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The Big Book's Case of Mistaken Identity

The story of how one of AA's most famous slogans—"contempt before investigation"—took a long series of wrong turns to end up in the right place.

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Herbert Spencer photo

By Susan Cheever

11/20/12

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For many alcoholics encountering the book Alcoholics Anonymous for the first time, a shock of recognition comes at the end of Appendix II—“Spiritual Experience”—when they read:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation. —Herbert Spencer

Appendix II is a redefinition of spiritual experiences as they are mentioned in the first phrase of AAs Twelfth Step: having had "a spiritual awakening." Concerned that others might think an experience like his own—a lightning flash and a stentorian voice from above—was a necessary entry to sobriety, Bill Wilson explained in Appendix II  that spiritual experiences can “develop over time.” In fact, Bill wrote, anyone who is honest, willing and open to the idea of recovery has already had a kind of spiritual experience. Contempt prior to investigation, he implies, is the only barrier to spiritual recovery. In fact, contempt prior to investigation is as much a symptom of alcoholism as cirrhosis of the liver, lying to your doctor or hiding the vodka bottle.

What is the work of an obscure 19th-century British philosopher doing in Alcoholics Anonymous? The Big Book was written by a group of Americans, including Bill Wilson and other early members of AA (many relatively uneducated), and was published in 1938. The Spencer quotation is one of the few references to outside thinkers in the entire book. How did it get there?

A little investigation shows that this foundation pillar of the Big Book is as stable as the famous boiler that burst in Wombley’s clapboard factory in AA’s Tradition Four, a reference to the chaos that ensued when a group of alcoholics decided to establish an “alcoholic center,” which would serve as a bank, a hospital and an educational system for drinkers. In fact, Herbert Spencer did not write the quotation in Appendix II at all, and Bill Wilson did not choose it for inclusion in Alcoholics Anonymous. Furthermore the quote itself is mangled and incorrect.

Contempt prior to investigation is as much a symptom of alcoholism as cirrhosis of the liver.

Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and who wrote that in marriage a ring is put on the finger of the bride and in the nose of the groom, was a liberal agnostic thinker whose many works on philosophy, psychology and sociology made him famous in 19th-century England. But one thing Spencer did not write is the immortal words about contempt and investigation, according to Michael St. George, who searched the digitized library of papers that Spencer left after his death and who detailed his findings in the essay “The Survival of a Fitting Quotation.”

“Contempt before investigation” was penned almost a century earlier by another British philosopher, William Paley, whose book Evidences of Christianity contains the following sentence: “Contempt prior to examination is an intellectual vice, from which the greatest faculties of mind are not free.” Paley was writing about Romans who scoffed at early Christianity.

The Paley quotation, misattributed to Spencer, appeared in the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous as the epigraph to one of the personal stories. Ray Campbell, an artist who got sober through AA in 1938 and who was responsible for designing the first cover of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote the story “An Artist’s Concept.” Probably 12-stepped by Bill Wilson himself, Campbell relates that the next day he met 20 men who were staying sober in AA. Campbell, who had rejected religion as a cure for his drinking problem, was deeply moved by the group. “It was not so much what these men told me in regard to their experiences that was impressive as it was a sense or feeling that an invisible influence was at work,” he wrote. Campbell’s story was dropped from the second edition of the Big Book, but Bill Wilson salvaged the epigraph as an afterword to the new Appendix II.

In “The Survival of a Fitting Quotation,” St. George traces the unlikely series of mistakes by which the phrase in Paley’s Evidence of Christianity made its way into Alcoholics Anonymous. The first misattribution was in a 1931 edition of The Homeopathic World by John Henry Clark. Bill Wilson’s mother, Emily Griffith, was an osteopathic physician, and she may have given Clark’s book to her son. (Both homeopaths and osteopaths practice holistic medicine.) Also in 1931, the phrase was misattributed to Spencer in Miracles of Healing and How They Are Done by J. Ellis Barker. St. George guesses that Ray Chapman may have read Ellis’s book and been struck by the quotation.

Who really came up with the phrase “contempt before investigation” and how it ended up in Appendix II in Alcoholics Anonymous may not matter much to anyone's actual recovery. Alcoholics love to scoff—at rules and regulations, at religion and God—until suddenly their lives are saved in spite of their scoffing. The quotation may be misattributed and mangled, but it still jumps off the page for anyone who thinks like an alcoholic. You read it. You see yourself. You know you are in the right place.

Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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