Sunday, August 21, 2011

Map is Not the Territory, and ...

I am continuously interested in this theme of the "Things people [in]famously never said ...". There is something in this phenomenon of 'sociological distortion' that is empirically interesting in the cognitive assessment of psychosystems.

My grandmother (who lived to be 100 years old) used to say: "Believe none of what you hear, half of what you read, and a little of what you see." .. but then I might be misquoting her (:-^). I think her context and sentiment in quoting this, in coming from a small country town, was around not passing on gossip. However, my use of her quote is for my own purposes, of supporting my own reflective theme of knowledge humility.

This approach, of taking a quote out of context, lending credence to oneself by association, and co-opting it for one's contemporary social interpretation (that I have just demonstrated) is a fairly harmless form of personal aggrandisement. We attract others of reputation to lend support to what we would have liked them to say on our behalf. The problem only comes when the rhetorical device works and a sociological truth is manufactured, often from a source that would deny it. Once spread by others, the genie is out of the bottle, and the container was lost.

Here (to add to the collection) is a new one. Another example of the Law of Karmic Distortion.

Often people who work in meta-theory quote Alfred Korzybski as saying:

"The map is not the territory." Korzybski (1879-1950)

This is often used as an expression of veiled humility, sort of a qualification to lend verification to the sub-text which says: "... and while we know we have a perfect map or model of reality, we also realize it is an approximation, but short of walking the terrain itself, it can be relied on."

The problem with the quote is, not that it is grossly inaccurate, but that it is the most insidious of re-representations, the edited fragment.

My understanding is that in outlining a formative version of the Theory of General Semantics, central to which is the proposition that words are not the objects which they represent, Korzbyski used the metaphor of maps, specifically one to get from Paris to Warsaw via Dresden, to represent the structure of his semantic argument about semantics. Ironically, the words of the metaphor are used to represent the theory itself, and the theory is overlooked by the quoters.

What does this matter? Well let's consider the original:

"A) A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory.
B) Two similar structures have similar 'logical characteristics. ...
C) A map is not the territory.
D) An ideal map would contain the map of the map, the map of the map of the map. , endlessly."

Korzybski, A. (1931) A non-Aristotelian system and its necessity for rigor in mathematics and physics. Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, New Orleans, Louisiana (December 28, 1931)

Korzbyski explains that the problem is not really with maps, these are very useful. The problem is when the second criteria, that if a match of logical structure is forgotten, this makes our maps potentially unreliable. A meta-map that becomes disconnected in structure from the underlying territory that it represents does not need knowledge humility. It is in fact so 'bad' as to be (as Korzbyski warns): '... misguiding, wasteful of effort, . In case of emergencies, it might be seriously harmful.' (p. 750)

The disconnection of the quote from its context, makes it a dangerously partial representation. In changing the structure of the quote, the representation (i.e. the map of the argument reduced to one sentence) becomes, not lacking in detail, it becomes really a fabrication - and in terms of awareness of its semantic distortion, dangerous to rely on.

In the fuller version of his thoughts (and in a more accessible source) Korzybski re-iterates the argument slightly differently, highlighting how explicitly changed the mis-quote really is:

"Two important characteristics of maps should be noticed.
A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. ..." (p. 58)
Korzybski, A. (1933) Science and Sanity (4th ed.) The Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, Conn.

This is a better quote. It represents the structure more fully, yet not completely. The associated warning becomes more pronounced here, reflecting that a map with a different structure to the territory, if used to orient ourselves in our travels:

"It would lead us astray, and we might waste a great deal of unnecessary effort.
In some case, even, a map of wrong structure would bring actual suffering and disaster,
as, for instance, in a war, or in the case of an urgent call for a physician." (p. 58)

To make up the [in]famous mis-quote, Korzybski's own structure is changed, from two important characteristics, to merely one. It is in our active distortions that the potential for suffering and disaster in reliance occurs. This is the source of concern as to why such seemingly small omissions do matter. The fourth criteria of Korzbyski, that the map should be qualified by meta-relfection, is by its absence, the cause for this form of distortion. Interestingly, the mis-quoter might say, to add insult to inquiry in the irony: "What are you worried about, isn't it just semantics?"

To be fair, the wider effects of social distortion on our capacity to know and discern, are brought about, not by those navigating the territory honestly and passing on possible directions heard, but by the casual map-makers working without responsibility in remoteness. If we assert a representation, we almost have a duty, to at least make the inquiry of its structural integrity, before it is passed on for all eternity.

In apithological ethics, this is called the philosophical coherence of 'Rhetorical Responsibility'. In humility, if we use an authority to support our own polemic, an effect is that others might be convinced by our semantics. If the representation is false, then all might be lost, not just by us, but by all. Not only is there wasted effort, there is something else here, which is a diminishment in our faith in knowledge and its purveyors. This is notwithstanding the loss of an act of simple respect, that in using someone's life's work for our own purposes, it might be respectful to at least read, even a few words in context, of what the author themselves wrote for us. Perhaps this applies even more, when the author saw the great gift the evolution of information from our knowledgeable past gives to us daily, for our own day to day survival.

Have I here made a faithful representation of Korzybski's work in this summation? Surely not of the theory of General Semantics. Yet I hope I have looked at this small part respectfully. For only one point from all this work is really offered, being that ...

... might we each pause briefly to look at the structure of our own arguments, before we unknowingly send others off with false directions?

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