The blind men and the elephant
"O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim / For preacher and monk the honored name! / For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. / Such folk see only one side of a thing."
As the Udana (6.4) has it, a man was once asked by his king to gather all the congenitally blind he could find in the region; then when they were all assembled, the king asked him now to show them an elephant. To some of the blind was shown the head, to others the ear, tusk, trunk, body, leg, thigh, tail, etc. All the while saying to each: ‘Such is an elephant, blind men!’
Then that King went to the congenitally blind, and after going he said this to those congenitally blind: ‘Did you see the elephant, blind men?’
‘Yes, your Majesty, we did see the elephant.’
‘Speak, blind men, and say: “Such is an elephant.” ’
Those congenitally blind who had seen the elephant’s head, monks, said this: ‘Such is an elephant, your Majesty, he is like a pot.’
Those congenitally blind who had seen the elephant’s body, monks, said this: ‘Such is an elephant, your Majesty, he is like a store-house’
Those congenitally blind who had seen the elephant’s leg, monks, said this: ‘Such is an elephant, your Majesty, he is like a pillar.’
And they, saying: ‘Such is an elephant, such is not an elephant; such is not an elephant, such is an elephant,’ hit each other with their fists, and with that, monks, the King was pleased.
While this version is from a Buddhist text, here we are concerned with the Jain exegesis. First, however, we might note a single similarity. When facing the world we are all in the place of the blind men, as a whole horde of philosophers have concluded in various ways: we have no access to the thing-in-itself. The previous articles can be seen as delineating what precisely it is we have access to and how, the nature of this limited understanding. We find that our understanding, as Blumenberg put it, metaphorical and thus, in a sense, empty; yet this does not mean it has no value, as some so-called ‘sceptics’ might claim. To all these, we need only reiterate the primacy of actuality over the conceptual dimension. We might, for instance, refer to Samuel Johnson’s famous appeal to the stone:
I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus!’
There is certainly an elephant, or something like it, even if what it is inexpressible in any absolute sense—and if you don’t believe me, just trying kicking one.
Now, returning to our central point: the blind men and the elephant as a Jain parable reflects the central doctrine of anekantavada (non-onesidedness, many-sidedness). Of Jain doctrines, perhaps only that of ahimsa (non-violence) is more primitive—indeed, it is from a concern for (epistemic) non-violence that the doctrine of anekantavada flows. This can be understood as both descriptive and normative: that one cannot but speak from a limited perspective, that one ought not act as if one could.
Jain logic holds to the ever-present preface in any logical judgments: syat (somehow). Often added to this is ‘eva’ (certainly). Taken together, the meaning expressed by these is that, for any judgment, somehow it is certain. We can contrast this with the standard judgment: that something simply is the case. The Jain judgment could be read as carving out the limited truth of a proposition; thereafter the emphasis is on examining the nature of this somehow rather than establishing whether it is (or not). For Jain logic, the only ‘false’ judgment is that which claims to be absolute or exclusive. All judgments which remain within their proper bounds, as determined by ‘syat’ (in some respect), are ‘eva’ (certainly) true. Of course, this is a fundamentally different approach to logic than that of the Greeks—yet one which well rewards study.
This form can be compared to the dialectical logic of Hegel, seeing as each seems to accept apparent contradictions. The differences lies in that, for Hegel, each contradiction contains within itself the necessary seed of its synthesis; indeed, is impelled towards this synthesis as by an ontological necessity. For the Jain, in contrast, the many sides of reality stand equal on a plane. They are that which may be perceived, more features of our perception and finitude than any mystical movement of a world spirit towards unity. For the Jain, it is not that reality is rational—rather it is many-sided, only one of which we can hold in mind at a time.
We can bring this limitation into focus by considering the Jain term: avaktavya (inexpressible). This arises as a logical predicate, of which Jain logic has seven as opposed to bivalent Greek logic. Here we might compare avaktavya with ‘syat asti, syat nasti’ (somehow it is, somehow it is not). While some have taken avaktavya to mean ‘both true and false’ we see that this is already accounted for: syat asti, syat nasti. The difference is that avaktavya is inexpressible in that, where ‘somehow it is and somehow it is not’ is always spoken sequentially, avaktavya refers to the attempt to simultaneously assert both. We can always say one first, then the other; we may even reverse the order, say it again—yet in no way can we express both at once. In the same way, we can turn over an object in our mind or pace around an elephant and inspect its varied sides—yet we can never be on both sides at once, let alone all.
While Jain logic will require far further an explication than this, the interesting point here—as compared to Greek logic—is that Jain logic thus includes temporality and human finitude; whereas Greek logic is atemporal and seems to assume the possibility of something approaching omniscience. We might all do well to study Jain logic instead, if only that it might make us better debaters:
Mallavadi (the name meaning “Theory Wrestler”) is famous for his public debate against a Buddhist logician held in the city of Broach in the year 884 of the Jain era, A. D. 357, when Mallavadi talked uninterruptedly for six days and nights, whereupon his opponent dropped dead—a great victory for anekantavada.
A short series on fundamentals, metaphors and many-sidedness: