There is a paucity of publications about western philosophy and addiction, which is somewhat odd given William James’s influence on the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is also strange because addiction, for many, is a search for the meaning of life. Addiction is a deeply existential condition; it is all about how human beings live with the choices we make. While philosophy has become a specialized discipline in institutions of higher education, philosophy originally was concerned with living life well, which requires a high degree of self-examination. Socrates professes, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If recovered people are good at anything, it is examining our lives and taking responsibilities for the choices that we have made. It is in this spirit that I undertake the work of using some of the concepts of western philosophy to help addicts to make sense of our experiences and our lives. It is through this that we make our meaning of life.
Addicts struggle with issues of self-identity, moral responsibility, self-knowledge and self-deception, the nature of God, existential dilemmas, marking the line between appearance and reality, free will and voluntariness, and freedom. These are some of the perennial questions of philosophy and discussions of them throughout the millennia have yielded many different approaches. Accordingly, this blog will reflect some of those differences and put them to good use. For example, listening to recovered alcoholics wrestle with the question whether we are the same persons as before when we drank is fascinating. The continuity of identity is a question that was particularly animating for John Locke, for example, who argued in the 1600s that memories are the ties that bind and create continuity. But what happens with black out drinkers who lack memories? This is just the sort of question that grabs hold of addicts.
The power of philosophy is that it treats the whole person and examines what is called the human condition. Philosophy tends to avoid reductionist tendencies or at least provides significant counterbalance to the reductionist tendencies that seem to appear more in the natural and social sciences. Philosophy, unlike many of the sciences, embraces the normative/value questions and encourages a deep exploration of them. Humans are social and moral animals, and keeping this fact front and center is one of the roles of philosophy. This is particularly crucial with respect to questions about addiction, especially in a context in the emerging scientific explanation that certain chemicals or behaviors hijack the brain; addicts in effect have or are hijacked or addicted brains. Addiction has been medicalized; it is regarded as a psychological or chemical, genetic/biological condition. While the brain’s chemistry is an important component to addiction, a scientific explanation only touches on one dimension of addiction. Another dimension that science passes right by contains the inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes that many addicts end up wrestling as part of the human condition. And this is just where philosophy can be helpful.
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