The Map is not the Territory
The catchphrase of Alfred Korzybski- he tried to turn our world’s thinking on its head with his book “Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics”.
Semantics. A thing people say when they lose an argument. “Well, that’s just semantics!”
The above book was summarised and more in the more digestible and highly recommended by me “Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics” by a couple called the Kodishes, the foreword of which was written by curmudgeon-genius Albert Ellis who created the Stoic-inspired Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), which in turn inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), perhaps the main psychological treatment used today.
I use many examples from that great book for this post. I got a new version of it from Amazon very reasonably priced, otherwise as usual kind of people are trying to sell used copies for hundreds of pounds!
Other general semantics fans include Astral Projects regulars such as Robert Anton Wilson, Scientology founder L.Ron Hubbard and other science fiction writers such as Robert A. Heinlein, writer of “Stranger in a Strange Land” and Dune writer Frank Herbert.
Bandler and Grinder, NLP founders, acknowledged Korzybski in their early work.
GS is about how individuals evaluate their experiences and use, and are used, by language.
A person can be like a coffee drinker who leaves the spoon in after stirring and keeps poking themselves in the eye each time they try to drink. Shopping for unicorns that aren’t there. But bumping into glass doors that are.
You may be laughed at for demonstrating “uncommon sense” e.g. Semmelweis suggesting doctors wash their hands, for it later to become common sense. Like the Earth not being flat after all and Einstein’s laws largely replacing Newton’s.
Is the Aristotelian logic Western thinking is based on also in need of updating?
Korzybski was shocked at technical knowledge for warfare being so advanced in WW1 but social knowledge that could have prevented the war being so backward, with people failing to learn from experience, which is still the case.
Assumptions can be useful, but can also block our progress or lead us astray. We need to be aware of them and test them. The house may need to be rebuilt.
Scientific method is rarely applied to people’s personal lives, but might just help.
One wrong assumption people may make for example is that their parents are to blame for how they are, rather than that it may be that they are in fact too obsessed with the past.
Lateral thinking, Edward de Bono style may help us escape some of the ruts of old assumptions we are stuck in. Provocation by adding in random factors into generating solutions and thinking or playing Devil’s Advocate may help find a new way of seeing a situation.
Look for the hidden assumptions- e.g. “everybody’s picking on me”- the evidence can be looked at by observation as to how true parts of that verbalisation are. Conclusions are best left tentative.
Look for black swans, be prepared for your most precious theories to be disproved.
A person’s internal landscape and external landscape are just as important, making us function as an organism as a whole.
The (ever-changing) nervous system plays a big part in this, not least the brain. And may mediate the powerful placebo effect. Which can work the opposite, e.g. In voodoo cursed death.
As for the external, we are born into a particular neuro-evaluational neuro-linguistic environment with all of its rituals and taboos, but can move to different environments as we hopefully grow. Keep absorbing different and “opposing” viewpoints.
Our nervous systems are creating “things” out of a ceaseless changing flurry of non-things. Everything flows. You cannot step twice into the same river.
The frame of reference of the observer needs to be taken into account, along with its limitations. The observer effect is of great importance in Einstein’s theories and then quantum physics.
Speaking of which, you cannot directly experience submicroscopic reality. Your nervous system filters information and then constructs your experience, with perception, influenced by assumptions, trying to make sense of it, making bets based on the incomplete information.
This can lead to misinterpretations and even illusions, e.g. of seeing figures in the dark that aren’t there and all sorts of optical illusions.
Now onto those maps…
A myriad of things can be mapped these days, a map may help to usefully plan but if not accurate may instead lead astray.
The map is not the territory. It would be too big to carry for one thing. The menu is not the meal. The map will always have to leave a lot out. And should it include the person making the map? And then should it include the person making the map including the original person making the map? That observer effect again. But the mapmaker does make a difference, the maps are a reflection of their functioning. And those maps of maps can just go on being made forever, with increasing levels of abstraction, etc, which can be a mixture of good and bad.
An effect can be a function of multiple variables, and a particular cause can serve as a variable in a number of different functions with multiple effects.
You can never merely do “one thing”. Like the butterfly fluttering its wings, ultimately causing a typhoon on the other side of the world. Chaos theory.
Or a couple having a baby. Chaos.
New additions can lead to exponential growth, like pond weed covering a pond surface, or global warming, there will eventually be a tipping point of no return which may have crept up so gently.
In having a better functioning map for our life situations we need to look at structures and functional relations, and for multiple variables, especially any that may grow exponentially. Our maps need to be questioned and improved.
Korzybski developed a tool called the structural differential for evaluating and problem solving.
An actual event becomes a perceptual object via our nervous system, an abstracted map, as there is movement from non-verbal to verbal. The word is not the thing. Even though advertisers, for one, try to make us think so.
The next level of abstraction is going beyond a verbal description and brings in inferences, statements about statements, assumptions, premises, conclusions, hypotheses, generalisations and theories.
We need to be conscious of our abstracting or we may jump to wrong conclusions by identifying with the wrong things and make static and inflexible decisions, assuming the map is the territory, trying to eat the menu, acting as if people are always the labels we have given them.
Awareness of abstraction and prioritising the facts will help us to stay in control. I can imagine Donald Trump shouting “Don’t confuse me with the facts!” here.
Higher order abstractions are ideally held far more tentatively.
Looking at a news story, what seem to be statements of fact, and what statements of inference?
Turning off the internal abstracty chatter and silently contemplating may be a helpful way to break the cycle, Zen style, muscle relaxation and sensory and breath awareness, engaging in creative pursuits and aesthetic appreciation, getting out of your own way.
The Alexander Technique and mindfulness meditation also overlap here.
Think of it as coming to your senses.
The following story of Korzybski’s shows perhaps how assumptions can be made in the absence of the facts:-
“In a railroad compartment an American grandmother with her young and attractive granddaughter, a Romanian officer and a Nazi officer were the only occupants. The train was passing through a dark tunnel, and all that was heard was a loud kiss and a vigorous slap.
After the train emerged from the tunnel nobody spoke, but the grandmother was saying to herself “What a fine girl I have raised. She will take care of herself. I am proud of her.”
The granddaughter was saying to herself “Well, grandmother is old enough not to mind a little kiss. Besides, the fellows are nice. I’m surprised what a hard wallop grandmother has.”
The Nazi officer was meditating:- “How clever those Romanians are! They steal a kiss and have the other fellow slapped”.
The Romanian officer was chuckling to himself. “How smart I am! I kissed my own hand and slapped the Nazi”.”
Inferences go beyond observable, verifiable facts. Although even with so-called facts, nothing is certain, it is a matter of probability. At best they may be truish, apart from those times through observation you can be absolutely sure your map is matching the territory, e.g. if the question was “did the Romanian chuckle?”,yes as it was observed; as against “were the four people sitting in a railroad compartment”- probably, but the account doesn’t say, some may have been standing or lying down etc.
It is good to recognise when you are making inferences.
Collecting converging inferences and close observations can bring us closer to certainty.
The creativity of higher-order abstractions are to be valued if checked out critically against lower-order abstractions.
Now to the power of language over us. It is well known that the Inuit and skiers have many words for snow. Indo-European languages are obsessed with splitting into things (noun) and what they do (verb) and having both in a sentence. But it is artificial, e.g. “a light flashed”, but the light and flash are the same thing, the Hopi language simply says rehpi – flash occurred, verb with no subject.
The Aristotelian language structure still dominates the West. A is A. A thing is A or not A, the premise of the excluded middle. Similarly it cannot be both A and not-A, the premise of non-contradiction. All very well at a macroscopic level within an insular culture. Paradoxes often only seem to exist within such an outdated system.
But it leads on to ideas such as there being a flat earth. That invisible germs don’t exist. That things are separate from what they do. The world being fully static, unchanging and knowable. Either/or, black or white.
But we all know there are 50 shades of grey. And going back to Einstein again, there is no longer just energy or mass, they are in a continuum.
The process world constantly changes and interacts with our individual nervous system to bring about our experiences.
You never get two ‘A’s the same, just as you cannot step twice into the same river.
The second A is at best a map of the first A. And the map is not the territory.
You are not the same as any other individual. Or even as yourself a moment later!
George Bernard Shaw said “The only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measure anew each time he sees me, whilst all the rest go on with their old measurements and expect them to fit me.”
In an ever-changing process world of unique individuals, the word “is” may not be appropriate. “I am a doctor” could be better phrased as “I sometimes work as a doctor”, I do a lot of other things, and there are a lot of types of doctor.
“I am lazy” implies laziness is somehow found within me, I may seem lazy in some situations, there will also be many who seem lazier than me even in those situations.
When it comes to either/or, “yes and no” or “maybe” might be the most truthful answers, invoking Robert Anton Wilson.
Shades of in-betweenness help protect us from being limited in choice. It may be helpful to generate multiple alternatives.
Looking for possible multiple causative factors rather than one cause of an event.
Labels should be questioned and avoided.
Korzybski described a village where there was only one barber, who shaved only those who did not shave themselves. So does the barber shave himself or not? If yes then he did not shave himself but if no he did. Korzybski saw the term barber as a label for a fiction, the person is a human being who only seems to behave like a barber some of the time.
Words have multiple meanings to different people. People need to be asked “but what do you mean by that?”. Just the words themselves could mean just about anything, e.g. the words “success” or “happy”.
Even profoundly meaningful sounding statements can be nonsense when analysed.
We make maps of maps. This post is like a map of the Kodishes’ map of Korbzybski’s map. We react at a higher level to our lower level reactions and can improve the quality of those. It can open up closed systems and help to avoid self-fulfilling prophecies. Thinking outside of the box.
Base life on what you have learned from experience, not based on a bunch of “shoulds” and “ought tos”.
Being fixed on wrongly held ideals leads to frustration and demoralisation.
A good attitude going into a new discussion or situation might be “I don’t know, let’s see!”
Being shown something makes it easier to learn than being given some generic written instructions. Visuals are somewhere in between, but even a visual map is not the territory.
People deserve their own individual sub-categories, not to be lumped together based on a few seeming similarities. And they themselves will also act differently in different situations and at different times in their lives. On a positive note, it means people can change for the better!
An alternative to generalising that “all” of some group are something is the term coined by Robert Anton Wilson, sombunall, some but not all, e.g. sombunall men seem to be sexist.
Let’s communicate on the basis of cherishing others’ uniqueness, and use these principles discussed when we talk inwardly to ourselves too.
Qualifiers such as “up to a point” and “as far as I know” may make statements saner.
The language of E-Prime removes every form of the verb to be, and hence all absolutisms. Entire books have been written in E-Prime by fans of GS.
This reminds me of an intriguing guy who appeared on the Internet labelling himself Megagenius- his genius formula was something like:-
(1) expand attention
(2) find all information
(3) understand the technology
(4) open your mind
(5) examine the details
(6) find and avoid assumptions
Intelligence is seeing the differences between things. You may end up being what you try to resist so be accepting and positive in focus.
Perhaps he was a fan of General Semantics.
To sum up, as far as I can see, sumbanall aspects of this general semantics stuff seem okay to me, for now, well, up to a point. Maybe.