Why this is not a pipe, and maps are 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 this continuum into pieces and label each, giving you a useful but more straightforward greyscale, like a pixelated image. But is not a scomplex as a smooth gradient.

This duality in Buddhism is called the Two Truths. One a Conventional Truth the other Ultimate truth of Emptiness or Sunyata, Non-Self or Anatman.


Out biggest mistake in thinking one is the other, The mistake of Realism. 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 do this, they cut corners and use heuristics to make things easier, we don’t perceive a reality ‘as it is’.

I stress it’s an attitude because there’s no way to determine if this is the case. After all, we can’t get beyond our ideas and perceptions; we only have the mind.

Another habit is we 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 even after evidence shows them as wrong or misleading.

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

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.

Magritte, Pipes, and Chairs may seem like some obscure art or philosophical talking point. What they shows is our our commonplace attitude towards reality and knowledge is buried under a layer of assumptions and distortions about reality and our mind.

‘Reality is not bound or subordinate to our opinions or ideas, it’s not obligated to make sense.’

Our ideas are not reality but mental imagery that’s simpler than reality, which makes them useful. Our error is is believing reality is as simple as our ideas.

The broader lesson is our suffering and problem can often be traced back to errors like Realism and Hypostatisation. 

There are two realities, the given and the fabricated. In Zen, it is ‘the finger that points to the moon.’ The finger is not the moon, but we get fixated on the fingertip, not the moon.