Interview With a Philosopher: Aristotle and Wittgenstein Walk Into a Bar -- Philosophy and Addiction

We're in a sense continuing our discussions of philosophy and beverages that bring a buzz. We've covered the bitter and frothy brews, coffee and beer. Now it's time to look at the buzz itself when it goes bad, and too far. Today, after a nice, long summer vacation, I'm talking to Peg O'Connor, Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College. Peg is finishing a book, On the Rocks Is a Form of Life: Philosophy and Addiction, for the general reader. She portrays a street running in both directions: recovering people can benefit from philosophy and, in turn, philosophy has more than a thing or two to learn from people in recovery. She, for one, is very happy to be walking along that path herself.

Tom: Certain things just go together -- peanut butter and jelly, cheese and crackers, tequila and lime -- but philosophy and addiction, some would say, not so much. What's the connection?

Peg: I think many alcoholics are philosophers searching for a, or the, meaning of life. We often just looked in the wrong places for a long time. Addicts are frequently very philosophical; we tend to be armchair thinkers. Addicts struggle with issues of self-identity, self-knowledge and self-deception, the nature of God, existential dilemmas, marking the line between appearance and reality, free will and voluntariness, and moral responsibility. These are prompted by acute instances of self-examination and reflection about how to live well.

Tom: Talking about self-examination and living well reminds me of the ancient Greeks. Have they influenced you?

Peg: While my main source of inspiration is the twentieth century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, my basic orientation belongs firmly in the world of ancient Greece. Socrates saw philosophy as an activity and a way of living. Philosophy was an orientation in the world based on self-examination and improvement. Aristotle argued that the happiest life is the virtuous life, that only virtuous men can realize this, and that our friends matter importantly to both character and happiness. Friends can make us better. The wrong ones can also make us much worse off. Almost any alcoholic would say the same thing.

Tom: Now, I have to ask: Why Wittgenstein? Extending his work to addiction seems a stretch that would challenge even Gumby.

Peg: Wittgenstein wrote that "Work on philosophy... is really more work on oneself. On one's own conception. On how one sees things. (And what one expects of them.)" For Wittgenstein, the philosopher's work is liberating herself and others from bewitching pictures, skewed conceptual schemes, unreasonable and perhaps unjustified expectations. Above all else, philosophy ought to aim for clarification -- of the self, one's place in the world, and the ways we make meaning. Philosophy, when practiced well, can be useful. It can enable us to grapple in productive ways with questions about the meaning of life and who I am and how I want to be in the world. These are the issues that Wittgenstein thought were the most important.

Tom: I'm always preaching the usefulness of philosophy. Any examples from Wittgenstein that would help make the case?

Peg: One of the most obvious is his concept, or notion, of a "form of life," which he uses in two different, though not entirely unrelated, ways. The first way is to mark off the differences between human beings and other animals. The other is to delineate different fundamental orientations, ways of living, or world-views among us humans. Naturalistic evolutionary biologists and fundamentalist Christians, for example, could be said to have two different forms of life. Where the scientist sees the earth and its inhabitants as products of evolution extending over millions of years, with blind chance mutations and adaptations as the driving force, a fundamentalist Christian sees God's authorship and workmanship. An evolutionary biologist and a fundamentalist may see the same chimpanzee sitting in a cage, but in another important way, they do not. And they may approach the details of their lives in very different ways.

Tom: You're suggesting that there is a sense in which, on Wittgenstein's view, people with different enough world-views just live in different worlds, layered on top of a very basic world they share in common.

Peg: Yes, that's what Wittgenstein sought to understand. In many ways, I think active alcoholics have a form of life different from that of recovered alcoholics, as well as from that of non-alcoholics. The world we all share is the same in important respects. But in some deep ways, the lived world and its meanings are radically different. Consider some differences between people with long-term sobriety and those who are actively alcoholic, or even newly entering a recovery program. An unrecovered alcoholic often can't even understand the alcoholic who says, "Your life will be better without alcohol. You will like yourself more. You will have more friends and a lot more fun." To the unrecovered, people in recovery can seem preachy and sanctimonious. Early on, no matter how many times and in how many ways a long-timer says this, what the unrecovered person hears is more like, "Blah, blah, serenity. Blah, blah, blah, serenity," as a great Gary Larson cartoon reminds us.

Non-alcoholics can't fathom alcoholics, those of us who would risk our livelihoods, families, and whatever else we hold near and dear in order to drink. We can offer huge chains of reasoning that make sense to us, and to other alcoholics. But to non-alcoholics, unless they've been enlisted in enabling us, we can seem to be beyond logic and sanity.

Tom: Do you think all active alcoholics have some deep commonalities?

Peg: Alcoholics share what Wittgenstein identified as a family resemblance. I may not have been arrested for drunk driving, but I was willing to risk expulsion from school. Someone else may have engaged in all sorts of risky sexual behaviors, while another regularly forgot or didn't bother to eat, since she was too busy drinking. These behaviors and experiences share similarities and they crisscross and overlap. Together, they comprise a weave or pattern that's common.

Tom: Clearly, the form of life of the active alcoholic is not absolutely impermeable to influence from outside itself. And that influence seems to happen in AA meetings. What's so important about alcoholics sharing their stories with each other?

Peg: Telling and listening to stories is one of the important ways that alcoholics recover. The narrative that each person tells herself and others is a big part of how we construct our self-identities. It's one of the most important ways that we make sense of our past and present and understand our hopes for the future. It's a way that we feel like we belong to certain groups. In constructing our narratives, we identify which particular events or experiences were formative or transformative. In telling our stories, we also claim some authority over our own experiences and their meanings.

As we begin to explicitly interpret our experiences ("No, I wasn't really happy drinking then, but rather miserable"), we assert a kind of ownership of our feelings and actions. As we also listen to others do the same, we can often begin to reinterpret our experiences in light of the experiences, insight, and guidance of those others. In taking ownership of our experiences, actions, beliefs, and values and creating a narrative about ourselves, we must also then take responsibility.

Tom: Where and how does God fit in the mix? Some people are wary of AA because of the invocation of God or Higher Power. What's an atheist or agnostic to do?

Peg: This is one place where philosophy has a lot to offer. Questions about God and His/Her/Its Nature have been contested for millennia. There's a great variation in religious conceptions of God's nature and role in life as well as intriguing similarities. The work of William James on the this topic was deeply influential on Bill W and the initial formulations of the steps, and what then became the program of AA. This explains why the steps include language such as "a power greater than ourselves," and "God as we understood him" (italics original). What's crucial is that each person has her own sense of something greater than the self. For some, God is a benevolent being right there by her side. For others, the Higher Power is simply akin to "more power than I alone have." The fellowship and friendships are the higher power for many. As some say, "God" stands for "Group of Drunks."

Tom: I've often wondered if there's a paradox associated with admitting powerlessness in the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous. Is it actually empowering to admit powerlessness?

Peg: I think Kierkegaard is helpful here (and in a lot of other places, too). Kierkegaard wrote in the Concept of Anxiety that the worry is not so much that I might fall off the cliff but rather that I will jump. We recognize that we hold possibilities in our hands and we have freedom to act. Anxiety can save us if it brings us to have a more self-conscious critical reflection. Anxiety is the dizziness we experience when we recognize we hold the freedom and responsibility for our life choices. More than anyone, alcoholics have a very clear sense of this dizziness, especially when we were coming to realize our own powerlessness over alcohol and that we could act differently. So yes, there is a paradox. The acknowledgment of powerlessness does empower. We humans are powerless over a whole host of factors and conditions in the world, and mostly we're not bothered by these. I can't overrule gravity or turn away an approaching hurricane. I'm powerless over those things, yet this doesn't mean that I can't act with responsibility. I can pack provisions and head to my cellar as a storm approaches. Those actions are within my control. I can still make choices, some of which are much better than others.

Tom: So we end up with the issues of freedom, responsibility, and making better choices -- all quintessential philosophical concerns.

Peg: Absolutely.

Tom: A good place to end up. Thanks, Peg for the chance to glimpse how you, as a philosopher, grapple with the profound issue of addiction, a life problem much more pervasive than most people realize.