William James and AA
By bob k
For better or worse, whether real or imagined, drug-induced, or brought about by the most desperate need, Bill Wilson’s spiritual experience at Towns Hospital is perhaps the foundation point of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Shortly before the famous “hot flash,” Bill’s old friend Ebby had laid out the Oxford Group’s plan of recovery which had been successful for him. This included the instruction to “pray to whatever God you think there is, even as an experiment.” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, p. 63)
There is some interesting phrasing that was used to describe the event. In Bill’s Story -“I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a mountaintop blew through and through.” (AA Big Book, p. 14) Two decades later, the role of imagination is even more strongly insinuated – “It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain…” (AACOA, p. 63)
The italics are supplied by this author, but the words themselves were generously provided by AA’s founder.
Bill’s recounted experience bears an astonishing resemblance to that of his paternal grandfather who, almost sixty years earlier, climbed nearby Mount Aeolus, and was relieved of his alcohol obsession. We do not know Grandpa Willie’s blood alcohol content on the day in question, nor do we know how long he may have stared at the “bright light” of the sun in his search for God, but we do know that Mt. Aeolus was quite Aeolian (windy).
The Varieties of Religious Experience
“The next day more light dawned. Bill could never remember exactly but was inclined to think that Ebby, visiting again, brought him a copy of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. What Wilson got – or thought he got – from the book was to prove significant to the history of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, p. 20)
“Here in a book written by the country’s most eminent psychologist was confirmation of the efficacy of what he had experienced.” (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, p. 62)
“The book was not easy reading, but I kept at it all day. By nightfall, this Harvard professor, long in his grave, had, without anyone knowing it, become a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (My First Forty Years, Bill W., p. 151)
“Spiritual experiences could have objective reality… they could transform people. Some flowed out of religious channels; others did not… Complete hopelessness and deflation at depth were almost always required to make the recipient ready. The significance of it all burst upon me. Deflation at depth (Mr. Wilson’s own italics this time) – yes, that was it.” (AACOA, p. 64)
It’s, of course, somewhat of a shame that the “deflation at depth” phrase is nowhere to be found in Mr. James’ book!
Neither this expression nor the bare word deflation appears anywhere in Varieties. On the other hand, Wilson apparently did not note and certainly did not cite what was in James: the openness to explicit religion… the only cure for “dipsomania” is “religiomania”.
…Second, if there is one key word as well as concept in Varieties, it is not “deflation” but “conversion”. (Not-God, p. 23)
The above italics are those of Mr. Kurtz.
There was a “utility” in Wilson’s attaching AA to William James. “This underlined linkage with a major figure in American intellectual history was therefore eminently useful to him. He made pragmatic use of the pragmatic James – with all the helpful connotations of this to those looking for ‘results,’ for the ‘cash-value’ of the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (Not-God, pp. 23-24)
The pluralism of William James was also valuable as AA moved forward selling itself as a spiritual “big tent.”
The varied stories of religious conversion in Varieties have a commonality of precipitating conditions, leading to an appeal to a higher power for help. Describing his initial reaction to James’ book, Wilson writes:
…I began to see that all the experiences cited, or at least nearly all of them, had certain common denominators…The first was calamity. Nearly every recipient described had met utter defeat in some controlling area of his life…Each had been in despair and seen no way over, under, or around…The next condition was the admission from the very depths of being that defeat was utter and absolute. (My First Forty Years, p. 151)
The influence on the Big Book’s ABC’s is patently obvious:
Our description of the alcoholic, the chapter to the agnostic, and our personal adventure before and after make clear three pertinent ideas:
(a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
(c) That God could and would if He were sought.” (AA Big Book, p. 60)
(b) admission of absolute defeat;
(c) appeal to a higher power for help.
It is worth noting that in Bill Wilson’s analysis of Varieties, God is optional. Sort of.
This appeal could take innumerable forms. It might be accompanied by a faith in God or it might not, but an appeal it had to be. The cry for help could course through religious channels, or a despairing agnostic could look at a growing tree and, reflecting on how the tree could respond to the law of its own nature and he, the human, could not, he might raise his voice to the god (sic) of nature. (My First Forty Years, pp. 151-152)
The Calamity of William James
William James was no alcoholic, but he had issues. The evidence indicates that clinical depression was endemic in the James family. His father, Henry James Sr. was a nineteenth century intellectual who consorted with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, William Makepeace Thackery and Walt Whitman. The elder James was a liberal, an opponent of slavery, a proponent of radical ideas regarding education, and a supporter of the utopian socialism of French philosopher, Charles Fourier, who is credited with having originated the term “feminism” in 1837.
A substantial inheritance from an entrepreneurial father provided the freedom to live and philosophize as a “man of leisure.” Henry Sr. married Mary Robertson Walsh in New York City, in 1840, and in time, they had five children.
William (b. 1842), and Henry James Jr. (b. 1843) followed in their father’s footsteps as “men of letters.” Henry was the author of “The Ambassadors,” “Daisy Miller,” “Turn of The Screw,” “Portrait Of A Lady,” and other works that were both critically acclaimed and popularly received.
Two younger brothers served in the Civil War. Garth Wilkinson (b. 1845) died in his thirties of combat injuries, while Robertson (b. 1846) was a writer of minimal achievement, remembered by history as a “ne’er-do-well” and an alcoholic. Alice (b. 1848) was a diarist whose achievements were deep in the shadows of her two oldest brothers.
Henry Sr., William, Henry Jr., and Alice all suffered from severe bouts of depression that reduced them to “invalidism.” Henry Sr. seems to have mitigated the effects of his depression with a religious conversion to, and a passionate enthusiasm for Swedenborgianism, following the severest of breakdowns. Coincidentally, this was the religion of Lois Wilson and her forebears. Notwithstanding the newfound sense of purpose, Henry Sr. remained a somewhat dark and erratic character. The descriptions of various biographers indicate that he was possibly bi-polar.
Alice James died at 43, ending a lifetime of severe emotional breakdowns and confinements, having never found any significant relief from her physical and psychological problems. Her brother, Robertson seems to have done better with his own self-medicating practice, as he managed a well-lubricated survival into his sixties.
Thus, the writings of William James concerning debilitating difficulties were not of a “theoretical” or “hypothetical” nature, but bred of personal, and familial experience. It is not a fluke that he one day authored a book offering a solution for “calamity.”
Young William James
The eldest child of Henry James and Mary Robertson Walsh was born on January 11, 1842. William benefitted from the family’s views on cosmopolitan education and many trips to Europe. He acquired a fluency in both French and German.
In early adulthood, William James suffered from a variety of physical ailments, psychological symptoms and neurasthenia. There were periods of enervating depression and suicidal ideation. More than once, his education was interrupted by “rest cures,” but he completed an MD degree in 1869.
“I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I had ever heard being the first one I gave.” (The Thought and Character of William James, Vol. 1, Ralph Borton Perry, 1996 Edition, p. 228)
James spent almost his entire academic year at Harvard, beginning as an instructor in physiology, then anatomy, and later rotating between psychology and philosophy until he retired in 1907.
His “soul sickness” seems to have been resolved in 1872, from a combination of extensive philosophical searching, and enthusiasm for his nascent academic career. His later philosophy points toward the acceptance of spiritual beliefs that ran counter to his intellectual leanings, but proved useful. In some very real sense, he copied the “spiritual experience” of his own father, having witnessed its worth.
A very practical decision.
Pragmatism and The Will To Believe
William James was a prolific writer and ventured into several fields – epistemology, education, metaphysics, psychology, religion and mysticism. The mammoth Principles of Psychology (1890) was a groundbreaking work in American psychology and a prominent text for decades.
His connection to Alcoholics Anonymous is most evident in his philosophy of pragmatism, “The Will To Believe” essay, and of course, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
“Beliefs were ways of acting with reference to a precarious environment, and to say that they were true was to say they (were efficacious) in this environment.” (Pragmatism, Bruce Kuklick, p. xiv) James defined true beliefs as those that prove useful to the believer.
A commonly heard AA bromide comes to mind: “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?”
Plainly, “all of the above” is NOT a conference-approved response.
The Will To Believe doctrine allows one to assume belief in a god, and prove its existence by what the belief brings to one’s life. James sought to ground justified belief in an unwavering principle that would prove more beneficial. For Bill Wilson, facing a future of death or alcoholic insanity, the belief that supernatural force could and would rescue him had great utility, pragmatic value, “cash value.”
Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics are best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes, rather than in terms of representative accuracy. Essentially we have a recycling of Pascal’s Wager.
William James and William Griffith Wilson had many things in common. Both suffered from depression that was at times incapacitating, likely genetically acquired, and exacerbated by unconventional child-rearing of self-absorbed parents. Both made practical decisions to seek transformation through spiritual conversion experiences, and to some very real extent were successful in this.
Both men were fascinated by mysticism, psychic phenomena and the occult. Wilson’s interest in producing spiritual experiences led to experimentation with LSD, while James’ investigation of mysticism led to the sampling of chloral hydrate, amyl nitrate, nitrous oxide and peyote.
Bill Wilson came to an incredible understanding of alcoholism, and William James was not without insight. “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. It is in fact the great exciter of the yes function in man.” (Varieties, p. 282)
William James abandoned a career in medicine to become, in the eyes of many, the “Father of American Psychology.” William G. Wilson was abandoned by a career in the stock market but went on to become, in the eyes of many, the “Father of American Recovery.” Both men are spoken of by millions, decades after their deaths. Mr. James died of heart failure on August 26th, 1910.
Both thought that the best solution to the most serious of life’s problems was to abandon them to the care of a higher power.
That certainly seems to work for some. We continue to debate the exact nature of the “how.”
A paperback version of Key Players in AA History is available at Amazon USA.