Alcoholic Pride

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Alcoholics are philosophers in that universal sense in which all human beings (and all mammals) are guided by highly abstract principles of which they are either quite unconscious, or unaware that the principle governing their perception and action is philosophic. A common misnomer for such principles is "feelings."115

This misnomer arises naturally from the Anglo-Saxon epistemological tendency to reify or attribute to the body all mental phenomena which are peripheral to consciousness. And the misnomer is, no doubt, supported by the fact that the exercise and/or frustration of these principles is often accompanied by visceral and other bodily sensations. I believe, however, that Pascal was correct when he said, "The heart has its reasons which the reason does not at all perceive.

But the reader must not expect the alcoholic to present a consistent picture. When the underlying epistemology is full of error, derivations from it are inevitably either self-contradictory or extremely restricted in scope. A consistent corpus of theorems cannot be derived from an inconsistent body of axioms. In such cases, the attempt to be consistent leads either to the great proliferation of complexity characteristic of psychoanalytic theory and Christian theology or to the extremely narrow view characteristic of contemporary behaviorism.

I shall therefore proceed to examine the "pride" which is characteristic of alcoholics to show that this principle of their behavior is derived from the strange dualistic epistemology characteristic of Occidental civilization.

A convenient way of describing such principles as "pride," "dependency," "fatalism," and so forth, is to examine the principle as if it were a result of deutero-

114 " R. G. Collingwood, The Idea ofNature, Oxford, Ox-ford University Press, 1945.

115 " G. Bateson, "A Social Scientist Views the Emotions," Expression of the Emotions in Man, P. Knapp, ed., International University Press, 1963.

learning116 and to ask what contexts of learning might understandably inculcate this principle.

(1) It is clear that the principle of alcoholic life which AA calls "pride" is not contextually structured around past achievement. They do not use the word to mean pride in something accomplished. The emphasis is not upon "I succeeded," but rather upon "I can.." It is an obsessive acceptance of a challenge, a repudiation of the proposition "I cannot."

(2) After the alcoholic has begun to suffer from —or be blamed for — alcoholism, this principle of "pride" is mobilized behind the proposition, "I can stay sober." But, noticeably, success in this achievement destroys the "challenge." The alcoholic becomes "cocksure," as AA says. He relaxes his determination, risks a drink, and finds himself on a binge. We may say that the contextual structure of sobriety changes with its achievement. Sobriety, at this point, is no longer the appropriate contextual setting for "pride." It is the risk of the drink that now is challenging and calls out the fatal "I can..

(3) AA does its best to insist that this change in con-textual structure shall never occur. They restructure the whole context by asserting over and over again that "Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic." They try to have the alcoholic place alcoholism within the self, much as a Jungian analyst tries to have the patient discover his "psychological type" and to learn to live with the strengths and weaknesses of that type. In contrast, the contextual structure of alcoholic "pride" places the alcoholism outside the self: "I can resist drinking."

(4) The challenge component of alcoholic "pride" is linked with risk-taking. The principle might be put in words: "I can do something where success is improbable and failure would be disastrous." Clearly this principle will never serve to maintain continued sobriety. As success begins to appear probable, the alcoholic must challenge the risk of a drink. The element of "bad luck" or "probability" of failure places failure beyond the limits of the self. "If failure occurs, it is not mine." Alcoholic "pride" progressively narrows the concept of "self," placing what happens outside its scope.

(5) The principle of pride-in-risk is ultimately almost suicidal. It is all very well to test once whether the universe is on your side, but to do so again and again, with increasing stringency of proof, is to set out on a project which can only prove that the universe hates you. But, still and all, the AA narratives show repeatedly that, at the very bottom of despair, pride sometimes prevents suicide. The final quietus must not be delivered by the "self."117

116 This use of formal contextual structure as a descriptive device does not necessarily assume that the principle discussed is wholly or in part actually learned in contexts having the appropriate formal structure. The principle could have been genetically determined, and it might still follow that the principle is best described by the formal delineation of the contexts in which it is exemplified. It is precisely this fitting of behavior to context that makes it difficult or impossible to determine whether a principle of behavior was genetically determined or learned in that context; see G. Bateson, "Social Planning and the Concept of Deutero-Learning," Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, Second Symposium, New York, Harper, 1942.

117 See Bill's Story, Alcoholics Anonymous, op. cit.

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