Maps are Territories

'Only connect . . . '

(E. M. Forster, Howards end, epigraph)

What, then, have we learned about maps that is of some value in understanding theories? They are conventional, selective, indexical, embedded in forms of life, dependent on the understanding of a cognitive schema and practical mastery. They can be enormously powerful and can sustain not just successful exploration of foreign parts but whole empires. At base there is something more than merely metaphoric about maps and theories; they share a common characteristic which is the very condition for the possibility of knowledge or experience-connectivity. Since we cannot have a pure unmediated experience of our environment, that experience is better understood as an active construction resulting from a dialectical interaction between the 'lumps' in the landscape and our imposed connections of those lumps. Our experience and our representations are formative of each other and are only separable analytically. Hence there is an important sense in which the map is the territory, even though paradoxically the territory is not the map.

However, there are some difficulties in equating maps with theories if we take theories to be the embodiment of objective knowledge. This view of science has become problematic since the appearance of Thomas S. Kuhn's Structure of scientific revolutions. It is now recognised that theories and observations are inseparable, and also that for any given set of observations there exist in principle an indeterminately large number of theories that could fit. Most problematically though, theories do not come with a full set of rules about how to apply them in given cases. If you go back and reread the quote from Kuhn at the beginning, which was selected for its discussion of maps, you find Kuhn saying 'Through the theories they embody, paradigms prove to be constitutive of the research activity'. This gives the impression that to Kuhn theory is central to science. However, Kuhn himself in later trying to clarify his position makes it clear that he takes 'shared examples of practice' to be the central elements in science (T. S. Kuhn, 'Second thoughts on paradigms', 1977, pp. 459-99).

To see science as a 'field of practices' rather than a 'network of theories' makes a profound difference to our understanding. It is especially significant when it comes to maps. If maps are seen as theories in the sense of fully articulated objective knowledge, then only one small group of maps appears to qualify as real maps – the supposedly accurate contemporary Western maps. We have seen, in the process of looking at the exhibits, that there are difficulties with that position. On the one hand, it fails to acknowledge the workability and potential power of maps from non-Western cultures, while on the other hand, it fails to acknowledge the contingent character of Western maps. The approach we are considering here, by recognising maps as embodying shared examples of practice, makes it perfectly reasonable to accept all maps as having a local, contingent and indexical character intimately tied to human purposes and action.

The concept of science as fields of practice also highlights the importance of skills and tacit knowledge, which are often overlooked or suppressed when the purely theoretical is emphasised. Skills and tacit knowledge are modes of knowing the world that exemplify Wittgenstein's forms of life. They depend on givens that cannot be spoken of, in the same way that you cannot explain how to ride a bike. If we had to wait for a theoretical explanation of bike riding, nobody would even get on the saddle. If maps are shared examples of practice, perhaps science can be thought of as a compendia of maps, that is, an atlas, as an example of the way in which people have to work to make the whole hang together. Ultimately maps and theories gain their power and usefulness from making connections and enabling unanticipated connections. Science is an atlas not because all its theories are connected by logic, method and consistency. There is no such logic, or method or consistency. Science is riddled with contradiction and disciplinary division. Science is an atlas because the essence of maps and theories is connectivity. Maps and theories provide practical opportunities for making connections whenever and wherever it is socially and politically strategic.

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