Unknown Knowns

Note: I thought that “Totalizing Views” was a perfectly cromulent and useful phrase when I first noticed it, when it was announced as the theme for Keith Adams’ upcoming blogging residency at Ribbonfarm. Since then, the Baader-Meinhof effect has been in full swing. I’ve certainly seen it from the anti-essentialist crowd, including in Unit Operations. I have myself used the phrase quite a bit recently, to describe how certain systems of thought can be used as lenses to describe the entire world, such as Haidt’s Political values and Lakoff’s language power to describe politics, or signaling theory in describing any social interaction. Hopefully I’ve been clear about what I mean about totalizing- I don’t take it as a value judgment so much as a description.



“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 that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

– Donald Rumsfeld’s instant classic quote

There is a dark quadrant that went unmentioned: the Unknown Knowns.

There are several plausible definitions of an Unknown Known. I’m interested in the definition that follows Rumsfeld’s template: “things we don’t know that we know”.

I am not interested in spooky definitions of ‘know’.

The problem with Unknown Knowns is that without noticing them, you will use them as quiet assumptions- you will build theories and tell stories and communicate with this missing material.

Unknown Knowns are the reason we should read the Classics: they are embedded deep in the cultural stack, affecting the way we speak, and the things we can speak about, whether or not we are aware of them. They are your tropes, your sayings, your framing, and the narratives you recognize. You can survive ignorant of them, but they are there whether you choose to look at them directly or not.

Unknown Knowns are the reason why you should consider cognitive biases- they cannot be permanently circumvented (nor should you necessarily want to)- but you should be dimly aware that they’re there, affecting your perception and your decision-making. Questions are being framed, and decisions are being made for you, from below and above you as an agent- and, granted, usually, usually, it’s not a serious problem.

Unknown Knowns are in some sense our most regular, successful behaviors, codified and automated for efficiency. This does not mean that they will hum along in silent success forever.

Ideology, some argue, is especially pernicious in this era because we claim that we are post-ideological, opting to unknow the social water we swim in. [h/t Zizek]

Tribalism is older and more successful than personal deliberation.

(I’m really sorry about this:) Knowing an Unknown Known is not the same as making an Unknown Known into a Known Anything. It’s a separate order. Some Unknown Anythings cannot become Known Anythings by merely knowing of them, but there is a benefit to fighting to generate Known Unknown Knowns out of Unknown Unknown Knowns.

Written more sanely: Typological thinking is not a crime. We are never *not* using shorthands and shortcuts and pointers and layers of abstraction. None of us can be free of them and still be people [or any decision-making agent]. But if you don’t attempt to be even dimly, vaguely aware of the tools you use, you won’t know anything else.