‘The map is not the territory.’ Why is this phrase SO important?

If ideas are too far ahead of our time, many will judge that the holder of the ideas as ‘nuts’.

For example, Alfred Korzybski’s ideas were way ahead of his time (photo, left).  He was a Polish engineer, a mathematician and amongst other proficiencies, he spoke five languages fluently and wrote his first book in 1921. He searched for the cause of behaviours and results. He wanted to know why humans were so self-destructive. It was Korzybski who is responsible for the profound phrase, “the map is not the territory.” The core claim of General Semantics  (which Korzybski founded) is that the world is NOT identical to our abstract descriptions of it.

His hundred year-old idea has been proven to be completely true through modern  scientific research. Watch the wonderful TED Talk How language shapes the way we think, to learn about specific examples of how this plays out in different cultures – it’s a very powerful presentation.

Author Konstantinou , a professor University of Maryland at College Park, reports that “Korzybski thought that language and neurology fundamentally limited human understanding, a claim that resembled the more famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Moreover, he argued, we often mistake linguistic abstractions of the world for the world itself. “The word is not the thing,” he wrote.”

Of course this wisdom is very old. The parable of the blind man and the elephant is first noticed in one of the earliest Buddhist texts Tittha Sutta in Udana 6.4.

Likely the observation is much older than that.

Korzybski’s ideas are similar to the hypothesis of linguistic relativity or Sapir–Whorf hypothesis which states that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition, and therefore our human perceptions are relative to our spoken language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was introduced by Edward Sapir in 1929 and later developed by Benjamin Whorf.

Here follow some quotes by the founders  of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” -Sapir (1958:69)

“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” -Whorf (1940:213-14)

Getting back to Korzybski, the following excerpt is from article The Eccentric Polish Count Who Influenced Classic Science Fiction’s Greatest Writers” by Lee Konstatinou:

“We mistake words for things because Aristotelian concepts have conditioned our thinking. When we use the word “cat,” for instance, most of us supposedly take for granted that the word “cat” wholly describes the creature under discussion. But language necessarily, Korzybski emphasized, abstracts from the empirical world. (He called this doctrine “non-allness.”) The cat is never only a cat. At best, language can create an incomplete, albeit useful, map of our environment.” 

I read about the blind man and elephant parable while studying Buddhism. The concept was not taught to me during my public schooling nor did I learn this from my parents.  I learned about Korzybski’s ideas after I wrote my book Harmonizing Consciousness, How the Acquired Faculty of Language Wreaks Havoc on Human Consciousness, and What We Can Do About It (2018). I remember feeling like I had found an old friend when I read about him. And I only learned about the labels ‘linguistic relativity’ and ‘Sapir -Whorf hypothesis’ today while researching this article today. These are labels our culture has created and have nothing to do with the wisdom itself, which is beyond words.

The latest science research proves linguistic relativism as true for cultures but very little research has been done on the fact that each PERSON’S world is completely unique even within the same language. This is being attempted but it is very difficult to undertake because each person’s reality is beyond words, using our senses and imagery in unique ways and therefore is elusive and subjective – and always changing. This is because each of us have individual associations to words, different life experience, different genes and so forth. The bottom line is that each of us reside in our own individual world because of language. We can sense each other and relate reams of information without a word but language uses a few symbols which most likely have different meanings for each person and we assume we are speaking about the same thing. Try naming the feeling of aliveness and reverence. How many names are there for the feeling behind God, Spirit or Universe?

It turns out that although language shares information over space and time, it does not hook into nature to accomplish this.  Language is divisive. It pulls us out of the flow of subtle information streaming into us from our environment and from within. It’s because we have to interpret the symbols that we feel alone and isolated. We enjoy our inner fantasies very much however!  We may sit in the same movie theatre and watch the same show but each of us is having an entirely different experience. When we are silent and connecting with others on nonverbal levels, we feel most connected with others in the realest sense – because our senses are being engaged and the divisive filter of language is absent. To nature, language is a dumbing down process, one that oversimplifies and misses reality completely. Reality is always now, in this moment.

I first experienced the deep truth of how different our inner lives are during a specific group meditation practice (Star Group practice) and then later I very profoundly experienced this with each of my clients as a hypnotherapist. Because I am open to experiencing the experience of others in my own cells and body processes – my senses are open – and because I trust my sensing faculties completely, I am able to follow the different processes of others in a unique way, something that was not taught in school or by my parents!

That we are fundamentally different in how we know and experience life is important information we must all learn to incorporate into our individual maps. This act would be unifying and help us better navigate our territory which is nature.

Let’s sense the interconnectivity of our territory, together.