC.’[6]

Anthony Ludovici

The observation that ‘knowledge concerned with sensory experiences cannot be conveyed by the written or spoken word’ was first made by Anthony Ludovici in 1933, [7] and has been repeated many times since. (Aldous Huxley later made the same point referring to the ‘colour red’ instead of ‘sensory experiences’.)

First generation teachers

Apart from Alexander two teachers in particular have discussed the difficulty of words, F. P. Jones and Patrick Macdonald. F. P. Jones writes that his outlook on life changed dramatically after some lessons, but:

My satisfaction in the discovery was incomplete, however, because I could not formulate what I knew so as to communicate it to others. Montaigne, who found the pleasure of self-examination to be the greatest of all pleasures, invented the essay in order to convey his pleasure to others. I knew from experience, however, that words were not adequate to convey the meaning of the Alexander Technique.[8]

And:

It is significant that Hodge, Kallen and Robinson had all had lessons in the Technique, which Hodge said was ‘incommunicable on paper.’ Robinson tried to solve the problem (as Aldous Huxley did later) by giving a detailed description of an actual lesson. The problem of how to use words to convey sensory experience to someone who has not had the experience before continued to plague Alexander and all who have written about the Technique since, and it has not yet been solved.[9]

Jones writes that A. R. Alexander told him that the words used in Alexander’s books were carefully chosen and that A. R. didn’t think they could be improved upon.[10] Jones wrote that the Alexander brothers were attached to their chosen wordings:

Like so many people who know but one language, they [F. M. and A. R. Alexander] believed in a one-to-one relation between the word and the thing. . . . They were confident that the words they used to describe what they did were the best that could be found. If a pupil did not understand, they repeated the explanation verbatim, assuring him that ultimately it would be perfectly clear.[11]

Jones reports that as Alexander became increasingly skilled in the use of his hands he was less dependent on words.[12]

Jones discussed the role of words in teaching in some detail in his Freedom to Change, and addressed in particular two difficulties: 1. they can get in the way of thinking and observation, and 2. they can by association refer to previous experiences and get in the way of new experiences.[13]

Patrick Macdonald also wrote on the difficulty of words, in several places in his The Alexander Technique As I See It.[14] In his notebook jotting ‘On the use of words’ he wrote:

It helps pupils to have the right ideas if they learn to refrain from the wrong words (i.e., words which contain a meaning alien to a proper understanding). Thus pupils should not say ‘relax’ when they mean ‘let go’ or ‘concentrate’ when they mean ‘be aware of’. If pupils continue to rely on words whose popular meanings are quite other than the new ones they are trying to learn, they will probably find that they are still thinking in terms of the old ideas, and their activity will correspond to these and not to the new ones.[15]

And elsewhere:

Terms such as ‘inhibition’, ‘head forward and up’, ‘back lengthening and widening’, etc., were used by Alexander in the absence of special words to convey his ideas, and they have a meaning peculiar to those who have experienced the Technique in practice. It should also be borne in mind that these meanings are not fixed but will grow with time and increasing experience.[16]

Words can be dangerous because people will always try to fit their own meanings to words, so as to make them agree with their previous experience, rather than accept a new experience in order to find out the meaning of words.[17]

His solution is to repeat the words until the experience clarifies what is meant by the words:

In the beginning a new pupil is asked to repeat the verbal instructions (as a reminder for the new use of himself), while the teacher, through the use of hands, gives the actual experience associated with the words. The pupil must be content merely with a recitation of these words.[18]

He several times wrote that ‘The Real Thing cannot be communicated by words’, e.g:

One cannot convey the essence of an art, and particularly an art of living, by the written or spoken word. Nevertheless, in a lesson, of course, one can define the meaning of words with some accuracy. The greater the number of lessons the greater the accuracy. However, so long as the reader recognises that

The way that can be told is not the real way,

The name that can be spoken is not the real name, . . .[19]

Later writings

  • Among issues Robin Skynner raised from a pupil’s perspective he discusses the problems of the words ‘direct’ and ‘doing’ in his article ‘The first twelve lessons’.[20]
  • ‘Words as communicators’ by Jean Clark considers the role and the importance of words in teaching.[21]
  • ‘The dual code model and the Alexander Technique’ by Charlotte Okie considers the teaching of the Technique from the dual code model developed by Wilma Bucci, a model which defines verbal and nonverbal codes.[22]
  • ‘Don’t do it, but do the don’t’ by Jean Fischer discusses the different meanings of ‘do’ and ‘doing’ in the Alexander literature, and on avoiding confusions such as equating ‘non-doing’ with ‘non-activity’.[23]
  • ‘Communication’ by Cathy Madden and Jeremy Chance is part sketch, part lecture, on the importance of clarity of thinking when communicating.[24]
  • ‘Alexander Technique phenomena’ by Patrick Johnson considers the language used to describe the Technique, on the importance of separating observation from explanation, separating scientific explanation from what is useful pedagogically, and avoiding jargon.[25]

Discussion

As F. P. Jones mentions above it is a notable fact that very experienced, professional writers such as Anthony Ludovici, Bernard Shaw, Leonard Woolf, Aldous Huxley, and more recently Michael Bloch, have all been unable to describe the Technique well. [26] And that the many doctors – some very eminent doctors – who were pupils of Alexander and wrote in support of the Technique in medical journals in the 1920s–40s also struggled to describe the Technique, and in most cases reverted to Alexander’s own terminology. The problem of how to verbally describe the Technique is an ongoing difficulty.

See also Terminology, Criticisms of Alexander’s writings.

See also individual teaching concepts.

References

[1] ‘Introductory notes’ in Articles and Lectures by F. Matthias Alexander, edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 1995), pp. xx-xxv.
[2] Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), p. 5.
[3] Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), p. 113.
[4] Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. Matthias Alexander, (Mouritz, 2004), p. p. 70 (see also p. 83).
[5] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), p. xxxi.
[6] Quoted in The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), pp. xxii-xxiii.
[7] Health and Education Through Self-Mastery by Anthony Ludovici (Mouritz, 2016 [1933]), p. 38.
[8] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), pp. 14-15.
[9] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), p. 33.
[10] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), p. 18.
[11] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), p. 68.
[12] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), p. 51.
[13] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), pp. 157-59, 163, 167, 172.
[14] The Alexander Technique As I See It by Patrick Macdonald (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 41-46, 67-75.
[15] The Alexander Technique As I See It by Patrick Macdonald (Mouritz, 2015), p. 21.
[16] The Alexander Technique As I See It by Patrick Macdonald (Mouritz, 2015), p. 41.
[17] The Alexander Technique As I See It by Patrick Macdonald (Mouritz, 2015), p. 50.
[18] The Alexander Technique As I See It by Patrick Macdonald (Mouritz, 2015), p. 41.
[19] The Alexander Technique As I See It by Patrick Macdonald (Mouritz, 2015), p. 67.
[20] ‘The First Twelve Lessons’ by Dr Robin Skynner in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005 [1978]), pp. 305-12.
[21] ‘Words as communicators’ by Jean Clark in Direction vol. 1, no. 2 edited by Jeremy Chance (Fyncot Pty Ltd., 1991), pp. 42-43.
[22] ‘The dual code model and the Alexander Technique’ by Charlotte Okie in The Alexander Review vol. 3, no. 1 (Centerline Press, 1988), pp. 49–53.
[23] ‘Don’t do it, but do the don’t’ by Jean M. O. Fischer in The Alexander Journal No. 11 edited by Adam Nott (STAT, 1991), pp. 29-32.
[24] ‘Communication’ by Cathy Madden and Jeremy Chance in The Congress Papers 1999, An Ongoing Discovery edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (STATBooks, 2001), pp. 65–104.
[25] ‘Alexander Technique phenomena’ by Patrick Johnson in The Alexander Journal no. 27 edited by Paul Marsh and Jamie McDowell (STAT, 2019), pp. 33–38.
[26] This observation was made by Walter Carrington, personal communication.