COMPANION

Criticisms of Alexander’s writings

Alexander’s books have been attacked for their style, for being incomprehensible, for being wordy, for their terminology, mostly, but not exclusively, by reviewers who have not experienced the Technique. In addition his evolutionary philosophy, his racism, and his (lack of) science has been criticised.

Wilfred Barlow,[1] Walter Carrington,[2] Irene Tasker,[3] Catherine Kettrick[4] and Elizabeth Langford[5] have written in defence of Alexander’s writings, predominantly along the lines that Alexander’s books are technical writings, and the difficulty of introducing a subject with which the reader has no previous experience. (Although Wilfred Barlow was also critical of Alexander’s terminology, see below.)

Below are some examples of the criticisms of Alexander’s writings.

A reviewer of F. M. Alexander’s 1907 booklet ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’ wrote:[6]

It leaves the critic wondering whether the victim [F. M. Alexander] of his criticism is (1) a quack with a true method which he keeps secret, (2) a quack with a false method which cannot be explained, (3) a genius with a true method which he has not the literary power to make clear, or (4) a genius with a true method which none but a like genius could understand from the printed page, . . .

Randolph Bourne, in a review of MSI in The New Republic (1918), wrote:

But is it not a mistake, when you have so valuable a pragmatic intuition and power, to let your enthusiasm wrap the idea up in a cosmic and evolutionary philosophy which could not, in the nature of the case, be half so persuasive as the technique itself?[7]

And the review ends with a suggestion that Alexander is out of his depths philosophically:

But Mr Alexander’s empiric idea and practice are too valuable to be wrapped up in a philosophy that is not just as vigorously integrated and intelligently guided as the muscular system which he skilfully directs towards perfect functioning.[8]

John Dewey replied to the criticism.

In 1923 Dr James Walsh lambasts Alexander and his technique in a whole chapter in his book, Cures.[9] (An online PDF version is available in the Library section of the Mouritz website.[10]) For example, he writes:

His method is of the simplest. He has the key to the mystery of disease and health and it can be given in less than half a dozen words. All that is needed is respiratory reeducation and conscious control. Breathing exercises and proper pose and poise of body so as to bring the muscles into action in the right way – there is the whole secret. . . . His book is just full of these wordy polysyllabic expressions, glittering generalities of the veriest kind, expressing what are often the simplest platitudes in words of ponderous length and almost thunderous sound . . .

The 1944 editorial in Manpower (which became the cause of the South African Libel Case) is a scathing assessment of the writings – i.e. the four books – of Alexander; an example:

Scientifically trained medical men and physical educationists who have succeeded in working through the amateurish writings of the new Conscious Controller [Alexander] agree that they contain many new and interesting features although none of the interesting features are new, while those features which are new are definitely not interesting. Strangely enough, Mr Alexander himself admits that he has been unable to describe his teaching method. Also, he could not give any scientific account of his results of which he only tells us that they are phenomenal. In referring to criticisms brought to his notice to the effect that his writings are unintelligible, he explains that his ‘discoveries’ are of such a nature that they defy literary definition. They must be experienced. . . . Not a scrap of such or other objective evidence has ever been presented by Mr Alexander or his followers.[11]

The judgement in the 1948 South African Libel Case summarises Alexander’s ‘system’ and ideas and concludes:

In the [Alexander’s] books these ideas are tangled in a mass of words.[12]

Although many reviewers over the years have been largely positive of Alexander’s books, some have been critical:

‘Certain criticisms of his system, however, inevitably suggest themselves.’[13]

‘The style is vague, prolix, and with many repetitions.’[14]

‘A fault of both books is, we think, their prolixity, which is likely to give the impatient reader the impression that Mr Alexander is not saying much after all.’[15]

After reading and re-reading The Universal Constant in Living, together with Mr Alexander’s two most important previous books, The Use of the Self and The Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, I can but come to the conclusion that what is true and sound in his ‘revolutionary’ doctrine is old and almost universally accepted, and that the only thing new is an exaggerated belief in the influence of posture, especially in the carriage of the head on the vertebral column, on health and the general bodily functioning, physiological and pathological.[16]

Barlow wrote in 1944: ‘Alexander, in his rather bizarre terminology, describes what is here called ‘pressing’ as ‘endgaining’ . . .’[17] And in Barlow’s introduction to the 1985 edition of UoS, he wrote: “Alexander’s prose-style did not come easily to him, and many of us sat at his side whilst he attempted to get more and more information into sentences which became longer and longer, more and more ponderous.”[18]

A pupil of Lulie Westfeldt wrote ‘. . . I tried to follow up this beginning [of hearing of Alexander] by reading Alexander’s The Universal Constant In Living when it appeared in 1941. But I found it an impossible book, ill-written, pretentious, and apparently more desirous of obscuring its subject than explaining it. Nevertheless, I did not think it was the work of a quack, but merely of an uncommonly clumsy writer.’[19]

Edward Maisel wrote 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 recevied any real instruction in the mechanics of writing’.[20] Maisel adds:

So Alexander stands today: a stubborn genius who uncovered a valuable mechanism for human growth; who then evolved an imperfect technique for imparting the experience of that mechanism to others; and who from the mechanism and the technique, so full of promise for both the physical and emotional development of the individual, inferred a fanciful program of evolutionary repair which in the present critical world state scarcely warrants respectful attention.[21]

In his 1996 two-volume biography of Alexander, Jeroen Staring claims that Alexander plagiarised other people’s ideas and methods, e.g. Dr Scanes Spicer.[22]

‘A new perspective on “The Use of the Self”’ by Anthony Kingsley includes a criticism of Alexander’s choice of words including inhibition, direction and primary control.[23]

Criticisms of Alexander’s racism in his writings

The racism in Alexander’s MSI have been criticised, by a column in Direction by Robert Rickover[24] and a two-part article in Direction by Jean M. O. Fischer.[25] A long letter by Jeroen Staring also points to the racism in MSI.[26] Walter Carrington replied that Alexander did not advocate racism, but was concerned with the health and well-being of the individual.[27] Walter Carrington briefly returned to the issue in his foreword to the 1996 edition of MSI.[28] ‘Viewpoint’ by Michael Holt regards Alexander’s racism as neglible in the context of his time.[29] Maxwell Alexander’s lack of seriousness of the issue of racism in his 1992 NASTAT AGM caused several letters of protests. (See Maxwell Alexander.) NASTAT (later AmSAT) adopted an anti-racist statement, and later STAT adopted a general anti-discriminatory clause.

For a defence of Alexander’s writings, see F. M. Alexander’s writings.

See also F. M. Alexander’s writings, Gender Issues.

Reference

[1] ‘Conscious self-control’ letter in The New Statesman and Nation, 23 May 1942, p. 338, in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred, Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), p. 1.
[2] Explaining the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington and Sean Carey, (Mouritz, 2004), p. 9.
[3] ‘Connecting Links’ (1967) by Irene Tasker (The Sheildrake Press, 1978), pp. 15-19.
[4] ‘Great Writers of the Western World’ in The Congress Papers, Engelberg Switzerland (Direction, 1991) pp. 111-118.
[5] ‘Educating the public’ by Elizabeth Langford in The Congress Papers, 6th International Congress 1999 (STATBooks, 2001), pp. 231-257.
[6] ‘Regeneration by breathing’, review of F. M. Alexander’s ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’ in The Morning Post 7 March 1907, in Articles and Lectures by F. Matthias Alexander, edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 1995), p. 256.
[7] ‘Making over the body’ by Randolph Bourne in The New Republic, 11 May 1918, in Man's Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 230.
[8] ‘Making over the body’ by Randolp Bourne in The New Republic, 11 May 1918, in Man's Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 231.
[9] Cures – The Story of the Cures That Fail by Dr James Walsh (D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1923).
[11] ‘Quackery Versus Physical Education’ editorial in Manpower vol. 2, no. 2, March 1944 (South Africa, 1944), pp. 2-3.
[12] South African Libel Case 1948 Vol. 2 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2016), p. 562.
[13] ‘Human skulls dug up by the new psychologists’ by Howard Devree (Review of Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual) in The New York Times, 17 August 1924, in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2004), p. 216.
[14] ‘Review of Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual’ in Boston Medical and Surgical Journal vol. 191, 2 October 1924, in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2004), p. 218.
[15] ‘Increasing Consciousness’: Review in The Times Literary Supplement 25 June 1925, in in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2004), p. 225.
[16] ‘Conscious Control’ review by Harry Roberts in The New Statesman and Nation, 2 May 1942, in The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), p. 222.
[17] ‘Psychology of the presser’ Letter in the British Medical Journal, 18 November 1944,  in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred, Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), p. 3.
[18] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Victor Gollanz, 1985), p. 3.
[19] F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work by Lulie Westfeldt (Mouritz, 1998 [1964]), p. 117.
[20] The Resurrection of the Body by Edward Maisel (New York, University Books, 1969) p. xvi.
[21] The Resurrection of the Body by Edward Maisel (New York, University Books, 1969) p. xlv.
[22] The First 43 Years of the Life of F. Matthias Alexander, Volume 1–2, by Jeroen Staring (Jeroen Staring, 1996).
[23] ‘A new perspective on “The Use of the Self”’by Anthony Kinglsey in The Alexander Journal no. 28 edited by Paul Marsh and Jamie McDowell (STAT, 2021), pp. 3–10.
[24] ‘Viewpoint’ by Robert Rickover in Direction vol. 1 no. 5 (Direction, 1990), p. 198.
[25] ‘F. M. Alexander and evolution’ by Jean M. O. Fischer, Part 1 in Direction vol. 1 no. 6 (Direction, 1990), pp. 239-44, and Part 2 in Direction vol. 1 no. 7 (Direction, 1991), pp. 287–91.
[26] ‘Objectionable remarks’ letter by Jeroen Staring in Direction vol. 1 no. 6 (Direction, 1990), pp. 232–34.
[27] ‘What’s the fuss’ letter by Walter Carrington in Direction vol. 1 no. 7 (Direction, 1991), p. 292.
[28] Foreword by Walter Carrington in Man's Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. x.
[29] ‘Viewpoint’ by Michael Holt in Direction vol. 2, no. 8 edited by Jeremy Chance (Fyncot Pty Ltd., 2000), p. 34.