What Korzybski got wrong about the map and the territory
 Alfred Korzybski's often-cited phrase from his theory of general semantics is delightfully wrong.
What does the Bene Gesserit sisterhood have in common with a group of half-sauced rednecks joyriding through the woods?
Out one boozy night many years ago, six or seven of us hopped into my buddy's new pickup truck for some off-roading adventures. We sort of knew the area, one of those way-out spots that's not much more than dirt ruts between endless acres of trees.
Being well after dark, with a bottle of whiskey and a case of beer to go around, that didn't matter much.
One wrong turn later and that new truck was fender-first in a ditch as high as my shoulders, six inch lift and all. Five or seven hours and one long walk later, the truck emerged from the woods with the sun, otherwise no worse for the trouble.
The Bene Gesserit spent generations on their selective breeding program, with one unforeseen screw-up wrecking the whole thing.
We thought we knew where we were going, believed we knew our way around the territory, and we didn't know jack.
Alfred Korzybski is best known for coining the phrase "the map is not the territory". He was on to something, but like the Bene Gesserit and my youthful misadventures, that metaphor was missing a vital detail.
There's a difference between having a map and making the journey.
Why the map isn't 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. ... If we reflect upon our languages, we find that at best they must be considered only as maps. A word is not the object it represents; and languages exhibit also this peculiar self-reflexiveness, that we can analyse languages by linguistic means. This selfreflexiveness of languages introduces serious complexities, which can only be solved by the theory of multi-ordinality. The disregard of these complexities is tragically disastrous in daily life and science.
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933)
Korzybski tells us that the word is not the thing.
When we say that "S is P", in the standard format of the declarative sentence, we're drawing an arrow between this thing, A, and that thing, B. For example, "snow is white" identifies the noun snow with the property being white.
That habit of word-use has got us all mixed up, says Korzybski. Words are like tags on real things. Outside the mind, A isn't B because A is A and B is B. Any further judgment comes from our mental habits.
He gets to this striking claim through an elaborate story about how raw sensations "ascend the ladder of abstraction" to become thoughts.
Take a color like "red". In raw experience, there is no such thing. There's a succession of experiences that are remotely similar enough to fall under the umbrella of that category. But the optical properties of real objects show us the truth. Red light maps to certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation.
If pressed, could you tell the difference between red and orange? Some languages don't even draw that distinction. Orange is a shade of red.
We humans experience a constant whirlwind of particular sensations, so many that we can never categorize all of them. Our words are our best-guess attempts to make sense out of the meaningless barrage.
The problem, he argues, is that we aren't conscious of the ladder of abstraction. We take our cultural and personal habits of thought as given facts.
The result is that we operate with a great many unconscious assumptions built right into the structure of language and culture. The trouble starts right there in the verb "is".
If you never thought of Dune as a self-help handbook, maybe it’s time to rethink that opinion.
Korzybski's theory of general semantics had a tremendous impact on Frank Herbert, author of the six real books in the Dune series.
The Bene Gesserit possess otherworldly gifts in control over their bodies and ability to read the behaviors of others. Though the all-female order is known as witches by untutored natives, their skills are a product of relentless training in consciousness of abstraction.
In the remote past the sisterhood learned to question the unconscious structures of thought and behavior provided by language and culture. With that awareness in hand, they crafted training regimens meant to turn an initiate's attention to immediate experience.
The frozen experiences captured in words, being the result of mindless habits, could be directly engineered with new habits.
I'm sympathetic to much of what Korzybski says, not least of which because training your own Bene Gesserit skills sounds badass.
Like any interesting thinker who is wrong, his mistakes are as instructive as the positive insights. Let's see what's happening.
A map isn't a place
We have our map in hand, and we know that we’re walking through a territory marked out as Yellowstone National Park. All set for a fun hike.
Answer: The first-hand experience of making your way down the trail through the park.
The scientific revolution totally upset our shared understanding of our own minds. Before the 17th century, the common view held that nature was a cosmic order full of meaning. Human beings participated in a meaning-filled cosmos where symbols were as real as material objects.
When this order began to break down, the qualities that we today call "mental" slowly retreated out of the things, becoming merely subjective experiences.
Philosopher Charles Taylor argues that when this happened, it wasn’t simply a matter of taking them from “out there”, waving at the room over there, and putting them “in here”, pointing at my skull.
The relocation of mind to the inside required a much bigger leap than that. In order for mental experiences to move inside the mind, people had to first transform their ideas of location.
The metaphor of the map totally breaks down here. The old way wasn't simply a different inner map of outer reality. Before the shift, there was no mapmaker and no independent territory to map.
The move "inside" involved a total revolution in our sense of place.
Our ancestors in the renaissance and beyond had to come up with the idea that there could be an in here which is not out there. Today, it’s so natural to think of ourselves as having a private first-person consciousness that the modern imagination struggles to consider any different relationship. But this point of view is a historical development, and a relatively new one.
By total coincidence, the new sense of location and place appears around the time that spatial perspective makes its way into visual art, and the revolutions in astronomy and physics busily transform space and motion into geometrical and mathematical quantities. (This isn't a coincidence.)
We talk about wild stuff on this newsletter blog. You won't get mental stimulation like this from today's fifteenth SEO blog post quoting Charlie Munger on "mental models".
Speaking of that.
The map isn’t the territory, but the map also isn’t your unfiltered experience of walking through the world.
I defy you to go out for a walk and tell me that the experience of walking through nature is best explained as constructing a "mental map" in your mind.
Mental models are a useful description of certain mental processes that fit some limited set of cases.
An ideal scientist observing an experiment is a trend-setting example. Due to the cultural prestige of science, the neutral observer become an ideal for all forms of thinking and experiencing. No need to talk about context.
But in real life, context is everything. Everything that matters to you is situated in your life, inside your point of view, and that can't be laid out in a map.
Maps lay out explicit relationships in space. There’s no time-order or logical sequence of events in a map. You can draw all kinds of paths from point A to point Z. Even A and Z are up to you to pick out.
Out on your walk, you experience one moment at a time, one unfolding after the other. The past is a known quantity, the future invisible and uncertain. You can't see everything all at once. Some things slip out of view, other landmarks become visible as you move around.
A map shows you everything at once. The order of events matters on a journey. Knowing your way around a place isn't remotely like map-knowledge.
Korzybski almost gets this point. Whatever is happening as we represent the flow of sensation in words has a weak and fragile grip on things outside of the mind. Words can only express a tiny slice of what we experience of the world.
But Korzybski repeats that Cartesian belief that we're each locked within the prison of our own ideas. Our only access to the outer world is through a tissue of ideas, arising from the five senses, separating our inner experiences from the great outdoors.
As I’ve argued in my series on artificial intelligence, the discontinuity of the mental and the physical is the original sin lurking behind most every modern idea about the mind.
The spectator self appeals to bookish, introverted, systematizing personalities who are more at home in their own heads than the physical universe. I sympathize, and it even has its place if you're, say, doing mathematical physics or designing bridges.
My beef is taking the "spectator self" as a universal, generic, timeless image of the mind in its true essence. It completely fails as a general theory of how human persons relate to the world.
Here’s a shameless plug to subscribe to Meaningful Particulars and trigger the AI gods by supporting my work.
This issue ought to concern you because AI designers don't worry about problems like this.
Neither do the hordes of fanboys who slavishly adopt the mantra "it works" without a care for where this short-sightedness will lead us. Shiny machines cool, everything else lame.
What's missing here is an appreciation that things matter to us besides correct thinking, having the most true beliefs, or the most coherent beliefs.
These things matter, of course. They just aren't all that matters, or the sole source of mattering.
Walking out of the woods in the early hours of the night to get a tow cable for your buddy’s stuck truck is an experience that can’t translate into a map. We have contact with reality on a deeper level than the “maps” we use to navigate it consciously.
Much as I'd love some sweet Bene Gesserit prana-bindu skills and Voice training, I'll settle for Korzybski's insight that language and culture infiltrate our thoughts and behaviors.
If you needed another excuse to keep mainstream news and social media out of your head-space, here's one of the best. What look like harmless words encode a bewildering range of unconscious assumptions, influencing everything you believe and do.
Next time, we'll go even deeper into the imagination, its influences our understanding of reality, and how art opens a whole world beyond scientific knowledge.
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