The Map is (not) the Territory

A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.

— Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 1931

We will kick off the Soft Sentience Working Group (for lack of a better name) with the question: “what is a map?” The first session will focus on the concept of cognitive mapping, exploring the relationship between the map and the territory it seeks to represent, understood both from social theory and fundamental neuroscience research. This begins to address one of the two working definitions we have forwarded for the map, what we had referred to as embodiment – projecting in to create a working representation of the world. Each of the readings included address this in one way or another – i.e. how we situate ourselves in the world vis-à-vis the maps we draw (in our heads or elsewhere), and the limits of these representations.

This session’s readings include the first chapter of the classic text The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. This chapter outlines Lynch’s broader understanding of the interrelation between our cognitive maps and the shape and legibility of the city.  Other chapters from this book will be added soon.  The second piece, by Marxist and Post-Modern social theorist Fredrick Jameson, takes up Lynch’s idea of the cognitive map, expanding it to describe mental and social processes we use to bridge the gap between everyday experience and the larger social and economic order (i.e. “ideology”). Also included is a This American Life episode on mapping that explores how different kinds of maps – and thus different images of the world – can be generated through different sensorial regimes, with great pieces by the cartographer Denis Wood and the late, great Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold.

Scientific texts include two foundational texts for the “cognitive map” theories of the brain. The first is from Edward Tolman (1950s). The psychology building at Berkeley is named after him and he not only fought the battle (lost the battle in his lifetime but has now been vindicated by modern neuroscience) against B.F. Skinner and the Pavlovian stimulus-response behavioral absolutists, he also got thrown out of his Professorship at Berkeley during the Red Scare for refusing to sing a loyalty oath and standing with the students; he was eventually re-instated after going to court. Also included is two chapters from the classic 1970s book by John O’Keefe, discoverer of place cells, on the discovery and neurology of the hippocampus as the site of cognitive maps.


  • Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, 1960, pp 1-14 + additional chp TBD
  • Fredrick Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping”, 1990, pp 1-9
  • The American Life, Episode 110: Mapping, 1998
  • Edward Tolman, “Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men”, 1948
  • John O’Keefe, The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map, 1978, pp 63-101
Denis Wood, Everything Sings, Map of Phone, Cable and Power Lines