AKRASIA: Two Steps Backwards

©2008 Dennis Leri

When water chokes, what is one to wash it down with? -- Aristotle

“Know Thyself”, the injunction that drives Socratic enquiry, has deep correspondences to the method and practices of Moshe Feldenkrais. In the previous Serious Enquiry article we saw that on the way to self knowledge one arrives at the aporia or the unendurable passage, the passage that is not passable, that is, an impasse. To go on we must not go on the way we have gone. To truly arrive at such an impasse one must sincerely quest. The impasse is the point at which our enquiry becomes authentic. From there on it is our path. At the end of the article we said that the Delphic Oracle’s dictum “Know Thyself” was but the first part of the Oracle’s advice. The second part is the more general injunction “Nothing too much.”

There is in all rigorous thought and every disciplined practice a vital reciprocal relationship to be found in the double movement General <-> Specific. That double movement is resonant with whole-to-parts and parts-to-whole descriptions and definitions of biological and other systems. We are dealing with particulars and universals, generals and individuals, classes and members, categories and instances whenever we organize our thinking. Feldenkrais and I discussed in depth working from the specific to the general and from the general to the specific during my time in Israel. He felt that is was essential to understand the kinds of thinking one uses and could use. Understanding how to rigorously organize our thoughts, he said, allows one to add substantively not only to our “Feldenkrais” knowledge but also to both scientific and common knowledge.

As a scientist and a seeker Feldenkrais demanded of himself a critical intellectual rigor that must be played out to the end. But end it must. After one frees one’s self from the conventions of knowledge one can find and tread one’s own path. As it’s stated in the Zen text Uji, “To know the self is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” But herein we continue with the heritage of Greek thought and the internal movements therein that were true for them then and remain true for us today.

And so, we will examine our work and its relation to self enquiry as developed by the Ancient Greeks. When we say an injunction is more general, we mean it constrains a broad range of specific injunctions. In Feldenkrais work, for example, we employ specific injunctions, so called “movement” instructions. Specific injunctions, the what, are constrained by more general and more pervasive injunctions conveying the how. The what specifies the action and the how determines the mode of action. The general is the learning how in the phrase “learning how to learn.” For the Greeks “Nothing too much” governed how one was to know one’s self. It governed, or sought to govern, all modes of conduct. Whatever practice or practices one engaged in were all governed by the constraints of “Nothing too much.” Self understanding, it was maintained, would be one of the more important consequences of avoiding extremes in the conduct of one’s life. “Nothing too much” implores us to care for the self and prescribes the mode of that care: Temperance.

The Ancient Greeks by deciding to exercise Temperance to examine and eliminate self-defeating extremes of behavior established the “how” of coming to know one’s self. And so, to know how, one finds that in Antiquity there were teachers, mentors, masters and guides aplenty who gave advice on how to eat, exercise, meditate, live, die and know the self. There was no shortage of means delineating how one was to care for, and thereby know, the self. Temperance was the overarching principle. It takes very little research to realize that, ironically, the Greeks by and large lacked temperance. To adhere to Temperance was for the Greeks a radical choice. But, with the right guide and guidance, Temperance was an accessible ideal for the intemperate Greeks. Pursuing Temperance, it was assumed, might lead one to the achievement of the ultimate good: an examined life.

With Temperance as our guide, we have the means toward the ends of knowing how to care for and how to know the self. Before I can explicate as practices, caring-for and knowing-how, I need to draw attention to the actions, the seeming reactions, that undermine the resolutions to lead a better life, that thwart a life of enquiry and self discovery. Let’s allow that our goal is not only self-knowledge but also that we can act in the world consonant with that knowing. Those actions that thwart or defeat that goal can be deemed self defeating. Most human failings fit nicely into the category of self defeating behaviors listed by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Ancients. One self defeating behavior in particular seems relevant to understand how it is one fails to learn to practice the Feldenkrais Method. In this and the next article I will turn my attention to the breakdown of will, to the loss of conviction, to the loss of self control, to the incontinence which the Ancient Greeks called akrasia. In seeing how the will breaks down we will be afforded a way to understand and exercise will. It’s not, as they say, “what you think.”

There are phrases so generic, so commonly uttered by many Feldenkrais students that we scarcely ever really hear them. They’re all variations on the statement, “I knew better, but…” They might begin “I knew I shouldn’t have, but…” and then conclude “done too much or done too little or ?” Or, one might hear “I knew I should have, but…” and conclude with “Stopped sooner, done less, done more, or ?” They are in the same family as, “I knew I shouldn’t have had that drink… eaten that dessert… called him… refused to called her… said what I said… stayed up so late… gotten up so late… worn those shoes… maxed out my credit card… asked that question… given that answer… lied… told the truth…” I knew better but I did it anyway. I knew better but I didn’t act on it. What is this knowing better, but? Is it a knowing that allows me to go against my best intentions, to break my rules or to break the rules of others that I subscribe to, to do myself harm? Is this loss of self control an action? Is it a reaction or a non-action? It is, I will contend, a perverse form of self denial. In asceticism self denial is a path that provisionally accepts the self in order to move beyond it. It’s not so with akrasia. With the akratic individual the self is never accepted or rejected but the self’s conflicts are used as an excuse to avoid engaging in self examination.

We do what we know to be wrong or we don’t do what we know to be right. To reiterate, the doing less-than/more-than, the doing other-than we intend is called the break down of the will, the weakness of will, moral incontinence, loss of self control and it has an ancient name: akrasia. Akrasia means “bad mixture” and from the beginning of Western Philosophy there have been attempts to define it, to explain it and most importantly to cure it. Socrates maintained that akrasia is impossible. Why? Because if one really knows, one doesn’t and, in fact can not, act against true self knowledge.

Aristotle: Now we may ask how a man who judges rightly can behave incontinently. That he should behave so when he has knowledge, some say is impossible; for it would be strange - so Socrates thought - if when knowledge was in a man something else could master it and drag it about like a slave. For Socrates was entirely opposed to the view in question, holding that there is no such thing as incontinence; no one, he said, when
he judges acts against what he judges best-people act so only by reason
of ignorance.

Aristotle says, well yeah, but…

Aristotle: Now this view plainly contradicts the observed facts, and we must inquire about what happens to such a man; if he acts by reason of ignorance, what is the manner of his ignorance? For that the man who behaves incontinently does not, before he gets into this state, think he ought to act so, is evident. But there are some who concede certain of Socrates' contentions but not others; that nothing is stronger than knowledge they admit, but not that on one acts contrary to what has seemed to him the better course, and therefore they say that the incontinent man has not knowledge when he is mastered by his pleasures, but opinion. But if it is opinion and not knowledge, if it is not a strong conviction that resists but a weak one, as in men who hesitate, we sympathize with their failure to stand by such convictions against strong appetites; but we do not sympathize with wickedness, nor with any of the other blameworthy states. Is it then practical wisdom whose resistance is mastered? That is the strongest of all states. But this is absurd; the same man will be at once practically wise and incontinent, but no one would say that it is the part of a practically wise man to do willingly the basest acts. Besides, it has been shown before that the man of practical wisdom is one who will act (for he is a man concerned with the individual facts) and who has the other virtues.[2]

How to comprehend a self in conflict? Well, one can redefine the self, posit that a self is composed of parts. The later Plato did so as did Aristotle as did Freud. Moshe Feldenkrais likewise invoked parts of the self -- movement, thought, emotion and sensing -- that could work together or not. For Aristotle, when a part of the self rules or prevails, it implies that at one time or another some subset of the self predominates. The parts for Aristotle were: the appetites – thirst, hunger, sexuality; the passions, what we would broadly call emotions; and, reason in its various forms. In a self where passions, appetites and reasons are competing rather than cooperating we have conflict. And so it happens sometimes that we act against our own best interests. Aristotle maintains that akrasia is more complex than saying the passions or appetites overrule reason. He did not hold that reason is or should reign supreme. He said a singular and rigid reliance or fixation on reason can be shown to lead to conflict. Really serious conflict. It’s because the appetites, the passions and reason have not been properly integrated into our actions that our will fails us.

Aristotle’s position is commonly misunderstood and is misstated like this:

(1) A continent person (the enkrate) is a person who acts in accord with his rational calculations while the incontinent person (the akrate) abandons their rationality and acts irrationally.

(2) The akrate giving in to his feelings or appetites commits base actions while the enkrate both knows them to be base and does not give in because he follows his reason. The underlying assumptions here are that the appetites and the passions are uncontrollable and they are distinct from reason which alone can be disciplined. That’s not what Aristotle really held or for that matter Plato in his later work.

It’s a joy to read and to attempt to follow Aristotle’s exposition of the distinction between what’s continent and incontinent behavior. Something comes alive in his examples and his reasoning. By laying bare the contradictions inherent in the holding of certain positions Aristotle sounds a bit like Feldenkrais. Aristotle in his own words:

Aristotle: Further, if continence involves having strong and bad appetites, the temperate man will not be continent nor the continent man temperate; for a temperate man will have neither excessive nor bad appetites. But the continent man must; for if the appetites are good, the state of character that restrains us from following them is bad, so that not all continence will be good; while if they are weak and not bad, there is nothing admirable in resisting them, and if they are weak and bad, there is nothing great in resisting these either.[3]

Self control, if it means intentionally acting on strong desires or doing destructive actions, is not the same as temperance. Given a good desire, only bad character would restrain it. There’s nothing admirable in resisting weak desires whether good or bad. To not smoke, to not eat sugar, to not harm others based upon principle is no great achievement. What awareness adds to action is both actual and virtual. One knows that no matter what one does it could have been done differently. I carry myself forward not only in what I do but also in what I could have done. I therefore act to expand choice. Actually, there’s more to the act than meets the I.

Aristotle: Further, if continence makes a man ready to stand by any and every opinion, it is bad, i.e. if it makes him stand even by a false opinion;
and if incontinence makes a man apt to abandon any and every opinion,
there will be a good incontinence, of which Sophocles' Neoptolemus in the Philoctetes will be an instance; for he is to be praised for not standing by what Odysseus persuaded him to do, because he is pained at telling a lie.

If I do the right thing for the wrong reasons do I act with full self control? What kind of character am I? do I have? do I want? Aristotle and Feldenkrais emphasized developing strong as distinct from weak character. It’s within an individual’s control. Feldenkrais designated the potent state as the source of real health. And in Higher Judo he said "... it is bad in Judo to try for anything with such determination as not to be able to change your mind if necessary..."[5]

Let’s say I promise to vote for a candidate based upon statements he’s made. Let’s also say that I come to find out he’s lying to me either directly or through his surrogates. When it’s time to vote will I still actually vote for him based upon my promise to keep my promise? I might idealize myself and say “When I give my promise I won’t renege.” Is it admirable for me to vote for the liar? There are fictions, useful and not useful, and we make our choices. In the practice of Awareness Through Movement a student listens as the lesson “speaks” in a voice often distinct from the instructor’s voice. The student’s own inner voice offers a translation. Who’s voice do I vote for? It’s a character issue.

Aristotle: Further, he who on conviction does and pursues and chooses what is pleasant would be thought to be better than one who does so as
a result not of calculation but of incontinence; for he is easier to cure since he may be persuaded to change his mind. But to the incontinent man may be applied the proverb 'when water chokes, what is one to wash it down with?' If he had been persuaded of the rightness of what he does, he would have desisted when he was persuaded to change his mind; but now he acts in spite of his being persuaded of something quite different.

Although I lack self control I don’t do so by deliberation. I don’t plan to hurt my self or others. I can learn to do better, differently or other than I do. That I can intend. I can be persuaded by my learning to take a new measure of myself and my choices. If I act out of touch with my self I can learn make new distinctions, to erase old distinctions, to act with a composure. I am not one who knowing better takes leave of my senses and simply moves. Motion without a who comes to nothing from no one. No, I act not to deny others, not to follow the Leader, not to be a slave to fad and fashion. I act so that there will be others.

Recent philosophical approaches to the vexing question of akrasia are multitudinous. They include arguing that the incontinent person’s character is not fixed on one desire but allows for contrary desires. These contrary desires are sufficiently strong to disrupt practical deliberation. The solution to akrasia so formulated is to love our true nature, a variant form of non-narcissistic self-love. Other approaches either label the question of akrasia a non-problem because as formulated it’s ill stated, ill defined, or irrelevant (because it’s solved by answering “bigger” questions that subsume those of resolving akrasia). Or, it’s reframed in terms of sin. Either we obey God’s will (Father knows best) or our own (which no doubt is weakened by Satan.) Contemporary cognitive science essentially redefines the problem in terms of brain functions, uses “brain” jargon to impute agency to brain regions and so gives “brain” names that redraw behavioral boundaries only slightly differing functionally from the parts of the self delineated by Aristotle. They consider the problem solved by renaming it and invoking scientific jargon. Frankly, it’s largely flim flam. The finished product doesn’t only rename the problem, it also greatly impoverishes Aristotle’s version by disconnecting it from individual responsibility. No where in academic philosophy or cognitive science can we find how to know one’s self in a way that that self knowing equals acting with all parts of our selves in an harmonious way.

Aristotle maintained that one acts in various ways towards various ends. If one acts in accord with one’s nature it is pleasurable. One does not act or intend to act with pleasure as an end as in hedonism. No, pleasure accompanies an integrating act well done. And what acts give the greatest pleasure? Aristotle maintains that the greatest of all pleasures is to be found in learning. Learning harmonizes and integrates our appetites, our passions, and our reasoning. When we learn we move towards knowing our selves and in that movement, that pull as the Greeks would say, there is no greater pleasure. To integrate means to learn. And what do we learn from akrasia? Nothing. There’s no pleasure in it for us or those who must bear up under our tired excuses for failure.

Academic philosophical and cognitive approaches want to characterize the question of akrasia as an object of and for knowledge, the kind of knowledge Socrates called “knowing about.” Situating akrasia as a philosophical problem or a kind of scientific problem removes it from an individual’s everyday concerns. We dull the vibrancy of enquiry when we put it into staid academic discourse. In our daily lives akrasia is a profound impediment to self understanding. Knowing about the loss of will is of no practical use to the individual. Socrates’ “knowing how” is so poignant, so pertinent to our lives but when considered academically it slides into a dim “knowing about.” We get endless interpretation and reinterpretation instead of a path we can tread or blaze.

There are regions of theology concerned with a kind of “knowing how.” With Christianity akrasia enters into an amalgam with sin and Christian virtue. The theological stance, except in the rarest of instances, e.g., Meister Eckhart, rely on deferring to external authority. Cowing to authority blocks self-enquiry. Western and Eastern approaches to salvation, if at some point they abandon external earthly authority, can and do have practical value in enquiry. But there is the danger that the voice of authority supplants the seeker’s listening to the inner voice. Western traditions from Pythagoras and Parmenides[4] to segments within the major religions require an individual test and critically apply the whisperings of the inner voice. It must not be delusional but truly authentic.

For the individual intent on self-knowledge, Temperance is a radical even extreme approach for those held in the grip of passions, appetites or rigid attitudes of mind. Temperance implies commitment to enquiry and to practical engagement with every situation. If we desire more than a second hand existence nothing must block enquiry. Akrasia is either no way out or an easy way to lose out.

Finally, Akrasia is also the name of a Goddess who’s nickname is the Thief of Time.[7] She steals, devours our life bit by bit through every moment lost in the story of why I didn’t do this or that, why I did do that or this. Each and every turning of our attention away from engaging in our life of enquiry eats up a little time. Your time, my time, but as we will see in a future article not Time itself. But here and now, my failure to exercise will kills me a small amount physically, psychologically and spiritually. Akrasia’s victory is no victory at all.

So how does Delphic “Nothing too much” concern us in the context of a Feldenkrais lesson? Feldenkrais gave guidelines for participating in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lesson, “Despite its many varied themes, Awareness Through Movement is pervaded by two general injunctions: First, move only in your comfort zone. The idea is to work smarter rather than harder. The lessons take us beyond our limits by finding new combinations of ways to move. Second, carry out the instruction only as long as you can pay attention to what you're doing.”[8] I’d be a rich man if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a student say, “I knew I shouldn’t have done so much.” It’s said in relation to carrying out a specific lesson injunction too many times or doing too large of a movement or doing the action mechanically and mindlessly. We have the admission of a failure to act while professing to know better. Knowing the stakes we gamble by playing it safe. Due to the complexities of the training context it’s not easy to characterize all such statements as akrasia. Later, upon reflection, we know that we failed in fusing what and how into our intended action. Even if we succeed in the what we often fail in the how. We don’t know how. We fail to reach that impasse, that aporia discussed in the last article. We have not really entered the lesson, made it our lesson. Enquiry is deferred, delayed, made thick and frozen. Regret takes hold, excuses hold sway. We waste time.

A Feldenkrais lesson can address akrasia directly if the context of the lesson sufficiently addresses who is doing the lesson. We learn by using a what, a specific injunction, combined with and constrained by how, the mode of doing, and having in mind a who that will emerge by integrating how and what. To coin a phrase, “who’s learning how to learn?”

We’ve all heard about the Fechner-Weber Principle and it’s relation to learning in a Feldenkrais context. In the next article I will update what’s now known about the Fechner-Weber Principle with a few surprising new twists that will surely deepen our understanding of how to think of it in relation to our work, the problem of akrasia, pain, compulsion, addiction and self enquiry.


1. Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII section 2
2. Ibid
3. Ibid. Book VII section 2 subsection (2)
4. Ibid. Book VII section 2 subsection (3)
5. Higher Judo, M. Feldenkrais, pg. 94)
6. Nicomachean Ethics Book VII section 2 subsection
7. Learning How to Learn, Dennis Leri 1998
8. Akrasia, Thief of Time: A vignette sourcebook, David Chart,
2006 Eden Studios Notable quote, “Akrasia is the goddess of not completing your work.”