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Is Addiction Ignorance? On Peg O’Connor’s “In the Cave: Philosophy and Addiction”

Thanks to Joshua Rocks for recommending O’Connor’s article.

1. Peg O’Connor pushes us to think metaphorically in her posting “In the Cave: Philosophy and Addiction.” Her summary of the Cave allegory in Plato’s Republic:

There is a cave in which prisoners are chained facing a wall. They cannot move their heads and therefore cannot look sideways or behind; they only can look forward. Behind them are a burning fire and a half wall where puppeteers hold up puppets that cast shadows. To the chained men, the shadows are real; they have no conception of the objects that cause the shadows. Appearance is mistaken for reality, and thus there is no real knowledge.

Now imagine that the prisoners are released from their chains. They look behind them and see the objects that caused the shadows. Most likely they will be confused and horrified and unwilling to accept that these objects caused the shadows. Imagine now that the prisoners start to leave the cave. They will be painfully blinded as soon as they encounter light. Once their eyes begin to adjust, they will be confronted by a harsh bright world with a whole host of horrifying objects. Some of the men will flee back to the safety of the darkness and shadows, valuing the familiar more highly than the unfamiliar. Anyone who returns and tells his friends who are still enchained what he has seen will be regarded as a nut lacking any credibility.

O’Connor is particularly concerned with people reacting badly to the light or even the possibility of light. This is all too reminiscent of an addict’s “reasoning:”

In various scenarios of addiction, the addicted person’s fixation on a shadow reality — one that does not conform to the world outside his or her use — is apparent to others. When the personal cost of drinking or drug use becomes noticeable, it can still be written off or excused as merely atypical. Addicts tend to orient their activities around their addictive behavior; they may forego friends and activities where drinking or drug use is not featured. Some may isolate themselves; others may change their circle of friends in order to be with people who drink or use in the same way they do. They engage in faulty yet persuasive alcoholic reasoning, willing to take anything as evidence that they do not have a problem; no amount of reasoning will persuade them otherwise. Each time the addict makes a promise to cut down or stop but does not, the chains get more constricting.

2. A large amount of Xenophon is devoted to illustrating that wisdom is moderation and its attendant ironies. Socrates is continually around handsome young men. There are times he may want one or another to get away from one he favors (Memorabilia I.3). We never see Socrates openly hitting on any of them. There is more going on here than such a depicted occurrence being distasteful. I suspect the attempted moderation of Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium and Alcibiades is taken for granted by Xenophon. Socratic eros does have higher aspirations.

If wisdom is moderation, doesn’t that mean ignorance is immoderation? Can addiction itself be ignorance? I’m not allowing for ignorance to be a species of addiction or vice versa just yet: can the metaphor point beyond itself and resolve into some truth about our experience?

O’Connor’s article really should be read in full. Toward the end, she starts putting together a case for allegory/myth as descriptive of a number of experiences empirical science may only inform. The key to such experiences are that they have to be communicated. We’re too fragile to work with them otherwise, especially if we can be characterized as addicts. We’ll relapse and lose our grip on all of reality. Our experiences do not translate into wisdom simply:

People relapse for all sorts of reasons, and often these have to do with old patterned ways of thinking and behaving that make a roaring comeback.

3. I think it is pretty obvious that “addiction = ignorance” is false. Ignorance encompasses many more phenomena than addiction. Oftentimes we run into people who don’t struggle with addiction of any sort because they don’t know anything. Their lives may not be led well at all. I know a number of men who will sit around and do absolutely nothing with their lives if given a chance. Is laziness or avoiding anything that looks like conflict an addiction?

Moreover, it is not clear why exactly anyone in the cave turns to the light. To be oppressed and to feel oppressed are two very different things. The philosopher is truly free, but that is partly because he belongs to another realm entirely. Does natural light extend into the cave at all? The fire mimics the sun.

At the same time, it is worthwhile to try to note where ignorance takes on the form of addiction. O’Connor is exactly right in pointing out that there is a denial of plausible narratives at work. We’re telling ourselves the only true story when we assert the rightness of our life against all others. There is no knowledge of ignorance, just simple ignorance. We might be able to describe our contentment with clearly failed conventional modes as an addiction of sorts. That gets tricky, though: sometimes conventionality fails because people have lost all respect for each other. In which case, insisting on things like “nobility” or “morality” or “compassion” may not be an addiction but rather an insistence that being human starts somewhere.

O’Connor’s got the right instincts. What truth is – especially when it comes to things like “self-knowledge” or “knowing another truly” – well, that’s really tricky. If we’ve got a narrative set up to fail and insist on using it, we might be addicts. I can safely say I’m not too happy with those who insist on a mechanistic explanation for everything. Recently I was involved in a discussion about why one would want to choose a certain location as opposed to another for a work of art. Everyone else involved in the discussion started listing costs and regulatory hurdles. The point I wanted to make, about the value the artist had for his own art and what he conceived it doing, was not worth bringing forth.

1 Comment

  1. Alas, I am not able to respond at length, but this topic is of particular interest, since I have worked with alcoholics and addicts, on and off for some time.

    The phrase, “stinking thinking” is heard often in treatment and in some 12 Step Programs.

    Also, clinicians recommend an “attitude of gratitude” to maintain ‘recovery’…

    I should say that one of my workplaces was very focused on Albert Ellis type Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy….(REBT)….

    In the HIV/AIDS ‘field’, I learned the Harm Reduction model….

    One way, ironically, of perceiving addicts is to see them as ‘perfectionists’ ! I have met many who saw behavior (their own, and every one else’s) as ‘perfect’ or ‘terrible’.

    “If I can’t complete this task satisfactorily, then I might as well discard it completely.’

    The negativity disguised as high standards can be insidious.

    The famed “serenity” many seek, is associated with “progress not perfection”..

    Oy, this is a bit frenetic….I appreciate this Blog and will try to be more responsive.

    Best wishes for a Healthy Creative 2012.

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