Philosophy and Addiction

Philosophy is one of the oldest areas of inquiry. Out of control behavior fueled by alcohol and other drugs is one of the world’s oldest problems. What could these old timers offer each other? Philosophy has a long, stable relationship with reason and more specifically, the relationship between reason, emotions and the will. Addiction seems to involve a total abdication of reason, a messy tangle of emotions and a lack of will.

I introduce the notion of addiction as a subject of philosophical inquiry here for a reason. I am a philosopher, yes, but I am also an alcoholic who has been sober for more than 24 years ― only the last four of them as part of a recovery program. I am often asked how I got and stayed sober for those first 19 years; it was because of philosophy, which engendered in me a commitment to living an examined life, and gave me the tools and concepts to do so. My training in moral philosophy made it natural for me to wrestle with issues of character, responsibility, freedom, care and compassion in both work and life.

Philosophy has always been about the pursuit of knowledge, but one that included the higher aim of living a good and just life. This pursuit has involved examining the nature of just about everything. Socrates’s guiding question was “what is it?” The “it” in question could be justice, piety, beauty, courage, temperance, or knowledge. For Socrates, these are the crucial virtues around which life should turn. Socrates’s agenda was to draw the line between what appears to be just or pious and what justice or piety really is. In the person of Socrates, Plato provides the powerful tools of conceptual analysis and allegory that can be fruitfully applied to the questions about addiction.

In his pursuit of knowledge about the nature of virtues, Socrates first had to debunk popular opinions about them. The debunking took the form of a dialogue but in reality more closely resembled a cross examination. Socrates looked for the essence, necessary property or ineliminable trait that made particular acts pious or just. Socrates interrogated every definition offered to him by asking for examples, pushing and pulling against those definitions, turning them inside out and upside down, stretching that definition to see if weird things followed, exploring what follows when a particular definition is put into practice and excavating hidden assumptions behind those definitions.

This isn’t exactly glamorous work but it is vital in the pursuit of knowledge of any sort. This kind of work prompted the 17th-century philosopher John Locke to describe himself as an under-laborer, clearing away the rubbish that gets in the way of acquiring knowledge. We now call this work conceptual analysis, one of the most powerful tools a philosopher has to wield.

How might philosophy approach or provide us with a better understanding of addiction? Socrates would ask, “What is it?” He would not be alone. Psychiatrists, psychologists, chemical dependency counselors and people in recovery programs the world over are constantly asking this question. Neuroscientists have now entered the fray, searching for both the cause and effective management of addiction. Yet there is no consensus. Defining addiction remains an area of heated debate.

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