In today’s post I am looking at “The map is not the territory.” This is a famous statement that is often cited to indicate that what we have is a model and not the real thing. Another statement that is quite similar is “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The “map statement” is attributed to the Polish philosopher and the man behind General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski. A lot of Korzybski’s ideas are very well aligned with Cybernetics and Systems Thinking.
Korzybski was inspired by a paragraph in the great Bertrand Russell’s “Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy”. Russell was referring to Josiah Royce’s ideas with a map. Russell wrote:
One of the most striking instances of a “reflexion” is Royce’s illustration of the map: he [Royce] imagines [making] a map of England upon a part of the surface of England. A map, if it is accurate, has a perfect one-one correspondence with its original; thus our map, which is part, is in one-one relation with the whole, and must contain the same number of points as the whole, which must therefore be a reflexive number. Royce is interested in the fact that the map, if it is correct, must contain a map of a map, which must in turn contain a map of the map of the map, and so on ad infinitum. This point is interesting, but need not occupy us at this moment. In fact, we shall do well to pass from picturesque illustrations to such as are more completely definite, and for this purpose we cannot do better than consider the number series itself.
Korzybski was very much interested in the idea of relationships of structures (internal and external). He came up with three main ideas for his General Semantics. He wrote:
The premises of the non-Aristotelian system can be given by the simple analogy of the relation of a map to the territory:
- A map is not the territory.
- A map does not represent all of a territory.
- A map is self-reflexive in the sense that an ‘ideal’ map would include a map of the map, etc., indefinitely.
Applied to daily life and language:
- A word is not what it represents.
- A word does not represent all of the ‘facts’, etc.
- Language is self-reflexive in the sense that in language we can speak about language.
We make sense of the world by abstracting a model of the world inside our mind. We are map makers and we create maps to make sense of the world around us. However, the maps themselves are not real. We should not mistake our version of the world to be real, and the true version. We are modeling the world, not the other way around. We should not try to make the world match our model. For example, when we say the word “apple”, the utterance is not the object “apple”. The meaning of a word does not lie in the word itself. The meaning is in the people who use the word. Apple can be a fruit, or it can be a company that sells iPhones. Or it could stand for an inside joke that others are not aware of.
Our understanding is never complete. It does not possess ALL the details. Korzybski called this non-Allness. We should not assume that we know ALL the details. Using the map analogy, a map cannot have all the details of the territory. The map is a static abstraction, and its usefulness comes from the abstraction. A map that is as big as the territory is not at all useful. The world around us has lot more variety than what we can handle. To make sense of the world, we have to filter out a lot of details and focus on the details that we are interested in. Every observation is an abstraction of the phenomenon. Every description is an abstraction of the observation. All of this is dependent on the observer.
This brings us to the third idea regarding a map – A map is self-reflexive. The idea of circularity is of great importance in Cybernetics. A true map will contain the map maker making the map, which in turn will contain the map maker making the map and so on. The idea of circularity is frowned upon in logic. However, the idea of circularity provides the second order characteristics such as observing how we observe or learning how we learn etc. We make sense of words using other words that in turn can be made sense using the same words we started with. Heinz von Foerster said it the best:
There is a word for word, namely “word.” If you don’t know what word means, you can look it up in a dictionary. I did that. I found it to be an “utterance.” I asked myself, “What is an utterance?” I looked it up in the dictionary. The dictionary said that it means “to express through words.” So here we are back where we started. Circularity; A implies A.
As Lance Strate puts it:
Whereas reality refers to nothing apart from itself (unless we confer additional meaning onto it), representations have the potential to be self–referential, that is to refer back to themselves or to other representations. So, for example, if we are standing within a territory and looking at an ideal map of that territory, it would contain within it a representation of itself, a map of the map. Ideally, the map within the map would also contain a representation of itself, a map of a map of a map, and so on ad infinitum. In the same way, some of our statements may be about the world as we experience it, but we can also make statements about statements, and statements about those statements, and so on. We can react to our reactions, evaluate our evaluations, question our questions, and so forth.
The idea of self-reflexivity brings up the idea of the observer. Korzybski has said the following about the observer:
“All man can know is a joint phenomenon of the observer and the observed.”
The idea of an observer-free observation is not meaningful. Korzybski expanded on this further:
We used and still use a terminology of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, both extremely confusing, as the so-called ‘objective’ must be considered a construct made by our nervous system, and what we call ‘subjective’ may also be considered ‘objective’ for the same reasons.
The Map Is the Territory:
I would now like to expand on the ideas of Korzybski with ideas from the great Cyberneticians Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana. All we have access to is the world that we have constructed inside based on our numerous experiences, belief systems, biases etc. So, we have to realize while the map is not the territory, the map is all we got, and thus practically the map is the territory. The idea of non-Allness is of utmost value for us. We do not have all the knowledge. The map we made has already become outdated. What we know or what we think we know may not help us since the world around us has changed quite a lot already. We should realize our limitations, and seek understanding from others. We should invite multiple perspectives and always be ready to update/modify our maps. We should train ourselves to look for differences in similar things and similarities in different things.
Heinz von Foerster said:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am glad that you are all seated, for now comes the Heinz von Foerster theorem: ‚The map is the territory’ because we don’t have anything else but maps. We only have depictions or presentations – I wouldn’t even say re-presentations – that we can braid together within language with the other.”
On a similar note, Humberto Maturana said:
“I maintain that all there is is that which the observer brings forth in his or her distinctions. We do not distinguish what is, but what we distinguish is. The distinctions of the observer specify existence and isness… “The Map IS the territory” is a metaphor.
I will finish with a wonderful Heinz von Foerster story that he told about the anthropologist Margaret Mead:
Margaret Mead quickly learned the colloquial language of many tribes by pointing to things and waiting for the appropriate noises. She told me that once she came to a particular tribe, pointed to different things, but always got the same noises, “chumulu.” A primitive language she thought, only one word! Later she learned that “chumulu” means “pointing with finger.”
Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of Respect for People: