Rumsfeld redux

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 1 13:11:10 UTC 2011

I first heard of "unknown unknowns" in the early 1980s. It was said to
be engineering lingo, IIRC.

Twice in recent months I've read comments by philosophers rightly
defending R's epistemology.

Part of his problem is that he's an easy target otherwise, and the
concept of "unknown unknown" can seem at first blush either tricky or

Maybe the most dramatic unknown unknown in recent tiems was the
propensity of cattle feed to cause mad-cow disease in both cattle and
humans. Since the responsible prion was (virtually?) unknown, there no
earthly reason to expect the unknowable result of its presence in

An "unknown unknown" is basically an unknown that nobody's even thought of yet.


On Tue, Nov 1, 2011 at 8:29 AM, Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Shapiro, Fred" <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Rumsfeld redux
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> FWIW, I consider this to be one of the most notable quotations of recent decades.  As the overall quality of art and thought declines, some of our preeminent instances of poetry and philosophy are coming from the unlikely realm of politics.
> Fred Shapiro
> ________________________________________
> From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] on behalf of Victor Steinbok [aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM]
> Sent: Monday, October 31, 2011 5:02 PM
> Subject: Rumsfeld redux
> A reminder. From Feb. 12, 2002:
>> [T]here 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.
> Also:
> Note that the second video sounds as if it has a laugh track added in.
> Rumsfeld has been pilloried and ridiculed for these comments. But the
> very amount of attention that came with that might well have contributed
> to the staying power of this ontology, which is actually quite sensible.
> Most of the mockery has been attached to "unknown unknowns", although
> it's the first one, "known knowns", that represents a tautology to me.
> However, the distinctions he made make perfect sense, even if they might
> have been expressed better. Slate referred to it as Rumsfeld's "Poetry".
> Although some pundits now refer to "unknown unknowns" as "unknowables"
> (a perfectly reasonable substitute), the whole set of expressions has
> shown an amazing staying power in the media, particularly on political
> blogs that no longer mock it, but use it again and again, often with a
> shout out to Rumsfeld.
> Just goes to show that you can't predict staying power, particularly not
> from a strong initial aversion. Ironically, it's this strong reaction
> that may keep an item afloat long enough for people to reconsider their
> initial attitude.
> VS-)
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