US President Donald Trump. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque )

Everybody knows the story of the emperor’s new clothes — where a vain emperor contracted two so-called ‘tailors’ to make him a new set of clothes, not knowing that they were con artists. By flattering the emperor about his handsome appearance in the supposedly new clothes, when in fact there was nothing, and assuring him that the garments were so fine and delicate that only the worthy and deserving could see them, they achieved their aim: to pull the wool over the vain and gullible old man’s eyes to such an extent that he was too afraid to appear unworthy and undeserving to state the obvious, namely that there were no clothes at all.

Every time his courtiers (having been informed that only the worthy and deserving could actually see such exquisitely woven garments) came to see and admire the emperor’s new clothes it was the same story: they um’d and ah’d in feigned admiration and assured the emperor that they had never seen such a miraculously designed and produced set of clothes — which, of course, made him all the more vain and conceited.

Then came the day when he was to parade down the street in his new clothes for all his subjects to see and gaze at in wonderment (everyone having been duly informed, of course, that only the deserving and worthy could actually see these superlative creations). But while everyone bowed, curtsied and fawned over the emperor’s brand-new set of clothes, shaking their heads in disbelief and throwing their hands up in gestures expressing their amazement at the fruits of such superior craftsmanship, a little boy, bemused by what seemed to him to be much ado about something completely obvious, exclaimed: ‘But he is not wearing anything at all!’ And as if by magic, the spell that had been cast by the two confidence tricksters evaporated, and everyone, including the vain emperor, felt (and looked) very foolish.

By analogy, it is so very obvious that Donald Trump – the de facto, if not de jure president of the United States — is in a similar position to that of the emperor in the story, briefly reconstructed above, that I am astonished no one (to the best of my knowledge) among his Democratic opponents has pointed this out. This, despite the glaringly disingenuous defence of Trump by Republicans over the last few weeks, particularly since the start of the impeachment process (centering on Trump’s compromising telephone conversation with the president of Ukraine) in the American Congress – a defence or justification of the president’s actions that is tantamount to the same kind of sycophantic fawning that one encounters in the story of the emperor’s new clothes; except that, in Trump’s case, no one (among his Republican toadies) has had the courage to observe that he is, in fact, not wearing any clothes at all.

There are so many articles and reports on this topic in the international media that I hardly need to list any, but here are some just to refresh readers’ memories —this and this. Both offer summary accounts of where things now stand.

Clearly, even if the Republican majority in the Senate virtually guarantees that Trump will be let off the hook (67 votes are required in the 100-seat Senate, and the Democrats, together with two independents, only have 47 of these), his supporters seem to be in an increasingly frantic state, judging by the manner in which they have been twisting the evidence that has been given in front of the relevant House committee — so that they may not appear to be unworthy and undeserving in the eyes of ’emperor Trump’.

The question this raises is: How does one explain the diametrically opposed conclusions arrived at by Democrats and Republicans, respectively, in the face of the ostensibly unambiguous evidence, that Trump asked Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate, and report on, the activities of Hunter Biden and of his father, former vice president Joe Biden — at the time Trump’s main rival for next year’s presidential competition — on pain of forfeiting substantial American military aid? Needless to stress, if Trump did, indeed, do so, it would amount to illegal (if not treasonous) actions in the United States.

What it reminds me of is a two-fold, but related account of the interpretation of perceptual evidence and of interpretive divergence, encountered in the philosophy of science and philosophical hermeneutics, respectively. In the former case, it is succinctly called ‘theory-laden perception’, and in the latter simply ‘pre-judgment’ (or epistemic prejudice). So what do these mean?

In the context of (the philosophy of) science it amounts to the recognition that the ‘birth’ of science is not a matter of the quantitative accumulation of instances of observation or of ‘facts’, until a kind of critical mass is reached, and suddenly science emerges, fully fledged, like Athena, fully armoured, from Zeus’s head. Put differently, the old empiricist belief, that the mind is like a tabula rasa (or empty page) on which experience ‘writes’, just does not make sense, at least not regarding science as opposed to everyday knowledge. On the contrary, science makes its appearance when someone approaches experience with some kind of ‘educated guess’ in mind, and puts this guess to a test, as it were.

For example, we all know light-phenomena such as shadows shifting during a sunny day; when someone has observed this, and wagers that she can predict the precise movement of a shadow cast by, say, a pole, by relating it to the changing position of the pole in relation to the sun, then we have the beginnings of a scientific account of the way that light behaves. This is known as the ‘rectilinear propagation of light-principle’ — the theory that light ‘travels’ in straight lines. There are other theoretical accounts of light’s behaviour too — more sophisticated ones which presuppose more complex theoretical frameworks, namely the ‘wave theory’ and the ‘particle theory’, respectively, of light’s behaviour; in both cases a person who explains light-phenomena by appealing to either of these, shows that he or she is aware of the encompassing theory within which they are embedded.

All this goes to show that when one perceives something — in this case a light-phenomenon such as shadows shifting — a scientific explanation of it does not come from the perception as such, but from the ‘theory’ or ‘hypothesis’ in terms of which you account for it. And here’s the thing — although becoming aware of the role of ‘theory’ in perception is a prerequisite for science to emerge, this prior role of ‘theory’ (or more crudely, ‘belief’) does not only go for scientific accounts; in ordinary, everyday cognition it works in the same way — you tend to understand things you experience in terms of the (usually unexamined) beliefs with which you approach them. Trump — the emperor with no clothes — is no exception.

In hermeneutics this is formulated as follows: one always understands the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar; or, one’s explanation of an event or phenomenon depends crucially on the ‘pre-judgements’ with which you approach it. For example, an isolated people living in the jungle would be forgiven for perceiving a low-flying aeroplane for a noisy bird, or a city-dweller for mistaking an eel in a river for a snake that they have seen on television. However, hermeneutics teaches one, because cognition has a circular structure — the so-called ‘hermeneutic circle’ — one usually corrects oneself upon closer inspection of an event or perceived object, and if necessary, again on a later occasion.

Such a hermeneutic circle has evidently not enacted itself in the case of Trump’s supporters, who keep on, blindly, assuring the public that the (pseudo-) president is not guilty as charged, persisting in their claim that the emperor is in fact fully dressed, when the fact of the matter — based on the available evidence — is that he is stark naked. Putting it differently, his Republican defenders — like Lindsey Graham and Devin Nunes — persist in allowing their unexamined belief, that he is dressed in fine moral clothing, to dictate their statements, that he has done nothing wrong.

Unless these Republicans wake up from their stupor — or unless one of them should show the courage to state, loud and clear, that the emperor is not wearing any clothes — they will go down in history as the paradigm case of defending the indefensible.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

Leave a comment