Who ever thought that the map was the territory? No one could make this mistake regarding an actual map. Apparently this is a metaphor… What is it supposed to imply?1
The basic meaning of the metaphor is that representations (such as maps) do not perfectly reflect what they represent. Unthinkingly following an inaccurate map, you might try to drive to an island in the Pacific Ocean. Analogous mistakes are more common with other sorts of representations.
This essay uses the metaphor to introduce several key themes of In the Cells of the Eggplant. That is a book about how to improve science and engineering through meta-rationality : a better understanding of how rationality works in practice. The ways we use representations, and relate them with reality, are central topics. This essay may be a useful alternative introduction to the subject.
“The map is not the territory” is an important cautionary insight. However, it can also be a misleading metaphor. Maps are unlike most representations in significant ways, which we’ll explore in this essay. Specifically, many scientific and engineering models work in ways that are more complicated and different from maps. Unthinking application of the metaphor tends to reinforce simplistic “rationalist ” theories of how technical work works.