Sunday, May 28, 2006

The map is not the territory

The map is not the territory.

This is a famous argument from Alfred Korzybski. It's also related to the section of the Tao Te Ching that I posted the other day. The idea that long and short are relative, for example, says the same thing as Korzybski. It says that these are two markers that reflect our abstracted language and not reality. Because our experience of reality is filtered through various abstractions, some linguistic and others perceptual, we never experience it directly. Korzybski disagrees here with Aristotle, who believed just the opposite about words, but agrees with Kant's argument in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant said that even our perceptions of things are entirely limited to our a priori synthetic judgments of those things. Actually, Korzybski's idea is in line with most analytic philosophy. It's also in line with most non-Euclidean geometry and 20th century physics. Most arguments about relativity are phrased similarly.

Can we apply this in our daily lives? Well, it encourages us to be more aware of the abstractions that we think under. So, for example, I'll tell you that:
"My Uncle is a Republican."
And this means all sorts of things to you. Maybe good things, maybe bad things, and maybe indifferent things. The problem is that this statement is true in an abstract senseless, but philosophically worthless. The first problem is that it seems to tell us something about my Uncle while actually saying nothing. It helps in our daily lives if we remember that we've never met a textbook Republican. You've never met a typical Jew, or an ideal example of a Banker, or a textbook example of a vegetarian, or any other ideal either. The sentence is worthless information because the word Republican actually tells us nothing about my Uncle. And I think this is important when interacting with other people. Instead of taking the signifier for the signified, we need to take Korzybski's advice to take experiences and individuals with the attitude of "I don't know; let's see."

Here the word Republican leads us to certain abstractions, and the verb "to be" trips us up further. My Uncle does not equal the verb Republican. By using the verb "to be", we put my Uncle, a physical being, on an equal footing with an abstraction. We take the map to be the territory. In the French saying, we mistake the moon for the finger pointing at it. Of course, some will note that the words "my Uncle" actually don't help much more, although they are on a different level of being. The man is signified by the words in a different way than by the word Republican.

When we realize that people are not conterminous for any of the abstractions that we understand them by, and that even our sensory perceptions are abstracted (I am not white, or tall or short or even female or male outside of your a priori synthetic judgments- see?), we realize how unqualified we are to make many of the judgments we make about each other. These ways that we make meaning of the world, and give ourselves identities, they're nice and reassuring, but they tell us more about our abstractions than they do about the world.

The most important thing to take from this:

There is much more to be discovered in this world- everything, in fact.

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