Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rumsfeldian epistemology

My favourite Rumsfeld quotation:
“"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, 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 no know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know”
He has been ridiculed for this, but it sounds perfectly reasonable to me. It's the unknown unknowns that are the problem -- just what Socrates was interested in pointing out. Much better for the unknowns to be known rather than unknown; otherwise how do you know what you need to try to find out?

2 comments:

Monte said...

I recently heard Slavoj Zizek point out that Rumsfeld left out a fourth possibility: "unknown knowns", which Zizek glossed as "ideology".

Monte Johnson

Apollodorus said...

I've heard some people say that Rumsfeld's now infamous distinctions are actually taken from the Jesuit philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan. Since I haven't read Lonergan, I can't confirm that, but my father (who studies theology with Jesuits) has told me that it's right.

I, too, think that the distinctions are nothing to be ridiculed -- though perhaps his use of them is. I find Zizek more to be ridiculed, in fact. Unknown knowns -- which, so I've heard, are not something that Lonergan omits -- seem to include a whole lot more than 'ideology' (whatever that is, anyway). Couldn't something like the principle of non-contradiction count as an unknown known for those people who have not learned about it explicitly, but constantly apply it anyway? Aren't unknown knowns of that sort an essential part of Plato's philosophy? Of course, Zizek would probably dismiss Plato as an ideologue, but I have fewer qualms dismissing Zizek himself as such. If Plato isn't to our liking, we might think of the later Wittgenstein, too. Unknown knowns seem to supply a good part of the content of his reminder notes.

So, I'll just say that even though I'm not a fan of Rumsfeld, I'm a bigger fan of his epistemology.