The Map Is Not The 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 (1933)[1]

Each and every person has a map in their mind that is used for navigating reality. Where reality is the territory, the map is a person’s understanding of that territory. Except in rare cases, these maps are updated every day by taking in new information and placing it somewhere on the map.

Alfred notes the usefulness of a map if, and only if, the map represents the territory correctly. How do we determine if the map corresponds with the territory?

There are a number of ways to respond to this question. My answer is that we can (if possible) compare the map to the territory. For actual maps of physical locations that exist today, we can look at the map and compare it the present reality. Say a map lists the order of cities in a straight line as A, B, and C. In reality, we can travel from city A through city B to city C to determine if they are in a straight line and if the names of the cities are in the correct order. If we traveled in a straight line from A and ran into C before B, then we can determine that the map does not correspond with the territory, at least in the order of the cities. It did get the names of the cities correct.

Checking the “maps” of historical beliefs is a lot trickier because we do not yet have a way to travel back through time to observe events when they occurred. So how do we determine if the map (in this case an historical belief) corresponds with reality? As with the other question, this one also has a number of possible responses.

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[1] – Alfred Korzybski. “Science and sanity; an introduction to Non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics” (1933). Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

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