In war memoirs, there is sometimes talk about a feeling of invulnerability among soldiers new to combat: it never occurs to many people that they themselves might be killed. But then something punctures the feeling: it might be that a friend dies, or it might be the sheer quantity or awfulness of death, but at that point the recruit "sees the elephant" and gains a sense of their own mortality. Well, if someone "sees the elephant", how would philosophers characterise the change in epistemological status? For instance, would it be fair to say that the person has gained new knowledge, ie now knows that they're mortal, whereas they didn't know this before? Or is just a case of probability weightings of possible outcomes having changed in the light of new data?

It's a fascinating question. When the recruit "sees the elephant," as you put it, they seem to gain something that calls out for an epistemological characterization, but just what they gain is harder to say. The problem is that the obvious suggestions don't seem to work. The recruit already that s/he is mortal. Likewise, his or her probabilities haven't shifted. The recruit presumably already thought that death is certain.

So what might the recruit have gained if not knowledge or improved probability judgments? One answer is salience. It's one thing to know something; it's another for it to figure significantly in your outlook. If something is salient for me, it plays a different role in guiding my actions than it does for someone who knows it's true but gives it little thought.

On one model, our actions are guided by probabilities and judgments of importance or value/disvalue. But not everything that we know or believe plays a role in our decision-making, and likewise not everything we see as good or bad in the abstract feeds into our internal computations. Our "decision-engines" are finite and limited; they can't take account of everything they would if they we more powerful or capacious. On this way of putting it, what happens when the recruit "sees the elephant" is that his/her decision-making processes will henceforth take something into account that it minimized or ignored before.

On the model just described, what changes isn't the importance we assign to things, but whether that importance actually figures in our cognitive processes. However, someone might argue that if I don't take something into account in guiding my life, I don't really think it's important. If that's the right thing to say, the difference between the recruit before and after "seeing the elephant" would be an evaluative shift rather than a shift in beliefs about the non-evaluative facts. The language of "seeing" would still fit nicely. If someone says "I see now that ____ is much more important than I realized," we all understand what they mean.

Of course, our evaluations shift constantly. The song I love this week may bore me next; the political candidate I disparaged before may now seem better than I thought. Cases like that don't fit the "seeing the elephant" metaphor, and so perhaps we might reach for a notion that's strangely neglected in philosophy these days. Perhaps what the recruit gains when s/he "sees the elephant" is a measure of wisdom. The wise person isn't someone who knows more than other people; the bits of "knowledge" that enter into wisdom are universal truths that no one really doubts. The wise person is someone who has internalized these truths and recognizes their importance in a deep way that's integrated into the way they live their lives. There's a nice paper from almost forty years ago by S. Godlovich that explores this point (see below), but it's an idea that would be recognized by many of the world's wisdom traditions.

Obviously there's a lot more that could be said here, but that's my best shot at a quick answer. These cases of "seeing the elephant" aren't cases of learning new things or revising one's probability judgments. They're cases of acquiring a modicum of wisdom. Wisdom doesn't always come by way of shocks or epiphanies, but sometimes it does. I think you're describing cases of that sort.

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The paper I have in mind is S. Godlovich (1981), "On Wisdom," Canadian Journal of Philosophy vol. 11, no. 1

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