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Sobering Wisdom

Sobering Wisdom: Philosophical Explorations of Twelve Step Spirituality

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Sobering Wisdom
    Book Description:

    Originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous, the Twelve Step program now provides life direction for the millions of people worldwide who are recovering from addiction and undergoing profound personal transformation. Yet thus far it has received surprisingly little attention from philosophers, despite the fact that, like philosophy, the program addresses all-important questions regarding how we ought to live. InSobering Wisdom,Jerome A. Miller and Nicholas Plants offer a unique approach to the Twelve Step program by exploring its spirituality from a philosophical point of view.

    Drawing on a variety of thinkers from Aristotle to William James and from Nietzsche to Foucault, as well as a diverse range of philosophical perspectives including naturalism, Buddhism, existentialism, Confucianism, pragmatism, and phenomenology, the contributors to this volume address such questions as the relation of personal responsibility to an acknowledgment of powerlessness, the existence of a "higher power," and the role of virtue in recovery. Ranging in tone from deeply scholarly to intensely personal, their essays are written in an accessible way for a broad audience that includes not only philosophers, theologians, and psychologists but also spiritual directors, health professionals, and addiction counselors. Perhaps most important, the book is also conceived for those involved in Twelve Step programs whose lives are being transformed by the experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3654-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Thanks Giving
    (pp. viii-1)
    Jerome A. Miller and Nicholas Plants
    (pp. 2-2)
  6. INTRODUCTION: A Meeting Place for Philosophy and Twelve Step Spirituality
    (pp. 3-16)

    Imagine a meeting scheduled for seven o’clock on a wintry Wednesday evening in a small Kansas town. Although some urgent political or economic cause might motivate potential attendees to brave cold weather and bad roads, this meeting has a very different purpose. Those present will be invited to admit their powerlessness, to address deeply personal, painful issues, and to acknowledge their need to be transformed. Given such an agenda, it wouldn’t be surprising if no one came. But, in all likelihood, some peoplewillcome—and not just to this meeting in the American heartland. They’ll show up at similar...


    • Being Powerless to Change: The Wisdom of the First Step
      (pp. 19-29)

      There are times when there is nothing else in the world. Everything points either to it or away from it. It is the color spectrum that allows you to see the bright and the dull. That is the core truth of addiction.

      To be addicted is to live in a world colored by one’s object of addiction—it appears everywhere, in everything, behind each emotion, before each decision. Addiction comes in myriad forms, but these forms seem to share a common structure: addiction organizes one’s entire existence—it is the force around which a life comes to orbit. It defines...

    • Powerlessness and Responsibility in Twelve Step Narratives
      (pp. 30-41)

      The literature of Twelve Step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous contains apparently contradictory implications regarding powerlessness and personal responsibility. In this essay I examine the treatment of these concepts in Twelve Step literature and their implications for the self-conception of people in these programs. In the first section, I examine the literature to demonstrate that addicts are presented as powerless over, yet responsible for, their addictive behaviors. In the second section, I outline two potential ways people in Twelve Step programs might reconcile this contradiction within their self-conception, but I argue that neither is satisfactory. In the third section, I...

    • Vulnerability, Addiction, and Recovery
      (pp. 42-52)

      The First Step in Twelve Step programs is to admit one’s powerlessness in the face of addiction, and many of the other Steps require dependence on assistance from others and a Higher Power for healing and recovery. This admission and dependency are considered essential for confronting addiction. Yet one who is unable to resist temptations would seem incapable of free choice and action, which are often considered prerequisites for responsibility. This poses an interesting philosophical problem: can one who professes powerlessness against temptations and dependency on a higher power be responsible for her behavior, attitudes, and character?

      One answer will...

    • Addiction and Tears
      (pp. 53-64)

      A friend of mine, for many years a drug addict, once confided to me that being the lead speaker at a Twelve Step meeting was the most terrifying experience of his life. This admission resonated with me. The prospect of expressing oneself at a meeting can be dreadful, in part because one knows one is liable to break down and weep. But the revolutionary character of Twelve Step spirituality is due, I believe, to its discovery that the flow of tears has an uncanny power: it can melt addiction. The trauma of sobbing can be redemptive. The philosophical question is,...


    • An Inclusive Spirituality? Naturalism in the Twelve Step Tradition
      (pp. 67-77)

      The Twelve Step program is more than just a form of therapy designed to help addicts achieve and sustain physical sobriety. It is a spiritual program designed to reach the goal of sobriety by realizing itssummum bonum,a sober and spiritually whole life achieved through a sequence of spiritual experiences. As Twelve Step literature states, “A.A.’s twelve steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become usefully and happily whole.”¹ The title of the present anthology calls attention...

    • Atheism and Twelve Step Spirituality
      (pp. 78-88)

      In offering a plan for recovery from addiction, the Twelve Steps offer “a design for living” that even non-addicts might find attractive. Indeed, the spirituality of the Twelve Steps seems to recapture a vision of philosophy as a way of life rather than a merely academic discipline: the “Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”¹

      But the atheist or agnostic seeking relief from addiction and attracted to the design for living embodied...

    • Transcending the Power Struggle: Relating to the Infinite
      (pp. 89-100)

      In the following essay, I will attempt to show how the experience of one’s own powerlessness can lead one to acknowledge that a higher power plays a fundamental role in one’s recovery from addiction. Recognizing this higher power, I will argue, is a step toward correcting an erroneous conception of what is involved in one’s own struggle. By properly orienting oneself to the higher power, one can more truthfully orient oneself toward the real character of one’s addiction. My exposition will make no attempt, nor could it, to capture everyone’s experience of the powerlessness of addiction. While I will be...

    • “Ordinary” Spirituality: One Buddhist Approach to Imperfection
      (pp. 101-112)

      With their focus on acknowledging and accepting one’s failings as the basis of recovery, the Twelve Steps have been characterized as a spirituality of “giving up” or “resignation” that is at odds with its goals as a positive spiritual program. Similarly, in the Japanese Buddhist tradition of the True Pure Land School (Jōdo Shinshū), the paradoxical statement of Shinran that the proper subject of liberation through rebirth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is the “evil person” has been criticized as undermining traditional Buddhist morality. However, both the Twelve Steps and Shinran’s Pure Land tradition can be seen as...


    • The Sober Addict: A God Brought Low by Grace
      (pp. 115-125)

      According to the Twelve Step spiritual program of recovery, the movement from addiction to sobriety is made possible by the help of a power greater than the addict. Since alcoholics seek in the “high” of drunkenness a feeling of being godlike, allowing this Higher Power—as it is known—to work is one of the most critical elements of Twelve Step recovery. But Twelve Step recovery also warns that it is possible to approach sobriety as another kind of high in which the alcoholic views himself as above his alcoholism. Whether seeking a high through alcohol or through sobriety, the...

    • Paradoxes of Authenticity in Twelve Step Spirituality
      (pp. 126-137)

      While a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, the distinguished psychiatrist Viktor Frankl had to make an agonizing decision. He was offered the chance to escape the camp and had to decide whether or not to leave. Frankl had already lost his family, his manuscript, and almost his mind. He had been tattooed, shorn, starved, beaten, and desensitized. The Nazis had done all they could to make him lose his self-respect, and at times it seemed to him that his dignity had been taken away. So when he was given the chance to escape, it was just what Frankl most...

    • Is Twelve Step Spirituality Compatible with Autonomy? Foucault, “Care of the Self,” and Spiritual Surrender
      (pp. 138-150)

      It seems that some of the demands of Twelve Step spirituality are prima facie incompatible with a meaningful notion of personal autonomy, especially those steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous program for recovery that call for an admission of powerlessness and a surrender to God. In this essay I suggest, however, that these demands are better understood as benevolent and functionally oriented features of a program aimed atrestoringthe autonomy that alcoholism undermines. Much of the concern about these demands is due, I think, to a mistaken identification of Alcoholics Anonymous with a kind of Christian spirituality that is oppressive....


    • Being-Together-Toward Recovery
      (pp. 153-164)

      The Twelve Step program of recovery effects a transformation of relations with self, others and the divine. This essay offers a phenomenological analysis of how this transformation occurs. It tells the story of the journey from an isolated self, cut off from others, to a “responsible, productive member of society.”¹ It is about the changes in the ways active and recovering addicts perceive, value, belong, and relate to themselves, to other people, and to an ultimate source of value, divine or worldly.

      The essay is a phenomenology. Phenomenology is a very specific philosophical discipline that requires a new understanding of...

    • Friendship, Accountability, and Mutual Growth in Virtue
      (pp. 165-177)

      Central to the philosophy of the Twelve Step tradition is the notion that the welfare of the individual is inseparable from the human community to which that individual belongs. The first of the Twelve Traditions states, “Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends on A.A. unity.”¹ Solidarity is essential to Alcoholics Anonymous: “The unity of Alcoholics Anonymous is the most cherished quality our Society has. Our lives, the lives of all to come, depend squarely on it.Westay whole, or A.A. dies. Without unity, the heart of A.A. would cease to beat.”² Foundational to Twelve Step organizations...

    • Get Over Yourself: Self-Transformation in the Confucian and Twelve Step Traditions
      (pp. 178-190)

      Alcoholics Anonymous is most prevalent in the United States, where the Twelve Step tradition began. While extant in China and other Asian countries, AA has not thrived in the same way in Asia as it has in Western cultures, such as the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. In Beijing, a city of around twenty million, there are thirty-four meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous a week.¹ This can be compared with the approximately 3,100 weekly AA meetings that take place in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (an area with a population of around 16.3 million).² While there are certainly many factors...


    • The Virtues of the Twelve Steps
      (pp. 193-204)

      In her memoirDrinking: A Love Story,Caroline Knapp describes a moment of insight in which she came to see the Twelve Steps as something more than a path to sobriety:

      I was astonished to discover that only one of the twelve steps, the first one, mentions the wordalcohol(specifically, the admission of powerlessness over drink). The other eleven all have to do with getting by, with learning to be honest and responsible and humble, to own up to your mistakes when you make them, to ask for help when you need it. I remember sitting in on one...

    • Stoic Philosophy and AA: The Enduring Wisdom of the Serenity Prayer
      (pp. 205-217)

      Every day, millions of people all over the world begin a Twelve Step recovery meeting with the Serenity Prayer:“God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; Courage to change the things we can; And wisdom to know the difference.”¹ Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder Bill W. wrote of the prayer: “Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words.”² While this particular form of the prayer is generally attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), those familiar with ancient philosophy may hear in the Serenity Prayer echoes of a much older wisdom tradition. More specifically,...

    • Realizing Gratitude
      (pp. 218-230)
      S. E. WEST

      In retrospect, my personal experience of “hitting bottom,” however acutely felt, was not, in the end, very different from that of so many others who are experienced in recovery: fear and desperation at the life destruction of years of rampant alcoholism; a flood of shame and despair; addiction’s devious dissembling that made the words “I am powerless over alcohol” and “my life had become unmanageable” unspeakable; and acute anguish at what appeared to be equally horrendous choices—to continue to drink myself to death, or somehow to live without alcohol. My diametrically divided desires—to become sober and to flee...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-238)
  13. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 239-242)
  14. Index
    (pp. 243-256)