A Circuit Through the Cloud of Unknowing


In the now infamous & unforgettable answer to a question at the U. S. Department of Defense news briefing in February 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated:

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 not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Rumsfeld’s response appears to be the circumambulatory nonsense of a political figure wishing to speak without saying anything. Nevertheless, “though’t be madness, yet there be method in’t:” with his surreptitious circumlocution, Rumsfeld delineates three progressive phases of human understanding as it waxes to fruition. History has demonstrated that the link between the government of Iraq & the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups was a counterfactual one, thus relegating Rumsfeld’s rambling to the annals of historical iniquity. We stand to benefit, however, if our discernment can parse the baby from the sullied political bath-water: Rumsfeld’s three waypoints to knowledge provide an useful heuristic for our philosophical advancement.

The basic utility of Rumsfeld’s model is rather self-evident & scarcely demands explanation therefore. In brief: I begin in ignorance about a given topic, yet initially do not even recognise this condition as such—to me, it is an “unknown unknown.” Chance or Providence may alert me to this relative blindness, thereby graduating me to a condition of conscious ignorance—the topic becomes a “known unknown.” Finally, through inquiry, contemplation, or divine revelation from the heights, I pierce the veil of ignorance & the topic reveals itself to me as a “known known.” Thus having achieved the pinnacle of this conceptual three-tiered pyramid, I can claim understanding.

But such understanding is not real understanding; it is rather standing under the pretense of real knowledge. The knowledge that one can acquire through this threefold process is purely abstract, intellectual, & therefore, empty. Only the most trifling facts do not imply their own negation. If I say, “the linden-tree has green leaves,” this is indeed true, but it is also true to say, “the linden-leaves are black,” or “the linden-tree has no leaves whatsoever.” Each of these superficially contradictory statements is true & also false: if I make my measurement at midnight, or on the winter solstice, it will cast alternate enlightenment (or darkness) on the facts in question. To fix a fact as a “known known” is to pin a fluttering butterfly on an intellectual dartboard: it’s not a butterfly anymore, it’s a specimen. That it retains the butterfly’s form is analogous to an empty bottle of Coca-Cola once the vital essences have been extracted by a teenager on a skateboard. Truth cannot sit on the throne of error, and therefore must occupy the throne of time, which is no throne at all but a river of living & eternal metamorphosis.

If we seek a knowledge that is living, Rumsfeld’s heuristic requires an amendment, an additional stage. To complete the conceptual triad we need a fourth harmonic, which completes an octave of sorts. From “unknown unknown” to “known unknown” to “known known,” we finally arrive at the condition of true epistemic culmination: the condition of “unknown knowing”—”mindful mindlessness.” Only when we relinquish all of our cherished conclusions drawn from the prior phases & dive straight into the mystery itself—when we live & love the questions in their own right—that we will achieve true understanding. The sublime poet John Keats described this state in a letter to his brother George in 1817 as the human soul’s capacity for negative capability:

…when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

We manufacture facts; wisdom, the world reveals to us. Facts themselves are relics, like skeletons—the word “fact” itself comes from the Latin factum, which is past-tense of the word facere, “to fashion.” When activity ceases & process dies, its corpse remains, which we call a “fact.” But again, the world blooms eternal in interminable becoming—only when we relate to this perennial Springtime in present time that is not mediated by prior facts (which we might also call prejudice or preconception) can we approach true knowledge. Ultimately, facts can only tell us what the world is not. Rumsfeld’s third phase orients to the past; the condition of “unknown knowing” lives in the dynamic world and renders us receptive to the latter’s revelations.

A charitable yet inquisitive reader might ask, “what is the purpose of the first three stages if they merely lead back to ignorance?” One could draw a relevant distinction between the blindness of “unknown unknown” & receptivity of “unknown knowing,” but this point is rather obvious: both are empty but only one is conscious. Instead, I would invoke the words of T. S. Eliot, from Four Quartets as a response to this question:

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.

If one circumnavigated the globe, a man may indeed finish where he began…geographically. But this would not be the same man who began the journey, for no man ever sails into the same harbour twice. We might find further insight in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.:

The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.

The activity of inquiry itself expands the soul, like carving out a vessel for the world to fill. The loftier the ideas that we entertain, the greater will be our capacity when we ultimately relinquish them. Let us be inspired in this enterprise by one of the world’s greatest sages. Lao Tzu writes in chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching:

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.

(translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)

Originally published in March 2016 at The Lizard-press, which is to Theoriapress as Zeus is to Athena. Photo credit: Tehben Dean[/caption]

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