Obviously, the Map is Not the Territory

Analyzing the Obvious

Can't swim in this pool.

Can’t swim in this pool.
Photo from Google Maps Satellite View

The Map is not the Territory

So says Korzybski. Or so everyone thinks. His actual quote is “A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness”. And I am sure he restated it in the shorter form. He derived the concept and nearly the wording from Eric Temple Bell’s “the map is not the thing mapped.”

But the point is, it seems like an obvious statement that the map isn’t identical with the territory it represents. We even say that one thing maps to another if there is a relationship but not an identity.

This quote has been on my mind since I first heard or read it way back when (1960s probably). It is obvious, yet deeper than it seems.

Another statement with similar feel and similar thought vectors for me is:
This is not a pipe. (Rene Magritte’s painting of a tobacco pipe with the words in French under it. What is not a pipe? The painting of a visual representation of a pipe? The paint on canvas? The statement itself?)

Are they right?

Are they right?

The pipe/not a pipe statement has become a somewhat of a meme, especially in our time of image editing, remixing, and parody and satire. One of my favorite cartoons shows Rene holding his famous painting, and his brother Rodrigo the plumber holding what looks like a water pipe and saying “neither is this.” Is it meant that a real Rodrigo actually said this about a real pipe? Or that the drawing of the pipe is clearly not the pipe itself? Or the statement is a satire on his brother’s intellectualism?

How about numbers, data, words and how we represent them? Another Thought Vectors participant posted on the obvious statement that 2+2=4 is an absolute truth. Yet I would disagree, unless it is properly defined. We assume we are using the decimal number system and these symbols are valid in that system. Yet, if this represented a math problem in a base 3 number system, the statement would be meaningless, as there is no symbol “4”. Probably, the correct statement would be 2+2=11. (a 1 in the three’s position, and a 1 in the one’s position)

We could say “the number is not the quantity” or “the numbers aren’t the data”.

The Wikipedia article on Map-Territory Relation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Map-territory_relation) discusses and has links for some of the items I’ve mentioned, and more. If I track down the references, I’ll be revisiting old friends like Gregory Bateson and Lewis Carroll, and finding more about some known to me but not deeply enough and some unknown to me.

There is so much to do in pursuit of how we represent reality, I may never get to finding out what reality actually is. Beginning to look like an inquiry project…

Here is a list of people, topics, and links that a quick look across the universe of ideas is leading me to vector off to:
Alford Korzybski and General Semantics
Eric Temple Bell, numerology
Rene Magritte, Surrealism, and the meme of “this is not a pipe”
Gregory Bateson (I think I have a copy of his Steps to an Ecology of Mind somewhere in the house.)
Jorge Luis Borges (again and again, I go back to Borges to find paradox.)
Direct and indirect realism, philosophy of mind, perception, etc.
Logical fallacies.

I’ll close with another statement, and a personal anecdote. “The flag is not the nation.” When I was a teenager and began to “think for myself”, we had a tradition during high school homeroom class of standing and reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. My viewpoint was contrary to this tradition, but I would stand silently with my hands to my sides. Occasionally, someone would question my action, but mostly it was a non-event. As an adult, during and after a career in the US Navy, I was and am still reluctant to salute a national flag, or pledge allegiance to it. The flag is not the nation. Actually, there is deeper motivation. My US citizenship is merely an accident of birth. I am happy to be here, and hope I would be happy if I were born elsewhere. Citizenship itself is a slippery subject, as is the concept of nationality.

Photo by Bill Smith CC-BY

Photo by Bill Smith CC-BY

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One Response to Obviously, the Map is Not the Territory

  1. I’m incredibly happy that you wrote on this subject, as it’s one that I’m also very interested in. I’ve written several posts that elaborate some of my feelings on the subject, but I think it’s very interesting that you dislike saluting the flag. I don’t like it either, it always did feel somewhat bizarre to talk to a flag, and I was always somewhat uncomfortable swearing oaths that I felt like I didn’t believe in. However I think that the flag is the nation! It’s an icon, just like the ones used by Eastern Orthodox Christians, and I think swearing to a flag is as close as one can get to swearing to the nation itself. It’s a symbol, or an associative substitute meant to represent all your thoughts and feelings about the nation.

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