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 Outdated maps give outdated information.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.”

What exactly does that mean to us? 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 are usually different colors, so you can visually see what kind of roads you will have to travel on depending on your destination. Road maps also include the location of cities and towns, airports, lakes and rivers, and bridges. The information it gives is selected for you to travel by car. It doesn’t give you informa- tion about sight-seeing,  gas stations,  or hotels and restaurants. That is because it is a travel map. Every map is selective in some way, and so is an abridgement of what the actual territory is like.

It is this selectivity that is its value. There are sectional maps for flying, and these include elevations and obstructions, and airports.  An MRI is a map of some part of your insides, but doesn’t include your biographical information. Every document about you is a map. A birth certificate is a brief map of your birth date, its location and your parents. 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.

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 The older the map, the more likely it is to be outdated and misleading in the information it provides.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 and explanation 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. This kind of map is one that is ever-changing because you are constantly changing. This means that your experience is very often outrunning your understanding.  So the most important factor is keeping your “philosophy map”  as current as possible. That means sustaining ongoing inquiries about where you are going and what you are doing to get there.

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 enhances your sensitivity to the need for change in the face of new experience. Charles Sanders Peirce, a late 19th, early 20th century 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?

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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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