Map–territory relation

Relationship between an object and a representation of that object / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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The map–territory relation is the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that "the map is not the territory" and that "the word is not the thing", encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse conceptual models of reality with reality itself. These ideas are crucial to general semantics, a system Korzybski originated.

Tissot's indicatrices viewed on a sphere: all are identical circles.
The Behrmann projection with Tissot's indicatrices
The indicatrices demonstrate the difference between the 3D world as seen from space and 2D projections of its surface.

The relationship has also been expressed in other terms, such as "the model is not the data", "all models are wrong", and Alan Watts' "The menu is not the meal." The concept is thus quite relevant throughout ontology and applied ontology regardless of any connection to general semantics per se (or absence thereof). Its avatars are thus encountered in semantics, statistics, logistics, business administration, semiotics, and many other applications.

A frequent coda to "all models are wrong" is that "all models are wrong (but some are useful)," which emphasizes the proper framing of recognizing map–territory differences—that is, how and why they are important, what to do about them, and how to live with them properly. The point is not that all maps are useless; rather, the point is simply to maintain critical thinking about the discrepancies: whether or not they are either negligible or significant in each context, how to reduce them (thus iterating a map, or any other model, to become a better version of itself), and so on.