Maps are Territories

Court jester with a mind as a map


Court jester with a mind as a map

[Books in the Imagining nature series are referred to throughout by their titles only.]

... all theory may be regarded as a kind of map extended over space and time.
Michael Polanyi, Personal knowledge: towards a post-critical philosophy, 1958, p.4

[In its role] as a vehicle for scientific theory, [the paradigm] functions by telling the scientist about the entities that nature does and does not contain and about the way in which those entities behave. That information provides a map whose details are elucidated by mature scientific research. And since nature is too complex and varied to be explored at random, that map is as essential as observation and experiment to science's continuing development. Through the theories they embody, paradigms prove to be constitutive of the research activity. They are also, however, constitutive of science in other respects . . . paradigms provide scientists not only with a map but also with some of the directions essential for map-making. In learning a paradigm, the scientist acquires theory, methods, and standards together, usually in an inextricable mixture. T. S. Kuhn, Structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd edn, 1970, p. 109

In these two passages Michael Polanyi and Thomas S. Kuhn equate theories with maps, and they take it for granted that the metaphor is self-explanatory. Indeed, the map metaphor is not only used to describe scientific theories, but is so pervasive that it is also commonly employed to illuminate other basic but ill-defined terms such as 'culture', 'language' and 'the mind' (see ITEM 1.1). Since metaphors play a very important role in science and in all our thinking about the world, we should be alert to the depths of constructed and construable meaning contained within them (see Putting nature in order, pp. 54-7). It is particularly important in this instance because there is no clear understanding amongst scientists, philosophers or cartographers as to what either a theory or a map is.

In the exhibits that follow, we shall explore the 'theory as map' metaphor by looking at maps from a range of times, places and cultures. These maps were chosen because they raise, and shed light on, a number of fundamental questions about how humans see and depict the natural world. What are maps and what is their function? What is the difference between a map and a picture? What is the relationship of the map to the landscape it represents? How do you 'read' a map?

But first let us go back to the two quotations above and ask why the map metaphor should be so persuasive and pervasive. According to the Swiss educational psychologist Jean Piaget, spatiality is fundamental to our consciousness and our understanding of experience (J. Piaget & B. Inhelder, The child's conception of space, 1967, p.6ff). Most certainly, spatiality is a central element in almost all our representations of the world. Geographers Arthur H. Robinson and Barbara Bartz Petchenik explain, in the following way, this fundamental role of space in ordering our knowledge of the world:

As we experience space, and construct representations of it, we know that it will be continuous. Everything is somewhere, and no matter what other characteristics object do not share, they always share relative location, that is, spatiality; hence the desirability of equating knowledge with space, an intellectual space. This assures an organization and a basis for predictability, which are shared by absolutely everyone. This proposition appears to be so fundamental that apparently it is simply adopted a priori. A. H. Robinson & B. B. Petchenik, The nature of maps: essays towards understanding maps and mapping, 1976, p.4

Malcolm Lewis, a historical geographer, has made some interesting suggestions about the relationship between language and spatial consciousness:

Unlike the 'here and now' language of the other higher primates, human language began to bind 'events in space and time within a web of logical relations governed by grammar and metaphor'. (J.H. Crook, The evolution of human consciousness, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, p.148, n 8) Wittgenstein's proposition that 'the limits of my language mean the limits of my world' remains valid. (L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, tr. D.F. Peters & B.F. McGuiness, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1961, para 5.6) One could go further and say that the origins of language and the growth of spatial consciousness in man are closely interrelated. The cognitive schema that underlay primitive speech must have had a strong spatial component. Not all messages were spatial in content or manifestation, but many would have been, and these would have helped to provide the structural a well as the functional foundations of language. It has been argued that these foundations helped to promote:

the ability to construct with ease sequences of representations of routes and location ... Once hominids had developed names (or other symbols) for place., individuals, and actions, cognitive maps and strategies would provide a basis for production and comprehension of sequences of these symbols ... Shared network-like or hierarchical structures, when externalized by sequences of vocalizations or gestures, may thus have provided the structural foundations of language . . . In this way, cognitive maps may have been a major factor in the intellectual evolution of hominids . . . cognitive maps provided the structure necessary to form complex sequences of utterances. Names and plans for their combination then allowed the transmission of symbolic information not only from individual to individual, but also from generation to generation. (R. Peters, ' Communication, cognitive mapping and strategy in wolves and hominids', in R.L. Hall & H.S. Sharp, Wolf and man: evolution in parallel, Academic Press, New York, 1978, pp.95-107)

M. Lewis, 'The origins of cartography', 1987, pp.51-2.

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