Unknown, Known

For Alexander the ‘unknown’ represents the new, the unexpected and the unfamiliar, which if subconsciously guided (ruled by habit) will stimulate a reaction of fear and general lack of control. Contrasted with this the ‘known’ constitutes what is familiar and habitual (the ‘old’), what is preferred unconsciously.

As the Technique involves new and unknown experiences, it is essential to the learning process to be able to accept the unknown. For Alexander, however, the experience and acceptance of the unknown is necessary in all learning, and learning is necessary for growth and development. The Technique provides the means to consciously reason from the known to the unknown.

In MSI and CCC Alexander argues that despite advances in civilisation man still reacts to the unknown with fear, apprehension and loss of control. This reaction to the unknown impedes man’s evolutionary development, especially in civilisation which advances so rapidly that man is continually faced with new and unknown experiences. Fear of the unknown makes people carry on with and perpetuate the known (the familiar, past experiences, the habitual, the old, repeating what you have).

In UoS, the description of the Technique as ‘reasoning from the known to the unknown’ is introduced, and the process of change is essential to individual growth and development.

This process of directing energy out of familiar into new and unfamiliar paths, as a means of changing the manner of reacting to stimuli, implies of necessity an ever-increasing ability on the part of both teacher and pupil to ‘pass from the known to the unknown’;* it is therefore a process which is true to the principle involved in all human growth and development.[1]

The footnote to the above states:

The late Mr. Joseph Rowntree after one of his lessons described my work as ‘reasoning from the known to the unknown, the known being the wrong and the unknown being the right.’[2]

This subsequently made Alexander use the ‘known’ to indicate the wrong, in several of his 1930s aphorisms, e.g:

You can’t do something you don’t know, if you keep on doing what you do know.[3]

You can’t know a thing by an instrument that is wrong.[4]

In UCL the ability to move from the known to the unknown is an essential aspect of the Technique:

Those who have read the account of the evolution of my technique in The Use of the Self will be aware that I was continually led into unknown experiences, and when employing new ‘means-whereby’ found myself in unfamiliar situations, and experiencing impeding and illuminating adventures in dark places. This was appreciated by the late Joseph Rowntree when he said of my technique that it was ‘reasoning from the known to the unknown, the known being the wrong and the unknown being the right.’ This experience of passing from a ‘known’ to an ‘unknown’ manner of use of the self is the basic need in making a fundamental change in the control of man’s reaction, and he will remain impotent in meeting it, unless it is possible to give him the opportunity of accepting an unfamiliar theory and of acquiring the experience of employing consistently the unfamiliar procedures which are its practical counterpart, by means of an integrating process of reconditioning associated with experiences of use and functioning previously unknown to him.[5]

John Dewey

John Dewey, in his 1910 book, How We Think, writes that ‘all discovery . . . goes from the known . . . to the unknown’, and of course it is possible that other writers have made the same observation. Dewey does not, however, equate the known with ‘wrong’ and the unknown with ‘right’. There is no direct evidence that Alexander was familiar with this quote.[6]


The unknown is often associated with fear in Alexander’s writings. For example, in MSI:

The average person may exhibit complete nerve control and balance during accustomed experiences and accomplishment of the different mental and physical demands made during the ordinary round of life, but when suddenly confronted with the unexpected or unknown he betrays undue apprehension and loss of control, even when the new experience may not hold any real terrors for him.[7]

And in CCC:

And beyond this original fear of the unknown, a new form of fear had come upon him, associated with the one-sided development which had taken place in the human organism.[8]

The connection between fear and the origin of religion is suggested in UCL, in a letter quoted by Alexander. (An extensive note on the history of the ideas of connection between fear and the origin of religion in the Mouritz edition of UCL.[9])

The words ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ are featured in all of Alexander’s books, and in some of his aphorisms. These terms are, however, rarely used by other writers, who have preferred to use alternative phrases such as the familiar, the unfamiliar, the new, the habitual.

Some people have seen a connection between Alexander’s ‘unknown’ and mysticism, e.g. the Fourteenth Century Christian mystic’s The Cloud of Unknowing and Krishnamurti’s Freedom From the Known. See Religion, Spirituality.

For a selection of F. M. Alexander quotations on unknown, known, see the Mouritz Key Concepts Library.

See also Fear.


[1] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1939), p. 87.
[2] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1939), p. 87 fn.
[3] ‘Aphorisms’, 1930s, in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), p. 196.
[4] ‘Aphorisms’, 1930s, in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), p. 198.
[5] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), p. 157.
[6] How We Think by John Dewey (D. C. Heath & Co., 1910), p. 84.
[7] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 153.
[8] Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2004), p. 48.
[9] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), endnote, pp. 297–99.