Dewey, Ethics, and the Means-Whereby Principle

In the previous post, we described F.M. Alexander’s means-whereby principle and discussed its practical implications in the field of psychophysical education. John Dewey (1859-1952), the great American pragmatist, was a student of Alexander and an advocate of his work. Dewey was particularly excited about the larger scale implications of the means-whereby principle if applied as a solvent to the rigid norms of civic conduct. In Human Nature & Conduct, written in 1922, six years after his initial meeting with Alexander, John Dewey used the means-whereby principle as the foundation to support and develop his broader theories on habit in humans and its potentially detrimental impact on social forms. This post will specifically outline the ethical implications of the means-whereby principle as theorized by John Dewey. If you are interested in the relationship of intellectual reciprocity shared by F.M. Alexander and John Dewey, then we encourage you to read the article, The Nature of Habit: F.M. Alexander and John Dewey, written by Dimon Institute graduate, Serena J. Woolf for her Master’s thesis at Columbia University.

The Ethics of the ‘Means-Whereby Principle’
by Tara Fenamore

John Dewey wrote: “We cannot change habit directly: The notion is magic. But we can change it indirectly by modifying conditions, by an intelligent selecting and weighing of the objects which engage attention and which influence the fulfillment of desires.” [Dewey, 20] Does this sound familiar? In our  last blog post,  we described the means-whereby principle as the practice of overriding routine habit through the establishment of new, intelligently-controlled habits. The means-whereby principle constitutes a process initiated and sustained by (1) breaking down an action into its constituent parts, and (2) adjusting our conception of the act from its meditated end to the “means-whereby” that end is produced. In other words, through an intelligently-selected course of discrete actions that cumulatively function to produce the desired end.

To exemplify the practical engagement of this principle, we described the monkey position popularized by F.M. Alexander. We specifically identified one of the principal purposes of monkey as establishing improved neuromuscular conditions and, thereby inviting the cultivation of new, intelligently-directed habits. In monkey, we attend to each discrete step as its own end in order to circumvent the end goal of sitting, which would trigger a harmful ideomotor response. These actions, directed by our conscious attention, generate new conditions associated with the action of sitting. Not only do we successfully circumvent the ideomotor response associated with the known conditions, but we also acquire a clearer conception of the act by establishing new conditions for its fulfillment – – conditions that support and nourish (as opposed to interfering with) the natural design of our psychophysical systems. This is especially important because having a clear conception of the act, unencumbered by harmful habits or superfluous effort, makes the process of habit-change both attainable and sustainable.

John Dewey saw great potential in the large-scale application of the means-whereby principle to change the rigid cultural habits that reinforce inflexible societal conditions. He recognized the impotence of the population to induce changes in their environments, particularly to the civic institutions that were built to secure the natural rights and liberties of all peoples under their jurisdiction. He attributed this problem to the public’s failure to identify the true source of their societal deficiencies and to confront them with intelligently-selected sequences of action(s) that are then intelligently-directed towards a tenable, sustainable solution. To this end, he diagnosed the population with a virulent form of magical thinking. The resulting behavior and conduct of this form of thought-habit (magical thinking) work to entrench the associated habit of inattention to “the means which are involved in reaching an end.” [Dewey, 28] Here, Dewey admits to recalling the insight of a ‘friend’ who turns out to be none other than F.M. Alexander. He writes of his ‘friend’, “…he went on to say that the prevalence of this belief, starting with false notions about the control of the body and extending to control of mind and character, is the greatest bar to intelligent social progress. It bars the way because it makes us neglect intelligent inquiry to discover the means which will produce a desired result, and intelligent invention to procure the means. In short, it leaves out the importance of intelligently controlled habit.” [Dewey, 28]

We see this phenomenon most explicitly in our era’s cultural dependency on social media. On some level, we believe that by changing our profile pictures to a victimized country’s flag or sharing the latest trending article on corporate corruption, we are somehow effecting change in our national and global environments. This, of course, is no more than the magical thinking that Dewey criticizes as lazy and thoughtless inaction: “We think that by feeling strongly enough about something, by wishing hard enough, we can get a desirable result, such as virtuous execution of good resolve, or peace among nations, or good will in industry. We slur over the necessity of the cooperative action of objective conditions, and the fact that this cooperation is assured only by persistent and close study.” [Dewey, 27] No amount of publicly consumed willing and wishing is going to change environmental conditions. In fact, our culture’s social media habit is a rather simplistic example of reaching blindly for an end goal without attending intelligently to the means by which the ideal we aspire to can be practically realized. To use Dewey’s precise and astute language, we “neglect intelligent inquiry to discover the means which will produce a desired result, and the intelligent invention to procure the means.” [Dewey, 28] It is certainly much easier and more pleasant to sleepily scroll down a Facebook newsfeed and click “share” with a sense of moral fortitude than it is to harness the quality of thinking that will intelligently direct us towards a tenable, sustainable solution.

Dewey believed strongly that Alexander’s discovery and its practical theory could transform the habits that ultimately determine the vast potentialities or oppressive limitations of our social and economic relations. In his introduction to Alexander’s work, The Use of the Self, John Dewey emphasizes the ethical profundity of his teacher’s work. He credits F.M. Alexander with a scientific discovery and subsequent evolution of a technique that “will allow individuals to really secure the right use of themselves.” He elaborates that misuse of the self necessarily corresponds to grave disorder on a larger and potentially “tragic” scale. The complex network of social transactions, which regulate the conditions under which we live, are an amalgamation of the public’s psychophysical habits. “Our individual habits,” he writes, “are links in forming the endless chain of humanity. Their significance depends upon the environment inherited from our forerunners, and it is enhanced as we foresee the fruits of our labors in the world in which our successors live.” [Dewey, 21] Deficient habits that escape the conscious control of individuals will accordingly gather to build and preserve a perilously unstable world. And, as John Dewey wrote in 1939, this is “a fact which the present state of the world tragically exemplifies.” One need only tune into the nightly news to witness the general disorder and misconduct that infects the global community in the year 2016.

It is important to remember that habit-change begins on the individual level and requires the modification of conditions that compel behavior through ideomotor activity. Thus, the means-whereby principle is not just a principle or practice but a way of being in the world. It connotes the elimination of our culturally induced, rigid thought-habit of, what Dewey called, magical thinking. It is replaced with a new flexible thought-habit that conveys intelligent inquiry and invention when it comes to identifying and attending to the means to our ends. Like the Alexander Technique generally, the means-whereby principle is a lived practice that must be applied to daily activity. Dewey considered it an ethical imperative that Alexander’s work be universally accessible through the public institution dedicated to the cultivation of human beings: education. We agree! And it is for this reason that The Dimon Institute has partnered with Teachers College, Columbia University to institute a doctoral program in Psychophysical Education. In the next few months, we will release a series of posts that will examine Psychophysical Education as a field and specifically define the term, psychophysical.


Dewey, J. (2002). Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.