Why this is not a pipe, and the map is not the territory

‘We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.’

This is not a pipe‘ by René Magritte

It says ‘This is Not a Pipe?‘ but that makes no sense, because clearly, that is what is. But the topic here is art and philosophy, so we need to look deeper to understand the meaning.

It’s an image of a painting by René Magritte, The Treachery of Images. It’s a work of Surrealist art that points towards a three-way paradox about our convention that objects correspond to words and images we use. It’s a type of art Magritte and others used to question and overthrow the excessive rationalism of society.

The claim ‘This is not a pipe’ is correct. It’s not a pipe, it’s a representation of a pipe. (Or a representation of a representation, because it’s on your screen). Another example is the One and Three Chairs exhibit by the artist Joseph Kosuth. The exhibit had a real chair, a photo of a chair and a dictionary definition of a chair.

It was a Polish-American Alfred Korzybski who popularised the term that fits here; ‘the map is not the territory’. Language, imagery, art, we deal with ideas, maps, models, schematics and more. If you destroy the altimeter of a plane, does the plane fall out of the sky? If I burn a map of London, does London burn?


‘When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.’


It is all making a point that we often forget: our ideas and imagery are not the reality; they depict a reality. Our ideas are abstractions of reality, but not reality itself.

What’s going on here are two different but related points or realities. The Three chairs, they’re the same yet different? Two are ideas, the third the real chair. This duality expresses the limits of our knowledge. We can have ideas about reality but can never grasp reality itself.

Another example is the greyscale example below. We can chop a smooth continuum into pieces and label each, giving you a useful but more straightforward greyscale, like a pixelated image. But is not as complex as a smooth gradient.

This duality is related to Buddhist notion called the Two Truths. One a Conventional Truth the other Ultimate truth of Emptiness or Sunyata, Non-Self or Anatman. Conventional Truth is the truth of our everyday language and conventions. A practical truth, like ‘I own this car’.
The Ultimate Truth rejects this distinction: there is no ‘you’ and no ‘car’—those separate objects of a chopped-up reality, i.e. the map, not the unified territory.


Out biggest mistake is thinking they are one or the same. Realism in philosophy is the attitude that our perceptions or ideas exist beyond our minds in some objective reality. Realism states that our ideas are a direct accurate representation of this objective reality. That is The Map is the Territory.

The error here is our minds don’t work like this, they cut corners and use heuristics to make things easier, we don’t perceive a reality ‘as it is’. Instead, we simplify and abstract reality to make the model and map simple enough to be understood. We then make the error that we have grasped reality when, instead, all we have are our ideas. We can’t get beyond our ideas and perceptions; we only have the mind.

It’s the same with ore measurements. A rule or tape measure is a measurer of space. But it is not space, space existed before we had tape measures, so the tape measure is not the space.


Another habit we have towards this duality is try to twist reality to fit inside a theory, model, or Map is, the term for this Hypostatisation or Reification fallacy. Ideas can become more important than our world, so we cling to ideas despite evidence shows them as wrong or misleading.

An practical example of this is Stereotypes. We have assumptions about other people. Faced with a person that doesn’t conform to their stereotype, there’s a tendency to cling to the stereotype and ignore the individual. The idea has become more important than reality we face

Realism and Reification are mistakes we habitually make because we crave understanding and abhor mystery, uncertainty and being wrong. So we believe our simple ideas are real, as that is what gives us a feeling of control, a safety.

We have a good handle on reality, not realising how delusional we are. Reality become this rotting shred attached to the map we we cling to. As philosopher Jean Baudrillard points out.

‘Reality and the world are not bound or subordinate to our opinions or ideas, it’s not obligated to make sense.’

There are two realities, the given and the fabricated, the territory and the map, existence and what we think and believe about it. It’s not to say our Maps or Conventional Truths are unimportant, but our error is believing reality is as simple as our maps and ideas.

A broader point Buddhists make is our suffering, can be traced back to attitudes like Realism and Hypostatisation—the clinging attachment to ideas out of fear or desire.

In the Suraṅgama Sūtra, a significant Chinese work on Buddhism is says:

You and others like you still listen to the Dharma with conditioned minds, and therefore you fail to understand its real nature. Consider this example: suppose someone is pointing to the moon to show it to another person. That other person, guided by the pointing finger, should now look at the moon. But if he looks instead at the finger, taking it to be the moon, not only does he fail to see the moon, but he is mistaken, too, about the finger. He has confused the finger, with which someone is pointing to the moon, with the moon, which is being pointed to

Hsüan Hua and Buddhist Text Translation Society, eds., The Śuraṅgama Sutra: A New Translation (Ukiah, Calif: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2009), “Visual Awareness Is Not Dependent upon Conditions.

Magritte, chairs and maps may seem like some obscure art or philosophical talking point. But they show a depressingly familiar truth that our ideas and beliefs are not as rock solid as we think.

Reality and its truth get buried under layers of ideas and assumptions that we overlook because we are so fixated on the map, not the territory. We are all prone to this kind of attitude, where we cling to our ideas and reject the reality of our existence. Which is why it’s an imperative to see through the illusions our minds create, just as the Buddha taught.

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