The map–territory relation describes 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 models of reality with reality itself. The relationship has also been expressed in other terms, such as Alan Watts's "The menu is not the meal."
The expression first appeared in print in "A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics", a paper that Alfred Korzybski gave at a meeting of the in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 28, 1931. The paper was reprinted in Science and Sanity, 1933, pp. 747–761. In this book, Korzybski acknowledges his debt to mathematician Eric Temple Bell, whose epigram "the map is not the thing mapped" was published in Numerology.
A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.
The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte illustrated the concept of "perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves" in a number of paintings including a famous work entitled The Treachery of Images, which consists of a drawing of a pipe with the caption, Ceci n'est pas une pipe ("This is not a pipe").
In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan expanded this argument to electronic media with his introduction of the phrase "The Medium is the Message" (and later in the book titled "The Medium is the Massage.") Media representations, especially on screens, are abstractions, or virtual "extensions" of what our sensory channels, bodies, thinking and feeling do for us in real life.
This concept occurs in the discussion of exoteric and esoteric religions. Exoteric concepts are concepts which can be fully conveyed using descriptors and language constructs, such as mathematics. Esoteric concepts are concepts which cannot be fully conveyed except by direct experience. For example, a person who has never tasted an apple will never fully understand through language what the taste of an apple is. Only through direct experience (eating an apple) can that experience be fully understood.
Lewis Carroll, in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), made the point humorously with his description of a fictional map that had "the scale of a mile to the mile". A character notes some practical difficulties with such a map and states that "we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."
Laura Riding, in her poem The Map of Places (1927), deals with this relation: "The map of places passes. The reality of paper tears."
The University of Cambridge economist Joan Robinson (1962) emphasized the disutility of 1:1 maps and other overly detailed models: "A model which took account of all the variation of reality would be of no more use than a map at the scale of one to one."
Korzybski's argument about the map and the territory also influenced the Belgian surrealist writer of comics Jan Bucquoy for a storyline in his comic Labyrinthe: a map can never guarantee that one will find the way out, because the accumulation of events can change the way one looks at reality.
Author Robert M. Pirsig uses the idea both theoretically and literally in his book Lila when the main character/author becomes temporarily lost due to an over reliance on a map, rather than the territory that the map describes.
In 2010, French author Michel Houellebecq published his novel, La carte et le territoire, translated into English as The Map and the Territory. The title was a reference to Alfred Korzybski's aphorism. The novel was awarded the French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.
The mathematician James A. Lindsay made the idea that the map is not reality a primary theme of his 2013 book Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly. In it, he argues that all of our scientific theories, mathematics, and even the idea of God are conceptual maps often confused "for the terrain" they attempt to explain. In a foreword to the book, physicist Victor J. Stenger expresses agreement with this point of view.
Gregory Bateson, in "Form, Substance and Difference", from Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), argued the essential impossibility of knowing what any actual territory is. Any understanding of any territory is based on one or more sensory channels reporting adequately but imperfectly:
We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. ... Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum.
Elsewhere in that same volume, Bateson argued that the usefulness of a map (a representation of reality) is not necessarily a matter of its literal truthfulness, but its having a structure analogous, for the purpose at hand, to the territory. Bateson argued this case at some length in the essay The Theology of Alcoholics Anonymous.
To paraphrase Bateson's argument, a culture that believes that common colds are transmitted by evil spirits, that those spirits fly out of you when you sneeze, can pass from one person to another when they are inhaled or when both handle the same objects, etc., could have just as effective a "map" for public health as one that substituted microbes for spirits.
Another basic quandary is the problem of accuracy. Jorge Luis Borges' "On Exactitude in Science" describes the tragic uselessness of the perfectly accurate, one-to-one map:
In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography saw the vast Map to be Useless and permitted it to decay and fray under the Sun and winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; and in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
A more extreme literary example, the fictional diary of Tristram Shandy is so detailed that it takes the author one year to set down the events of a single day – because the map (diary) is more detailed than the territory (life), yet must fit into the territory (diary written in the course of his life), it can never be finished. Such tasks are referred to as supertasks.
With this quotation of Josiah Royce, Borges describes a further conundrum of when the map is contained within the territory, you are led into infinite regress:
The inventions of philosophy are no less fantastic than those of art: Josiah Royce, in the first volume of his work The World and the Individual (1899), has formulated the following: 'Let us imagine that a portion of the soil of England has been levelled off perfectly and that on it a cartographer traces a map of England. The job is perfect; there is no detail of the soil of England, no matter how minute, that is not registered on the map; everything has there its correspondence. This map, in such a case, should contain a map of the map, which should contain a map of the map of the map, and so on to infinity.' Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictions.
One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory.
The development of electronic media blurs the line between map and territory by allowing for the simulation of ideas as encoded in electronic signals, as Baudrillard argues in Simulacra and Simulation (1994, p. 1):
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: A hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory.
The fundamental trade-off between accuracy and usability of a map, particularly in the context of modelling, is known as Bonini's paradox, and has been stated in various forms, poetically by Paul Valéry: "Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable."