Tag Archives: unknown unknowns

Unknown knowns

It’s opening the door to meet a stranger and realizing you know the person already. It’s sitting down to do a thing for the first time and finding that somehow you know how to do it. It’s trying long and hard to figure something out and at last realizing that you always knew the answer, but just didn’t know you knew. Sometimes it’s because you didn’t have the chance to see that you had been seeing it; sometimes it’s because you had chosen not to see it sooner.

What am I going on about? Let’s look at what can be called a Rumsfeld square or Rumsfeld matrix. It’s named after Donald Rumsfeld, who famously said, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (Some people have characterized this as incomprehensible, but I have no idea what they’re talking about.) If we diagram it out in Greimas style, we see there’s a fourth square he doesn’t mention:

The existence of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns implies the existence of unknown knowns. It’s right there. Yet people don’t seem to talk about them* – perhaps that’s why they’re unknown.

But the fact we have a space for them in the matrix doesn’t mean that they actually exist. Putting things into tidy diagrams and taxonomies can be rewarding, but it doesn’t necessarily add information any more than organizing your bookshelf adds information about what’s in the books. Mainly, it tells you about how your mind – and the structures it has learned – views and organizes things. But inasmuch as it describes aspects of reality, it may also be a heuristic for discovering things we aren’t aware of yet, or at least for knowing where to look for them – or, as the case may be, for becoming consciously aware of them.

Linguistics is a great place to look for this kind of example, and I mean that in several ways. Here’s a table of the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for consonants (thanks to Kwamikagami on Wikimedia Commons):

I won’t explain all the terminology because we don’t have all night. But you’ll see that this chart has grey areas: those are sounds that are considered impossible. A pharyngeal lateral fricative, for instance, would require having your something like the tip of your tongue stuck back deep in your throat – which, even if it were physically possible, would stimulate your gag reflex. So the grey areas help us confirm aspects of reality. They also force us to clearly define what we mean by our terms. For instance, “lateral” it means going around the side(s) of the tongue, like the sound [l]; a labiodental lateral fricative is impossible because it would require going around the sides of your tongue without using your tongue, because “labiodental” means using a lip and the teeth (and not the tongue). If “lateral” could mean the side of something other than the tongue, such as air going out the sides of the mouth while biting your lip, the labiodental lateral fricative box would not be grey.

But it still might be empty, like the labiodental trill, which is considered possible (I think it would take practice!) but no known language uses it as a speech sound. But look right above that empty box, and you’ll see the symbol ⱱ, which represents a labiodental flap: a sound you make by flipping your lower lip out brushing it past your upper teeth. That box was empty until fairly recently, when the people who agree on the chart were made aware of an African language that uses the sound as a distinct speech sound. 

In a way, an empty box is a challenge to fill it – just as a grey area is a challenge to prove it wrong, or to scrutinize the definitions. So these taxonomies help turn unknown unknowns into known unknowns, and sometimes eventually to known knowns, and they also help us understand how we know – but they don’t produce the data themselves; you still have to go find speakers of real languages for that. 

But our choice of what to include in the grid – what questions to ask – can still leave unknown unknowns unknown and unknown, and it can also divert attention away from known knowns. For example, there is no column for linguolabials (tongue and lip), which is altogether possible (you could do it right now: touch your tongue to your upper lip). In this case, it’s not because they’re judged impossible, nonexistent, or unimportant; it’s just that they’re treated as variants on bilabials and coronals, and so are represented with a mark under a letter: [n̼] and [l̼], for instance. They’re known knowns but more easily overlooked because they’re not given equal weight in the taxonomy – which effectively makes them lesser-known knowns.

But there’s one more thing that linguistics tells us about all of this. Every linguistics student comes in feeling sure they know all about the sounds we make in our mouths and how we make them, and every linguistics student comes to realize they were doing things they weren’t aware that they were doing. For instance, before I encountered phonetics, I knew how to say “pot” and “spot” like a usual English speaker, but I didn’t realize that, like a usual English speaker, I was making a puff of air after the p in “pot” but not so much after the sp in “spot.” Every introductory linguistics course has one class where the students are all holding their hands, or pieces of paper, in front of their mouths and discovering that they’re doing something that they know to do but don’t know they’re doing. This is was what is often called tacit knowledge.

In fact, most of language is tacit knowledge for most speakers. We know how to put together a sentence, but we aren’t really aware of how we do it or why some things sound right and others sound wrong. And we learn rules in school and think that anything that doesn’t follow those rules doesn’t follow any rules, when in fact “nonstandard” varieties of languages have grammars that are every bit as developed and constraining as “standard” varieties. 

Some of the things we learn don’t just block knowledge, they put in false belief in place of accurate knowledge. If you say “doin’” instead of “doing,” for instance, we typically say you’re “dropping the g,” but there is no g. The difference between those two consonant sounds – [n] versus [ŋ] – is only a matter of where they’re said in the mouth; it just happens that we don’t have a separate letter for [ŋ] so we write it as ng, which also sometimes stands for [ŋg].

That’s not just an unknown known; it adds a whole new dimension to the Rumsfeld square. As the popular saying goes (seen in many versions, and often inaccurately attributed to Mark Twain), “It ain’t so much the things that people don’t know that makes trouble in this world, as it is the things that people know that ain’t so.” But I’m not going to redraw the diagram with veracity versus delusion as another dimension right here and now, because that would be a very mentally taxing digression.

Beyond linguistics, and beyond tacit knowledge and knowledge blocked by falsehood, there are also other unknown knowns in life. I think of the time more than 20 years ago when I was looking for a job and a friend said a friend of his needed someone to do some proofing corrections on HTML. So I phoned the friend-of-a-friend and we chatted a bit and he told me to come in. When I walked in the door to the office, this person I had chatted with already on the phone looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both said, “I know you!” We had had a great long conversation at our mutual friend’s place at a party some months earlier, but had not learned each other’s full name, so when we were talking on the phone we didn’t know we knew each other. The knowledge wasn’t tacit, and it wasn’t blocked; it was transiently and accidentally obscured. (He remains one of my closest friends.)

And then there’s the Karate Kid kind of moment. In the first Karate Kid movie, the hero wants to learn karate, so he apprentices himself to an old Japanese man who makes him do menial tasks such as washing and waxing the car according to very specific instructions and painting the fence with exact strokes. When at length the hero complains that he hasn’t learned anything and is just being used for free labour, the master throws some punches at him, which by reflex he blocks using the muscle moves he had internalized through doing the scut work. He knew how to do it, but he didn’t know he knew. This, too, is tacit knowledge, but not one that had already been demonstrated, like speech knowledge; it was first manifest at the point of awareness.

That’s also how I learned how to do structural editing. I picked it up through researching and writing essays and through evaluating and grading very large numbers of student essays as a grad student and instructor. I wasn’t fully conscious of the sense of flow and structure and the intuitions I was developing, but when I first sat down to actually edit articles and books, I realized that I knew how to do something I hadn’t known I knew. Of course, once it’s a known known, it can be further developed – but I have to watch out that I don’t start misleading myself into “knowing” things that aren’t so!

And then there’s the ultimate unknown known: the “enlightenment” (satori, kensho) of Zen practice. If my sense of it from accounts I have read is accurate, it involves seeing the world and realizing that you always knew its true nature, but you just didn’t know you knew… because you were too busy putting it into boxes and matrices and categories and words. Which reminds us again that while logical deductions and categorizations can lead us to discoveries, they can also lead us away from them.

Unknown knowns are some of life’s greatest pleasures, its greatest serendipities. There are also, yes, great discoveries of unknown things you either suspected might exist (as a known unknown) or had no idea would be there like that (unknown unknown). But as T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding,” 

We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

In an important way, our lives are a course of coming to know ourselves and our worlds – of coming to know the things we had always known but had not been aware we knew. The unknown knowns.

* Well, Slavoj Žižek has – he has used the term for “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.” These are not so much unknown as “unknown” – we agree to pretend not to know them so as to avoid cognitive dissonance. He was responding to Rumsfeld’s use of the idea of unknown unknowns to justify attacking Iraq.