Wilson’s metaphor

‘I propose that the principle software used in the human brain consists of words, metaphors, disguised metaphors and linguistic structures in general.’
Robert Anton Wilson, Undoing Yourself Too – 1988, p13

‘We’re trapped in linguistic constructs. All that is, is metaphor. I believe somebody said that before me…’
– RAW, Language, Reason & Reality


The “central” importance of metaphor in Bob Wilson’s writings on reality tunnels seems apparent when you go looking for it (as I do). In previous posts I’ve quoted him suggesting the metaphorical nature of matter, space and time. Here (see the above quotes), he leaves out nothing: brain software consists of metaphors; all that appears to us, appears as metaphor.

Or at least that’s my E-Prime-ish version (of “All that is, is metaphor”, which Bob quotes from Norman O. Brown – as he also does at the beginning of Chapter One of The New Inquisition).

Another way of putting it might be: “All that seems to appear, appears in terms of something else” – that’s if we simply define metaphor as describing something (figuratively) in terms of something else. James Geary, in his book about metaphor, makes the point that, “our instinct [is] not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another”. So, we comprehend metaphorically – and this leads us to a distinction that’s sometimes drawn between conceptual and poetic (or ‘figurative’) metaphor.

Conceptual metaphor (which has a special meaning in cognitive linguistics) refers to metaphor as fundamental to how we think. We think “in” conceptual metaphor much of the time – hopefully a few of the examples below will illustrate this. Many (perhaps most) people, however, probably understand metaphor as “merely” a poetic or rhetorical flourish, a matter of language alone, and not a necessary aspect of thought or comprehension.

When RAW writes that the principle software of the human brain consists of metaphors and disguised metaphors, he appears to be referring primarily to what linguists mean by conceptual metaphor.

Examples of poetic/’figurative’ metaphor
“Juliet is the sun” (popular metaphor relating to romantic love, from Shakespeare)
“The Scum” (popular metaphorical label for The Sun newspaper, from Liverpool)

Examples of conceptual metaphor
Right where you are sitting now, if you’re concerned that you might be wasting your time, then imagine the reality tunnel of a culture with no notion of time as a commodity that can be wasted or not wasted. (Such cultures have existed. The conceptual metaphor of time as a resource or commodity-like thing that can be squandered, utilized, saved, spent, invested, etc, isn’t universal, but owes a lot to the concept of work as it has developed over the centuries – particularly, but not solely, in modern Western societies.)

If you don’t immediately see this conception of time as fundamentally metaphorical, you could think of it as well-disguised metaphor – which, as RAW proposed in the above quote, can be seen as part of the software “running” in our brains.

Metaphors as masks

‘They appear as abstractions, co-creations… or as models, or maps, or metaphors… or as masks’. – RAW, Cosmic Trigger 3, ‘Mask: Map: Metaphor’


In communication, the line between friendly discourse (or even intercourse) and argument often seems blurred. Of course, RAWphiles may be sensitive to subtle semantic signs of Circuit 2 emotional-territorial activation – even before it gets to the “That’s fucking BULLSHIT!” stage. Another way to demarcate “argument” involves a common conceptual metaphor: communication as war (or more specifically: argument as war). We see this metaphor reflected in everyday expressions:

“I demolished his position”
“Give me a chance to defend myself”
“Check out Fred’s take-down of Smith’s thesis!”
“Her criticisms were right on target

Argument as war seems so obvious that it might not even look like metaphor, given that actual hostility often arises as a consequence of disagreement in communication. But it demonstrates the mask-like nature of metaphor, which hides important aspects of a concept, even as it highlights others.

For example: in this case, cooperative aspects of argument are masked – while our thoughts and actions become primed by metaphorical notions of attack, defense, losing or gaining ground, etc. Consider that participants in a dispute give freely of their time – which, under the “time as commodity” metaphor, seems a cooperative act. Peace comes of communication – when it’s structured by appropriate metaphor.

Conduit metaphor for communication

So, metaphors – like masks – have the necessarily dual function of both hiding and revealing. Another example of this would be how we tend to think about language metaphorically:

⇒ Ideas & meanings as metaphorical objects
⇒ Linguistic expressions as metaphorical containers
⇒ Communication as metaphorical sending

The metaphor operates when we speak or write as if we “insert” our ideas, feelings, meanings, etc, into “containers” (words, phrases, etc) whose contents are then “extracted” by listeners or readers. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson call this a “conduit metaphor” (after Michael Reddy’s 1979 analysis estimating that at least 70% of the expressions that we use for talking about language are structured by a conduit metaphor). Everyday examples of this conceptual metaphor include:

“The general notion came across well”
“I find it hard to put my ideas into words”
“That sentence contains no meaning”
“His feelings came through in the final paragraph”
“More hollow words!”

Conventionally speaking, this metaphor reveals how language appears to work much of the time. So much so that it might not even seem like a metaphor. But if you think of all those examples that RAW provides, of semantic noise, static, spookery, ambiguity, uncertainty, etc, that arise in communication, you can see what’s hidden or masked by a conventional understanding structured by the conduit metaphor.

For example, context-dependent meaning and “transactional” (or “relational”) interpretation seem hidden by this “conventional” metaphorical understanding of language. The conduit metaphor entails that words and sentences have meanings independent of context (and speaker/listener), and that “meanings” have their own objective existence separate from cognition and context.

Anyone who has read RAW’s non-fiction will see the problem with that, I hope.

Metaphor & “truth”

If all is (or appears as) metaphor, then how the hell do we establish any kind of “truth”? I’ve actually mislaid the RAW quote I was going to insert here. It was pretty good (I’ll no doubt find it later and update this). In lieu of that, for the time being, here are a few other quotes to ponder:

‘What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long usage seem fixed, canonical and binding; truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors without sensuous power.’
– Nietzsche, On Truth and Falsity in Their Ultramoral Sense

‘The people who get to impose their metaphors on the culture get to define what we consider to be true.’
– Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By2003, p160

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