If one wishes to survey the psychological underpinnings of what has become the world’s largest organization dedicated to the treatment and recovery of alcoholics, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), one need look no further than William James. James was an American philosopher and psychologist who lived from 1842 until 1910. The first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced. Others have labeled him as the “Father of American psychology.” He began his professional education with a medical degree from Harvard University followed by a three-year fellowship in physiology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. After completing his fellowship, James returned to Harvard where among many other accomplishments, he published the first textbook surveying the nascent field of psychology. As the years passed, James became increasingly interested in the spiritual and religious experiences mentioned by his patients and the seeming potential those experiences held to dramatically (albeit infrequently) reshape their neuroses. James spent much of the rest of his life studying these religious and spiritual experiences and the “psychological rearrangements” that they occasionally produced.
James regularly discussed alcoholism in his writings. As discussed by James’ biographer Lawrence Mayfield, “the occurrence of alcoholism in James’ immediate family was a factor that contributed to his interest.” James believed that alcoholism likely involved a hereditary component that made it beyond the alcoholic’s control to stop drinking, a revolutionary idea at the time. Sadly, James died in 1910 and never saw how much he helped Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was twenty-five years after James’ death that Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, first encountered and then enthusiastically read James’ seminal work, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” The fact that James was a highly respected psychologist did much to convince Wilson of the potential power of the spiritual realm. Wilson believed James’ account of spiritual experiences given in “Varieties of Religious Experience,” and it was this basic idea, the idea of a transformative, spiritual encounter, that became the basis of what was to become Alcoholics Anonymous. James’ ideas about religion, spirituality, and psychology were major influences on Wilson, a fact hinted at by a well-known detail that James is the only author cited in Wilson’s book “Alcoholics Anonymous.”
James’ ultimate contribution came in the form of his description of the different ways that one might encounter the divine or spiritual or in AA jargon, find a “higher power.” James’ ecumenical inclinations can be seen in AA as well. James did not believe one religion was any better than any other. Rather, he believed that all religions had the potential to be helpful, constructive, and even transformative, given that the individual participant is open and willing. Despite all of AA’s early founders being conservative, evangelical Christians, AA has consistently maintained ecumenical, and one might even go as far as to say anti-institutional religious sentiments. Instead of becoming a Christian sobriety society, in large part because of James’ non-denominational approach to spirituality, AA has become an international organization that helps individuals of all religions achieve sobriety. It would be impossible to overstate James’ impact on the development of AA.
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