Overweening Generalist

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On "Maps" as Maybe the Best Metaphor For Our Knowledge?

I was talking with a friend of a friend about GPS devices and I said I didn't have one. He didn't either. I said I like the challenge of getting lost (my sense of direction in non-familiar environments seems sub-optimal) and trying to "figure it out." We both still carry road-maps in our cars. About GPS systems: Apparently they're getting smaller, cheaper, more portable, and are causing trouble with not only the cops "illegally" tracking someone, but citizens are using them to spy on each other. (But of course...)

(I've already digressed?)

I still use road maps in my car. I love maps of all kinds. They fire my imagination.

"The map is not the territory." - Korzybski, who apparently annoyed certain segments of the cognoscenti by repeating something so obvious. (But is the phrase so obvious when looked at from from the angle of personal knowledge? Human behavior? Our own neuroses?)

Robert Anton Wilson, elaborating on Korzybski's famous riff, reminded us that for a map to actually "be" the territory it would:

  • Have to be as big as the territory
  • Have to show every inhabitant, including animals, plants, and microbes
  • Give an account of every change, which it cannot do: maps are inherently frozen in time

In a fragment by Borges, "On Exactitude In Science," the cartographers of the Empire zealously mapped the entire Empire, point-by-point. The map of the Empire was as big as the Empire: what a pain in the ass. Eventually, they realized the uselessness and "pitilessness" of such a venture.

In reading a collection of articles on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (AKA: the DSM-V), I became ever more aware that Big Pharma had succeeded in making more behaviors "diseases" that could be treated by drugs, while things like "homosexuality" had been taken out of earlier versions of the book. Psychiatrists apparently listen to their patients, and if they don't "know" enough about what drug to prescribe - what they decode as a specific set of mental symptoms - they consult the DSM-V. But it's only a "map" of human complaints and hypotheses and theories and ideologies about what might help "remedy" the patient's unhappiness.

Here's where I think Korzybski's "map" metaphor is still underrated. Practically all of our knowledge "is" "maps". Certainly all of our books are maps. Even "fiction" books. (I welcome a spirited disagreement in the comments!)


Veteran Korzybski scholar Robert Pula:

By "maps" [in the korzybskian sense] we should understand everything and anything that humans formulate...including (to take a few in alphabetical order), biology, Buddhism, Catholicism, chemistry, Evangelism, Freudianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Lutheranism, physics, Taoism, etc, etc,...!"
-Preface to the 5th ed. of Science and Sanity, 1994, p. xvii

This entire blog - any blog you read - mostly consists of maps, or maps of maps, or maps of maps of maps, etc. And what of it? Are we still sub- and/or un-consciously looking for Someone with The Truth? (What we want is "more of the truth," no?)

What truths do we want most for ourselves? How to go about it? When do we know we're on the "best" or one of the better trails?

Computer scientist Alan Kay, on "science":

Science is a relationship between what we can represent and think about and what's actually "out there"; it's an extension of good map making..."
-p.118 What We Believe But Can't Prove (ed. John Brockman)

Kay appreciates Korzybski. Here's Blake Victor Seidenshaw on Alan Kay on Alfred Korzybski (or a map of a map of a map?):

I enjoyed Alan Kay's perceptive comments about the irony of the Korzybskian "null-A," since the "null" is itself an Aristotelian operator! Alan mentioned that he thought Korzybski himself probably would have found this hilarious, since he had obviously never intended to do away with Aristotelian logic entirely. This is an important, if obvious point: if you think about it, as Korzybski certainly did, we cannot logically - intellectually - do away with classical logic; the very attempt to do so would precisely reproduce it. This amounts to an excellent paradox; it is literally unthinkable.
-ETC: A Review of General Semantics; vol.67; no.1, January 2010, p.3

With Robert Anton Wilson, "The word is not the thing" being called Korzybksi's First Law, the 2nd Law is "The map is not the territory." Aside from the philosophical zombies and the possibility I'm a brain in a vat imagining/hallucinating my "reality" (or the recent lysergic philosophical idea that we're probably Sims created by more advanced beings from Elsewhere, although, with this last, on some level, so effing what?), there seems to be a booming, buzzing confusion of a pre-verbal world "out there." Once we note it and begin to make sense of it we're abstracting/making a "map" of "reality" in our nervous system. (I think that guy is going to make a left-hand turn...why can't he use his turn indicator?: This forms part of your own mental map of "driving" or "other drivers", etc)

It seems there might exist some exceptions to this? Maybe. How about when maps are part of the territory? When I'm teaching a class and I talk about how "maps" work, am I not using maps as part of the territory about representation from within a teaching framework?

[...Or does this constitute a Strange Loop? Can I JOOTS (jump outside of the system- Douglas Hofstadter) and aver the teacher is using his knowledge (map) to talk about how maps work, putting teacher in a larger set/system of "reality" of map-users and map-makers? Just asking for a friend...]

Well, as we saw in my prior OG-spew, many Serious Thinkers thought Korzybski "nutty" and gave plenty of snarl words and "reasons" why. I'm not buying. Korzybski was weird, but also: pretty damned genius, in my opinion. Here's a passage from deep in modern cognitive neurolinguistics:

(The author has spent 190+ pages addressing neurons, how they fire, how the nervous system of humans make neural circuits based on embodied being-in-the-world, and how conceptual schemes arise, allowing us to categorize our experiences and understand the world. - OG):

How do people learn the concepts and language covering rich array of cultural frames such as baseball, marriage, and politics? In particular, what does the embodied NTL [Neural Theory of Language - OG] have to say about learning and using the language of cultural discourse? 

The answer is metaphor. Metaphor in general refers to understanding one domain in terms of another...The NTL approach suggests that all of our cultural frames derive their meanings from metaphorical mappings to the embodied experience represented in primary conceptual schemas. 
-p.194, From Molecule To Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language, Jerome A. Feldman (2006)

Now: you're an embodied human reading and abstracting from what I've written here. You're making sense of it in the best way you can for right now. (I am trying to do this, as you read and breathe.) Feldman is reporting on not only his own work, but the work of hundreds of other cognitive scientists and others. He's trying his best - presumably - to get us to understand this exciting set of ideas. And, as I abstract from this, it's all about "metaphorical mappings."

We are attracted to people who make really interesting maps. A lot of the time we call these people "artists" or "inventors." We love them because they help us make our own maps richer in detail.

If you accept the idea in the title for this blog-spew, what other sorts of metaphors exist but maps? Metaphors here "are" maps. Maps are metaphors, by a process of algebraic thinking.

Where might I have gone wrong here?

                                            artaĵo por Bobby Campbell


Eric Wagner said...

Or one can model metaphors as maps. I suspect Seidenshaw would benefit from trying to write in E-Prime.

I wonder if anyone has read Science and Sanity on an electronic screen (Kindle, iPhone, etc.). I met one person who read the Bible on an electronic screen.

Yet another terrific post.

chas said...

Perhaps you took a wrong turn at Albuquerque!

tony smyth said...

Good article as ever. I liked the Alan Kay quote on science re maps.

Regarding this bit; "How do people learn the concepts and language covering rich array of cultural frames such as baseball, marriage, and politics? In particular, what does the embodied NTL [Neural Theory of Language - OG] have to say about learning and using the language of cultural discourse?" I was just thinking about how children learn languages: its well known that before the age of 11 they pick up language just playing with other children, yet at that age they surely dont have that many areas of speciality that they can use as metaphors to 'map across'. If not metaphor then how do they make maps, or does language learning involve more than that? I've no real answer, but am mightly impressed at how kids pick up languages,and how hard it is as an adult.

chas said...


Children are in an exploratory phase, they are building their maps so to speak. So they are open to any perspective that helps them navigate through the world in a more fun and playful way. Being able to speak with your playmates increases the fun and enjoyment of the play. At a certain point they decide that their maps are more or less accurate and they become resistant to anything that might force them to change or enlarge their maps. Then we call them adults. Then they lament the limitations of their maps and yet are loathe to change them at all at all.

michael said...

@Chas and Tony-

I see children as default generalists; specialists take a long time to make.

My main map-model for children: embodied cognition: just being-in-the-world and the nervous system's trying to "make sense" of it (and stay out of danger/do stuff that feels good, etc) involves neural pruning: what doesn't get recruited and incorporated into a neural map via experience gets flushed. Literally.

I see language as merely a part of this, albeit a big part.

At the end I guess that when I say "maps" I also mean "metaphors" and vice-versa. I seem to use "model" in a very very similar way. What I hope our shared cultural semantics points out with all three words is this: there is very much we do not know. There seems quite a lot that we've not incorporated into our maps.

When RAW and others address learning about learning, thinking about thinking, using our brains to think about how nervous systems work: this seems a sure way of expanding our maps. Knowing about human knowledge as metaphorical-mapping SEEMS inexorably to lead to an expansion of one's own personal mapping.

The metaprogramming dimension?

tony smyth said...

Sure I get the idea of children MAKING maps as they learn a language. Actually one of my jobs is I teach English as second language to Japanese teenagers, just did it a few hours before posting. So sure, map making yes of course. But Metaphor implies the ability to compare or make analogies between at least two things right? I'd have thought, other than on a very simplistic level, thats a bit beyond kids of say 6-8, yet they pick up language so well, seemingly with little effort, and no formal rules overtly taught whatsoever. Embodied cognition - yes well, kids are very in the now. (well, until they get an iPhone!!)Maybe because their neural connections are all 'fresh' they remember things so well, at least compared to most adults. H'mm interesting area.

For myself I going to France in a month and have to 'crash course' on at least the food, train and hotel basics. Then torture the French with my horrible rendition of their beautiful language!

michael said...

@ Tony Smyth-

Apologies: sometimes I get too far into my bubbles and bailiwicks: Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Mark Turner, Gilles Fauconnier and many others have, since 1979 or so, shown that the idea that "metaphor" is a literary device? That's far far far too limited. Metaphors for them are embodied cognitive blends of neural circuitry built up by being-in-the-world; we attain metaphors and work with them much earlier in our lives than the older conception of metaphor: that it's a higher-level intentional poetic-like device.

Children are building knowledge about the world that is metaphorical - instantiated in neural circuitry - way before they have the idea that "My love IS a red red rose" contains a metaphor. Lakoff's writing on two idealized clusters of metaphors about what a "family" is and how this relates to our politics may clarify this quite a lot...

Vico was saying we think with metaphors in 1740, but as Lakoff told me, it wasn't "empirical" at the time.

Bob Campbell said...

Another wonderful post!

Thinking about children making metaphors, it occurs to me that they do just that when they play pretend. They pretend that something "IS" something else.

And the concept of metaphor as pretend retrieves a bit of the insight into the psychedelic satori: "all is metaphor." Culture as mass game of pretend, and the relief of seeing that so many of our perceived problems actually REALLY don't exist, we just get stuck pretending they do.

"In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits" - John Lilly