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William James

A respondent claims that William James is the true source of A.T. inhibition, and urges us to read James’ book Talks to Teachers on Psychology (1899, 1900).  I read three chapters from the 1939 edition that by their titles and the index might have described a  pre-FM  A.T.

Chapter VIII  “The Laws of Habit”
Practically all this chapter is conventional advice about cultivating good habits and breaking old ones (smoking, drinking, etc.).  Only one of its fourteen pages is relevant to bodywork.  James describes “a number of accomplished Hindoo visitors at Cambridge [Massachusetts], who talked freely of life and philosophy.”  James says of one of them:  “our ungraceful and distorted attitudes when sitting, made on him a very painful impression.”  James describes the Hindoo visitors’  “lack of tension, and the wonderful smoothness and calmness of facial expression, and imperturbability of manner of these Orientals.”  And asks:  “How many American children ever hear it said by parent or teacher, that they should relax their unused muscles, and as far as possible, when sitting, sit quite still?  Not one in a thousand, not one in five thousand!”  And goes on to say “this ceaseless over-tension, over-motion, and over-expression are working on us grievous national harm.”

[Sarcasm on]  My God! The Alexander Technique!  [Sarcasm off]

Chapter XV  “The Will”
Nothing on carriage at all.  We do find the word “inhibit.”  It’s used in the generic sense of “arrest.”  He distinguishes two forms of inhibition; quoting the book:  “inhibition by repression” and “inhibition by substitution” — that is, either you stop doing something directly, or by doing something else in its place.  (p. 172 & seq.)  Here are some examples of James’ use of the word “inhibition” in this chapter:

(p. 177)  “Man’s conduct appears as the mere resultant of all his various impulsions and inhibitions.  One object, by its presence, makes us act; another object checks our action.  Feelings aroused and ideas suggested by objects sway us one way and another;  emotions complicate the game by their mutual inhibitive effects, the higher abolishing the lower or perhaps being itself swept away.”  A little later (p. 178):  “Voluntary action, then, is at all times a resultant of the compounding of our impulsions with our inhibitions.  [new paragraph]  From this it immediately follows that there will be two types of will, in one of which impulsions will predominate, in the other inhibitions.  We may speak of them, if you like, as the precipitate and the obstructed will, respectively.  When fully pronounced, they are familiar to everybody.” (p. 179):  “Certain melancholics furnish the extreme example of the over-inhibited type.” etc.

Not exactly the Alexander Technique is it.

Last chapter:  “The Gospel of Relaxation”
(No chapter number.  It’s headed “Talk to Students” while the earlier 15 chapters are headed “Talks to Teachers.”)  It begins:  “I wish in the following hour to take certain psychological doctrines and show their practical applications to mental hygiene — to the hygiene of our American life more particularly.”  James makes a few comments on physical health influencing mental health.  He speaks of the virtue of  “a well toned motor-apparatus”  and urges “athletic outdoor life and sport.” (p. 204, 205 resp.)  He spends several whole pages decrying Americans’  facial expressions.  He agrees with a Scottish doctor of the insane who says Americans “wear too much expression on your faces.”  James too decries the  “Intensity, rapidity, vivacity of appearance”  of American faces, and admires instead the  “codfish eyes”  of the British.  (LOL)  He exhorts Americans to  (p. 211)  “give yourself up to the chair you sit in”  and that of the  “future and its worries”  “how can they gain admission to your mind if your brow be unruffled, your respiration calm and complete, and your muscles all relaxed?”

[Sarcasm on]  Why, it’s the Alexander Technique as sure as I live and breathe!  [Sarcasm off]

After again praising the virtues of  “The even forehead, the slab-like cheek, the codfish eye” (p. 214),  James goes on to agree with a certain German professor:  “He says in substance that the appearance of unusual energy in America is superficial and illusory, being really due to nothing but  [note:  nothing but]  the habits of jerkiness and bad co-ordination for which we have to thank the defective training of our people.” (p. 216)  James goes on to say that the solution is to set an example for others to imitate.  At this point he mentions the little book by Miss Annie Payson Call,  The Power of Repose, which we’ll look at in the next article.  After a few people are thus transformed, the rest will fall in line by imitating their betters.  He again exhorts us not to be worrywarts, and quotes two full pages from  “The Practice of the Presence of God, The Best Ruler of a Holy Life”  by Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite friar of 17th century France — a sort of doctrine of non-doing.

[Sarcasm on]  The A.T. in the 17th century!  [Sarcasm off]

That the A.T. is relaxation is a common error of the neophyte.  James’ book contains nothing for Alexandrians.

FM had developed the Technique by the mid 1890’s.  William James’ book was published several years after that.

FM Alexander, like all of us, got his vocabulary from listening to people and by reading.  The only possible grain of truth I can conjecture in Horace Kallen’s statement (in the book Dialogue on John Dewey) that Alexander said he got his idea from reading James is that Alexander may have learned the word “inhibition” from James and thought it an appropriate word to describe a feature of his work.

James of course didn’t invent the word or the general concept behind it.  From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

inhibit  transitive verb
1. To hold back; restrain.
2. To prohibit; forbid.
3. Psychology:  To suppress or restrain (behavior, an impulse, or a desire) consciously or unconsciously.
etymology:  Middle English inhibiten, to forbid, from Latin inhibere, to inhibit, restrain, forbid ... .

[Sarcasm on]  In the Middle Ages!  [Sarcasm off]

No matter how suggestive his words may sound, William James said nothing specifically relevant to the A.T., nor will following his vague ideas about relaxation improve your use or carriage.