Quote: Map v. Territory

I was in Wikipedia for some reason earlier, and a click or two later, I was reading the entry for Alfred Korzybski, the inventor/founder of general semantics. (I’d had the book on a list of books to read for a reason that has long since escaped me, but it seemed hard to find, and I hadn’t gotten to the point of worrying about it enough to solve the problem.)

What popped up quickly was that he was the source of the famous (to me, at least) quote:

The map is not the territory.

We all learned about this one in the Army, whether at IOBC (Infantry Officers’ Basic Course) or in Ranger School. The idea was that looking at a map for your leader’s reconnaissance was asking for trouble. While a map is “a representation of the Earth’s surface as seen from above,” it’s not as accurate as reality. There are things in reality that don’t show up in maps, such as heavy vegetation to slow your progress, or trees that hinder vehicles but provide cover for infantry. The lesson was that it is important to put “eyes on the objective,” and verify that the representations matched reality.

This lesson wasn’t just about map reading and planning and executing operations, though; it was also about things like reports from subordinates that something was done, like the completion of a layout and inventory of equipment to turned in. We learned, as young lieutenants, that failure to inspect is a failure of leadership: a report of all done is not the same as the thing actually being done.

(This notion seems self-evident, and I have no desire to wander off into the pyscho-babble extensions of some authors.) But my next thought was that this idea, of recognizing the disconnection between real reality and perceptions or descriptions of reality, have always been interesting to me and maybe even explain why I’m good at being a lawyer and maybe why I’m happily married to a scientist.

Ex.: I remember a very fun lecture in high school physics (HT to Claude Meyers, the droopy-mustachioed teacher: this one has stuck in my head a long time). He was explaining the dual-slit experiments that revealed the wave-particle duality of light. He noted that the typical question was fundamentally wrong: is light *really* a wave? or is it *really* a particle? The answer he said, was that it was neither: it was what it was, and that “thing” exhibited these characteristics under these conditions. That was all there was.

So now, as a lawyer, I see this principle at work in two different ways. First, in the litigation context, we’re always trying to find and present evidence of “what really happened,” and the hurdle is that we’ve generally decided, via the rules of evidence, to only believe certain types of evidence as connecting the evidence with the reality. A good example of this is a recent case that involves a forged letter authorizing a wire transfer. The bank’s receipt of the letter is not actual authorization: it’s just the receipt of a letter that is some kind of evidence, reliable or unreliable, correct or wrong, of actual authorization.

In the corporate or transactional context, we use similar ideas to zero in on potential problems, whether to avoid or diagnose: we create restrictions on certain behavior, which might be innocent, to prevent mischief; we ask for certain documents to provide signposts to problems but that might themselves not be reliable (see forgery, above).

Recognizing the distinctions between these types of problems and their similarity, understanding the practical world well enough to identify more vs. less reliable indicators, and helping frame the relationship between two parties is the essence, to me, of being a good corporate lawyer. If contracts are, as I’ve said for years, fundamentally mechanisms for allocating risk between the parties, then this function of understanding map v. territory and being able to handicap the outcome is critical to coming out of negotiations with a set of transaction documents that can assist the parties in making the real world look like their vision (turning a territory into a map!).

As a final thought, I had a mini-epiphany on this quote either during pre-OCS map reading classes taught by LTC Daimler, Ret., or perhaps during IOBC or even at Ranger School:

The earth is a 1:1 map of itself.

Maybe even Korzybski would agree with that.

Leave a Comment