The phrase "a map is not the territory" is identified with the philosopher of science Alfred Korzybski and his 1931 lecture at an American Mathematical Society meeting.

In both of its prominent meanings (philosophical and practical) this is certainly an ancient idea. In fact, it sounds like an inevitable Roman maxim.

Is Korzybski really the first person to use this expression? Doesn't it in fact have a much older, perhaps ancient origin?

  • 1
    It's "The Map is not The Territory", and it's an axiom of Korzybski's. And Bateson's (no. 2 in this link). Jan 16 '14 at 0:59
  • @JohnLawler: I'm looking for confirmation of what the Web says. Is the origin of the phrase (in any application) really so recent? (And it is "a", at least in Korzybski's paper.)
    – orome
    Jan 16 '14 at 1:16

I happened to be on a scholastic portal when I saw this question. That, and that alone, is the reason I took the time to find the following. I swear I have a life! ;) But, I'll share what I've learned.

I could not find any evidence of the phrase existing before Korzybski, and the following is NOT proof in any direction. But it is interesting.

Lewis Carroll wrote a piece, penned in 1889 and published by Macmillan and Co., called Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded which uses remarkably similar language and reflects (I believe) the same concept.

You can see the Google Books version here.

We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!

"Have you used it much?" I enquired.

"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr : " the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight ! So we now use the country it-self, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.

The concept almost certainly predates any modern philosopher, but finding an example of that specific phrase would be a tough undertaking.

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