William James was born in New York City in 1842. He had a privileged upbringing, a wide, eccentric education and contact with many outstanding people of his age. In April 1870, after interrupted studies and travel, during which he had received a medical degree at Harvard, he had a profound personal crisis, and recorded his own “death and rebirth” in his diary. He defines Free Will as “the sustaining a thought when I choose when I might have other thoughts” and goes on to assert, as he emerges from his crisis, that “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will… now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well, believe in my individual reality, and creative power. My belief, to be sure, can’t be optimistic, but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall be built in doing and suffering and creating”.
Although a man of great learning, a founding father of psychology as a modern discipline, a prolific writer who wrote the standard textbook The Principles of Psychology (1890), which was in use for generations, I want to focus on his lifelong search for direct experience, his mistrust of intellectual understanding. The reason I think William James is significant is that I think he is the intellectual father of the Alexander Technique. He is always thinking in terms of paradoxes, and one that he dwells on is the way we identify with our attempts to control life when in fact all such attempts at control alienate us from ourselves. Towards the end of his life he gave a series of Talks to Teachers, in one of which ‘The Gospel of Relaxation’ he tells graduates of the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics “the way to do it [that is, anything] paradoxical as it may seem, is genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not. Then, possibly, by the grace of God, you may all at once find that you are doing it, and having learned what the trick feels like, you may (again by the Grace of God) be enabled to go on’. There is a second paradox here – the secret is not to care – “Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free…” and yet, as in the extract from his diary, he values the activity of the ego, the effort. From another of the talks to teachers he marks the meaning of life as “the marriage of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance, with some man’s or woman’s pain”. I think the paradox is resolved in how our actions come about, in how a seed of freedom grows. The renunciation James is promoting is not giving up on action but is about revitalising our action with the exercise of choice and responsibility.
In the last major lectures he gave before his death in 1910 he asserts “the return to life can’t come about by talking: it is an act; to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation, I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk, by showing you, as Bergson does, that the concepts we talk with are made for purposes of practice, and not for purposes of insight”. So often with William James you have the experience of conversation – not teaching ideas or expressing personal feelings – because he thinks of our most important inner activity as a conversation with, or within, ourself. Talking to the teachers he says that their primary art is “a happy tact and ingenuity to tell us what definite things to say and do when the pupil is before us. That ingenuity in meeting and pursuing the pupil, that tact for the concrete situation, though they are the alpha and omega of the teacher’s art, are things to which psychology cannot help us in the least”. In the last series of lectures he gave, which I have already mentioned, he refers to the personal crisis he experienced as a young man, and to his realisation, then, that he had come “to the end of my conceptual stock-in-trade” and that he needed to begin a conversation with a self he describes as ‘higher’, ‘wider’ and ‘central’. “Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the windrose on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibilities not yet in our present sight”.
William is one of the philosophers in America, known as the Pragmatists. John Dewey, the long-term supporter, pupil and friend of F M Alexander was another. Alexander helped and inspired Dewey in his personal life and in his thought, and Alexander was grateful for the support and endorsement he received from such a leading American intellectual. They first met in 1916 and thirty years later Dewey, well into his eighties, recalled the benefit he received from work with Alexander. Talking of himself he is reported as saying “he had always been physically awkward and performed all actions too quickly and impulsively and without thought… Thought in his case was saved for ‘mental’ activity, which had always been easy for him… It was a revelation to discover that thought could be applied with equal advantage to everyday movements. The greatest benefit he got from lessons, Dewey said, was the ability to stop and think before acting. Physically he noted an improvement first in his vision then in his breathing. Before he had lessons, his ribs had been very rigid. Now they had a marked elasticity which doctors still commented on though he was close to eight-eight” (conversation reported by Frank Pierce Jones, a young colleague of Dewey’s and an enthusiast for the Alexander Technique who had trained as a teacher).
I wanted to give some detail of Dewey’s commitment to Alexander’s work before returning to William James, who belonged to the previous, first, generation of the Pragmatists. In his talks to teachers William James introduces them to the significance of inhibitory action, beginning with the physiological and then looking at the mental and emotional levels – “any higher emotional tendency will quench a lower one. Fear arrests appetite, maternal love annuls fear, respect checks sensuality”. He continues with a lovely, conversational analysis of lying in bed on a cold morning and the processes which might lead to getting up, of the complex interaction of what he calls impulsions and inhibitions. He then goes on to ask how this realisation about this interaction affects our ideas about free will. He uses the image of the interaction of the flexor and extensor muscles to suggest to the teachers that “the ideal sort of mind we should seek to reproduce in our pupils” is one which recognises this interaction of impulsion and inhibition and “whose fields of consciousness are complex”.
He then explores the ways in which ideas relate to action or inaction and that education can easily overemphasise the inhibitory – “you must also see to it that no habitual hesitancy or paralysis of the will ensues, and that the pupil still retains his power of vigorous action”. For this to be the case, and to prevent the opposite extreme, he pinpoints the quality of attention, the effort of attention we give to our intentions. So the exertion of will, in education, has, if it is to be healthy, to come from the pupil. The teacher will present the ‘ideas’ (the intentions, ideals, purposes) and help develop the habits which put them into practice, but the attention must be voluntary and must be the pupil’s. And more than that, discovering that the quality of our voluntary attention really is up to ourselves will make “the whole question of free will concentrate itself, then, at this same small point” – the part played by our free attention in the path from thought to action. He ends his lecture by pointing out that this conception of the will leads to two types of inhibition “inhibition by repression or negation, and inhibition by substitution” in which we act “under the notion of a good”. We stop and direct our attention to what we want and how we can get there. We substitute a good. He then describes the virtuous circle in which this second kind of inhibition enriches and confirms our sense of having free will, a sense which for him still demands that “the very first act of a will endowed with freedom should be to sustain the belief in the freedom itself. I accordingly believe freely in my freedom” (all quotes from ‘The Will’).
We renounce our efforts at control, we take hold of our power of choice and action. This is the paradox at the heart of William James’ view of the human being as “a little sensitive, impulsive, associative and reactive organiser, partly fated and partly free”. We need techniques to touch our freedom.