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Errol Morris made the rounds last week to plug his documentary, The Unknown Known, about Donald Rumsfeld. In Rumsfeld’s famous press-conference response, Rumsfeld talked about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. From what I can remember, Rumsfeld didn’t mention the fourth combination, the unknown known. Errol Morris uses this fourth combination as the title for the doc, and goes into the background in a post on NYTimes.com.


Morris cites the 19th century naturalist, John Wesley Powell, who wrote that the “unknown known” is the “philosophy of savagery.” Morris doesn’t go over this too much in his press, I think he was just happy to run with Powell’s use of the word “savagery.” We’ll see when The Unknown Known comes out.

I take the “unknown known” to mean knowledge that others have developed that the individual is ignorant of. I take it that Powell associates the dissolution of the unknown known with education and civilization. An individual of the 19th century who was stalked by unknown knowns was outside civilization and outside education: the savage.

What we see in people like Rumsfeld, though, is something that can’t really be called savagery. It’s the idea that some people don’t have to consider the realm of knowledge that lies outside their bubble. These people are protected from the consequences of others’ knowledge. Men like Rumsfeld soak up resources and gather commercial and rhetorical allies to defend their choice to be isolated. They also gain political control over the unfortunates who live in the wider world. The knowns they don’t know have consequences, eventually, but those consequences rarely penetrate the bubble.

In Rumsfeld’s case, the work of Hans Blix and the folks who tried to do a diligent job in reconstructing Iraq all fell outside the bubble. It is not savagery, exactly, but the 20th century version: an Orwellian denial of the value of other people’s work.

In the broadest terms, we all possess bubbles of knowledge outside of which we are savages, so we must all construct our bubbles so they don’t do too much harm. This is easy for most of us, because most of us don’t have the opportunity to grow our bubbles too far out into the world. Nor can we gird our worlds with wealth and flacks and think tanks: unknown knowns simply show up on our doorstep and say “Hi!” We must acknowledge that well-developed ideas exist outside ourselves, and when they show up we have to check ourselves before declaring them irrelevant or wrong.

The world is developing a 21st century accommodation of the unknown known, an advanced kind of wariness. We expect the unexpected from the world, but also learn to be wary about ourselves. We cannot be too confident about the unknown, whether others know it or not.