The map is not the territory

Is the map of your life up to date? Outdated maps give outdated information. Alfred Korzybski in the early 1930’s coined the phrase “The map is not the territory.”

A map is a symbolic representation of something else. Take, for example, a road map. This is a map that gives you information about roads. highways, turnpikes and secondary roads. They are usually shown in different colors, so you can visually see what kind of roads you will have to travel on depending on your destination.  It usually indicates distances between locations.The information it gives is selected for you to travel by a road vehicle. It doesn’t give you  sight seeing information or  local mayors. That is because it is a travel map. Every map is selective in some way similar to the road map, and so every map is an abridgement of what the actual territory is like. It is this selectivity that is its value. It serves a specific purpose. It leaves out information not relevant to that purpose. There are sectional maps for flying, and these include elevations and obstructions, airports and potential flying obstacles. There are topographical maps which include ground elevations lines that let you visualize the steepness of hills and mountains. There are world maps highlighting countries and major cities. An MRI is a map of some part of your insides, but doesn’t include your educational background. Every document about you is a map. A birth certificate is a brief map of your birth date, where you were born and your parents names. Your driver’s license is a map of your eligibility to drive, the state in which you are licensed, and the expiration date of that license. In each instance a map gives you some specific information, and leaves out what is not relevant to its purpose. A map is always a partial representation. As Korzybski said, it is never the whoe territory.

However, the most important thing about any map is its date. The older the map, the more likely it is to be outdated and misleading in the information it provides. For up to date information, we need to be using up to date maps.

What about a map of your philosophy of life? This would include a description of the basic principles that drive the way you live your life. It would include your fundamental knowledge and belief claims, your ethical, social, personal and spiritual beliefs as well. It could include your education, your various accomplishments, your skills, your family and friends, yet like the other maps I’ve mentioned it is never the whole picture. Plus, this kind of map is one that is especially ever changing because you are constantly changing,and the world around you is changing as well. In the midst of all this continuous change then, the most important factor for having a reliable “philosophy map” is keeping it current. The second very important consideration is that even a philosophy map is not the full territory of your life, but it can be a valuable guide for reflecting on your life,. It can make you sensitive to and aware of the need for you to change in the face of new experiences.  We are always having new experiences.

Charles Sanders Peirce, a late 19th, early 20th century American  philosopher said it succinctly: Let us come to close quarters. How do we learn. We learn by experience. And how does experience take place. By a series of surprises.

What has surprised you lately?


About The Practical Philosopher

I am a retired Philosophy professor. I taught philosophy for 43 years, and I would like to share some of what I have found pursuing the fascinating journey of philosophy.
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