Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

Paradigms of Thought and the Story of the Blind Men and the Elephant

In my lectures on the history of Social Thought I refer to a well-known and very ancient story about a group of blind men and an elephant. Apparently the story is originally Indian, and is used as a teaching parable in Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. It is also referred to in the writings of the Sufi poet-teacher Jamalu’d-din Rumi (1207-1273), which may be where I first read it.

The story is told with some variations, but the basic element is about a group of blind men who encounter an elephant and each individually tries to describe it. As they can not see the elephant as a whole, however, and each only feels part of the animal, their descriptions vary widely: one feels the trunk and describes the animal as like a large snake; another a leg, and reports that it is like a tree; a third, who feels the side, reports that it is like a wall, a fourth an ear, which seems like a palm leaf, and so on. They argue about which one of them is correct, and in some versions of the story, come to blows.

A common moral of the story is that the elephant represents reality, and that each of the blind men has rightly described some aspect of reality. They are wrong only in insisting that their particular understanding of the elephant is the uniquely correct one, All of them have an incomplete understanding of the animal as a whole, They could usefully put together what they have learned individually so as to construct a more inclusive and correct picture.

This seems a useful ‘parable’ to adopt in looking at the complex history of social and political thought — and indeed at the quite different insights offered by the different social and human sciences — Sociology, Psychology, Economics, and so on. It can well be that understanding can be gained by looking at the same aspect of human reality from different vantage points, and that a range of frameworks of thought may be useful. That is not to say that all viewpoints are equally valid or insightful, only that ‘reality’ is commonly more complex than can be encompassed by a single view.

Not all Wikipedia articles are useful, but this one is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant

This is one of my favorite representations of the story. It comes from a Thai temple, Phra That Phanom Chedi in Amphoe That Phanom, Nakhon Phanom Province. The photograph is by Pawyi Lee and is in the public domain.

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This entry was posted on January 26, 2014 by in History of Ideas and tagged , , .
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