General Semantics Advanced Thinking
A System-Discipline Concerned with the Sanity of the Race & the Individual
Our Maps and Ourselves

by Milton Dawes

Reprinted with permission from General Semantics Bulletin, N. 53 (1986/1987).  Updated 2006.

Mr. Dawes’ first paper in this Bulletin, “It’s a Matter of Timing”, was published in part in #50, pp. 171-182, ending with a promise that Part II would appear in a later-issue. This is not it! His paper was subtitled “An Extended Speculation”, and as his speculations developed they extended into new territories, which of necessity, as the present paper outlines, constitute new maps. In this process universe, Milton Dawes 1982 is not Milton Dawes 1987, and we thought it more important to seize the moment to present this current Dawesian formulating. We’re still looking for a spot for Part II of “Timing”.         -Ed.

A Map is a Map of Another Map

“The map is not the territory” is a fundamental principle of general semantics. In this essay I discuss this notion and some of its logical implications, one of which is that “the map can not be identical with the territory”. I also explore ways in which we can use this ‘map-territory’ notion to help us become better managers of our everyday personal and interpersonal relationships. In doing this exercise, I found that I developed a deeper appreciation of other general-semantics principles including the principles of time-binding, non-allness, non-identity, self-reflexiveness, Korzybski’s generalized principle of uncertainty, multi-dimensional structure, multi-ordinality, consciousness of projecting, and others.

For the purpose of this exercise, I define ‘map’ broadly to include all aspects of conscious awareness (including higher-order awareness of being conscious) and the verbal and non-verbal symbolic representations of these aspects. And I define ‘territory’ as anything that can be mapped — including maps.

Now if by chance you are as puzzled as I felt with regard to the incompleteness of these two definitions, here’s how I clarified the issue for myself: the two definitions seem to be saying the ‘same’ thing only with different words; but what actually makes the difference is a matter of timing — how we order our evaluations: What we call a ‘territory’ (inferred) can be considered as map at time (1). And what we call ‘map’ can be considered as map (2) at time (2), of map (1). Territory exists before a map of it; and the mapping process — our nervous system — occurs between territory and map.

In perusing these formulations it may be helpful (from the “application of general semantics to our everyday living” point of view) to consider the notions ‘map’ or ‘mapping’ to include such operations and their results as those we label ‘hypotheses, theories, imagination, visualization, memories, dreams, beliefs, hopes, fears, expectations, opinions, criticisms, judgments, plans, interpretations, understanding, knowledge, generalizations, decisions, seeing, hearing, touching’, etc., road maps and other kinds of maps, and anything else you can think of that we do or experience. With the hope that you have been somewhat prepared, I present the following ‘territory’ as stimulus for your mapping processes.

Differentiated Consciousness or The Map Cannot be the Territory

If a map were identical with (absolutely the same in all respects as) the territory, then that map would not be distinguishable from the territory — and so would not exist as a map in terms of our present understanding and use of the term. That we talk about maps, that we have a notion of maps, is an indication of a differentiation in our conscious operations; it allows us the consideration that we live in a world of multi-dimensional relationships; we can differentiate between a ‘this’ and a ‘that’, between the products of our map-making processes and our map making; between our maps, our map-making processes, and some other ‘entity’ which we regard as neither of the two; and between our maps, and our maps of our maps, and maps of maps of maps”.

The recognition of our abilities to differentiate provides us with opportunities to restructure our maps — to experience our experiences from different points of viewing, and to write different stories about our experiences. For instance: If we re-map the experience that we label ‘fear’, or ‘disappointment’ or ‘confusion’, we will find that no label provides an adequate description of the many things that through further and closer observation could be discovered to be going on. Obviously from a practical point of view, our exploration of our experiential territories requires that we settle on one label or description –for a start. But to minimize our tendencies toward an allness attitude, we should consider our labels, descriptions, inferences, opinions, theories, judgments, disagreements”, etc.) as psychological landmarks, intermediaries, reference points, jumping-off points, heuristic variables, time-binding starting points towards further explorations and possibly new discoveries. And remembering that “the map is also a map of the map maker”, we could think of our labels, opinions, ideas, etc. as nervous system summations, organismic integrations, semantic reactions, representing the present levels of development of our skills in accommodating information and evaluating experiences; also as representing our present organismic positionings in a self-reflexive continuum involving our self-correcting, self-protecting, and self-developing operations.

By training ourselves in the consciousness of differentiating and in the consciousness of integrating, we improve on our abilities to re-examine, re­view, re-map our experiences; and by increasing the degree of differentiating, by taking a closer and more detailed look, we give ourselves opportunities for finding additional titles and sub-titles for our experiences. Obviously, with a more detailed map, with more accurate information, we give ourselves the resource for more behavioral choices, greater range of responses, higher degree of flexibility and conditionality — significant variables in such areas as stress management, problem resolution, creative management of everyday situations, conflict resolution, clearer thinking, resolving problems in our relationships, and so on.

If the Map were Identical with the Territory — We Wouldn’t Know

If a map were not identical with the territory, then that map would either have to be outside the territory, or be occupying part of (and so be inside) the territory. Let’s say a map existing outside its referent territory was ‘taken back’ into that territory for comparison (this is one of the fundamental principles of scientific activities); it would eventually be discovered that some territory was left over — that some territory was not mapped. Now suppose it was possible to map all the territory by expanding our map to a one-to-one scale: we would now find that the territory was no longer distinguishable from our map since the one-to-one scale would require that they be of the same dimensions, bear the same relationship to other mappings, and that they be structurally identical. But this last specification would require them to be of the same materials. Our map would now cease to exist as map (2)* of territory (1) because it would be no longer distinguishable from territory (l). We cannot help concluding that a map cannot represent all of a territory because if it did, we wouldn’t know it as a map. (*“Map (2) since what we label “territory” is already a map created by our nervous system.

The general-semantics term for this non-differentiation between map and territory is ‘identification’: We identify, for instance, when we are not aware (and this happens more often than we are likely to accept) that there is a significant and ineradicable difference between what we observe, think, say, feel, understand, etc. about a person or situation, and what is going on. The difference is there related to the factor that (this will be discussed further on) the two happenings, what I say think, feel, etc. and the processes I am saying, thinking, feeling” etc., about, take place at two different places and times. It is also worth mentioning here (and detailing further on) that strictly speaking, in terms of the uniqueness and non-repeatability of space-time events, involving change, processes, etc., one cannot (as suggested earlier) re-enter a territory previously mapped. The territory is not identical with its former self.

Maps are Inherently Inaccurate

If, as mentioned above, I took a map into a territory to evaluate its accuracy, I would now be included in that territory (inevitably) and this would require a new map of myself holding my old map and comparing it with what, to be precise, is not the same territory I previously mapped. (If the comparison was attempted without ‘re-entering’ the territory, then the further one was away from the, territory the more intervening space-time factors (distortion, modulation, interference, reduction, contamination, etc. of information) one would have to make allowances for.)

The following may serve to illustrate the problem of comparing the map from inside the territory: When we ask for feedback from a close friend or associate, on some action we have taken, we may say something along these lines: “Well, what do you think I should have done?” In this situation, asking the question becomes one part of the territory that will be mapped (interpreted, considered”.) by our friend and represented in his or her reply — which will be mapped (evaluated, responded to”.) by us. Another part of the territory will be related to the situation referred to by the question. The point being emphasized here is this: Our interpretation of our friend’s response should include the factor that we have expanded, disturbed, and modified the territory by the act of asking the question. Here it seems that we have run into a bit of a problem, a fundamental one: We cannot exclude ourselves from the territories we imagine ourselves to be mapping (from an empirical point of view); and we also cannot completely include ourselves (from a logical point of view). But what is most alarming of all is that we cannot help making maps! So what is a human to do? It seems that simple awareness of these factors is our best referential map. But this is nothing new: Kurt Godel more than fifty years ago addressed a similar problem in mathematics and formulated the proposition we know as Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. And around the same time Alfred Korzybski, in his self-reflexive system general-semantics, summarized his recommendations in the formulation consciousness of abstracting. Maps are inherently inaccurate because, among other factors, we cannot include ourselves in the act of making our last map — but we can be aware of this, and modify our behaviors accordingly.

A General Uncertainty Principle

A map by definition is the product of a map-making process; it has to be distinguishable from the territory of which it is a map; and it also has to be distinguishable from the map-making process. For this to be so, there has to be some space-timing interval between the territory being mapped, the map maker, and the map. But from information gathered through mappings, we find that these intervals are not empty of materials, or devoid of activity; and so we can not be certain or know precisely when, how, and whether the information that reaches us, after having traversed these intervals, has been modified and modulated by whatever may be going on in these intervals. And also, since any knowledge of the map making process (the nervous system activities) will also qualify as a map, we can never be absolutely certain how the information has been processed. What we know is a map of maps of maps… Knowledge is inherently inaccurate, because, among other things, we cannot transcend the mapping process, or eliminate space-timing intervals — and the knowledge- map does not represent all the territory..

Some significances in terms of the management of everyday situations can be stated thusly: We can never, for instance, know for certain that a well thought out plan will be successful; or that a brilliant idea will not be rejected as nonsense; or that any decision is the only ‘right’ one; or that a sincerely made promise will be kept; or that a venture that failed will not result in some success later on, somewhere else; or that a thoroughly explained position will not be misunderstood, and so on. The best we can do is to prepare ourselves well with reasonably accurate-and up to date ‘maps’, see what happens, and be ready to make adjustments. This way we make our little contributions to the sanity of the race.

Maps are Always Out of Date

If we accept that there has to be some space-timing interval between a map and the thing being mapped, then it follows that the clock time of a map has to be different from the clock time of the territory; it follows that the time of mapping processes will of necessity always occur after the happenings of the territory. (This is so even if the entity being mapped — observed, talked about”. — is ourselves.) Another factor worth considering is this: unless there is no change whatsoever in the relationship of things to each other — which would require the complete cessation of all movements in all parts of the universe, macroscopically and sub-microscopically — then no territory is identical to itself from one instant to the next. But mapping processes take time; consequently, in the period of time taken in the construction of a map, the territory would have changed. This suggests that, from a theoretical and also practical standpoint, a map should be evaluated as being out of date the instant it is completed. Of course, we still have to act despite all this. With experience, alertness, and clear thinking, we can decide when and where we can ignore this “out of date” feature of maps.

Moving from the mainly theoretical to the practical, and to get a better feel for the importance of this notion of ‘out-of-date-maps’, as it applies to the management of our everyday situations, readers are invited to explore the following in terms of the notion: the different experiences that we label ‘fear’, ‘expectation’, ‘disappointment’ (to name a few); the different feelings we label ‘failure’ or ‘success’; the plans and decisions we make, etc. Specific questions to be included are: “What territory is my feeling of fear, expectation, etc., a map of?”; “Where is the territory for which I have completed this elaborate map I call a ‘plan’ or ‘decision’?”; “How can I understand my disappointment or anxieties in terms of the maps I created?” (By the way, the exercise may also give a feel of an analogy of the differ­ential calculus applied to everyday living. Korzybski defines differential calculus (Science and Sanity, p. 582) as “The study of a continuous function by following its history through indefinitely small steps.” Here I will reformulate and generalize the analysis as “very close mapping of a situ­ation”; and apply it as above in terms of “giving a high level of attention to psycho-logical variables as a function of time”; or “extensional exploration of one’s semantic reactions”.)

But in applying this analogy of the calculus to human situations, we should remember a very important difference:’ in the mathematical method, answers were generated by ignoring ‘small’ quantities. But in non­ mathematical human situations ‘the tiniest increment’ of awareness, evaluation, activity, etc. can be of major significance. It is on this difference (non-identity) that the whole system called general-semantics is built. This difference also provides us with a striking illustration of the significance of the map-territory factor in human affairs. The territory is potentially indefinitely differentiable; the calculus provides us with a theoretical system addressing this indefinite differentiability; our nervous-system processes limit our individual ability to differentiate indefinitely (a good argument in support of time-binding) — and an unavoidable consequence of this is that our experiences, awareness, our knowledge — our maps — are necessarily approximate.

Alfred Korzybski recognized this inherent asymmetric relationship between our evaluating processes and world processes (which include our evaluating processes). He saw that we could accommodate this disharmony by negotiating with ourselves, and by so doing improve our relationships between ourselves and our environments. He recommended that we base our negotiating strategies on ‘consciousness of abstracting’…Awareness that in the process of abstracting we have not included all. 

Our Behaviors are a Function of our Mappings … and Vice Versa

By definition, map making processes at a time, and the maps they produce, can become the territory for future mappings. Consequently, map-making processes at a time, and the maps produced by these later processings, are functionally related to those earlier maps: what we believe now will influence what we will believe, how we will understand, what we will expect, what we will see and hear and say, and so on. One result of this reflexive interaction (neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic feedback) takes form as a certain degree of relative invariance, logical consistency, and continuity, in the maps produced and held in high esteem by individuals, groups, institutions, societies. (Here we can substitute for ‘maps’ what we understand by terms such as ‘personality’, ‘self-image’, ‘creeds’, ‘goals’, ‘policies’, ‘beliefs’, ‘values’, ‘expectations’, ‘laws’, ‘regulations’, and others you may think of.)

Maps are the means by which individuals or groups orient themselves and attempt to make sense of the complex world of their past, present, and anticipated experiences: different maps result in different behaviors. What we do, and how we do it depend to a great extent on the psycho-logical and biological modulating influences that guide our map making processes. Put in the ‘same’ situation, different individuals will perceive different things; will have different interests; and will consequently respond in different ways and with different degrees of enthusiasm; they will see different problems and propose different solutions.

An individual or group will feel lost and disabled without their ‘maps’. This could be one reason many of us find it so difficult to change our belief-maps. ‘Feeling lost and disabled also qualifies as a map: as mentioned before, we map our maps, and we map the maps of our maps We are self-reflexive beings; and our self-reflexiveness is reflected in our languaging behaviors: we can map our maps, we can be sad about being sad; we can become angry at ourselves for having been angry; we can plan to make plans; we can worry about being worried; we write books about writing books; and we do television shows about television shows we have done One of the greatest contributions to our understanding of ourselves was Korzybski’s recognition of this special case of self-reflexiveness in languaging: he called it ‘the multiordinality of terms’ (Science and Sanity, p. 14). It is to be expected that as map makers we will at times feel lost and disabled without our maps. If all we have are our maps (remember that, as mentioned earlier, what we call ‘territory’ is to be considered as map (l) at time (l), then maps for us humans are important not only for our biological survival, but also for our psycho-logical survival; and this latter in many instances seems more important than biological survival-­people will kill others and be willing to die for their languages, beliefs, political parties, religious convictions, to protect sacred grounds, or animals, or a patterned piece of cloth called a flag, and so on. Thinking in terms of maps, it is easy to understand why (contributing factors) an individual or group will resist, violently if necessary, any attempt to modify or destroy, devalue or ignore their maps. You might look at it this way: What you and your group may choose to call a map may be for me not a map, but the truth, the reality, the plain-as-can-be, obvious, undeniable fact. Without some differentiating tool-system-mechanism such as provided by the formulations of general semantics and other map-territory disciplines, I would be unable to distinguish between map and territory”; and although my behavior would be, from your point of view, a function of my maps that is not how I would be likely to see the situation.

How do we determine the Worth of a Map?

If the map is not the territory, and if the territory keeps changing, and if we all produce different maps as a consequence of our different locations in our psycho-biological and physical environments who then has the last word? Who is the final authority on any subject? And what is the source of this authority? Which individual or group has the final say on such matters as ‘truth, justice, beauty, art, science, goodness, evil, morality, intel­ligence, failure, success, right, wrong, communism, democracy’, and so on? In discussions we often hear someone say “Well, the real issue is“; or, “The important point is” Who determines what is the real issue or the important point? And when someone commenting on some concern you have, says “Oh, that’s all in your head”–how is this to be interpreted? Where else do we find concerns? How is it that some maps are considered of great human value, and others dismissed as nonsense? Why, for instance, is astrology considered such a ridiculous map and looked down upon by so many, while other maps formulated as various religions, political theories, and psychological disciplines often escape this kind of rating?

That some people believe in astrology, or telepathy, or a loving, omniscient, and omnipotent God, or devils, or dreams, or sacred mountains and trees, etc., and the fact that these beliefs have no present scientific recognition or status, does not make them any less instructive as maps. They can be considered as examples illustrating the polymorphism of human expression — and of human consciousness, if we consider statements we make to be maps of the operations of our consciousness.

For those of us who are concerned to become better map makers, I propose that all maps are worthy of consideration for the following reasons: Each map, as an existence, constitutes a valid and undeniable feature of our environment, and qualifies as territory. How sane or intelligent the map maker is adjudged to be, or how incredible the map may seem to observers, are not relevant factors in this situation: each map, regardless of any other judgment we may make, should first be considered as a unique human statement about the world, presented from a unique frame of reference. (The statement may be evaluated as outright fantasy — but an individual fantasizing is still a part of the world.) Each map qualifies as a valid element of the set of all maps created by us humans; consequently, if we are to further our under­standing of ourselves, and of the world of which we are a part, then we cannot afford to ignore any map. We can summarize these reasons by an appeal to the notion of ‘levels of abstraction’: evaluated from one level, a statement may be dismissed as nonsense; but seen from another level, the fact that the statement was made is not nonsense.

Now all this is not to suggest that it does not matter which map we follow; or that there is no distinction to be made between contradictory maps; or that all maps are of equal stature: this is clearly not the case (empiri­cally), and as we have established, cannot be the case (logically). If we start with the premise that the key feature of maps has to do with their representational accuracy (structural correspondence with territories), then it is easy to make the connection that the maps we create ourselves, and those we follow created by others, can either be a source of confusion, or can lead us to more sane ways of being. One way for the concerned individual to estimate the worth and usefulness of any map … to evaluate its effectiveness … to keep a clear head when following its directions … is to seek answers to the question: To represent which territory am I assigning this map that I am following?

When We Disagree with Others … We are also Disagreeing with Ourselves

If the map is not the territory, and the word is not the thing, then it follows that when you speak, your words are not your meanings; and when I hear your words, the meanings I give to them are obviously my meanings, (not so obvious in everyday situations) not yours. And so the conclusion is unavoid­able; when I agree or disagree with you, I am, more accurately speaking, agreeing or disagreeing with myself. For instance: when I criticize or pass judgment on a statement you make, my criticism or judgment represents my reaction to my interpretation of the words I heard; and these words may not even be the ones you uttered, or the ones you intended to use. And even if I happen to become aware of all this, it still does not bring me any closer to direct knowledge of the workings of your inner world.

The above is not meant to suggest that we abandon criticisms, judgments, interpretations etc.; and I am not here concerned with the rightness, wrongness, appropriateness, or justifiability of our verbal and non-verbal responses. The point I am seeking to emphasize is that if we accept the general semantics formulation that ‘the map is a map of the territory and the map maker’, then the conclusion is a logical consequence. And following this, if we are concerned to recognize and accept our share of responsibility for our feelings, reactions, and responses, resulting from our everyday inter­actions, then we should train ourselves in the ‘consciousness of projecting’,(see Science and Sanity, page 89) and recognize how much and how often we credit and discredit others as designers of the maps we created ourselves. This could also give us a greater appreciation of how much we contribute to our own development … and retardation.

Sharing Maps… Time-Binding

That so many people find so many different ways to talk about, describe, interpret, react to, etc., the ‘same’ situation, should provide us with a clue that we live in a world of multi-dimensional structures. And if we accept that no map gives the whole picture, and each map (opinion, observation, interpretation, etc.) represents mappings from a unique set of space-time, and psycho­biological perspectives, then it would be informationally advantageous for us to think of other people’s maps as complementary to our own. The more maps we have the better our feel of the territory of our human, and physical world. Having more maps gives us the chance to improve our favorite maps.

When our own reference maps incorporate elements of information borrowed from the maps of others, (see Korzybski’s Manhood of Humanity, and Science and Sanity pages 374,396) we literally extend our senses, among other things: by being aware that there is more to see, we see more; similarly, we hear more; and by getting more in touch with more of what is going on around us and in the world at large, we develop wider interpretative abilities; and we increase our chances for more flexible, creative, and effective responses to a wide variety of situations.

(A word of caution about the word ‘same’ used above and elsewhere in this essay: For each of two people A and B, in a situation C, during a specific time period, the situation apart from other factors mentioned elsewhere is not ‘the same.’ For A, the situation includes B; and for B the situation includes A: and since CB and CA are not identical, we should not claim that the situation is the same for both individuals. This may seem a little like splitting hairs; but in many relationships — domestic, business, etc. — the source of many problems and disputes can be traced to a tacit assumption of ‘sameness’. One party in the relationship may be quite comfortable with things as they are; the other may be seething with dissatisfaction, and looking for ways to change the status quo. How often have we heard one partner say “But everything was going fine!” In talking about maps, we are talking about ourselves: map making is one of the chief things we humans do. The quality of our social and professional relationships, our relationship with ourselves (our self-image, self­ confidence, and so on), the relationship with our physical environment, the distress or harmony we experience in these relationships, are mainly a function of the kinds of maps we create, and the kinds of maps we choose to follow. As our maps are incomplete, so is what we know or think we know; as our maps are out of date, so it is that we need to remain open to new information, new ways of seeing things, new ways of understanding things, new ways of doing things; as our maps are inaccurate, so we need to refine our map making abilities to make better maps; as we each see the world from a unique vantage point, so we could extend our horizons by sharing and comparing maps.

As individuals and as a species, we spend an inordinate amount of time defending and protecting our maps. Individuals, groups, nations, often behave in ways which seem to be saying “Of all the trillions of maps produced by humans, ours is the only important one”: and sometimes, with extreme malice, we set out to convince others that this is so.

It could be that we do not as yet see ourselves as map makers, and so we sabotage our own development by not recognizing our potentials. Except for a few areas of activity — scientific activity especially — we short-circuit our map making capabilities by subjecting and restricting our thinking, our values, our beliefs, etc., to conform to a two-dimensional, two-valued (either/or) map standard. We see-map ourselves as communists, capitalists, democrats, republicans, liberals and what not. We tend to think in terms of black and white or various other colors; as teachers, or students, intelligent or not intelligent, talented or not talented; we often think in terms of success and failure, good and bad, right and wrong,  and so on. It seems we often forget that the names we give to a person, thing or system, do not cover all of their features and operations and relationships. The term ‘map maker’ is no exception to this — but it is a more fitting description of what we do than most of the other labels we apply to ourselves. There is a high probability that if we developed a deeper appreciation of ourselves as ‘map makers’, we could do much better as human beings than we have done so far by our other labels.

In the system-discipline General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski has provided us with many psycho-logical tools we can use to intercept, interrupt, critique, modify, and even abandon some of our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves, others, and the world around us–including related behaviors. He has provided us (humans) with ways to become more conscious, more advanced  time-binders, and also better map-makers. He was concerned for the sanity of the species. As more conscious and more intelligent time-binders– recognizing our interdependence and interrelationships, we can individually create little “pockets of sanity” in a seemingly ever increasingly insane, disagreeable, and violent human world.

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