navbar 4Resource papers in action research

Theory and experience


This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick  or

...  in which the nature and use of theory are briefly considered and some of the traps in its use are identified




"The map is not the territory." You might regard that as the slogan or motto of general semantics, a study of meaning and of how we use words.  There is a sense in which a word is a theory of sorts, for it purports to represent something real.  As you read this, invite you to be aware of the way in which my words misrepresent or oversimplify experience, as they almost certainly do.



I invite you to join me in a brief experiment ...

Find a place where there is a lot happening.  Make yourself comfortable.  Relax.  Close your eyes.  Describe to yourself what you hear without interpreting it.  Describe the raw sound to yourself, not the activities or objects you presume the noise represents.

If this was more interactive, you could tell me what you experienced.  But let me guess ...

I've done this several times.  So have many other people.  I assume that for most of you, your experience was not greatly different from ours.  I expect that you didn't hear sound, you "heard" objects and activities.  You heard a car, perhaps.  And you thought to yourself, that's interpreting -- what did it actually sound like.  Or you heard footsteps, or a bird calling, or a door opening or closing.

I've described these possible events and objects with words.  That may have been how you thought about them at first.  Or you may have had a wordless concept.  People differ.

When you went to describe them I suspect you found that the words which came most readily to mind were "car" or "bird" or "footsteps" or whatever.  Describing the sound, I imagine, was difficult.  We don't have a language which describes sound at all well.

In short, I assume the meaning came first, and you extracted the sound later.

My experience is that perception is very immediate.  Mostly, we deal with meanings, not data.  There's nothing particularly "wrong" about that.  It happens that way, I presume, because it serves us well.  The difficulty is that we treat our perceptions as if they are true.  Often what we mistake for fact is actually fantasy.

"The map is not the territory." Some of you may have come across that sentence in the literature of neuro-linguistic programming, which has adopted it.  I first encountered it in the literature of general semantics, in a book "Language in thought and action" by S.I.  Hayakawa.  And it seems that he got it from Alfred Korzbyski.

Or consider this story from my past ...


Fact and fantasy

When our offspring were younger, we often invited friends with children for Sunday breakfast.  (People expect less of their hosts for breakfast, and children are often better behaved early in the day than they are later.)

On this occasion it was late on Saturday evening.  We had invited some friends around for breakfast the next morning.  I was going around the house putting out the milk bottles and turning out lights.  And I heard someone frying bacon.  I thought, the kids are frying tomorrow's breakfast.  So I hurried to the kitchen to salvage what I could for the next day.

The kitchen was in darkness.  No one was frying bacon.

As it happened, someone was having a shower in the nearby bathroom.  And the sound of water from an old fashioned shower rose hitting the bottom of an old fashioned bath sounds surprisingly like sizzling bacon.

Yet, until I saw that the kitchen was dark, in my mind the sizzling bacon was a fact.


... and motor cycle engines

There is a metaphor in Pirsig's "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" that I like.  He says something like this ...

Someone who truly understands the working of a motorcycle engine can dissect out a cross-section that will reveal the workings to someone else.  But in choosing that one cross-section they have denied the onlooker the infinity of other cross-sections that they have chosen.

I take this to mean that a theory is a sort of cross-section through the motorcycle engine of reality.  There may be many theories that deal with the same reality.  That doesn't mean that one is right and the others are wrong.  It may mean that all or most are "right" as far as they go.  But each leaves out different aspects of the reality they deal with.

There are maps and maps.  Different maps choose to represent different features of the territory.  Several maps, taken together, may provide a better understanding of the territory than any one map can.



  1. Hawakawa, S.I.  (1952) Language in thought and action: how men use words and words use men.  London: Allen and Unwin. [ back ]



Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1999-2000.  This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (1999) Theory and experience [On line].  Available at



navbar 4 

Maintained by
Bob Dick; this version 1.02w last revised 20000105

A text version is available at URL