William James and addiction

Applying the writings and philosophies of William James to addiction and Alcoholics Anonymous.

By Edward Mendelowitz, PhD

Some years ago, I made some observations on nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

—William James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience"

If this life be not a real fight in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which we may withdraw at will. It feels like a fight.

—William James, "The Will to Believe"

For many years, I took little interest in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It struck me as yet another absolutism, and I found the whole disease conception of addiction an oversimplification of quite likely a vastly variegated thing. Then I remember hearing the prominent Harvard psychiatrist George Valliant at a lecture saying that statistically speaking, nothing had the track record of AA when it came to offering a very real set of responses to what has become increasingly a menacing phenomenon and threat, reflective of a larger world gone disconcertingly wrong. I did not look further into things at the time but never forgot what Valliant, a smart, arrogant guy who does not shy away from empirical observations and findings, had said. 

When I moved from Boston's South End to Boston's South Shore with my wife and soon-to-emerge daughter several years ago, I ended up running into a couple of guys in recovery — tough Irish-American South Boston/Shore types who had clearly been through the school of hard knocks and were in varying stages of getting their respective acts together. The passion with which a few of these individuals were now invested in helping others impressed me. There was a reciprocal intuition, I think, of our being broadly on parallel spiritual and ethical planes. These individuals were not intellectual sophisticates, but William James, his breathtaking genius notwithstanding, prided himself on speaking to the common woman and man and was pervasively skeptical, to say the very least, about effeteness and those falsely esoteric realms that seduce many avowed “thinkers” precipitously away from home. I found these twice-born South Shore zealots to be colorful, appealing and more than this, eminently turned-on and trustworthy individuals, legitimately resurrected souls trying to do some genuine good in an arguably darkening world.

To be sure, Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps constitute a system of sorts. And it is also so that a majority of individuals in recovery accomplish this through means other than AA. The history of theology itself, however, is arguably one of systematization of the insights of founding mothers, fathers and first principles. Would Jesus, were he to return to earth just about now, recognize even remotely what has been done in his name? Newcomers to our own discipline will find, should they inquire closely into things, a kind of "groupthink" that adheres even among humanistic psychologists as the profundities of our forebears risk devolution into platitudes over the course of decades and years. “Language,” Emerson once lamented, “is fossil poetry.” Even a man with the largesse of Maslow became decidedly less sanguine, numerically speaking, about the prospects for self-actualization as he aged. In the end, there may be very few who are up to the challenge of genuinely creative work. The rest of us are copyists to one degree or another — not exactly what exemplars like James or existential psychologist Rollo May had in mind. Still almost everyone seems obliged to play the accomplishment game, making a name for her- or himself in some kind of way. I have sometimes the feeling that the most original work in psychology is least likely to be taken in and up at all. 

Personally, I am moved more by Karl Jaspers's talk, at once humble and hallowed, of "ciphers of transcendence," those dimly perceived, ultimately ineffable intimations of the beyond, or even Camus's evocatively heartfelt "imagining religion without God," than by a wholesale turning over of individual will to a Higher Power that sounds at times to be discomfiting close to the circumscribed deity about which many of us became acquainted in youth. For James, this sort of prettification — a preoccupation with unifying, “conjunctive” aspects of existence to the near-exclusion of all that is problematic, jagged, “disjunctive” — was tantamount to belief in what he referred to disparagingly as a “block universe,” one of abstract neatness and taking little of the roughness and richness of things into account. The opposite tactic, one of pointing only to disjunction and a nihilistic void, was for James, patently “inhuman” and hence misguided as well. Still one has to start somewhere, and even conventional religion, as Nietzsche had observed, may serve as a first set of teeth. I have become deeply respectful of this God-talk among addiction's converted, finding here a visceral depth and commitment that are moving indeed. Here one routinely finds voices of experience and enactment one too seldom finds on the larger planetary stage.

William James, whose "Varieties of Religious Experience" so moved AA co-founder Bill Wilson because it explained Wilson's own life-altering experience of spiritual epiphany, approached all things with a seemingly native feeling for complexity. Concerning the possibility of drug- and alcohol-invoked openings of the multifarious doors of perception, James observed with a characteristic penchant for provocation and paradox:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes.

The Harvard psychologist and philosopher (whose personal drug experience centered, famously, around an experiment with nitrous oxide as a young professor and included, according to our own Eugene Taylor, peyote when he was already in his fifties and whose life was spent pondering those realms of consciousness accessible to the thinking mind and those that, decidedly, were not) pointed to the experience of intoxication as “the great exciter of the YES function in man.” This intoxication, as he saw it, constituted the common thread running through the quests both for inebriation and religious experience. Speaking of the former, James mused:

It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole.

James speaks of a “hot spot” in consciousness, “the habitual center of one's personal energy.” It is precisely this energy that must segue from chemical inducement to an ethically tinged embrace of a greater All if the conversion experience is to effectively take hold and subsequently thrive. It is in this sense that James proposes boldly, “The only radical remedy I know for dipsomania is religiomania.” It easy to understand why James so thoroughly impressed the younger, also brilliant, C.G. Jung.

What would James have to say if he too were to return to earth just about now, specifically, about AA and the 12 Steps? James believed in no final encapsulations about anything — not psychology, philosophy, religion or indeed anything else — and yet was fascinated by the profound spiritual epiphanies and subsequent "conversions,” those fundamentally personal “transformations” of consciousness and character documented in his book with such sensitivity and grace. To the extent that AA works so effectively for so many, the pragmatist in James would enthusiastically endorse it for its "cash value," its striking efficacy, the more so when done rightly; therein lies truth. To the extent that overenthusiastic adherents proclaim that one size fits all and that they alone have seized upon the one true means of post-chemical salvation, James would have politely yet frankly demurred. His turbulently brilliant mind was given to a protracted contemplation of "pluralistic" understandings that defied, emphatically, seamless conclusions and pinning things down. "Heaven only knows," he muses in "Pragmatism," "profusion, not economy, may after all be reality's keynote."

One thing I will tell you is that the metaphysical reach and moral compass (“Shall I frankly throw the moral business overboard, as one unsuited to my innate aptitudes,” wonders James, “or shall I follow it and it alone, making everything else merely stuff for it?”) of Alcoholics Anonymous, with its attendant emphases upon Melvillian shipwreck and what religious writers refer to as “turning,” are compelling indeed and wholly of a piece with the very best of what we encounter in humanistic psychology. Also noteworthy is the thoroughgoing emphasis upon fellowship — “handing one another along,” as child psychiatrist Robert Coles has put it — and the ongoing work referred to in Jewish mystical tradition as tikkun — repair of a broken world. To this extent, I find my involvement in overseeing clinical services for a new addictions treatment center here on the outskirts of Boston as uniquely rewarding and very much in accord with what I have come to be through many years of laboring, often uneasily, in the vineyards of the third force. I find so many things that we psychologists are fond of writing and talking about here movingly embodied and lived. The roughness around the edges — do not think for a moment that this doesn't exist within the genteel and pervasively civilized corridors of the third force; increasingly existential-humanistic psychology itself risks systematization to a concerning degree — is part of the charm, grit and challenge of it all.

It ought to be noted that Bill Wilson briefly experimented with LSD in his later years, hoping thereby to bring those not hitherto reachable into closer proximity with those shifts in consciousness and decorum that we find so poignantly documented in James's lectures. A dubious methodology, to be sure, and yet instructive nonetheless. Wilson wanted to save as many souls as he could and was, like James, restlessly open-minded concerning means for so doing. It is a little known fact that Wilson, who suffered like James with manic-depressive illness through the course of his life, called out on his deathbed for “three shots of whiskey.” James, I am quite sure, would have delighted in this little anecdote. Alas, Wilson's request was not granted. The pluralist in James would have delighted in this one as well.

James's last publication before his death in 1910 was titled “A Pluralistic Mystic.” It was a piece about Benjamin Paul Blood, the eccentric, farmer, philosopher, mystic and self-described idler and “fraud” from upstate New York whom James so ardently admired. It was Blood's fascination with and “anaesthetic revelation” through nitrous oxide that had once turned James on to it. “Philosophy is past,” Blood wrote to the ever-curious James. “It was the long endeavor to logicize what we can only realize practically or in immediate experience.” More to the point, it is precisely the irreducible tension and ongoing repartee between the logical mind and those “metaphysical insights” attendant upon “pure experience” upon which both men pervasively meditated and to which each was ineluctably drawn.

In the preface to his book, "Pluralist," Blood had written with admirable ontological humility:

It was the year 1860 that there came to me, through the necessary [medical] use of anaesthetics, a Revelation or insight of the immemorial Mystery which among enlightened peoples still persists as the philosophical secret or problem of the world . . . After fourteen years of this experience at varying intervals, I published in 1874 “The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy,” not assuming to define there the purport of the illumination, but rather to signalize the experience, and in a resume of philosophy to show wherein that had come short of it.

We can see why James was both so enamored and influenced by Blood, an individual for whom mystical experience has its numinous moment and import yet without over-attachment or overreaching into “-isms” of any sort. Here, as in James, the transcendent coexists with and informs (now more easily, now decidedly less so) the more rational realms. Blood, we should note parenthetically, was not the only brilliant ne'er-do-well who James looked to for inspiration and guidance, even at times reaching into his own pockets, often anonymously, to monetarily support. The story of Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and American pragmatism is another one also well worth taking up at some other moment in time.

It seems that James never forgot that early experience with nitrous oxide. Indeed, he implied its lasting personal significance even in that final essay. And it seems he never forgot its import in opening up those mysterious realms, which put theologically we might call, in sympathy with Tillich, that “God above the God of theism.” James quotes Blood approvingly in that final piece: “There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given—Farewell.”

Perhaps this is a good place for us, too, for the time being, to wind down.


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Coles, R. (2010). Handing one another along: Literature and social reflection. New York: Random House.

Gavin, W.J. (2013). William James in focus. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

James, W. (1908) The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.

James, W. (1956), The will to believe and other essays in popular philosophy. New York: Dover. (Original work published 1897)

May, R. (1953). Man's search for himself. New York: Norton.

May, R. (1991). A cry for myth. New York: Norton.

Taylor, E. (1993). Our roots: The American visionary tradition. Noetic Sciences Review, 27, 6-17.

Taylor, E. (1996). William James on consciousness beyond the margin. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Tillich, P. (1975) Systematic theology, Vol. 2. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.