The Map as Metaphor – Part 2

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This is part 2 of Daryl Hitchcock’s guest post called The Map as Metaphor. Daryl is the Theory of Knowledge department chair and a resident scholar at Leysin American School, Switzerland.

Bringing it down to street level:  We have seen that since maps cannot display all the information that is contained in the world, they have to make choices of what they are going to present.  The map, after all, is not the territory. And, among those choices are the type and quantity of information to include as well as the scale (size), orientation, and the projection of the map. These choices will be determined, wholly or in part, by the purpose the map will serve. 

It seems to me that these previous maps are at such a small scale (and thus display a vast territory) that it may be helpful to move to more large scale maps and therefore explore a smaller, and perhaps more familiar territory. In the following images we can see several depictions of the city of London.  Again, each of these maps depict, essentially, the same “territory,” or the same physical location. But, the map maker couldn’t include everything, and so had to ask the question, “What is the purpose of this map?” and then included the information that best suits that outcome.  For example, map # 7, depicting the London Underground, doesn’t even try to show you what is on the street surface of London, but it will prove a useful tool to travel on the Underground. 

 

Image #7 File:London Underground Overground DLR Crossrail map.svg
Attribution: Sameboat [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Image # 8, a “London Tourist Map” wouldn’t prove very useful in navigating the underground, but would certainly help you plan a sightseeing day around the city.  And, while map #9 won’t really help you travel anywhere, this map of London showing levels of income deprivation might prove very useful if you were looking for a good neighborhood in which to buy a flat, which areas to avoid when buying a flat, or where you might most effectively place social services. 

Coming back around to TOK:  Similar to the way these maps function, we can extend our metaphor to include the Areas of Knowledge in TOK. An Area of Knowledge attempts to “map”  the “territory” of a specific body of knowledge. For example, the Natural Sciences are seeking to describe (map) the Natural World. A discipline within that Area of Knowledge, like Biology, is then “mapping” the physical processes and structures of living organisms. Just as no map can include all the information about the world, an Area of Knowledge will only be able to describe a portion of the (potential) knowledge in any given area. Maps (which take the form of formulas, models, equations, laws and theories etc.) will never equal the territory but can depict particular slices of it. 

Picture a World Atlas, full of many different maps of the same territory. Some maps show topography, others vegetation or precipitation patterns, while still others still may display population distribution. Each map has a particular and specialized function, and together they form a solid representation of the Territory, but are still inferior to the real deal. The Areas of Knowledge are like a Grand Atlas of Knowledge, in which an Area of Knowledge describes or maps a particular section in that atlas. Each Area of Knowledge uses a specific set of filters and displays only the appropriate portion of knowledge it is designed for. In the chart below we can fill in the blanks to help us understand the knowledge/territory each Area of Knowledge maps.

There is a powerful message here for the IB student. The chart above implies that each Area of Knowledge has a corresponding territory of knowledge that it best represents. But life is never that neat and easy. The reality is that knowledge areas overlap and often compete. Sometimes in the margins between the two, a beautiful synergy emerges. I think here about how the marriage of quantitative and qualitative data produces fantastic results in the Human Sciences and how mathematical approaches can aid in understanding the natural world, for example in the juxtaposition of biology and mathematics in the mapping of the Human Genome.  

But what happens when that intersection is less neat, or less orderly?  Can ethics describe, or map, the territory of the natural world? Conversely, how can the Natural Sciences map the territory of Faith and Worship?  This doesn’t mean that they don’t try. And, here, problems emerge. The map now is of the wrong territory.  Imagine trying to use your London Underground Map to navigate the streets of London.  It isn’t that the map is wrong, it is that we have chosen to use it for a purpose it was never intended.  In building knowledge, we have to choose the appropriate map, just like we have to choose the correct methodology and area of knowledge depending on the knowledge territory we are trying to navigate.  Just as we don’t use a hammer on a screw, we need the right tool for the right job. 

It might seem easier to just try to avoid these conflicts. I could say to you, “Choose easy and straightforward maps,” and you will be sure “to find the correct route,” whether your destination is knowledge or an actual physical locale.  The easiest pathway might be to try to isolate those Areas of Knowledge that don’t seem natural partners. But, this convenient evasion would ignore the fact that sometimes, in knowledge, we need to facilitate “arranged marriages.” Science, for example, does not naturally seek ethical restraints, it just wants to experiment and learn, and so it needs a little Ethics, the layering together of these strange bedfellows is often a necessary condition on the knowledge journey. 

References:

Monmonier, Mark S. How to Lie with Maps 3rd Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018

Turnbull, David, and Helen Watson. Maps are territories: science is an atlas : a portfolio of exhibits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Further Reading: 

An online exhibit of Turnbull’s excellent book is available here

A link to Korzybski’s original article from which the metaphor is derived, here  

Our brain as a map, here

How maps shape our mind, here

How digital maps change our notion of “getting lost”, here


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