One of the first things you notice when you start digging into the definitions of words is that they are much more ambiguous than they seem. Chairs are an excellent example as at first glance they don't seem ambiguous at all. But then, what if we ask if a tree stump is a chair if someone sits on it? This puzzle won't be a challenge for longtime readers of Less Wrong, as they should already understand that the map is not the territory. That is "chair" is a word created by humans and which exists for our purposes and for which we get to decide the convention. It's definition is not a fact written in the universe, waiting to be discovered.

I've started using the term Linguistic Freedom to refer to this use specifically, since just saying "The Map is Not the Territory" is somewhat ambiguous and also somewhat difficult to explain. On the first point, if you look at the post where Elizier describes the skill The Map Is Not the Territory, rather than talking about linguistic freedom, he talks about the potential of being wrong, epistemic humility and how beliefs are separate from reality. On the second, instead of just saying, "Words are created by humans for our purposes and so we get to decide if a treestump we sit on counts as a chair, it isn't written into the universe", while if we want to explain the "Map and Territory" we have to explain the map AND the territory AND then how it applies to language.

Anyway, all I mean by this is that we have the freedom to use language however we want, even if it is stupid. For example, we could use "chair" to mean "pineapples" and that would just be stupid rather than wrong. But what do we mean by stupid? One simple way of characterising this would be to note that the territory contains certain natural structures that cry out for a name and that a definition is "stupid" when the term was created in order to refer to some way of drawing boundaries around a particular natural structure, but we decide to ignore this.

Linguistic freedom is about conventions, not individual uses of language. It doesn't mean that I can start using "chair" to mean "pineapple" without telling anyone. It doesn't mean that if you ask "Do chairs typically have four legs?" that I can answer as though you asked about pineapples. I suppose we do have that kind of linguistic freedom to be stupid in that way as well, but that isn't the kind of freedom that I'm referring to. It also doesn't refer to any kind of subjectivism or anti-realism or notion that everything is just language games.

This sequence will argue that this principle applies far more widely than you might think; that is many unexpected things are actually part of the map.

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:10 PM

If you follow the argument, then there's a freedom of how to use the term wrong. I don't see that your post provides good arguments for why it's useful to use the term wrong in the way you propose or even what you mean with wrong.

I don't see how this post would convince someone like Zack who thinks it's wrong to say that dolphins are fish.

Well, I'll actually apply this to truth values. Stay tuned!

If I am understanding this correctly, I feel the map is multilayered.

First, you have the territory and the map within language itself, a few of the aspects of "linguistic freedom" in this context I feel can be addressed right away using existing linguistic tools like Polysemy, Metonymy, Metaphor, etc. They clearly tell you that the freedom that you are enjoying is due to the categorical representations(the map), which holds true even for non-existent and newly formed words with tools like aureation, retronym, portmanteau, etc. The only place I feel where the existing tools fail is in addressing the emergent aspects of these phenomena like the potentialities of a word, possible use cases, etc, but if you leave the emergent aspects out, it seems to me that it is less about freedom or the awareness of freedom, and more about the mapping between the two, that is, people realize they are free-running, they also realize that they have this freedom as in they are walking on a map, but what they never realize is the weight on the edge between the two nodes. This is to say that their memory of why they chose to exercise this freedom in the place always eludes them. I think it is the cataloguing of that weight that we are missing and not the awareness itself.

Second, you have the entire domain of linguistics inside the map, and then there is the "structure of reality" as you mention elsewhere, which could be thought of as territory. And I feel this fails to present itself to anything beyond a heuristic. You can guide them linguistically but the realization is largely contingent on their umwelt. So at least, in my opinion, the issue is still with the weight on the edge and less on the freedom or the awareness of it.

I am sorry if I am missing something here or misinterpreting your point. I am just trying to understand the core theme.

I can't say I fully understood this comment, but you make a good point that sometimes you can create a novel expression and be fairly certain that people will follow you. I guess that's not the kind of freedom I'm trying to highlight either, rather the freedom we have to decide on what the conventions of language will be.

(Non-conventional uses of language actually aren't as incompatible with conventions as it looks. Like we could imagine conventions relating to non-conventional use).