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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Robert Anton Wilson & framing – a few notes

robert-anton-wilson-framingWilson was heavily influenced by General Semantics – in particular, Alfred Korzybski’s book: Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Several writers who I find important or interesting in various ways (William Burroughs, Neil Postman, Robert A. Heinlein, etc) were influenced by Korzybski, although General Semantics seems to have picked up a reputation as “pseudoscience” in some circles, perhaps partly because of misrepresentations by some of its critics (or the fact that it seemed to have appeal for L. Ron Hubbard).

Most often when Wilson cites Korzybski, he’s making a point about how common prejudices and bigotries arise from – and are perpetuated by – confusions inherent in the structure of everyday language. These confusions of the map (symbolic language) with the territory (“reality”) manifest as over-generalisation, various logical fallacies, etc – but they’re difficult to spot unless you go looking for them. There’s an article here, from ETC: a review of general semantics, which discusses George Lakoff’s work on framing from the perspective of General Semantics.

Another theme that repeatedly comes up in Wilson’s writing is metaphor. For example, in the chapter, Models, Metaphors and Idols, from The New Inquisition, he writes that to want something is, metaphorically, to be empty – “want” and “vacant” coming from the same root – and that talking of desires as “appetites”, etc, expresses the same metaphor. He goes on to write that even the word, “the”, is a metaphor which assumes the world really is divided up according to the categories we assign to it.

This approach to metaphor, not as something peripheral, a mere flourish of language – but as central to thought, a fundamental mechanism of mind, strikes me as similar to that of Lakoff, et al, in the field of cognitive linguistics. In other words, it seems to me that Wilson is talking about conceptual metaphor, although the more precise work in that field is probably too recent to be referenced in Wilson’s books (Wilson had been thinking about Korzybski’s ideas since the 1950s, whereas the earliest work on conceptual metaphor from Lakoff was published in 1980: Metaphors We Live By). Still, there are some references to “framing” in its wider sense scattered throughout Wilson’s work – for example this excerpt from Cosmic Trigger volume 2 (scanned from p236-7 of my copy). [“Huge Berserk Rebel Warthog” is an anagram of George Herbert Walker Bush, aka Bush senior]:


The aspects of Robert Anton Wilson’s writings which he called “guerilla ontology” or “model agnosticism” intersect and dovetail in very interesting ways with the frames-based view of cognition and language, particularly in the area I’ve labelled metaphoric pluralism. This is something I’ll write about in more depth in the future (possibly in book form, with respect to Robert Anton Wilson’s ideas).

“The Western World has been brainwashed by Aristotle for the last 2,500 years. The unconscious, not quite articulate, belief of most Occidentals is that there is one map which adequately represents reality. By sheer good luck, every Occidental thinks he or she has the map that fits. Guerrilla ontology, to me, involves shaking up that certainty. I use what in modern physics is called the “multi-model” approach, which is the idea that there is more than one model to cover a given set of facts. As I’ve said, novel writing involves learning to think like other people. My novels are written so as to force the reader to see things through different reality grids rather than through a single grid. It’s important to abolish the unconscious dogmatism that makes people think their way of looking at reality is the only sane way of viewing the world. My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything. If one can only see things according to one’s own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind. It’s only possible to see people when one is able to see the world as others see it. That’s what guerrilla ontology is — breaking down this one-model view and giving people a multi-model perspective.”Robert Anton Wilson: Searching For Cosmic Intelligence – interview with Jeffrey Elliot (1980)


Written by NewsFrames

January 14, 2016 at 2:00 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Yes, Steven Pinker was one of the people who got it wrong about Korzybski (in his chapter ‘Mentalese’ in The Language Instinct), but then he got quite a lot wrong in that chapter (eg his misrepresentation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: http://www.nickyee.com/ponder/whorf.html

    Did R.A. Wilson mention Lakoff at all in his writings (he was still writing up to his death in 2007 I think – so there was some overlap in time)?

    Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

    January 14, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    • Hello, Andre. I don’t recall RAW mentioning Lakoff anywhere, although he may have done. Lakoff has in the past acknowledged writers who have interested RAW in this (very broad) field: “Going back the furthest, Lakoff tips his hat to Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). In earlier work, Lakoff has acknowledged the influence upon cognitive neurolinguistics such eminent thinkers as Wittgenstein, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Lofti Zadeh.” (http://overweeninggeneralist.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/george-lakoff-and-metaphorical-framing.html)


      January 14, 2016 at 5:39 pm

  2. Andre: Yes, that chapter in Pinker’s _Language Instinct_ really stinks. But, coming out of the Chomsky-circle, how could he NOT think about what’s so obvious?

    Brian: RAW didn’t mention Lakoff. Lakoff told me he had a student at Berkeley who was “into” RAW. RAW moved to Berkeley and got involved with the off-campus “free university” which had an active linguistics group; this was in the early 1970s. Charles Fillmore at Berkeley – who came up with the “frame” idea around the time Erving Goffman published _Frame Analysis_ in sociology. Lakoff arrived at Berkeley and Fillmore helped Lakoff make a huge personal paradigmatic shift, away from Generative Semantics (which seems nothing like Korzybski’s General Semantics to me). Fillmore’s work spilled out into the Free University and RAW contributed with discussions about Korzybski, Sapir-Whorf, Fenollosa, Joyce’s manipulation of language and the infl. of Korzybski on Bucky Fuller’s thought.

    RAW met a wild linguistic anthropologist named Daniel Moonhawk Alford around these circles. Alford saw language as “left brain telepathy” and thought metaphors were a huge deal.

    You isolated perhaps THE passage in all of RAW’s books w/re/to: Lakoff’s frame semantics. Good eye!

    Aram Jahn

    January 18, 2016 at 8:20 am

    • Ah, thanks for that, Aram. I just googled Alford (who I hadn’t heard of before) – looks like a very interesting guy. I still love Leary’s term, “reality-tunnel” – I think it’s as a result of thinking about the semantic aspect of “belief systems” and “reality tunnels” for years, after being immersed in the books of RAW & Leary, that I came to appreciate Lakoff’s contributions so much.


      January 18, 2016 at 11:28 am

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