Making Explicit What has Been Implicit

A Call for a Conceptual Theory of Cartography

  • Mark Denil sui generis


How is a map different from things that are not maps? What is a map? How do you know it's a map? Such questions appear quite simple—the answers would seem to be things everyone knows almost without thinking—yet comprehensive answers have proved elusive. Hitherto, such existential questions have almost inevitably been either conflated with practical ones or deliberately ignored.

Map artifacts are, by themselves, mere things. Like any text, the map artifact can be read, and, through the action of being read, the artifact comes to bear meaning. Maps, however, go beyond mere meaning-bearing to achieve a state where they actually embody meaning. Reaching a state of meaning-embodiment requires a transformation that is analogous to an apotheosis or a transfiguration of the common clay of the artifact into an abstract conceptual state of map-hood.

Describing this transfiguration into a conceptual state requires a Conceptual theory of cartography—one that defines the relationship between the artifact as a thing and the map as an abstract entity, and that also defines the map entity in a manner unambiguously applicable to every, any, and all maps. Such a theory would also have to define the discipline of cartography in relation to that abstract map entity.

This paper proposes the outlines for the required Conceptual theory—one based on the proven model of Conceptual Art. Practically speaking, the first step—and the effective scope of the paper—is an inquiry into the nature of the map as an abstract conceptual entity. It provides a model for an investigative methodology for interrogating the formal map, and sketches out a framework for assimilating the findings of such investigations. This paper will not settle all fundamental questions about what a map is, but it will outline an analytical course that can address them. It proposes that asking how one knows something is a map is a step on the road to discovering what a map is.

How to Cite
Denil, M. (2021). Making Explicit What has Been Implicit: A Call for a Conceptual Theory of Cartography. Cartographic Perspectives, (98).
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