Dewey and Alexander: Ways of Thinking

This paper is adapted from the final 15,000 word project written by a 4th year student on the PAAT teacher training course.

John Dewey (1859-1952), arguably America’s most influential philosopher of education in the 20th century, had lessons with F.M. Alexander from about 1916 and the two remained friends until Dewey’s death in 1952.  Dewey wrote introductions for Man’s Supreme Inheritance (1918), Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, (1923) and Use of the Self (1931).

In this paper I’ll give an account of what I think are the essentials of Dewey’s description of reflective thinking in his book How We Think (the revised edition published in 1933),[1] and explore some of the aspects which interest me in light of my own experience and in relation to the Alexander Technique.

Dewey begins How We Think with the observations that there are a number of kinds of ways in which people think, the general features of which can be described, and that it can be shown that some ways of thinking are better than others.  He says that in understanding what those better ways of thinking are, bringing about an improvement in how we think becomes a possibility (Dewey 1933:3).

It’s helpful to consider some of the mental processes which the word “thinking” encompasses before going into detail about what constitutes reflection, the better way of thinking that is Dewey’s main theme (1933:3).

The first meaning of thinking Dewey describes is that automatic, uncontrolled and unregulated flow of thoughts often referred to as a ‘stream of consciousness’, which he characterises as consisting of “flitting, half-developed impressions” and “random recollections”, as well as “daydreams” and “mental streams that are even more idle and chaotic”.  As Dewey observes, people spend much of their waking life – perhaps more than they’d wish to admit – engaged in this kind of thinking (1933:3-4).

The second meaning of thinking Dewey describes is thinking of things not actually present, of things not directly perceived via the senses. He elaborates very little on this but it’s clear that he’s referring not to the recollection of any real thing or event, nor to the suggestion of implied facts or ideas, but only to fanciful mental pictures, for example a horse flying through the clouds, and to the inventing and telling of stories – whether or not they contain real elements (1933:5).

If the succession of ideas making up a story is well-connected and logical, in other words where a story possesses sufficient internal congruity, it resembles reflective thought (1933:5).  True reflective thinking aims however at a conclusion that’s fully grounded in reality, supported by facts established through the application of thought and observation outside of story or invention.

The third meaning of thinking Dewey describes can be summarised as referring to all matters and instances in which one might substitute “I believe” for “I think” (1933:6).

This category includes all those ideas picked up over the course of one’s life which have been accepted with little or no examination.  Thoughts which equate with belief in this sense are prejudices, prejudgments.  The source of such a belief may be authoritative or it may not; and whether the belief reflects the reality or truth of something is largely the result of chance or circumstance rather than personal effort and enquiry.  It may be an idea that was accepted because it was widely held at the time; or it may be that the idea became lodged in the mind because it was appealing in some way.  Dewey refers to all these kinds of thoughts as having become “unconsciously a part of our mental furniture” (1933:6-7).

Some beliefs are the result of only limited observation and arrested enquiry and might be called suppositions or supposed knowledge; nonetheless a person may have sufficient confidence in them to act upon them (1933:6,16).

Finally, there are those beliefs arrived at through true, sustained reflective thinking, beliefs which can be considered knowledge in the fuller sense.  Even secure knowledge is not closed to future questioning, as new facts may come to light or new circumstances may develop (1933:6-9).

A belief, of whatever kind, can have intellectual and practical implications (and consequences) which the first two kinds of thought, ‘stream of consciousness’ and invention, may not have.  To borrow Dewey’s examples, thinking of a cloud as a whale or a camel due to its shape doesn’t mean the thinker will try to ride the camel or extract oil from the whale.  On the other hand, when Columbus ‘thought’ the world was round, he did so in the sense that he believed it to be so.  It was a genuine acceptance committing him to other beliefs and actions concerning a new route to India and the fate of ships travelling far westward on the Atlantic Ocean.  Similarly, those who thought the world flat committed themselves to believing circumnavigation and the discovery of other routes or lands impossible (1933:8).

I think that even from these simple examples it’s possible to see the importance and value the role of reflective thinking must have, compared to prejudgment and supposition, in developing belief and in underpinning action.

I want to elaborate a little now on Dewey’s second and third meanings of thought, invention and belief.  Dewey gives very little explanation and only limited examples of the former, and I wonder if it could be said to include casual speculation or assumption – surmise.[2]  As an example of what I mean, suppose two co-workers are discussing a colleague whom they know or believe to be on vacation somewhere in a warm climate.  One asks the other: “What do you think so-and-so is doing right now?”  To which the other replies: “Sunning themselves on the beach, no doubt”.  The reply is an idea based on the knowledge that the colleague in question is on vacation in a warm climate – but in this particular instance, for argument’s sake, the co-worker is making a purely speculative or even a throwaway remark; it isn’t a belief as such.  They’re not making a claim to know something; it isn’t even an opinion.  It’s just a thought, a suggestion.  However credible, it’s not a conviction.  It contains a “note of invention”, to use a phrase Dewey does when describing his second meaning of thought.  It’s not a situation that requires further enquiry; in other words, it doesn’t call for reflection.

In somewhat different scenario, the colleague in question is on leave from work because they’re ill.  Perhaps the second co-worker dislikes or distrusts them, and makes a remark about their whereabouts out of spite or disbelieving their claim to be ill; they might even be aware of hopes their colleague had to take a vacation.  They may be convinced that their colleague is ‘pulling a sickie’, but that conviction is based on their prejudice (a prejudgment).  This is a situation which it could be said would benefit from some reflection on the co-worker’s part, to review their prejudgment.[3]

Thinking isn’t so neat a phenomenon that the different processes Dewey describes don’t merge and overlap, alternate and blend, often insensibly, in our everyday lives.  I’m going to borrow from and slightly adapt Dewey’s illustration of this.  Suppose you’re walking on a warm day and, registering a drop in the temperature, wonder if it might rain; that thought prompts you to look up at the sky, where you note a dark cloud and decide to quicken your pace (1933:9.)

The shape of the cloud reminds you of a human face; that thought is not belief, you don’t take the cloud to be evidence of the existence of a face (1933:10); the thought is a fancy, Dewey’s second meaning of thought, and an idle observation in a stream of consciousness, Dewey’s first meaning of thought.

The darkness of the cloud suggests the possibility of rain; the rain isn’t something you observe, but something brought to mind by the colour of the cloud.  That thought resembles Dewey’s second meaning in the sense that it’s a thought of something not directly perceived, however it has no “note of invention” so it doesn’t fit his second meaning.  Perhaps, like the thought of the human face, it is merely a passing thought in a stream of consciousness.  If, however, the idea is held to be a genuine possibility, then it falls within the realms of knowledge (1933:10).  It is belief, Dewey’s third kind of thought, but not yet a reflective thought.

The thing seen (the cloud) is regarded as a basis for the suggested idea (rain); the cloud takes on the quality of evidence in support of the interpretation that it that it might or will rain (1933:10).  It’s an interpretation based upon a pre-existing belief, in this case a known fact recalled to mind: the association of dark clouds with rain.  At this point the thought that it might rain is supposition, because the look of the cloud alone isn’t enough to come to a conclusion about the particular situation.  Reflective thinking requires that evidence be considered in the context in which it exists, that is alongside other evidence collected in the course of widening one’s field of observation.

So, if the suggestion of the possibility of rain leads to active consideration of what grounds there are for that belief, for example the direction and speed of the wind, the local topography, the smell of the air, then there is reflective thinking going on (1933:11).

As can be seen in this example, there can be no thinking without an “association of ideas” or “train of suggestions” (1933:47).  This is the common factor in all the intermingling forms and processes of thinking,[4] one thing leading us to think of another (1933:10) – whatever the nature of the connection between two thoughts.

It seems to me that the connection may be direct or indirect, clear or obscure – perhaps even inaccessible; the chain of thoughts may be disjointed, deliberately halted, or just interrupted by other stimuli, other observations, by other things happening in one’s environment.

When thinking is reflective the connection between thoughts is not merely one of association: it is meaningful – in the sense of one thing pointing to the validity or invalidity of the other, not merely calling it to mind.  It is the extent to and manner in which one considers how much one thing can be regarded as supporting or warranting acceptance of another which Dewey says is reflective thinking’s central factor and distinguishes it from other kinds of thought.  In other words, there must be an examination and evaluation of the connection between something observed and the thought it brings to mind, to establish whether the former is evidence for the validity of the latter (1933:10-12).

Any one of the first three kinds of thought Dewey describes (stream of consciousness, invention or fancy, and belief) can be open to reflective thinking, but the process of reflective thinking involves “a conscious and voluntary effort” (1933:9).  It is thinking directed in an orderly manner towards a common end.  The orderly manner is one where each “term of thought” – as Dewey calls each step in the process – not only grows out of the one preceding it but possesses a clear and intellectual reference back to it; one term of thought utilising in some way the information noted during or suggested by the previous term of thought (1933:4).  The common end is a tested conclusion which, to quote Dewey, “contains the intellectual force of the preceding ideas” which lead up to it (1933:47).  Partial conclusions are formed along the way which are, quoting Dewey again, “stations of departure for subsequent thought” (1933:75).  Retracing one’s steps at each of these and asking oneself how much the material previously considered bears upon the partial conclusion is useful (1933:75).  For example, observations may be found to be irrelevant or partial conclusions erroneous.

Reflection depends upon the interaction of five phases or subprocesses: suggestion, observation, hypothesising, reasoning and testing (1933:107).

It doesn’t arise out of nothing; it originates in a state of perplexity, confusion or doubt, which need not be obvious or pronounced – it may be very subtle, slight or commonplace in character, as in the example of wondering whether it might rain (1933:12-13).

Introducing the first phase of reflective thinking – suggestion – Dewey makes the observation that the “most ‘natural’ thing for anyone to do is to go ahead; that is to say, to act overtly” (1933:107).  A situation which creates an experience of doubt or bewilderment blocks that tendency to act directly, if only temporarily, diverting the mind to think of a solution or course of action.  There’s a moment in which a first idea about that pops up spontaneously; it either comes or it doesn’t; we’ve no direct control over it.  If only one idea suggests itself, action may well follow immediately without further thought; but if more than one idea springs to mind (particularly if they’re conflicting), or if no idea comes, or if an idea is immediately dismissed as unsuitable due to readily observed facts, then the state of uncertainty remains, and this can lead to further enquiry (1933:107-9;96).

On the other hand, at this point turning away from the situation, dodging it or simply abandoning the activity that led to it, perhaps balking at the thought of how to deal with it, are also possibilities.  A person might even “indulge in a flight of fancy,” imagining how they might solve or remove the problem with means not actually at their disposal, and not, in the end, do anything about it (1933:102).

Even if the state of perplexity continues and further suggestions emerge, thinking may not yet be reflective because a person may have cultivated dogmatic and over-confident habits of thinking, find suspension of judgment disagreeable or be otherwise impatient to settle a matter – and so curtail enquiry (1933:16).

There must be some “inhibition of direct action” (Dewey’s phrase and emphasis) to create the hesitation and delay essential to thinking and to induce a re-examination or closer examination of the situation (1933:108).  Dewey emphasises the word “direct” because he considers the thinking that follows to be a “substitute for direct action”, but nonetheless a form of action, describing it as “a vicarious, anticipatory form of acting, a kind of dramatic rehearsal” (1933:107).

This begins with a process of observing; of collecting data (1933:104).  It must be extensive (1933:8).  It’s a case of taking stock to get a more complete picture.  It relies on a combination of direct perception and memory, meaning current observations through the senses and the recollection of observations previously made, including those learned from others, which may possibly have a bearing on the situation or provide potentially useful comparative information for contemplating and understanding it (1933:102).

If there’s no store of relevant knowledge and experience to draw on or feed the imagination, a person will in effect come to a standstill.  As Dewey says, in those circumstances there’s no point in urging someone to think and expecting them not to remain at a loss (1933:15-16).

In this “observational” phase the difficulty is being located and defined.  As such, the difficulty is turned into “something intellectual”, and thus a “true problem”, not, as Dewey remarks, “just an annoyance at being held up” (1933:108-9).  What first held an “emotional quality”, in the initial moment or moments of uncertainty, is being intellectualised, even in situations so minor that one might not normally use the word “problem” to describe them (1933:109).

In the course of taking stock, further suggestions may occur which are more or less useful than the initial one.  The third phase in reflective thinking is the emergence, out of the observational phase, of a possible answer to the problem likely to be more appropriate than earlier ideas.  It is “a definite supposition”, as Dewey puts it.  It may be a modification or an expansion of an idea first suggested, or it may be entirely different.  This phase is the “hypothesis” phase (1933:109-10).

So, the possible answer is not acted upon directly but held in suspense and conditionally accepted as a leading idea used to initiate and guide observation and investigation in the collection of further information (1933:107).

This is the fourth phase, the elaboration of an idea through reasoning.  It involves thinking through all the inferences and potential ramifications of the hypothesis, to assess its truthfulness, validity, usefulness and to identify and assess the potential consequences of acting on it.  It uses all the operations of the preceding three phases, having the same effect upon the hypothesis as intellectualisation (observation) had upon the original difficulty.

As more facts come to light, new suggestions can spring to mind and give rise to further lines of enquiry, allowing the correction, development or replacement of the proposed solution or meaning (the hypothesis).  The interaction of hypothesis and facts continues until a viable solution or probable meaning is found (1933:103-4,111-2).

At this point this suggested answer to the problem is conjectural.  Reasoning has taken the person so far, but actual verification is needed; so, the final phase is some form of testing through action (1933:113-4).

Overt action may involve simple, direct observation or it may involve experimentation (1933:113-4).  There’s another mode of testing, however, which is testing in thought: acting in imagination.

Which mode of testing is used or if both are used depends on the problem and on the nature of the solution.  Overt action is, or should be, the actual carrying out of the imagined action, if possible, appropriate or necessary.  It may be impractical or unwise to actually carry it out, leaving the act of imagining as the only means of testing.  The two modes of testing are otherwise the same (1933:92-8).

The five phases or operations of reflective thinking don’t follow a fixed sequence or occur in isolation.  For example, as I mentioned, the function of suggestion comes into play in the course of making observations; and both suggestion and observation come into play in hypothesising, all three in reasoning, while testing can lead to further observations and so on (1933:115).

So the result of any of the operations can turn a person back to an ‘earlier’ one.

I referred earlier on to the value of reflective thinking in developing belief and in underpinning action, and said that even conclusions reached this way can be open to question later on, to further reflection.  Where practical deliberations are concerned, that is to say, where reflective thinking is concerned with one’s choices and actions in living, rather than acting for the sake of knowledge as a scientist does, for example, then testing by overt action can be serious matter.  An act once performed generally cannot be undone or cannot always be reversed without consequence.  Thus, one advantage of reflective thinking is that overt action is deferred.  But Dewey states that a person thinking reflectively nonetheless treats their “overt deeds” in “moral and other practical matters” as “experimental”, by which he means that while the consequences must be accepted, attention is given to what those consequences teach them about their conduct.  In other words, they look into the possible causes of those consequences, in particular those which arise from or consist of their “own habits and desires”, using the operations of reflective thinking (1933:115-6).

All five operations have to be involved for thinking to be truly reflective (1933:116-7).  That said, reflective thinking needn’t be a seamless, continuous activity.  Depending on the topic and, above all, on the situation, it can take place in stages, over any period of time.

And of course, there can come a point in thinking for a long time about something when new ideas cease to occur or where following a course of reasoning has become more difficult.  As Dewey puts it, the mind “apparently has got into a rut; the ‘wheels go around’ in the head, but they do not turn out any fresh grist” (1933:284).  Dewey warns that this should be taken as a sign to stop and think about or do something else instead.  This will allow a period of incubation during which the brain works on the data and ideas that have been amassed.  At the end of this period, data and ideas have been re-ordered and gained greater clarity, even to the extent sometimes that a problem is “essentially solved” (1933:284).

I’ve certainly had this experience with problems I’ve had to deal with at work, where it’s become obvious to me that I’ve been thinking too long on a subject, and then a day or days later, a new idea occurs to me or something becomes suddenly clear or just more simple than it originally was because I’ve discarded unnecessary information and/or identified the crux of the matter, the point of focus or approach that will serve me best.

I will now consider some of the points I’ve covered so far in light of my own experience, focussing mainly on the subject of Dewey’s second meaning of thought (invention) and on the first two operations of reflective thinking (suggestion and observation).

Dewey acknowledges a strong tendency for people to act without thinking, that is to act upon their first thoughts about something, when he says that the “most ‘natural’ thing for anyone to do is to go ahead” and “act overtly”.  He says there can be no thinking without the “inhibition of direct action”.  A parallel or comparison may be drawn with Alexander’s observation that the ability to exercise reason is too often impeded or blocked by responding too quickly and unthinkingly to a stimulus (Alexander 2000:91, Alexander 1996:154-9, Alexander 2004:134-5).

If I respond to a stimulus habitually, there may be nothing which can be called a state of uncertainty.  In other words, I haven’t recognised a problem to be solved and so there is no space in which reflective thinking can arise.  On the other hand, as there’s always a prior event (thought or observation) of some sort – a stimulus – to a thought and any resultant action, I think Dewey’s meaning of the word “problem” can be usefully extended to include what Alexander means by the word “stimulus”.[5]  And, as with learning to recognise and anticipate stimuli, it’s possible to learn to recognise more moments which call for reflective thinking.

At a classical concert I went to last year a member of the audience in a seat behind me was speaking briefly to his wife every now and again during the performance and, when he continued to do this in the second half of the concert, I turned around and gestured for him not to talk.  In response he hit me on my shoulder and the back of my neck with his programme.  I didn’t think there was anything to be gained by saying anything to him about that either then or during any of the pauses between the movements of the symphony.  In an amicable conversation with him at the end of the concert I learned that his wife had vascular dementia and that he’d been trying to stop her from instructing people or conducting with her right hand.  I realised then that I’d acted on a prior assumption, without understanding the particular situation.

My usual approach to noisy audience members is to say something as nicely as possible at a moment when and if I’m sure I can be clearly understood and am not going to disturb anyone (so either between movements or during the interval).  This is because previous experience has shown me that there’s a danger of my being abrupt or otherwise not coming across as well as I could.  I’ve had to change my habitual thinking in those situations for consciously adopting a kindly disposition towards people.  Though during the first half of the concert I’d considered saying something in the interval, I didn’t remember to.  It had even occurred to me at one point that perhaps his wife was feeling unwell and that he was checking that she was comfortable, but this was just another unexamined and untested suggestion.  There must be a commitment to employ all five operations of reflective thinking for thinking to be truly reflective (1933:116-7), and there has to be a consciously sustained intention to entertain doubt to allow the thorough enquiry involved in reflective thinking (1933:16).  On this occasion there wasn’t, so, at the critical moment in the second half of the concert, I failed to inhibit a habitual reaction.  I only recognised when the man hit me that I hadn’t been consciously directing and that I must have stopped consciously directing at some point; that I hadn’t paused to free my neck, or consciously directed turning to look at him.  If I had I might have ascertained something about what was going on and made a different decision, rather than acting upon the first suggestion that popped into my mind.  In turning to observe the couple for moment, trying to catch their attention or speaking to them at a more opportune moment, that is to say in acting in a way that was enquiring rather than accusatory or judgmental, I would have been engaging in reflective thought in action.

Any reflection which takes place afterwards is potentially useful because it can supply some new experience to draw upon in a reasoned way when encountering similar situations.  But drawing on that experience, certainly in a reasoned way (by which I mean one involving all the operations of reflective thinking), may not be possible if I am not consciously directing.  The reflective thinking that Dewey advocates is reflective thinking in activity (1933:17), as part of the process of responding to a stimulus (a problem) in order to allow the best possible course of action and outcome in any particular circumstances.  If I don’t recognise there’s a problem to be explored, I’m missing the opportunity to think reflectively, including the opportunity to take things learned through prior reflection into account.  Although consciously directing alone is not an answer in itself, it does help in the inhibition of direct action and in the maintaining of a state of doubt until a matter is fully explored.

I’ll return now to the subject of Dewey’s second meaning of thought, things thought of but not present, by which he means invention or fancy, including story-telling.

One question that occurred to me in relation to story-telling is how allegory and satire fit in.  To me it seems that they have the potential to possess all the qualities of reflective thought, not merely resemble it.  Perhaps the truth of the allegory is established first, or in the process of developing the story, through reflective thinking, and then the story is told with that basis or thread.  The story is not real but the message is applicable or relevant to the real world because it’s been developed through reasoning with reference to real things; it’s based on evidence and knowledge, on real world observations and experiences, direct or indirect.  In instances where it isn’t based on those things, its validity is presumably more the result of chance, in which case it may not meet Dewey’s criteria for true reflection.  In whichever case, I think there may be room for imaginative testing, by which I mean testing in thought rather than overt action.

Dewey points out that the first two kinds of thought he describes, the stream of consciousness and invention or fancy, have the potential to be harmful to the mind because they can distract attention from the real world and can be a waste of time.  This isn’t to say that he’s dismissive of them.  He acknowledges that “if indulged in judiciously these thoughts may afford genuine enjoyment and also be a source of needed recreation” (1933:7).

Furthermore, what he says about the potential for harm or enjoyment mustn’t be confused with a denigration or relegation of imagination or imaginative thinking.  For example, he makes the point in his concluding chapter that, like observation, imagination has a role to play in reflective thinking.  He’s referring to the role that imagination plays in giving “insight into the remote, the absent, the obscure” (1933:291).

And in this he includes the humanities, the arts and the social sciences as well as the physical sciences and mathematics.  He writes:

History, literature, and geography; the principles of science, any, even geometry and arithmetic, are full of matters that must be imaginatively realized if they are realized at all (1933:291).

It is where imagination loses its logical force, becoming fanciful, that it ceases to have any reflective purpose or quality.  Dewey doesn’t name story-telling in this regard, but he’s talking about imagination supplying “the remote”, with observation supplying “the near”.  Imagination’s ‘proper purpose’ for Dewey is to deepen observation, rather than be a substitute for it (1933:291).

I think a fairy tale for a child or a novel for an adult can be based in reflective thinking on the part of the story-teller, and can be a source of stimulation for reflective thinking on the part of the listener or reader.  It can help them gain a better understanding of something about society that they’ve no direct experience of, or indeed of something they have some direct experience of but only a superficial understanding of.

Even if it doesn’t lead to much if any reflection on the part of the listener or reader, if any of its ideas are taken in or taken up, given that those ideas are based on reflection on the part of the story-teller, then it can have value as having enlarged the listener’s or reader’s experience.

On the other hand, the reader or listener may need to embark upon a process of reflection to work out what it is they believe the story is saying and whether what they believe holds true.  I think that thinking about how it is relevant and applicable in real life terms and context is likely to involve what Dewey refers to as testing in the imagination (or imaginative testing).

There is another kind of story-telling which is quite different from the open story-telling just discussed.  I’m thinking of attempts to justify thoughts, responses, things said or done, by, for example, filling in a gap in my memory about something I or someone else said, or about who said what and in what order; filling in that gap with something to support a conclusion reached prematurely through confused thinking and pulling down.  In such instances, if I stopped to reflect, I would admit that I hadn’t accurately recalled it or even that couldn’t recall it.  By so insisting on my version of what was or is going on, I’m creating a narrative which I may or may not believe but which suits my purpose.  I know that I’ve done this in arguments with my parents, for example.

When thinking afterwards about an argument or exchange like that it seems to me that there’s a danger of fooling myself into thinking that I’m reflecting on it, when in reality I’m continuing a narrative I constructed, adding new ideas, elaborating it, having uncritically and perhaps unknowingly accepted an initial idea I built it around.

I’ve also noticed that I can attribute motives for my own or another’s words or actions, without fully examining the basis of the attribution.

When I returned to work from leave at the beginning of this year, I learned that while I’d been away my line manager had created a new version of a spreadsheet used for the creation of journals (accounting adjustments).  This was a spreadsheet I’d made various improvements to across time.  My line manger had kept most of my formulae but left out all the automatic functions that used VBA (a programming language), which I’d added some years ago to make the spreadsheet more robust and more user-friendly.  He told me he’d not included the VBA because he was concerned that it might break, leaving us with an unusable spreadsheet.  This situation created a state of uncertainty in my mind about how the potential effects of the changes, in particular any impact on me.  As I mentioned earlier, reflective thinking originates in just such a state, a state of perplexity, doubt or bewilderment, but it is voluntary and calls for wholehearted engagement in all phases and operations it involves.  I decided to try to keep an open mind about the possibility of there being different ways of solving or managing the re-emergence of problems that the VBA had prevented.

Although I was initially accepting of the situation, I later found myself imagining that my line manager was deliberately trying to create a situation that would discourage me from remaining in the team.  When I reflected, I could identify no evidence that either alone or taken together suggested that my line manager wanted me to leave or that I wasn’t valued; there was no context other than my habitual insecurity with regard to my value as a team member and dissatisfaction or unhappiness with my job situation at that time.  Coming to a better understanding of why I was thinking what I was thinking, made it easier for me to stop thinking in that way that was a stimulus for me to pull down.

I gradually came up with ideas to deal with some of the problems with the new spreadsheet, but I believed it would be difficult to convince my line manager to let me make all of the changes I wanted to.  When thinking about how to broach the subject with him, I was imagining what I’d say, filling in gaps in my knowledge of his thinking with my own ideas, my prejudgments.  I saw that I was doing this and recognised that I hadn’t actually talked enough to him to have sufficient information on which to form any useful (guiding) idea (hypothesis) about what my line manager’s thinking may have been.

An imagined conversation may have an internal logic, but it’s not fully grounded in reality, in facts, if I’m not checking that my partial conclusions, my leaps or inferences, are secure; that each term of thought is well-connected; that I’m not being driven by habitual insecurities or a fixed idea (such as a belief – a prejudgment – that my line manager would be opposed to my changes) or a fixed (and possibly unrecognised) end (such as wanting to use VBA or wanting to criticise).[6]

When I was imagining what I would say to my line manager, it was half a conversation because I wasn’t imagining what my line manager’s responses would be.  Nonetheless I was creating a scenario in my mind containing prejudgments and speculation or supposition to support a conclusion I had jumped to prematurely that my line manager had acted unreasonably, creating a narrative for myself which, had it come to actually having a conversation with him, would not have served me very well.  I could see that I wanted to criticise him – probably because I wanted to revert to my way – to using VBA – even though I’d earlier decided that I’d keep an open mind and explore any problems and alternative solutions over time.  I found that when keeping my neck free I was able to ensure my intention to do this was both well-meant and wholehearted.  Sometimes, when one of the problems cropped up, I momentarily stiffened my neck, wishing we could revert to using VBA, but recognising this and letting go of it (freeing my neck) meant that I could get on with my job more easily.  I came up with new VBA-free solutions for most of the problems, and those problems I couldn’t solve became less important to me than they had been.  When I did eventually broach the subject with my line manager, the conversation was a lot simpler and swifter than I’d imagined it would be – and he was happy for me to go ahead and make the changes I suggested.  And I realised afterwards that I hadn’t had any inclination to say anything about VBA or problems that removing the VBA had re-introduced; in other words, I was no longer blaming or judging, but just dealing with the problem at hand.[7]

Perhaps it can be said that an imagined conversation can prime the brain – but only if it is fully reflective or fully part of a reflective process, revealing facts and ideas providing a hypothesis which is explored and tested.  If it’s based on prejudgments then, unless the thinker realises, suspends direct action and uses that information to reflect, it is just the injudicious indulging in streams of consciousness and story-telling that Dewey considers harmful, a waste of time and a distraction from the real world.

While I think it’s true that I’m more prone to building narratives if I pull down, it isn’t enough just to think “well, I don’t think I’m pulling down, so, I’m OK, I’m not making this up”.  I have to ask myself if I really have grounds to think what I’m thinking.  Similarly, my experience is that I can occasionally recognise an insistent, dogged quality about my thinking that will prompt me to explore whether I am in fact keeping my neck free and to take a break from thinking about the issue.

I think that the improved standard of sensory appreciation that the application of the Alexander Technique brings about increases the opportunities for the application of the reflective process Dewey advocates, and enhances my ability to take advantage of them.  My capacity to distinguish my thoughts about a situation improves as a result of directing consciously.  I’m more in neutral; the quality of my attention is better.  I can inhibit my habitual thoughts, responses, or at the appearance of an habitual thought, as long as I’m giving my attention to my use, can avoid pursuing that thought and going down an habitual path.

The sermon given by Bishop Michael Curry at the Royal Wedding of Harry and Megan drew the remark on Facebook from a friend of mine “Who on Earth is this Episcopalian minister??!!!  Stop now!!!!”.  This sparked my curiosity, and so I watched a six-minute excerpt from the sermon online.  I listened to the words, for the meaning.

I don’t think of myself as a Christian or as a religious person but I made a decision a long time ago that I didn’t want to prejudge people who are; and so I’ve worked at registering and inhibiting my habitual thinking in that respect: my prejudgments, to use Dewey’s term, or preconceived ideas, to use Alexander’s phrase.

As I listened to the sermon, I thought about – or I should say noted – what people might be reacting to, informed in part by recollection or recognition of things I used to react to.[8]  I thought that what people might be reacting to could be something about the bishop’s passionate style, his accent, the repeated use of the word love, the mentioning of Jesus, what they perceived as preachiness; it could be the unfamiliarity of it, not understanding all the references, that made it inaccessible, or a reaction to any of those things, an habitual dismissiveness.  I also noticed the facial expressions of members of the audience which suggested to me that they may have been having difficulty listening to it.

Keeping my neck free meant that I could allow my attention to be more on the bishop’s words and the sense of them than it would have been had I been engaging in an internal commentary.  I suppose one might ask, when I say that I noted what people might be reacting to, if these thoughts weren’t in fact just that, an internal commentary; but I wasn’t following the thoughts – they were suggestions, ideas, not prejudgments or things I was reacting to.  I had a conscious guiding purpose which was both to listen to the sermon (for the meaning) and to note any suggestions that came to me about what people might find difficult about it.  This protraction of that state of uncertainty, that suspending of judgment, that Dewey holds as essential to the process of reflective thinking, expanded the observational phase, allowing me to listen more intently.[9]

When I read some of the tweets about the sermon, I saw that some people thought “all he said” was “love, love, love”, and that it was rambling and boring.  I didn’t find the six-minute excerpt I listened to (nor the complete sermon, when I read it later) rambling or boring; it’s true the sermon was on love – after all, it was a wedding – but it seemed to me it was on love as guiding principle ranging across all aspects of living, underlying all relationships including economic ones (giving business and commerce as examples), and it was the wedding of two prominent international figures in a position to set an example to others.  I replied to my friend’s remark to say that I’d just listened to what the bishop was saying and thought he was good, and thanked her for drawing attention to it.  She replied that she’d felt he’d made it all about himself and forgotten about Harry and Megan, but that she felt she needed to listen to him again.  A little later she commented: “I went back and I liked what I heard!”

I can’t comment on my friend’s experience except to point out the obvious: that she revised her opinion after deciding she could do with listening again.  Something, not necessarily my comment, prompted her to observe more closely: to widen the field of observation, as Dewey would say.  But not all situations are like that one; there isn’t always the opportunity to retract or revise something once it’s said or done.

So it seems to me that listening well calls for stillness, which conscious inhibition and direction certainly helps to bring about.  I’ve found it useful to work at listening over the last few years at meetings, for example; especially lengthy House Committee meetings which cover a wide range of issues and where people sometimes voice opinions quite strongly.  I don’t want my own thoughts to impinge on or prevent me from hearing what other people are saying, from understanding their point of view and their experience of the work they’re doing or the problem they’re raising.  I’ve found that I can, when I see that some idea has popped into my mind and I recognise it as a stimulus, inhibit a desire to jump in with my first thought or the train of thinking that my first thought initiated.  I’m therefore able to avoid accidentally removing an opportunity for someone to explain, and for other people or myself to properly understand, a point of view just expressed.

I may then also have time to consider whether or not my contribution will be helpful.  For example, there have been occasions when I’ve thought that I’ve understood what someone’s said simply because it resonates with me.  But thinking it resonates doesn’t of itself mean they were talking about the same thing I’m thinking of.  Nor does it mean that I should chip in my two pennies’ worth – because this can have the effect of obscuring or ending what someone was trying to communicate, either cutting short the conversation or else diverting it onto a different course.  I may simply have associated what they said with an opinion or experience of my own, and accepted the association without examination.  It seems to me that just to say or think that something resonates can obscure what must really be going on, because the common factor in all thinking, is the function of suggestion, the association of ideas, one thing reminding us of another.  In reflective thinking, the link between two things must be supported by evidence (1933:10-12).

Dewey says that “tendencies toward a reflective and truly logical activity are native to the mind” (1933:83).  On the other hand, as Dewey says, knowledge of the form and stages of reflective thinking alone isn’t enough to ensure a person can learn to think reflectively or to ensure the ability or inclination to be consistent in the application of reflective thinking (1933:29).

Some of the insights into the problem I have with listening came to me as result of reading and thinking about the processes involved in reflective thinking described by Dewey, while, as I’ve said, exercising the conscious inhibition and direction the Alexander Technique teaches helps me to put those reflective processes into practice, to sustain them, and to increase the opportunities for thinking reflectively in action.

Dewey acknowledges that none of us can think about everything; we can’t examine every subject.  His argument is that “there is such a thing as readiness to consider in a thoughtful way the subjects that do come within the range of experience” (1933:34).

He describes three attitudes in particular which are essential to that “general readiness” and which must be cultivated and adopted to facilitate the practice and cultivation of reflective thinking, guarding against “the disposition to pass judgment on the basis of mere custom, tradition, prejudice, etc.” (1933:34).  These attitudes are open-mindedness, whole-heartedness and responsibility (1933:33-4).

I think that all three have parallels in Alexander, and both writers acknowledge they are not attitudes easily cultivated, but there isn’t room to discuss them here.  So, I want to end by summing up and expanding a little on some of what Dewey says about the value and function of reflective thinking.

He contrasts the characteristics of illogical thinking with the logical thinking involved in reflection.  A person thinking illogically skips from one topic to another without being aware of it, and is liable to be inconsistent and contradictory in the things they say without realising it.  They jump prematurely to conclusions, accepting them without checking, Dewey says; and, it seems to me, when they act upon them, if there is no reflection after the event, they’ll be liable to ignore or not even notice any failure or unwanted consequences or to blame these on something or someone else (1933:75-6).

I think where a person isn’t thinking reflectively, they’ll possess a vague, incomplete or erroneous concept of what they’re doing in their thinking and the actions which flow from their thinking.

Dewey stresses that illogical thinking cultivates habits of hasty and superficial observation, arbitrary and “grasshopper-like” guessing; and the tendency to accept ideas and adopt beliefs uncritically and flippantly reject others; all on the basis of “whim, emotion, or accidental circumstances”, as he puts it (1933:89).

He warns that to cultivate “unreflective activity” is to “foster enslavement” (1933:90).  I think it’s easy to recognise “foster enslavement” as a reference to habit; likewise, his reference to beliefs which have become “unconsciously a part of our mental furniture” (1933:7).

A person thinking logically displays an order in what they say and do.  Thinking is carried out reflectively.  There’s a careful gathering and checking of information, involving the scrutiny of observations to find out whether they are what they seem.  This continues at each stage of the process, in each term of thought, along the way to reaching a tested and verifiable conclusion.  (1933:75-76)

In a broad sense, any thinking that’s meant to arrive at an acceptable conclusion can be said to be logical even in cases where the actual thinking involved is illogical.  But the meaning expounded by Dewey is one he sums up as “systematic care to safeguard the processes of thinking so that it is truly reflective”, which he elucidates with the statement that ”’logical’ signifies the regulation of natural and spontaneous processes of observation, suggestion, and testing; that is thinking as an art.” (1933:85)

I mentioned earlier a potential to think that I’ve understood something because it suggests something to me within my own experience, and so to neglect to examine it properly.  When we attribute meaning to something, when we infer something from something else, we do so via the occurrence of suggestion.  Suggestions don’t arise in a vacuum; they’re dependent on both what is seen and what is remembered, while their nature is dependent upon experience.  Experience is dependent upon culture, including the state or level of general knowledge within that culture, and, to quote Dewey, a “person’s own preferences, desires, interests, or even his immediate state of passion.” (1933:96)

A tendency to believe what we want to believe because it’s what we would like to be true means that facts and ideas contrary to what we hope or wish for are not easily accepted or retained in our minds, while, I think, other ideas and imaginings are given the status of facts.  We may succumb to social influences unrelated to the truth or untruth of something, our personal attitudes making us disinclined to examine or test our ideas, the conclusions we’ve jumped to.  And so we make sweeping assertions, generalisations based on only one or a few facts (1933:28).

Reflective thinking isn’t about amassing information and adding to one’s ‘mental furniture’, but about coming to an understanding of how different pieces of information relate to one another; thereby turning that information into knowledge.  Understanding the information aids not only retention of it in the memory, but also its application in future situations (1933:78-9).

Dewey says that the function of reflective thought is:

to transform a situation in which there is experienced obscurity, doubt, conflict, disturbance of some sort, into a situation that is clear, coherent, settled, harmonious (1933:100-1).

And that its worth is that it:

leaves one who thinks with a world that is experienced as different in some respect, for some object in it has gained in clarity and orderly arrangement.  Genuine thinking winds up, in short, with an appreciation of new values (1933:101).


Alexander, F. M. (1996) Man’s Supreme Inheritance, 6th ed. London: Mouritz.

Alexander, F. M. (2000) The Universal Constant in Living, 4th ed. London: Mouritz.

Alexander, F. M. (2004) Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, 3rd ed. London: Mouritz.

Dewey, J. (1933/1998) How We Think. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

[1] The subject matter of Dewey’s book is expansive, so I have drawn from chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 19 which I found to be the most fruitful chapters for my purpose.

[2] Speculation in the sense of a guess as opposed to an hypothesis.  The latter meaning implies serious, sustained contemplation, and so I think is a form of supposition, therefore superior to prejudgments and assumptions but not fully reflective as it is unexplored and untested.

[3] Even if their prejudgment turned out to be correct, the way in which it was arrived it would remain problematic.  As Dewey points out, a belief arrived at through reflection is a different sort of belief to a prejudgment or one jumped to out of prejudice (1933:8-9).  I realise that if the co-worker is convinced that they are right, insofar as they might give it any thought at all, they may well believe that their conclusion has solid foundations.  They may not see it as a prejudice or a prejudgment.  They may see it as being based on experience, even if they have no actual experience of their colleague having behaved in that way before and it is really only a conclusion based on an opinion they’ve formed about their colleague because of other things.  Even if it is based on potentially relevant real experience (such as the knowledge that their colleague has ‘pulled sickies’ before), that alone is not sufficient to justify the leap in their reasoning.  This is because it is only a partial picture; and just because a colleague may have done something once doesn’t mean they will do again.  Immediately noted circumstances may appear similar (or be the same) in some respects, but all the available data once gathered may amount to something different.  Regardless of this, if the co-worker is not aware that they’re making a leap based on so little evidence – if they’re not inclined think reflectively in one matter – how will they guard against similarly illogical thinking at other times and in other matters?

[4] For Dewey’s purpose, it is the noting or perceiving of a fact present together with what that observation brings to mind that can be called thinking.  “Neither the act of walking nor the noting of the cold is a thought.  Walking is one direction of activity; looking and noting are other modes of activity” (1933:9).

[5] I believe Dewey doesn’t make this connection explicitly.

[6] Or otherwise being so attached to a certain outcome that the effect is to limit one’s thinking and so not foresee all the consequences of that fixed end, consequences which had they been anticipated might have called the wisdom of – and perhaps the motivation behind – the desired outcome into question.

[7] While reflecting on the problem and in the course of finding new solutions, I was also able to come to a different understanding of the situation and to see the situation from a different point of view.  I was better able to take into account the context in which my line manager had decided not to use VBA.  A few weeks before he’d replaced the spreadsheet, there had been several days during which a server connectivity issue or something seemed to be interfering with the VBA automatic functions of a different spreadsheet of mine which was also used by a lot of people, and we couldn’t understand why.  Although we hadn’t generally experienced problems prior to this, it would be difficult to rule out the possibility of problems in the future.  If there were further problems, or if there was ever a change that needed to be made to the spreadsheet which required editing the VBA, and I was absent, the team would be in difficult position, as there was no-one else who readily understood VBA.  It was therefore both understandable and reasonable that my line manager would prefer we used spreadsheets which didn’t rely on complex VBA.  There had also been a financial software upgrade several months previously which had meant the spreadsheet needed re-designing, and I’d found it difficult to find time to make the final tweaks to this which meant that the spreadsheet as it stood was not ideal.  My line manager may have wanted to address this as well.

As I’ve said, reflective thinking calls for facts to be considered in the context in which they arise.  Although I was cognisant of all of these things as context, it wasn’t until I let go of wanting to use VBA – of wanting to do things my way as the ‘right’ or ‘only’ way – that I could genuinely accept the importance of their potentially underlying his decision.  I think this shows how it difficult it can be to see things differently, from another’s point of view, when one’s so attached to a way of thinking or working due to habit.

[8] In other words, pulling down about these things and so giving myself a subjective experience of embarrassment or discomfort or annoyance or awkward amusement.

[9] I think there’s a certain amount of assessing of data during the observational phase which is just part of locating the problem – which can lead to the formation of an hypothesis.  It is possible to start with an hypothesis, however I think there is a danger that the hypothesis would then be one based on speculation and preconceived ideas arising from previous experience, rather than openminded observation in the present; and I think that listening in that scenario would serve a different (or additional) purpose: that of testing.  In the case in question, I did not start with an hypothesis.  I was simply listening to see what information I could glean, with the purpose of understanding the bishop’s message.