The Epistemology of Elephants

Posted: June 29, 2009 in Braak
Tags: ,

Okay, so there’s five blind men, right?  And they go into this room that has an elephant in it.  I guess someone who isn’t blind told them there was an elephant in it, so that’s how they know.  Anyway, they go into the room.  The first guy touches the elephant’s tusk, and says to himself, “Hey, an elephant is like a spear.”  The second guy touches the elephant’s side and says, “Hey, an elephant is like a wall.”  Third guy touches the leg, says and elephant is like a tree.  Fourth guy touches the tail, thinks an elephant is like a rope.  Last guy touches the trunk, concludes that an elephant must be like a snake.

The blind guys are fucking thrilled at this.  Elephants are Snakes guy is really excited.  He has a t-shirt printed up (in braille, I guess; it says, “Ask Me About Elephants”), he has his house redecorated with snakey scultpures, changes his name to “The Guy That Knows About Elephants.”

Elephants are Spears is a little less excited about the idea, but he starts getting really pissed off about how everytime he goes out, he hears Elephants are Snakes telling somebody “the simple, true fact about elephants.”  The guy is acting like a dick!  Spears has to keep up, so he starts telling people what he thinks elephants are.

Things come to a head; the blind men get together in the bar, get into a huge fight, and kill the guy that thinks an elephant is like a rope.  The next week, the four remaining blind men each open up a school for educating blind people about elephants.  After three generations, blind people all over the place, most of whom have never been in a room with an elephant at all, will kick you in the dick if you say an elephant is like anything but a spear.

Eventually, an elephant comes blundering through the village, and knocks down the house where two Elephants are Trees guys live.  They try to figure out what’s happening–they manage to get a hand on the elephant’s tusk, on its side, on its tail, and on its trunk, but the elephant crashes off before they can feel his leg.  Naturally, the first guy assumes that his house was destroyed by a giant snake-monster, sent by the elephants as a warning to oppose Elephants are Snakes.  The second guy assumes that his house was destroyed by a giant snake-monster as well, sent by the elephants as a warning NOT to oppose Elephants are snakes.

The first guy gets a fire in his voice, and calls his followers to him.  The second guy says that Elephants are Trees is a crazy belief, and goes off to join Elephants are Snakes, throwing the Trees tradition into confusion.

About this time, some other blind guy discovers that one of the first blind guys–the one that thought the elephant was like a rope–had left a diary explaining his opinions on elephants.  Naturally, he concludes that since ropes and snakes are alike, it must be the Elephants are Like Snakes school that was closest to being right–but was still wrong because, clearly, elephants are like rope, otherwise, why would the blind guys have killed him in the first place?  ONLY TO SHUT HIM UP, IT MUST BE.  This guy starts printing self-help books about how to seize control of your destiny by acknowledging the elephant’s ropiness.

Of course, as soon as the guy in charge of the Elephants are Snakes school gets wind of it, he immediately declares war against the Elephants are Ropes guy.  Elephants are Trees sides with Rope, because a lot of them figure, “Hey, maybe an elephant is like a tree with a rope on it,” and a lot of them are still mad about the snake-monster that wrecked the house.  Elephants are Spears sides with Elephants are Snakes because, while they can’t agree with Snakes about what elephants ARE, they can sure agree that elephants are NOT anything like trees.

Elephants are Walls stays out of the fight; their numbers have been gradually declining since the natural extension of concluding that elephants are like walls is to hide under your bed for the rest of your life, because those things are fucking everywhere.

For a while, Elephants are Snakes is winning, and more and more people start to enroll in the school.  Elephants are Spears is absorbed into the Snakes orthodoxy, and they become a kind of joint Elephants are like Snakes Most of the Time but like Spears Some of the Time school.  Elephants are like Trees absorbs the revived Elephants are like Rope cult, concluding that most people perceive elephants as trees (unless they’re as terminally deluded as the Elephants are Snakes guys), but rope is cheap and readily available, and there’s money to be made selling people emblems of the nature of elephants.

Elephants are Walls finally dies out, and becomes a footnote in the history of elephant-based epistemology.

Finally, with the two sides in a kind of deadlock on the subject of the nature of elephants, a new leader comes forward.  “Can’t we all just get along?”  He asks.  He posits a novel, integrated view of elephants, suggesting that the elephant is sometimes perceived as a wall, sometimes as a tree, sometimes as a snake, sometimes as a rope, sometimes as a spear, and it is the perceiver who cannot apprehend the full nature of the elephant.  “Isn’t it better,” he asks, “to find the true elephant, than it is to argue about what the elephant’s nature is?”

So, each of the schools picks a representative (someone from Elephants are Trees gets shanghaied into being the representative from Elephants are Walls), and they send five blind guys, none of whom have ever encountered an elephant in their lives, out into the jungle to find an elephant.  Of course, elephants have been hunted to extinction by Congolese ivory traders, but the blind guys don’t know that.

They find a spear, a rope, a snake, a wall, and a tree.  The five men discuss their findings, and conclude that there must be an elephant in the jungle.  There is great joy, and for many decades to come, people go on pilgrimages to the jungle to expose themselves to the natural elements of the elephant.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    As a practicing Rhinostic, I find this post offensive! In some way that I don’t quite understand!

    Holy waaaaaaar!

  2. braak says:

    Don’t explain yourself, Holland! What are you, some kind of fucking COW? Just CHARGE THAT GOD DAMN MOTHERFUCKER RIGHT THIS FUCKING SECOND!!!!

  3. Amanda says:

    I feel slightly unnerved…

  4. Amanda says:

    I honestly don’t know!

  5. V.I.P Referee says:

    My years spent at “The Institute of Very Significant and Authoritative Information Regarding Elephants and Elephant-related Symbolism” (T.I.V.S.A.I.R.E.E.S.) would inform me that, yes, it is indeed possible to know the true nature of The Elephant. Since only few are inherently capable of processing such information and owning such knowledge, “Grey-Matter Cadets” (our jaunty distinction!) are entrusted solely with the task of spoon-feeding mushed-up pieces of the Truth to “lessers” (the label assigned to anyone not part of T.I.V.S.A.I.R.E.E.S.’ academic faculty, alumni and community–no offense ever intended toward lesser beings, of course).

    While studying at T.I.V.S.A.I.R.E.E.S, I also took a course in “Understanding the Nature of the Rhino” and can state, with total confidence, that rhinos are, in fact, just particularly aggressive, very large cows. Rhinos are often twice as large as cows–at least–therefore, twice as ambitious (more weight to push around, etc…I won’t waste people’s time here, quoting from research logs). However; as we all know, cows are very lazy and painfully unambitious (they only want to chew cud and grass all day and not charge up the glittering, corporate escalator) so the great question remains: Are rhinos actually twice as lazy as cows, rather than twice as ambitious, if cows aren’t ambitious at all? The research concerning such matters is hazy; any findings, inconclusive. Snakes, however, were found to be particularly ambitious and are well-suited to corporate climbing; also making them more likely to have designed existence. The snakies were right!

  6. V.I.P Referee says:

    Wait–“elephant” was supposed to stand for something else, wasn’t it? We’d often run into similar problems with distinction at the lab…

  7. braak says:

    It is often thought that the story of the Blind Men and the Schools of Elephant Knowledge is really a kind of allegory; this is, of course, hogwash. The story itself illustrates that the true nature of the elephant is unlike everything that is not an elephant. By extension, we must assume that the true nature of the story is unlike everything that is not the story.

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    @VIP Referee: I didn’t know you attended TIVSAIREES! I audited a “Pachyderms As Frightening Metaphors” class there in ’99! That Professor Deevers, huh? What a nut.


  9. Kate Pendry says:

    Aaaaah, beautiful post. Paaaraaaaaaaaamp (trumpeting with joy). Of course you haven’t meantioned the Great She Elephant here… somewhat mysogynistic and revisionist, but will let it go for now. Bless’ed may your trunks be. 🙂

  10. […] Blind Men and Elephants « Threat Quality Press […]

  11. Aaron Gould says:

    Moral of the story – Don’t ever leave your elephant alone in your room when there are blind guys around.

    Of course, I myself am an ardent follower of the blind guy who grabbed the elephant’s penis. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go “pray.”

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