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Fraser Trevor Fraser Trevor Author
Title: AA’s “Third Co-founder,” William James
Author: Fraser Trevor
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Cover of Varieties of Religious Experience The Big Book itself does not offer a defense of its own theological method, but one can ...
Cover of "Varieties of Religious Experien...
Cover of Varieties of Religious Experience
The Big Book itself does not offer a defense of its own theological method, but one can be found easily enough in the work of AA’s “Third Co-founder,” William James. James’ work was know to Bill Wilson, primary author of the Big Book and Co-founder of AA. Wilson was introduced to James’ Varieties of Religious Experience directly after he had a dramatic “white light” conversion experience while undergoing treatment for alcoholism. Wilson found comfort in James’ work, feeling that it validated and made reasonable an experience, which initially made Wilson worry for his sanity. As a pragmatist, James posited the fundamental value of experience—a thing was true because it worked, it did not work because it was true. Therefore, one need not appeal to anything outside human experience to find truth.

James developed a philosophical method he called “radical empiricism,” wherein one’s concepts arise as a result of one’s experiences, and are tested in further experience. For the radical empiricist, concepts are secondary and tentative, always subject to revision based on new experiential data. James found it inappropriate to begin with a conceptual system and expect reality to fit neatly into it. Rather than a “universe” where all things were organized according to a single principle, James proposed the possibility of a “pluraverse,” which could never be perfectly captured by any single conceptual framework.
…the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

Varieties of Religious Experience
James also suggests that religious experiences be evaluated by their “fruits” and not their “roots.” For James, the value and legitimacy of experiences lay in their effects, which are observable to the subject experiencing them. Thus, Wilson ’s experience was religious, and because its results were good—he was miraculously relieved of the desire to drink—the experience was valid and held a claim to truth. James would have encouraged Wilson to hold tentatively any concept of God he may have wanted to construct based upon his experience and to test that concept in light of further experiences.
If James’ definition of religion and his radical empiricism sound remarkably like the Big Book’s attitude toward spiritual matters and theological method, this is undoubtedly due to the influence James had on Wilson before he wrote the Big Book. It is possible to read the Big Book as an “applied” Varieties of Religious Experience. In the Big Book we find a radical empiricism, applied to religion, with a set of actions offered as an entrance into direct spiritual experience. The Big Book offers these actions without predicting the exact spiritual experience that will result for a given individual, nor does it impose any conceptions upon the reader.

While the Big Book is thoroughly Jamesian, it also succeeds in being more pragmatic than the great American pragmatist in its presentation of a “how to” version of the Varieties. What James’ work on religious experience lacks is any entry point into these experiences. James is unable to offer any actions that might bring one closer to the experiences he describes, and even feels that he himself is constitutionally incapable of having such experiences. Here, the Big Book closes the gap and offers clear instructions as to how a reader might enter into the world of the Varieties.

The defense James offers the Big Book’s theological method lies primarily in his championing of the value and legitimacy of experience as a basis for knowledge. James does not expect experience to be constant or stable or objective, nor does he understand the relative, unstable, and subjective nature of experience to be any detraction to the utility of experience as a means to knowledge. Rather, the expectation of constancy, stability, objectivity is an inappropriate conceptual imposition upon reality. Because the unity of reality cannot be directly experienced, but only posited by a philosopher and then systematically imposed at the expense of a great deal of experience that cannot be incorporated into the philosopher’s framework, the search for unity is an essentially flawed way to approach truth. Reality is not structured in such a way as to be easily conceptualized; therefore it is more appropriate to approach reality humbly, testing our ideas as we go.

The Big Book echoes this sentiment in theological terms in its assertion quoted above that “it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.” God, in the Big Book, is beyond human understanding, but not beyond human experience. Through human experience, some tentative knowledge about God can be acquired and tested. Diverse conceptions of God can exist side-by-side in a context of similar religious experiences based upon a shared program of action without having to agree with one another, and each can still maintain its provisional claim to truth.
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