Maps are Territories

An analytic device which may guide us in looking at these complex and contentious issues is Ludwig Wittgenstein's 'forms of life', by which he means that all language, communication and shared experience has to be based in doing, in practical action (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, 1953, Book 2, xi, p.226). Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer define a 'form of life' as the existing scheme of things, the invisible, conventional and self-evident 'patterns of doing things and of organizing men to practical ends' (S. Shapin & S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the air-pump, 1985, p. 15), and it is in this sense that we will be using the term. A form of life can be taken as a set of conventional linguistic practices and social structures that are 'given', without which there can be no talk, knowledge or social relations. These 'givens' structure what it is possible to ask and what it is possible to answer. They lay down the criteria for what is to count a knowledge. From this constructivist perspective, knowledge can be seen as a practical, social and linguistic accomplishment, a consequence of the bringing of the material world into the social world by linguistic and practical action.

Metal plaque on the pioneer 10 spacecraft


This metal plaque was designed by the American astronomer Carl Sagan and placed aboard the Pioneer 10 spacecraft currently on its way out of our solar system.

Look at ITEM 2.7, an intergalactic map, devised by the astronomer Carl Sagan, showing humans and their universe. Is the map as culture free as it was intended to be? Can we be sure that any intelligent being from another galaxy could read it? Can one find the 'forms of life' that reside in this representation? Similarly, consider ITEM 2.8, the map of the London Underground. This map varies scale and position in order to display the configuration and interconnections of the rail network. It is designed to be useful to all users of the Underground, including members of other than European cultures. Does it succeed in this? What 'forms of life' underlie this map? What does it sacrifice? Is there a sense in which it is art?

It is apparent from the above description of forms of life that they are closely related to what Kuhn described earlier as the map-like character of theories. In the words of a philosopher of science who brings maps and forms of life together:

To talk, in the philosophy of science, of theoretical physics falsifying by abstraction, and to ask for the facts and nothing but the facts, is to demand the impossible, like asking for a map to be drawn to no particular projection and having no particular scale . . . If we are to say anything, we must be prepared to abide by the rules and conventions that govern the terms in which we speak: to adopt these is no submission nor are they shackles. Only if we are so prepared can we hope to say anything true – or anything untrue.

Stephen Toulmin, The philosophy of science, 1953, p. 129).

The london underground


The London Underground (Henry Beck, 1931).

Or in Stuart Hall's words 'you cannot learn, through common sense, how things are: you can only discover where they fit into the existing scheme of things' (S. Hall, 1977, in D. Hebdige, Subculture: the meaning of style, 1979, p. 11).

Maps and forms of life are obviously closely interwoven notions. So let us try and make their relationship a little clearer by looking at the question of how we know that something is a map and not a picture.

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