A map and its territory

“A map is not the territory it represents,
but, 
if correct,
it has a similar structure to the territory,
which accounts for its usefulness.”
— Alfred Korzybski

So often, people misquote Alfred Korzybski.

They say, “The map is not the territory.”

Okay. I have a confession. 

When I say “people,” it turns out that I am one of those people. Well, I was. Until earlier today when I read the entire quote. (I am so grateful to Eva Laser, an esteemed Feldenkrais® colleague who lives in Sweden, for posting it online in a professional Facebook group discussion.) 

Korzybski, author of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933) and founder of general semantics, was interested in “the ways in which words themselves can influence (or manipulate) and limit human ability to think.* ” 

That’s why it is so important that he said “a” map and not “the” map. 

A map is not the territory.

Now that’s another kettle of fish entirely. Korzybski is referring to one map among many, rather than to the one and only true map. 

I don’t think it’s stretching the metaphor too far to consider a recipe a map for creating one part of a meal and a menu one for choosing what to eat. That doesn’t mean you would eat either one. You know neither is the dish itself.  

One more consideration.

Don’t you think that having an appreciation for how words themselves can limit our thinking might mean quoting the entire statement, all 24 words, not just the first quarter of the axiom? 

The first six words — that famous oft-hijacked, foreshortened misquote that I, for one, repeated for years — misses the fuller meaning of this philosopher’s carefully composed sentence. Korzybski tells us that the map’s relative isomorphic relationship, it’s structural similarity, to the territory is the measure of its correctness.

Harry Beck’s iconic London tube map schematically portrays the spatial relationships between the stations of the 11th busiest metro system in the world. Just don’t rely on it to tell much about the distance between any two points or the amount of time it will take you to traverse the length of any line. That’s because it is far from an accurate representation of actual geography. For a beautiful illustration of this take a look at the first (dynamic) map here

Kozybski doesn’t just say that a map must match some aspect of the territory’s structure. He also tells us that the measure of a map’s value is not it’s correctness, but it’s usefulness. 

A bicyclist needs a map showing bike paths, a motorist doesn’t. A map depicting elevation can be useful to both as well as to home-buyers, who might want one showing fault lines and floodplains, and skiers and hikers. A gardener needs one that shows precipitation and microclimates. 

Though I’ll pledge, from now on, to say that “a map is not the territory,” I want to remember the entire phrase.

“A map is not the territory it represents,
but,
if correct,

it has a similar structure to the territory,
which accounts for its usefulness.”
— Alfred Korzybski

Rather than reducing it to an epigram, even though it will require a bit more diligence, this may be one of those layered sentences worth quoting in its entirety. 

Won’t you join me in saying the full sentence?

The summer 2020 term of SPIFFER 101 starts a week from today. If you’d like to learn more about this map of the seven dimensions of awareness and action of Moshe’s method, there’s a short series of videos of me introducing the model in a postgraduate program more than a decade ago. Fair warning: I was older and fatter back then.

Want to learn more? The early registration deadline for SPIFFER 101 is nigh.


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