The Unknown Known
- Errol Morris (director)
The title of Errol Morris' latest comes from the one conjoining of terms our former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfield, didn't make in his infamous Heideggerian sounding memo: "There are known knowns, the things we know we know. There are known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know. There are also that third category of unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know. And you can only know more about those things by imagining what they might be." If you do a web search on "heidegger, rumsfield, unknown known," it'll bring up -- hardly surprisingly -- essays by Slavoj Zizek, one of which is here
. As he suggests, the unknown known is what philosophers investigate, those underlying features of our reality which make our navigation of said reality possible, but aren't so readily apparent while we're moving through our lived world.
I performed that search because The Unknown Known
reminded me of what Heidegger called tool-being. Normally, when we're using a hammer, we're not really thinking about the hammer as an object with all it's potential objective qualities, but instead as a function of what it's doing for us -- say, hammering a nail or skull. That's what Heidegger called "ready-to-hand." It's only when the tool breaks and no longer functions in its ready-to-hand capacity that we begin to contemplate it as a "present-at-hand," as an object separated from it's predominant instrumental human use. That's where philosophical reflection comes in, and we begin to understand just how ontologically opaque something as seemingly simple as the hammer is. So much of the object recedes from our grasp when we're merely using it for something. That, in a nutshell, is what Morris is doing with the silver-tongued Rumsfield, who conceals more than he reveals. The man had no need of thinking about his bureaucracy's unknown known until Al Qaeda broke it ... or revealed it be broken. Not being a philosopher, he chose to dismiss 9-11 event as an unknown unknown (contrary to the evidence
). That act of repression led to the Iraq War, after which we all had to contemplate the unknown knowns, the present-at-hand, of the Bush administration.