William James and AA

William James

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.”

Jamesian ABC’s

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)   ​

William James:

(a) calamity;
(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.

Will to Believe

“Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”

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.

Two Williams

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.”


28 Responses

  1. Tommy H says:

    “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.”

    I think you could tie this in with a definition of spirituality.

  2. John M. says:

    Excellent observation, Tommy, and a point that can be affirmed by modern neuroscience!

  3. Bob C says:

    Imagine how unhappy small self gets
    When it tries to take charge of and control
    The in flow and out flow
    Of endless energy
    Which has it’s way with me no matter
    What I try
    Me was never meant to be the lonely
    And underpaid security guard
    Of the ocean
    Or the depressed genius responsible for
    Building a dam
    Where there is meant to be a river
    Will I stop trying to seize this moment
    And pretend I’m accounting it all
    By allowing some things
    And disallowing others?
    My oceans favourite rule is to overflow
    It’s banks one day
    And recede into stillness on others
    And this truly frightens me sometimes.

  4. John M. says:

    Bob, my quick response to your latest post is that you have simply outdone yourself!

    What a comprehensive review in an article that is not too long but could have been much, much longer. Your synthetic skills are remarkable, Bob.

    Beautifully written as usual. –John

    • Lon Mc. says:

      To John’s comment, I offer an amen of the best variety: pragmatic and non-spiritual. Excellent!

    • bob k says:

      Were I even the tiniest bit more “synthetic,” John, I’d be plastic.

      John is such a kind-hearted gentleman, he puts to shame those of us who remain deeply flawed. Right, Roger?

      Nevertheless, your generous words are “easy on the ear.” Many thanks.

  5. JHG says:

    I understand how Bill Wilson’s white light experience appeals to the mythic imagination, but I think its significance is somewhat overrated, and at times placing so much emphasis on it is even detrimental. The whole reason Big Book’s Appendix II (which also owes much to William James) was written was to undo the unfortunate impression that a dramatic spiritual experience was necessary for sobriety. I’m no fan of Dr Bob’s brand of sobriety, but his account of how Wilson carried the message to him is far more significant and insightful than Bill’s account of what it took for himself to get sober. And even Bill’s account is more noteworthy for its recognition that he was going to have to give it away to keep what he had than the pyrotechnics of his hallucination. Perhaps it is true that “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” is necessary, but as Appendix II goes on to say, “it has manifested itself in many different forms.” The experience of in-depth identification is for more reliable in the production of a lasting personal transformation than some ethereal event.

  6. Mike P. says:

    I am so glad that this was not another bashing of belief. To me, the essence of AA and of agnosticism/aetheism is that one should be able to find one’s own path to recovery, regardless of one’s belief, or lack thereof, in a higher power. We should no more try to convince others that the Higher Power aspect of the program is a distraction than those who do believe should try to convince us that it is necessary.

    • John M. says:

      Well said, Mike, and I think you speak for a great number of folks who read and contribute at this site. Thanks John

  7. bob_mcc says:

    Awesome stuff Bob and thanks for the review of William James.

    Most AA’s don’t know of, let to mention have read, The Will To Believe, and in that writing it is clear that the will to believe is more important than if the belief is real. Yes this is pragmatism. William James was never saying God exists or that spiritual powers are real. He was saying that in certain cases acting as these beliefs are real will work. Alcoholism is one of these cases. I see William James’ idea is a placebo.
    Galen stated: “He cures most successfully in whom the people have the most confidence.”

    This trust factor is core to the success of placebos. A cream has a placebo effect, a pill increases the effect, a needle is even more effective. Surgery is most. A red pill will cause increased alertness, a blue pill will have a calming effect. Neo’s pill to awaken from the machines’ dream was red.
    The degree of trust in the healing power of God is to be unquestioned. This is not new or isolated to AA. Some religions have even set in law that faith is to be superior to evidence, when evidence contradicts the faith, faith is to be unquestioned. Would not omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscience being give the best chance and efficacy for recovery? Social construction of every thing else in relation to this power causes any thing that disturbs the beauty of the dream as blasphemous.
    In the rooms of AA it is common place that atheists and agnostic members feel isolated and fear to openly expressing themselves. This is when I think of Tolstoy’s “It is amazing how complete the delusion that beauty is goodness.” It can be very dangerous confronting a deluded person.

    God’s grace is a beautiful picture. I just can’t help seeing past the frame. Bob lets start a new AA slogan ” reason and skepticism is equal to any faith based recovery. Lets place it between Think, Think, Think, and Live an Let Live.

    • bob k says:

      One pill makes you larger
      And one pill makes you small
      And the ones that mother gives you
      Don’t do anything at all
      Go ask Alice
      When she’s ten feet tall

  8. Les says:

    I believe there is a simple concept regarding “why” a belief in some higher power… as so prominently involved in the religious 12-steps… is that: when we “own” something (particularly a character default)and choose to give it away…such as to God.. it cannot any longer remain an influence in our live as it once was. We abandon responsibility! Emotionally, “we see the light”, and the road to sobriety appears before us.

    The problem is, that by using God as the recipient in the “dumping process” we must also expect that the Higher Power will henceforth treat us kindly. Our “giving away” process does not really do much, or anything, to help with latent guilt feelings.

    Agnostic orientation, on the other hand, assumes a continuing wish to understand flaws and to make reasonable adjustments inwardly and in interpersonal relationships…without a need for “praying” to an unknown something.

    An added thought…. Years ago when I first read
    James’ VARIETIES, I felt that he was essentially sending a message that ALL explanations of spiritual experiences were personal, and had no logical origin from a universal deistic source.

  9. MarkInTexas says:


    Thank you for another fine essay! There is dire need for more explorations of the intellectual history of AA, and this essay is right up that alley!

    Did you know there is reference to a Christian “converting” to atheist in “Varieties?”

    It is found in a footnote. A singular account of a believer in severe intellectual and emotional crisis who suddenly became an atheist.

    I do not know if this footnote was part of the reading of Varieties at the Gifford Lectures, but given the nature of those lectures, it is doubtful.

    James was a bit of a challenge to the prevailing discourse within the circles of Gifford’s rather Protestant theistic attempts to explore “natural theology.”

    Hats off to you for another fine piece to add to the growing collection of great topics and good writing found on AA Agnostica!

    “Everything has a small beginning.” Cicero

    • MarkInTexas says:

      Some of you might be aware that “Pragmatism” went through a waning period by the late 1940’s, but began to find a resurgence and renovation through the thought and writing of Richard Rorty later in the century.

      I’ll post the following from Rorty on James’s “Varieties” for those who are interested in exploring more current intellectual and philosophical exploration of “Varieties.”

      Rorty on William James

  10. life-j says:

    Thanks. Lot of interesting stuff in here, including that I have never heard of My first 40 years – is there a review of it with the more useful quotes listed?
    Looked up pascal’s wager, and it strikes me that in his wager it is simply presumed that the god, if he exists is exactly as the christian church at the time said he was. If there was, instead, a god who wasn’t jealous, petty and controlling, but instead accepted all simply for the fact of having been here, then his wager is not much use, we may as well live according to our own conscience, and whatever we were to wager, that he did or didn’t wouldn’t matter much. So his wager really came down to if there is a god he god is like the christian church says he is or….. well, that’s it really.
    And the same goes for AA of course:
    maybe the whole AA gospel is based on so many unnecessary assumptions that we can’t take any advice based on those seriously. What we can take seriously is how it worked on AA’s real birthday (note that’s the one that has been picked, not bill wilson’s chat with god) – the day one alcoholic talked with another in order to stay sober.

    • MarkInTexas says:


      Pascal’s Wager does beg the question regarding the existence of God, IF believers deploy the Wager as an “argument” for the existence of God. Sophisticated theological apologists rarely, if ever, use the Wager that way, however, I’ve heard it parroted as an argument for God in the rooms.

      Technically speaking, the Wager is an “argument” for “Christian faith” as opposed to nonbelief. It is an argument for “faith” in the face of the inability to show God exists by means of reason and evidence.

      It can be turned around on the Christian theists who like to use it in conversations with the nonbelievers. It can be rephrased to suggest it is also, then, an “argument” for faith in Allah, etc.

  11. Vic L. says:

    Just great! Wonderfully researched and written. Not without some very dry humor. I hope for more.

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Let my add my huzzahs of acclamation, bob k, to this exemplary essay, simultaneously informative and captivating, a most neat trick pony to experience.

    One of the characteristics of those who cling to their understanding of the Oxford Group’s methodology in the so-called “Back to Basics” movement, which has tilted interpretation of the Big Book only through Biblical glasses, is that many I’ve encountered are woefully ignorant of the intellectual history that influenced Bill, Dr. Bob and the early AA member collaborators in writing the Big Book between 1937-39. I’ve noticed that they focus only on the first 164 pages and tend to dismiss the relevancy of the stories by alcoholics who recover in numerous different ways. For that matter, they ignore other “conference approved” literature. To them, only the first 164 pages contain gospel truth.

    Not only do they not know our history, they are not willing to hear about it, much less to investigate it, because they are so thoroughly steeped in certainly that their way is the only right way. That way lies the continued devolution of AA in to a quaint, irrelevant sect of decreasing numbers perhaps curious to some, but ignored by most.

    Thank goodness for AA Agnostica and our efforts to continue enlightening not only ourselves but — as Ernie Kurtz and Bill White intimated in their article several weeks ago — also AA as a whole.

    • Bob c says:

      Good point. I believe we can read the big book and interpret it much differently than do fundamentalists and the back to basics sub genre group within AA. The “it’s about god” folks like to claim that text all to themselves (and almost always foster an Oxford Group version of AA history) when the big book contains lots of progressive ideas. Many of these do not conform to the quasi religious and selective interpretation of AA’s basic text.

    • Laurie A says:

      I read somewhere that Bill W objected to the plan to produce a ‘little Big Book’, the soft cover version with no stories. The fly leaf of the fourth edition of the Big Book includes this quote from a letter he wrote in 1953: ‘The story section of the Big Book is far more important than most of us think. It is the principal means of identifying with the reader outside AA: it is the written equivalent of speakers at an AA meeting; it is our show window of results.’ There are at least three stories in the fourth edition by writers with an agnostic experience of recovery – ‘I looked at the faces of the people in the room and I saw it. I saw the understanding, the empathy, the love. Today I believe I saw my Higher Power for the first time in their faces’ (Student for Life); ‘I can say that doubting God’s existence was no barrier at all to a spiritual experience. Also I can say that having such an experience didn’t lead me to any certainty about God. Alcoholics Anonymous gives me the freedom to believe or doubt as much as I need to.’ (Flooded with Feeling); ‘Alcoholics Anonymous, I was told, is a spiritual program, not a religious one. Through my years of darkness, some spark of spirit remained in me, helped me survive until I found my way into AA. Then, nurtured by the program that inner spirit grew, deepened until it filled the emptiness I had so long felt inside …’ (Because I’m an alcoholic).

      • Joe C says:

        Great point about the importance of the stories. Experience, strength and hope de-codifies AA back to an oral tradition. How noteworthy that stories are updated, 164 pages of instruction are the shining symbol of AA reification. While being instructed (or lectured) can be the least effective means of reaching each other, how can one disagree with another’s experience(s)?

        And as you suggest, our sacred 164 offer a token nod to non-theism as a short-term solution while complete abandonment to God enjoys all the cheap theatrics available to the writers of the day. The stories, on the other hand, include practical non-theistic practice of the principals common among AA members. Thanks Laurie.

  13. Joe C says:

    Hey Bob, do you take requests?

    I ditto the chorus of fans of your writing style. If your collection of AA influences find their way into a book, you’ll find that in my book collection.

    Back to the request – Would you to do what you just did with William James with Richard Rogers Peabody (1892 – 1936), author of The Common Sense of Drinking.

    Common Sense was on the night-side table or breakfast table of many pre-Big-Book AAs. As you know, Bob, Common Sense is a secular look at addiction and recovery and some of the first five chapters of the Big Book come from Peabody-isms, “half measures are of no avail” etc. I think that Common Sense is the source of much of the secular angle of the AA that Uncle Bill (Bill W) said, “was not invented, it was borrowed…” William James of course provided the religious AA language (spiritual).

    I can think of no better way to shine a light on the Peabody influence, that to have him resurrected in the Bob K style. I know a little of the burden of what I ask but Bob, again to ditto what’s been oft’ said, you da’ man.

    • bob k says:

      There is an essay on this site, dated Nov. 18, 2012, entitled Twentieth Century Influences on AA. Richard Peabody, and “Peabodyism” are prominent in this tale, and the other parts frame a context for the story of Peabody’s very secular “lay therapy.”

      Some time later, I acquired “The Road To Fellowship,” by Richard Dubiel. I wish I had had this excellent resource before penning my own piece. The influence of “The Common Sense of Drinking” on AA is extensive. Perhaps, Mr. Peabody deserves a rewrite.

      I think by Spring 2015, a book tentatively titled “Key Players in AA History” should be good to go.

  14. Christopher G says:

    Thanks, Bob. Informative, enlightening experience, of the “educational variety”.

  15. Denis K. says:

    Thank you Bob for this wonderful piece of AA history. Am looking forward with great anticipation to spring 2015 and “Key Players in AA History.”

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