The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.


JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we are going to explore "The Meaning of Addiction." With me is Professor Francis Seeburger, chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Denver. Dr. Seeburger is author of The Stream of Thought and also Addiction and Responsibility. Welcome. Frank.

FRANCIS SEEBURGER, Ph.D.: Thank you. It's good to be here.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you. You've taken a unique approach, I think, to the question of addiction by applying the philosophical method to the notion of addiction. You've suggested that we need to clarify what we mean when we even talk about addiction -- that there's a lot of uncertainty. So why don't I begin by asking you: what does it mean to be addicted?

SEEBURGER: OK. What I find of interest in the whole topic of addiction focuses on that, and essentially what I would argue is that being addicted can't be reduced to any mere physical condition, or even any psychological condition as such, but that it instead has to do with something fundamental in human beings, and touches on the search for meaning that tends to define what it is to be human in the first place. So the term that I use to try and capture the notion of addiction is I speak of an existential definition of addiction, and that's kind of a long word, just to mean that what's at issue in addiction, as I see it, is a matter of the meaning or the sense with which one's trying to invest one's life, or that it emerges out of the pursuit of a sense in which one can invest oneself. There's a line that I use in the book that I borrow from William Burroughs. William Burroughs is, as I'm sure you know, one of the founders of the Beat generation.

MISHLOVE: Yes -- the author of Naked Lunch.

SEEBURGER: Yes, Naked Lunch in particular, right, and an earlier work of Burroughs which addressed drug addiction, narcotics addiction in particular, called Junky. In the preface to that Burroughs mentions that the addiction to narcotics, that junk addiction, or being a junkie, he says is not a pursuit of a kick or of a high, but that it's rather a way of life. And I think that we need to look at addiction in that kind of a focus, where we treat it not as just merely a condition brought on by the ingestion of drugs, for example, or something which we trace back merely to personality or psychological causes, but something that involves how we project ourselves into a given way of life.

MISHLOVE: Well, Burroughs also said, as I recall, that nobody chooses to become an addict.

SEEBURGER: Right. He has a very good way of putting it. He says no one wakes up one morning and decides to become an addict. It's not a career choice. One doesn't decide when you grow up you want to be an addict; it's not that sort of a thing. Yes, he's very insistent, and I think correctly, that the idea that addiction is in any direct sense chosen by the individual finally won't work -- that no one wants to be an addict in that sense of it. But at the same time, the very nature of addiction, if you start thinking about it, connects to a much broader tradition and a broader horizon that has to do with more maybe everyday things, just simply like being tempted. Anyone who's maybe had too much of a fondness for chocolate, for example, knows what it's like to feel tempted -- the desire to eat one more piece of candy, or just something of that sort. And the temptation there is precisely a matter of you don't want to do it, but in another sense one does have that want; there is a desire to do it. I have a friend about whom I tell this story in the book, of someone who like myself had a long history of smoking, of nicotine addiction, and how he at one point, in an attempt to try and kick the habit of smoking, sought out the help of a hypnotherapist, and was going to therapy on a regular basis. After the third or fourth session he asked the therapist, "Well, when does this begin to work?" And the reply that the therapist gave him was, "Well, it won't work until you want to quit." And my friend replied, "Well, if I wanted to quit I wouldn't need you." But I think that touches something essential -- that I don't think we can forget the role that choice plays in the formation of addiction. But it doesn't play a role at what we might call the meta level of choosing to be an addict as such, but it rather expresses itself in a whole host of minor, apparently non-consequential choices, that then build up into a commitment that is literally out of one's own hands now, that's gotten out of hand in a fundamental way.

MISHLOVE: Well, I know one of the things that you're saying in all of this is that the notion of addiction is something that underlies the many different manifestations that it might have, whether it's alcohol or nicotine or junk or chocolate.

SEEBURGER: Right. Exactly.

MISHLOVE: Some people even suggest that sexual habits are addictive.

SEEBURGER: Yes, sexual acting-out for example.

MISHLOVE: And many other things.

SEEBURGER: Right. A common way this is talked about is the distinction between substance addiction and process addiction, and in the example you gave of sexual acting-out, it's as if one is addicted to a process, a process of doing certain things in certain ways under certain circumstances. Jogging or exercise -- I think most of us know people that, maybe we think it's only loosely, but nevertheless will characterize themselves as addicted to exercise of one type or another.

MISHLOVE: Or a workaholic might be a better example.

SEEBURGER: Workaholism.

MISHLOVE: I think most people would not categorize exercise as an addiction because it doesn't seem to be unhealthy.

SEEBURGER: Right. Well, one of the interesting things about any addiction is if you look just at the unit of behavior, if you look just at what the addict is doing in a given case -- whether it be working, acting out some sexual fantasy, taking a drug, taking an alcoholic drink -- none of those in isolation are just looked at out of context as at all peculiar. What makes someone an addict is not a function of specifically the action in which they're involved. It's not the specific behavior that they may be pursuing, but it's the relationship of that behavior to their own underlying sense of what they're up to and of who they are, so that what makes one man an alcoholic and another person not an alcoholic, or one woman an alcoholic and the next one not, is not necessarily a matter of how much they drink or when they drink, but it's how that is integrated and given meaning in the context of their relationship to the alcohol. The same with anything that one can get addicted to.

MISHLOVE: Now, when you write about the addictive mind, you use the classic story of an alcoholic as being somebody who feels guilty because they drink, and then they drink to get rid of the feeling of guilt that they have.

SEEBURGER: Yes. There's a wonderful little story from The Little Prince, the children's fairy tale classic by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Little Prince visits one planet inhabited by a tippler, and he sees the tippler tippling, drinking a great deal, and looking morose, so the Little Prince asks, "Why do you drink so much?" And the tippler replies, "I drink so much because I'm ashamed." And the Little Prince, wanting to be helpful, asks, "Well, what are you so ashamed of?" and the reply is, "Because I drink." So the very conditions that are brought on or worsened by the addiction -- in this case by the consumption of alcohol -- the very conditions that are worsened by the addictive practice become justification in the thought of the addict for continuing that very practice. So it becomes a system that builds in escalation. It reproduces itself at ever higher levels.

MISHLOVE: And as a cognitive philosopher, you might find some fault in the logic.

SEEBURGER: Well, in any traditional sense of it, it's totally illogical. And that's why those of us who've had any dealings -- and virtually all of us have, if not everyone -- with people who are addicted to something, it's impervious; it's like trying to get through to them, or to understand the mechanism of their thinking, just strikes us who are not maybe in the same place at that moment, as bizarre, as unfathomable. But I think it's very fathomable, when you get down to it, but in that peculiar kind of circular way. We all, I think, are familiar with how we can fall into a circle in our thinking, where we'll use the very thing that we're trying to get away from as a kind of excuse to keep playing with it, keep dealing with it. And addiction manifests that kind of circularity to a very high degree.

MISHLOVE: And when one is locked into that kind of a circular thought pattern, people who are outside of it must seem to be maybe criticizing the addiction, seem to be as illogical as the addict seems to them.

SEEBURGER: Exactly. Looked at inside -- I mean, from where the addict is standing -- then we who are not in that position are the ones that appear bizarre. I use an analogy in the book about in restaurants, with any of us who have children, you used crayon colorings, where the job is to try and figure out the animal that's hidden in the foliage of some tree, for example. And I know that I probably do it more as an adult than when I was a kid, but I'll look at those things, and you stare at them trying to see the cat or the dog or whatever the creature is, and you cannot make it form before your eyes, and then perhaps in disgust you set it down and glance back at it, and there it is all of a sudden. There's the cat up in the tree, like a Cheshire cat. And from then on you can't not see it. It's like that kind of a thing. Until one has internalized the perspective that the addict occupies, it looks totally illogical. One can't really see what's at issue, but within addiction itself what looks to us as illogical seems totally logical. That's, I think, one of the aspects that makes addiction so difficult to deal with, to respond to, in appropriate ways.

MISHLOVE: You've compared addiction to being very similar to saintliness in some peculiar ways, and I think when we examine this we get very close to the heart of addiction.

SEEBURGER: Right. There's a sense in which addiction, especially at its more extreme forms, if you will -- a sense in which addiction has a kind of terrifying purity to it. Just last week I was talking to a friend of mine who happens to be a recovering alcoholic, and he told me a story that I just think illustrates this aspect nicely. He was talking about being with a companion, walking through a city park back in a town in Colorado where we live, and it was early morning, and he noticed some people whom he decided were probably destitute alcoholics climbing out from under cardboard boxes and park benches, and then getting together and sort of stretching in the sun and passing around a bottle of wine. And my friend said that there was a part of him, although he's been without a drink now for a number of years -- has been a recovering alcoholic, carefully trying to follow the program that he thinks he should -- he said there was part of him still that found that incredibly attractive -- that idea that that's not a bad way to be. That's what I mean, sort of, by the terrible purity of it -- that there's a willingness almost on the part of the addict to go to extremes that the rest of us find threatening and want to back off from. And in the same way, if we look back at the chronicles of the various saints within Christianity, for example, we find that what strikes us is that willingness to go to extremes, a kind of extremity in the behavior. There are all sorts of stories of that. The one I use in the book of Saint Anthony is as good as any, and Athanasius in The Life of Anthony tells the story of how Anthony was a fairly well-to-do young man; his family by the standards of the day was fairly well off. His mother and father died when he was just a young man, leaving him with the estate, with the farm in Egypt, and the care of his younger sister. And so Anthony, having been raised a devout Christian, one Sunday -- I assume it was Sunday anyway -- one day he was going into church, and the homily, the sermon that day, was about a passage, I think it's in Matthew, the Gospel According to Matthew, in which a rich young man approaches Jesus, and the rich young man asks, "Well, what do I need to do to attain salvation? And Jesus' reply is, "Well, obey the commandments; you know, the commandments." And the young man says, "Well, yes, I've been obeying them just by nature since I can remember." And the response which Jesus then gives is, "Well, you lack only one thing. What you need to do is to go sell everything you own and give the proceeds to the poor, and then come and follow me." In the Gospel the rich young man goes away in obvious dejection, that it's more than he's willing to contemplate at least at that point in the story. Well, when Anthony in church heard this, he took it as personally addressed to him. I think most of us might hear that in church and find it interesting, but we wouldn't experience it as a personal command.

MISHLOVE: Most people have no intention of giving away all of their property to follow a religious path.

SEEBURGER: Exactly. But that's exactly what Anthony did, or almost did. He went and sold all of his estate, and gave most of the proceeds to the poor. But he kept back a little bit to take care of his sister; he wanted to be sure that she would have security. So the very next Sunday, the story continues, Anthony went back to church, and then the text for the homily that day was another Gospel story, the message of which, the admonition of which is, "Don't worry about tomorrow. Be like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, and don't be concerned with tomorrow." Well, he took that equally to heart, and assumed that that too was addressed to him very personally, and therefore went out and took the remainder of the proceeds from the sale of his estate and gave them away.

MISHLOVE: The money he had set aside to care for his sister.

SEEBURGER: Right, for his sister. He gave that away, and then turned his sister over to the care of a group of devout women who were living in the outskirts of town. And then Anthony himself took off into the Egyptian desert, eventually ended up in a deserted fort, where the stories are that he stayed for thirty years.

MISHLOVE: And became one of the founders of the desert fathers.

SEEBURGER: Yes, and he's known as the father of monks within Christian tradition.

MISHLOVE: And he was greatly tempted by visions of demons, as I recall.


MISHLOVE: But it seems what you're suggesting is that the addict is like Saint Anthony in willingness to give up all their possessions to pursue the addiction.

SEEBURGER: That's right. Nothing else will take on the importance that the addiction does. Finally an alcoholic is the person who's willing to put everything at risk for the sake of drinking, continuing to drink. A drug addict is a person who's willing to put everything at risk, to let it all go if necessary, in order to preserve the addiction, in order to keep on using the drug in question.

MISHLOVE: You suggest in your writing that there's almost something healthy about it in that those of us who live kind of a middling life -- you know, we remain members of normal society, and we have an income, and maybe a retirement account, and so on -- that we're missing out on that intense edge.

SEEBURGER: Yes, very much so. One thing, despite all of the obvious negative aspects of addiction, but when one thinks of the life of an addict, it's one in which each moment is invested with incredible power or significance for the addict himself or herself. It's a matter, for instance, not just of the using of the given substance -- alcohol or drugs -- but of the preparing to use it. Addicts love ritual. There's a tendency to ritualize the circumstances in which they will take a drug, or practice whatever addiction they practice. What one gets, in effect, for addiction, the payoff for it at that point, is that each and every moment takes on meaning, takes on a tremendous significance. When you wake up in the morning, one can aim at the drug or the drink or the acting-out, whatever is at issue, and even if that only takes -- the actual acting-out, or the actual drug taking or drinking -- only a small part of the day, everything else is focused upon that, just as everything in, let's say, a saint's life can be focused upon the prayer which brings him into direct contact with God.

MISHLOVE: But obviously an outsider would say -- I think you would say -- that what they've done is just the opposite. They've given up all real meaning and exchanged it for the addiction.

SEEBURGER: The paradox, I think, that comes in at that point is that yes and no. I mean, they have, but precisely by doing that they've put themselves in a position where now if they can just break through the one thing left they're free of it all; they're free of the limitation which the rest of us feel constantly just by our unwillingness to go too far. I often think of Herman Melville and Moby Dick and the character of Ahab within Moby Dick, who is to most of us of course very extreme and radical, but in contrast the wisdom of Ishmael, the narrator, is not ever to go too far from shore, perhaps. And the benefit of never going too far from shore, never going too extreme, is of course that one may have security. But the price that one pays is perhaps the exploration of who one really is, and the discovery of that. And addicts, while through the addiction itself they lose themselves -- I think they do the opposite of discover themselves; they lose themselves instead -- but through that very process, if they can be brought to finally taking the step past addiction into recovery from it, it can bring a tremendous liberty, so that it's as if addicts are people who spend their lives looking until they finally find the one thing that they can prove they ought to stay away from, and then they use it repeatedly until that's demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt. And finally then they can be free of the need to pursue not only the addiction, but to pursue other things addictively. Part of the use, I think, of the notion of addiction as it emerges in our culture today is that it applies not only to those we stereotypically think of as addicts, but we can use it as a critical concept to analyze our own social practices, our own relationship to the food we eat, those aspects of our own life in which something like addiction is present.

MISHLOVE: Well, you seem to be suggesting -- if I can paraphrase what I think you're saying -- that addicts, people who develop major addictions, are so intent upon some longing that they don't understand, but we might call it the longing for God in some sense -- that they push themselves to hit bottom, so that they then have the opportunity to recover from that and to find ultimately a sense of themselves in a deeper way, that those who have never been addicted will never understand.

SEEBURGER: That's right, yes. At one point in the book I discuss addiction as a paradoxical cure for idolatry, that is, for the relationship of being satisfied, resting satisfied, with anything short of God, to use that term that you did. It's the same kind of thought that, interestingly enough, that Carl Jung, C.G. Jung, in his --

MISHLOVE: The great Swiss psychiatrist.

SEEBURGER: Yes, exactly. It turns out that Jung played a role in the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is not commonly known, and it was unintentional on his part. But he treated a person for alcoholism who then, a couple of steps removed, became instrumental in one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W, finding his way to sobriety. At any rate, many years later Bill wrote Carl Jung expressing thanks on behalf of Alcoholics Anonymous for his unintentional role in the whole thing. And Jung in the reply that he wrote back, which was towards the end of Jung's life in the early sixties -- in the reply that Jung wrote back he said that he, in the case of alcoholism such as the patient whom he had treated, such as involved there, said that the desire for alcohol in his judgment was a lower-level, distorted form of the spiritual longing, which as he puts it, to use medieval language, was the desire for union with God.

MISHLOVE: Which in some existential sense might be the fundamental dilemma of the human condition itself -- that we're separate, we're isolated, and yet we long for union.


MISHLOVE: And in some sense these addictions seem at least temporarily to satisfy that longing.

SEEBURGER: They seem to, yes. But, as you mentioned a little while ago, they do so in such a way as to keep drawing us further and further down, further and further in, until finally there's nothing left. And at that point -- in twelve-step movements, for example, that would be called the point of hitting bottom. And when one finally has hit bottom, one's ready for reconstitution, for a movement out of, for example, a kind of circularity that we talked about initially, characteristic of addictive thought or addictive mind, and the discovery of possibilities of liberation; so that in a funny way, addiction, I suggest, means that longing for freedom, and the pursuit of it is a strange way in which the addict is expressing that longing.

MISHLOVE: And I guess fundamentally the message here for all of us who are watching or listening to this program, is that even if we're not subject to major addictions our minor cravings, our minor longings, are part of that same process. They may be substitute longings for some deeper yearning of the soul.

SEEBURGER: Right. And it's the willingness to look those in the eye that perhaps we can learn from the addict, without ourselves having to go to the extremes of their behavior, as we perceive it.

MISHLOVE: Well, Frank Seeburger, it's been a pleasure discussing the meaning of addiction with you. Thanks so much for being with me.

SEEBURGER. Well, thank you. I've enjoyed it.

MISHLOVE: For those of you who've enjoyed this program, please check for Part 2 of this two-part series on "The Meaning of Addiction," in which we will explore the response to addiction.

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