The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room August 11, 2017
As the first movement of his choral and orchestral work titled Creation/Creator, Christopher Theofanidis used for the libretto a poem by the famous Sufi mystic Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks):

Elephant in the Dark

Some Hindus have an elephant to show.
No one here has ever seen an elephant.
They bring it at night to a dark room.
One by one, we go in the dark and come out
saying how we experience the animal.
One of us happens to touch the trunk.
A water-pipe kind of creature.
Another, the ear. A very strong, always moving
back and forth, fan-animal. Another, the leg.
I find it still, like a column on a temple.
Another touches the curved back.
A leathery throne. Another the cleverest,
feels the tusk. A rounded sword made of porcelain.
He is proud of his description.
Each of us touches one place
and understands the whole that way.
The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark
are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.
If each of us held a candle there,
and if we went in together, we could see it.
This poem offers a wonderfully different and fresh perspective on the classic parable of the elephant and the blind men. I have long felt that the view articulated in it is an important clue to how to find a third way, one that leads out from the apparent impasse between Enlightenment modernism’s overconfident claims to knowledge and extreme postmodernism’s insistence that we cannot know for certain.
I can’t recall who put it this way, but someone has said that “Just because we all have biases, that doesn’t mean that all we have are biases.” What we see together despite our biases, through our different lenses, and from our different vantage points, has a greater chance of being correct than anything one individual or even one group may perceive or conclude.
Some call it “critical realism.” But it seems to me to me that it deserves a more inspiring name than either that or “collective elephant perceptionism.”
Theofanidis’ piece Creation/Creator incorporates a wide array of texts about creation, ranging from the Rig Veda to St. Augustine to Sefer Yetzirah to a retelling of Genesis by poet James Weldon Johnson.

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  • jekylldoc

    Excellent. Just finished Daniel Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” making a case for AI and for materialism in the form of “algorithmic” mechanisms to make up a well-functioning flexible process. It’s a good set of ideas, though tiresome in a number of ways. What I was most struck by is that he seemed not to have considered how minds actually work. Creating an inner representation of the functioning of the world is how you create a mind.

    So reading this take on how to understand mystical issues and ultimate things really brought that back and underlined it.

    “What we see together despite our biases, through our different lenses, and from our different vantage points, has
    a greater chance of being correct than anything one individual or even one group may perceive or conclude.”
    Of course correctness of understanding is a means, not the end, but yes, there is light to be had by sharing perspectives.

  • John MacDonald

    James said:

    I have long felt that the view articulated in it is an important clue to how to find a third way, one that leads out from the apparent impasse between Enlightenment modernism’s overconfident claims to knowledge and extreme postmodernism’s insistence that we cannot know for certain.

    I would like to make a few comments about Postmodernism and Being.

    In Postmodernism (Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas, etc.), they are not concerned with Being as “God in the ordinary sense understanding of Him,” or some cosmological first cause, but rather primarily making explicit the meaning of Being we “always, already (hence the “temporal” sense of Being)” function in:

    (1) Parmenides said, regarding the “twofoldedness” of Being: “to gar auto noein estin te kai einai:” “for the same is apprehending as well as Being.” For instance, the scholastics found obvious the “twofoldedness” Essential/Existential distinction of the Being of beings that allows us to comprehend the Being of that being, such as when we say a chair is “Hard” in terms of its “Essential Being,” and “Poorly Positioned” in terms of its “Existential Being?”

    And, beyond this twofoldedness of the Being of beings, why does this same twofolded distinction re-emerge when we consider “Thoughtful Inquiry?” For instance, Heidegger opens up a lecture course on ancient Philosophy by delimiting the “apeiron” in the following twofold way: “[W]e will proceed step by step toward what is ‘meant’ in the concepts and toward the ‘way’ they are to be formed and grounded. It will thereby become evident ‘what’ these lectures are dealing with, their ‘object,’ as well as ‘how’ they interrogate and investigate the objects, the ‘mode’ of dealing with them.”

    Heidegger once said that the simplicity with which Parmenides delineated the twofoldedness of Being makes one want to lose desire to write books!

    (2) For another example, we “always, already” ascribe to “The Principle of Reason” in our thought systems. The Principle of Reason says: “To be means to stand in relation to a ground.” What does this mean? In our thinking, we always search for a more and more solid ground than the one we already have: That is, we are constantly trying to eliminate “presuppositions,” further and further, until we are left with the most solid foundation possible. “Why” do we do this, and “how” do we do this/know to do this? It is because we already have a “pre-understanding” of Being as The Principle Of Reason that we operate in, even if we don’t or can’t make explicit what Being means.

    (3) Since Descartes, borrowing a context he appropriated from Thomas and Luther, Truth has meant certainty, free from doubt, because for Luther what had to be true, in the sense of freedom from doubt, was the salvation of the soul. Descartes ascribed to this model and tried to rest his system on a “certainty foundation” by eliminating all “presuppositions” by way of systematic doubt. As such, other forms of truth or “a-letheia” such as exemplary (“true-friend”), ownmost (the great “truths” of the human condition), un-hiddenness (I thought he was a nice guy, but he really “showed his ‘true’ colours” in his divorce),” became buried away from Philosophical discourse. Following Descartes, the Being of beings was to be fixed as that which was calculable, and hence more original senses of Being (such as Heraclitus’ physis kryptesthai filei, Being love to hide) was buried.

    This is postmodernism in a nutshell (as it relates to Being).