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William James + Bill Wilson [BONUS 7.2]

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

In this Bonus BONUS episode, we’re diving into who William James is and how his works contributed to Bill Wilson’s founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.  We’re wading through several works included in the Resources list below that explore the genesis of this famous 12-step program.

If you enjoyed this bonus episode, be sure to check out the additional resources in the Show Notes, below...


  • [2:14] Abstract from “William James, Bill Wilson, and the development of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.).” by John D. McPeake

  • [3:38] Beginning of “William James and AA” by Bob K.

  • [4:42] Bill’s grandfather’s climb to Mt. Aeolus and relief of his alcohol obsession

  • [5:18] Discussion of The Varieties of Religious Experience

  • [8:00] Discussion of William James’s ABCs

  • [8:55] AA Big Book’s ABCs

Our description of the alcoholic, the chapter to the agnostic, and our personal adventure before and after make clear three pertinent ideas:

(a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.

(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.

(c) That God could and would if He were sought.” (AA Big Book, p. 60)  

  • [9:28] William James’ ABCs in Varieties:

(a) calamity;

(b) admission of absolute defeat;

(c) appeal to a higher power for help.

  • [10:24] William James’ depression and family of origin

  • [11:29] Henry James Jr. and his famous writings

  • [12:23] The James’ family depression

  • [12:35] Swedenborgianism 

  • [14:06] Discussion of William James’ childhood 

  • [16:08] William James and pragmatism

  • [18:19] Discussion of William James and Bill Wilson’s similarities 


  • [4:21] “I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a mountaintop blew through and through.” --Bill W., AA Big Book, p. 14

  • [4:36] “It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain…” --Bill W., AACOA, p. 63

  • [5:55] “The book [The Varieties of Religious Experience] was not easy reading, but I kept at it all day. By nightfall, this Harvard professor, long in his grave, had, without anyone knowing it, become a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.” --Bill W., My First 40 Years, p. 151

  • [6:10] “Spiritual experiences could have objective reality… they could transform people. Some flowed out of religious channels; others did not… Complete hopelessness and deflation at depth were almost always required to make the recipient ready. The significance of it all burst upon me. Deflation at depth – yes, that was it.” --Bill W., AACOA, p. 64

  • [7:23] “This underlined linkage with a major figure in American intellectual history was therefore eminently useful to him. He made pragmatic use of the pragmatic James – with all the helpful connotations of this to those looking for ‘results,’ for the ‘cash-value’ of the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous.” --Ernest Kurtz, Not-God, pp. 23-24

  • [8:18] “…I began to see that all the experiences cited, or at least nearly all of them, had certain common denominators…The first was calamity. Nearly every recipient described had met utter defeat in some controlling area of his life…Each had been in despair and seen no way over, under, or around…The next condition was the admission from the very depths of being that defeat was utter and absolute.” --Bill W. describing his initial reaction to William James’ book Varieties, written about in My First 40 Years, p. 151

  • [9:52] “This appeal could take innumerable forms. It might be accompanied by a faith in God or it might not, but an appeal it had to be. The cry for help could course through religious channels, or a despairing agnostic could look at a growing tree and, reflecting on how the tree could respond to the law of its own nature and he, the human, could not, he might raise his voice to the god (sic) of nature.” --Bill W. discussing the option of God in My First Forty Years, pp. 151-152

  • [14:51] “I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I had ever heard being the first one I gave.” --Ralph Borton Perry, from The Thought and Character of William James, Vol. 1, 1996 Edition, p. 228

  • [16:31] “Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” --William James

  • [16:54] “Beliefs were ways of acting with reference to a precarious environment, and to say that they were true was to say they (were efficacious) in this environment.” --Bruce Kuklick, Pragmatism, p. xiv 

  • [17:12] “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” --AA quote

  • [19:26] “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.  Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.  It is in fact the great exciter of the yes function in man.” Bill W., Varieties, p. 282

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