The Map is not the Territory

Models and Maps
Reality and how we map it

The map is not the territory.
– Alfred Korzybski

On Seeking Truth.

All too often students (and even some professors) misunderstand what it is that we do here in the academy. It is sometimes suggested that it is the task of professors to somehow teach students how the world really is. But this is completely wrong–headed for a very simple reason—presenting a perfect map of the world is an impossible, flawed endeavor.

Scholars do not have access to the really, real reality—sometimes promised to us beneath all the interpretations of the world (i.e. the territory beneath the map). Scholars are map–makers with no special power to discern ultimate truth. That is the limit of our claims.

As academics, our task is to draw useful maps and models of the world. Consider for a moment the topic of the American Revolution.

  • The intellectual historian might discuss the revolution as a shift from British monarchy to American democracy
  • The economist might discuss the American Revolution as an economic imbalance and recovery
  • The archeologist might discuss the daily clothing, keepsakes, and weapons of the time
  • The philosopher might discuss the revolution as the result of British Empiricist claims of ownership and sovereignty
  • The art historian might discuss how colonial life changed British aesthetics into an evolving "American" style
  • The sociologist of religion might discuss the changing sensibilities of American members of the Church of England

Each of these questions investigates the same subject, time, and place, but uses a completely different set of tools and criteria. Each endeavor is judged from within a specific field, analyzed and critiqued by the respected members of that field. But no particular field claims to have "the whole picture." Rather, students choose a set of questions they find interesting and then take up the toolset that best facilitates their search for answers. The student interested in historical questions learns the tools of the historian. The student interested in economic questions learns how to be an economist. And so on…

So what is a student to make of an "academic" course on religion or philosophy?

What every student of any publicly–funded college course must understand is that there is no underlying claim to "truth" in the course. Rather, any college course is working within a particular model of methods and inquiry. We describe—we never prescribe a particular view. So, to take from our example above, consider for a moment the topic of Judaism.

A religious institution, like a synagoge, church, or religious private school might ask questions like:

  • What is the correct interpretation of the Bible?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • Are the ancient laws of Leviticus still important today?

Whereas a college course on religion might ask questions like:

  • How has the interpretation of Genesis changed over the last 100 years among Conservative and Reform Jews?
  • How has the classic Problem of Evil developed among Jewish writers since the Holocaust?
  • What role did Jewish purity laws play in the debates between 1st and 2nd generation Christians with concern to identity?

So, it works like this: by signing up for a course, a student agrees to the academic model and methods of inquiry found in the classroom. Appeals to tradition (argumentum ad antiquitatem) and appeals to authority figures (argumentum ad auctoritatem) are summarily ignored, in favor of scholarly, non–sectarian findings. In this way, scholars do not take sides, nor do they take the "polite" approach—wherein one timidly asks permission to talk about certain social groups, views, or activities. Could you imagine the milquetoast historian who refused to write a critical paragraph on George Washington out of a sense of patriotism? We might call such a person loyal, but we’d never mistake him for a scholar. The same goes for religion and philosophy. Scholars of philosophy and religion seek the best peer–reviewed information that a discipline has to offer and presents it to students who have voluntaringly signed–on to learn about a topic within an academic framework.

So remember: We are map–makers. But the map is not the territory. The territory—the world—is for the student to travel herself.