Monday, March 4, 2013

The Map is Not the Territory

We believe that what we say about things is the Truth about them. That is, that there is a one to one relationship between the words and the phenomena—that a ‘tree’ = a tree. Yet no two trees, even those of the same species, are the same. We know this yet we act as if what we say about things is the Truth about them. Words are symbols of symbols twice removed from reality. Words are maps and the map is not the territory. Again, we know this, but think and act as if our maps DO represent the territory – that Republican is this and Democrat is that. Words are a fine starting place, the ball park if you will. But then if we really want to communicate and get things done we’ve got to know the section, row and seat number.


Today I’m beginning a series on words and language inspired by the science of General Semantics, a science that sounds more academic and useless than it is. Here is an example General Semantics debunking a cherished American myth written by Martin H. Levinson: The Map: The Pilgrims Landed on Plymouth Rock. A Review of the Territory: On December 16, 1620, the Pilgrims on the Mayflower reached their new home in America. Nearly all scholars put the Pilgrims’ landing about 10 miles north of the lumpy scrap of stone known as Plymouth Rock. There is no mention in any historical account of that rock, a large boulder located in Plymouth MA, into which, in 1880, the Pilgrim Society carved the year 1620.


The legend of Plymouth Rock was started in 1741 by 95 year old man who said his father told him about it. Twenty-eight years later, celebrating the Pilgrims’ landing a Plymouth Rock became an annual event in New England. By 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville reported pieces of the rock were being venerated in different American cities, and it was established as an American icon.


Offers for chunks of Plymouth Rock have occasionally popped up on eBay, where asking prices have been as much as $900. However, while it is true that lots of souvenir hunters did carve off parts of the Rock during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there is no way to differentiate a real hunk of Plymouth Rock from a fake one. For those interested in seeing what is left of Plymouth Rock (it is estimated to be only about one-third to one-half of its original size), it is preserved today in a state park near the mouth of Plymouth harbor.

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