Dao Du Jour II, Day 78: The Unknown Known

Chapter 78: Paradoxes

“Nothing in the world

is as soft, as weak, as water;

nothing else can wear away

the hard, the strong,

and remain unaltered.

Soft overcomes hard,

weak overcomes strong.

Everybody knows it,

nobody uses the knowledge.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

In a press conference held shortly before the disastrous War in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, parrying skepticism about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, gave a famous disquisition on epistemology:

“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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”

As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, Rumsfeld forgot a fourth category: “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know. Indeed, the omission itself is an example of an unknown known; the category itself, like psychoanalysis generally, is impatiently dismissed by powerful people who fancy themselves the best and the brightest and chafe at the idea of limits to what they can know and control. Rumsfeld didn’t know that he knew about unknown knowns. The omission was so pregnant with import that Errol Morris made the category the title of his 2013 documentary on Rumsfeld.

The unknown known is pieces of our psyche we have disowned and repressed. Our psyche is ruled by an analogue of the law of energy conservation: the dark energy has to go somewhere, and so it shows up internally, in dreams, or externally, in projections we make onto other people. Everyone can see our shadow except us. Donald Rumsfeld surely did not think he was being an arrogant, condescending, lying, dissembling stooge; that he was all of these things was obvious to a casual observer.

Two years after Rumsfeld’s press conference, David Foster Wallace delivered his famous commencement address, “This is Water,” in which he cleverly used a parable to illustrated what he called the “no bullshit value of a liberal arts education.” In the parable, two young fish swim past an older fish who tells them to “enjoy the water,” and after swimming along for a few minutes, one turns to the other and asks “What the hell is water?”

An irony of the piece’ legacy is that while it was an exercise in “commencement address taboo”—an attempt get at the “no bullshit value of a liberal arts education” without relying on cliches and bromides—it has been referenced ad nauseum and all but become a cliché itself. A further irony is that the text itself warns against a superficial interpretation of it; yet I suspect that people often read it and, well, keep swimming along.

I begin the first class of each semester by having the freshmen read the piece, and asking them not only what they think he means by “water,” but why he chooses water as his master metaphor.

Try it yourself. Read the piece. Write down some ideas. I’ll wait.

So what is water?

  • Unconscious biases.
  • Unconscious beliefs.
  • Unconscious values.
  • Unconscious assumptions.
  • Unconscious prejudices.
  • Unknown knowns.

So why water?

  • It’s invisible.
  • It distorts what you see.
  • It’s essential for life.
  • It can take any shape.
  • It’s hard to grasp and hold onto.
  • It’s heavy.
  • It’s powerful.
  • It can drown you.
  • It can swallow cities.

When you’re swimming in the shallows, the stakes aren’t that high. But when you dive into the depths—or when you are dragged into them, and you will be—the pressure compounds, and what you don’t know you know can mean life or death.

Mind your surroundings. Especially those that are mind.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?