The Four Blind Men and the Elephant: A Parable of Context

The Four Blind Men and the Elephant: A Parable of Context

One day, four blind men were walking together, and the man at the front collided with an elephant. Reaching out, he found the elephant’s leg. “Watch out, fellows!” he said, “I just ran into a tree! I can feel its trunk.”

Immediately upon hearing this, the other three blind men accepted the fact that they were now standing in front of a tree. They did not have to feel its shade or hear its leaves in the wind; their friend had given them this information, and that was enough. They now all accepted the context that there was a tree.

In order to avoid colliding with their friend and the tree, they fanned out. The second blind man, arriving at the rear of the elephant, found its tail, and announced, “I just found a rope hanging from a branch of the tree.” He had not actually felt or otherwise sensed any tree or branch, but it followed logically from the statement of the first man. After all, the rope had to be hanging from something.

The others not only accepted his report of a rope, but now understood that not just one, but two of their group had indeed confirmed the context that they were all standing at a tree. They had no reason to challenge it; their trust in their fellows was enough to shape their perception of reality.

Just then, the third blind man came around to the front of the elephant, and found its thick, flexible trunk. Upon feeling it, he reeled away, and shouted, “Aaahhh!! Fellows, watch out! There is a snake hanging from a branch on this side of the tree!” 

The context of the tree was now triply confirmed, which not only solidified their already strong belief in something that was incorrect, but that confirmation only served to strengthen everyone’s evaluation of the third blind man as an objective observer. They all decided to stay away from the snake, which clearly existed.

The fourth blind man, meanwhile, had encountered another part of the elephant, and was very confused. Sheepishly, he said to the others, “Fellows, I don’t know why this would be in a tree with a rope and a snake, but this feels exactly like an elephant’s penis.”

All the others laughed uproariously. “That’s so foolish!” the first man chortled. “A tree with an elephant’s penis? Absurd!” said the second. “How do you even know what an elephant’s penis feels like!” choked out the third with hilarity.

The fourth blind man, now thoroughly chastised, admitted the ridiculous nature of his observation, conceded that he had certainly made a foolish mistake, and even changed his story, saying now that his claim had just been a joke. All four were now in agreement, and sat under the “tree.”

None of them could now accept the possibility that they were in fact under an elephant; they were too heavily invested in the existence of the tree. To challenge that would mean that they would have to call each other liars or idiots, and discard what was now a thoroughly confirmed experience that all had shared. If anyone had come up just then and told them they were collected under an elephant, they would have dismissed such an interloper as a fraud, trying to trick them with lies.

Meanwhile, the elephant, having had enough of these men tugging and fondling it from underfoot, trampled them to death, and stalked off.

The moral of the story: a context reinforced by those you trust can be the most deceptive of untruths; always be receptive to new evidence and willing to re-interpret your views on any matter. Indeed, your life may depend on it.

Always ask yourself: what might be your tree?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *