‘Sense’ and Sensibility (In Defence of Donald Rumsfeld)

Serving as a human hook on which to hang discussions of epistemology since 2002.

I don’t know the man, but I’d wager that Donald Rumsfeld treasures “Top 10 Dumbest Political Statements” articles rather more than the average retired politician.

Because, of course, “Top 10 Dumbest Political Statements” pieces have a reasonable chance of including Rumsfeld’s memorable declaration on ‘unknown unknowns – and thus of reminding Rumsfeld that despite everything, on this particular point he was considerably smarter than his critics.

Every single time I read someone dismiss the “Unknown Unknowns” statement as nonsense or twaddle, the only person I roll my eyes at is the author of the piece. I’m about as far away from being a fan of Rumsfeld as it’s possible to be (my family took part in the Dublin march against the Iraq War in 2003 – I remember trying very hard not to laugh watching my parents explain to my five-year-old sister that there were considerably better ways to express opposition than joining in with the rowdy bunch of lads chanting “ONE TWO THREE FOUR/WE DON’T WANT NO F****N’ WAR!”), but it’s impossible to get away from the inconvenient truth that his words made perfect sense. Here they are:

(A)s we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that 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.

Why do I bring up Rumsfeld on what was a perfectly pleasant summer morning? Because the whole “unknown unknowns” business both describes and is an example of the way in which people often think… or don’t. People have a “sense” of things, an unquestioned, sub-rational frame in which their thinking happens, and these “senses” are usually much more powerful than rational argument in deciding what we’re likely to believe about a given issue, and how we interpret the data we’re given.

Sometimes these “senses” are about something very specific – they take the form of a “narrative”. I imagine that the one operating with regard to Rumsfeld was something like “the Bush administration is full of morons.” And it was powerful enough to get a very substantial number of journalists repeating the absurdity that Rumsfeld was spouting gibberish, when all that would have been required to avoid this conclusion would be to spend a few seconds thinking about it.

This wasn’t just ignorance or lack of basic information (though goodness knows those are problems too). It was being presented with a relatively simple piece of data and spectacularly failing to process it.  Here’s the BBC, for crying out loud, talking about Rumsfeld’ ‘now legendary bizarre remark’. This silliness has faded in recent years, but just a couple of weeks ago I heard a panelist on Ireland’s RTE radio casually cite it as an example of mangled English. Nor was this confined to journalists – the British Plain English Campaign gave him its ‘Foot in Mouth award.’ These were smart people, with an “unknown unknown” bias that stopped them engaging their brains.

These “senses” can be broader and more general – and the more general they become, the harder they are to detect.

I grew up in the midst of Ireland’s economic miracle, the “Celtic Tiger”. Our economy was growing at a rate of knots, the Economist was calling us the best country in the world in which to live. Everyone was getting richer, we were showing bigger countries how it was done, everything was great.

As a result of this, I had a “sense” that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his government knew their business, that they were very good at managing the economy. We’ve seen how that turned out – but at the time it never even occurred to me to even start questioning the basic economic assumptions behind our supposedly everlasting boom. I didn’t ignore the problems – I didn’t even bother finding out whether there were any.

This was a specific, “narrative” sense, but – and it’s always hard to analyze how exactly these things develop – it probably fed into my larger sense that The People In Charge more or less knew what they were doing. They might be unscrupulous or amoral, but if they ran the UN or the EU, or were prestigious scholars or brilliant scientists, they probably possessed a certain amount of general competence.

Becoming a politics and current affairs nerd and experiencing the Great Recession disabused me of this notion fairly quickly, but in different circumstances, and had my interests run in another direction, I could easily have gone on believing it. This despite having parents who’d have been quite horrified if they’d known I thought this – but, of course, I didn’t think it. It was a “sense”. I never said or thought anything like “world leaders are basically competent”. But I did, at some pretty fundamental level, believe it.


Perhaps the most powerful type of “sense” is what the Philosopher Charles Taylor caled a ‘social imaginary’. James K.A. Smith, in his book How (Not) To Be Secular, describes Taylor’s concept thusly:

Different from an intellectual system or framework, “broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode,” a social imaginary is “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, it is carried in images, stories, legends, etc.”

I’m blathering on about all this because this is the arena in which evangelisation happens. Look, I think there are pretty good arguments for being Catholic. Classical theism plus the Christian myth of sin and redemption provides by far the best available account of our beautiful, brutal and bizarre Universe; there’s as much evidence for Jesus existing than there is for Hannibal, and that he actually rose from the dead is the most credible explanation of the historical facts. Our sacramental, incarnational, physical Chrisitianity; our insistence upon worshiping, journeying, and believing together; our rich social teaching that insists on the absolute value of every person – there’s a lot there, and the more you examine it the more convincing it is.

The thing is, our arguments can be as convincing as we like, but whether or not most people hear them is largely dependent on their sense about the nature of reality. Historical evidence isn’t much use if one has a sense that miracles just don’t happen. Philosophical arguments for God’s existence are straw in the wind in the face of a sense that only scientifically verifiable truth is admissable in debate. Arguments about universal human dignity don’t cut much ice if your sense is that it’s autonomy that confers dignity.

Social imaginaries can be unknown unknowns – I remember once expressing a view to a friend that the divorce rate might be too high, and that there might be things society could do to better support marriage. She looked at me with blank incomprehension. “But how can you say that?” she said “Each couple decides whether to get divorced or not – how can you have anything to say about it?” She had seemingly never thought of the divorce rate as something to which the words “too high” could be applied. If she’d thought I was wrong on the merits, I could have argued the toss, but to her I’d simply made a category error, like suggesting that walking on concrete pavements might contravene the Geneva conventions.

It strikes me, then, as pretty essential for anyone in the business of conversion (in the broadest sense of that word) to be able to answer a few questions: How do people form and change their narratives, their “senses”, their social imaginaries? Can it even be done? How can we know our unknown unknowns, anyway? And aren’t Catholics as sense-bound as the next guy?

In the next post, we shall engage in a bold attempt to grapple with these questions, with some help from two Popes, a social psychologist, a cathedral, and every storyteller in the world.

I’m not using the royal “we” here: I’d love to here your thoughts on “senses” in the comments – particularly cases where a “sense” of things has changed the way you approach an idea, a belief or a conflict in your own life. Slán go fóill…

About Ben Conroy

Ben Conroy is a columnist with The Irish Catholic, an intern at The Iona Institute, a contributor to discussions and debates in the Irish media, and an aspiring fantasy author.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I love Donald Rumsfeld. I think he’s brilliant. But I don’t think he thought up the “unkown unknowns” term. I seem to recall that term from Systems Engineering and Risk Analysis. Those that dismiss it are just reacting to Rumsfeld as a political figure, not to the intelligence of the statement.
    Welcome Ben. I do agree with everything you say here.

  • oregon nurse

    “She looked at me with blank incomprehension. “But how can you say that?”
    she said “Each couple decides whether to get divorced or not – how can
    you have anything to say about it?”

    It’s this that tempts me to hopelessness at times. How can Catholics who believe in the BODY of Christ and people who care for nothing but their own lives and refuse to see how their actions interconnect with the rest of humanity do anything but talk past each other? Even selfishness should give way to the occasional insight that when we behave selfishly and immorally as individuals it can come back to hurt us collectively. We have lost the concepts of ‘I am my Brother’s keeper’ and ‘No man is an island’.

  • oregon nurse

    “Those that dismiss it are just reacting to Rumsfeld as a political figure, not to the intelligence of the statement.”

    I’d agree. Far too often these days people are so politically polarized they never get beyond their knee-jerk reactions. They refuse to credit even the most obvious truths if they came out of the other side’s mouth. We all suffer from that since it keeps us from finding the common good.

  • David J. White

    I think there is also such as thing as “unknown knowns” — things that we know, but which we don’t realize we know because haven’t yet connected the dots properly or understood things in the proper context.

  • Ben Conroy

    Yep! I was going to mention these, but the post was getting long enough as it was. You can also have an unknown known because of willfull denial: “He can’t really be stealing my ice-cream money EVERY WEEK, can he?”*

    * Not, of course, saying any of my siblings ever stole ice-cream money. Terms and conditions apply.

  • Ben Conroy

    Thanks a million Manny. I know Rumsfeld didn’t invent the term, but he certainly popularised it – and yes, much of the reaction to him was entirely political, but what interests me is how that political reaction seemed to simply bypass the dismissers’ thought processes… and I wonder how often I’m doing something similar without even realising it.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Thanks O-N. :)

  • Dagnabbit_42

    I think I know the answer to this question, the solution to this problem…though I’ve little-to-no idea how to put the answer/solution into practice.

    I think the answer/solution is “better art, and more of it”; where “art” means all the creative works which dominate popular culture for every relevant market: children, teenagers, men, women, the poor, the middle class, and the intellectual elite; and where “better” includes a very stiff dose of “more beautiful” and “more moving.”

    Phillip Pullman’s awareness that C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien’s works tended to “baptize the imagination” was basic common sense in this area; since he wanted imaginations unbaptized, and paganized he naturally wrote works which were philosophically gnostic, making them as appealing and beautiful as he could to draw in more readers, whose habits of mind would then be drawn away from Christianity and into a philosophical “sense” incompatible with Christianity.

    We must counter this dark spell with counterspells: More and better ones. (By the way, “more and better” are not contraries in this: Write more songs, more books, more television shows, more movies, more academic papers, always trying along the way to write good, true, beautiful ones…and you will find that your artistic skills are improving while, at the same time, you have more opportunities to turn out a real jewel.)

    We need our counterspells to be so good, true, and beautiful that they dominate the culture, starting as an “indie” counter-movement against what currently dominates culture and building to a groundswell which washes away the current formulas the way disco was washed away in the late 70′s.

    Instead, Christians seem to either flee the field of battle, huddling into comfortable Christian ghettos to be targeted later, or to be chased from the field of battle by the disapproval of leftists who dominate the high ground of cultural influence (the academy, the news media, the popular media, the literary world, the boardroom, and the bureaucratic engines of government which outlast the careers of individual politicians) and who are thus in a position to turn down a Christian’s application for tenure, or his request that his book be published, or that his music be distributed, or that his scholarship be fairly considered, or that his product be marketed.

    When our ancestors sat around a fire in the center of the village and told stories, the parents and the children listened simultaneously to the storyteller. If the storyteller repeatedly said something offensive to the ears of the parents, he would be shouted down, and perhaps shunned, and perhaps lose his position in the village. Through such stories, the culture of the village was formed and handed down to successive generations. The storyteller could not escape his stories being a kind of service to his society, on account of the direct feedback from parents.

    Nowadays, we sit our children in front of a television show or video game or movie because we’re too damn tired at the end of a work day to talk to them…and they proceed to absorb a worldview, a “sense” of things, which tends not only to be overtly anti-Christian and (sorry to say the obvious) sexually debauched, but also culturally suicidal, turning women against men and children against parents and workers against employers and politicians against soldiers and everyone against clergy and religious devotion and love-of-God and love-of-country and knowledge of history.

    I’ve always thought it illogical that parents, who’re guardians for their children and making decisions for them, don’t also have the right to cast a vote in every election on behalf of each of their dependent children. And it seems to me that it would make far more sense for the boardrooms and tenure committees and the judging-panels of respected awards given for popular media (Oscars, Grammys) to have many, many parents of young children among them.

    But, whether or not we can finagle a way for parents of young children to have a cultural influence proportionate to their importance as the persons who raise the next generation, it remains necessary that these parents, whether their pop-culture decisions are powerfully influential in the society or merely impactful for their own children, should have CHOICES.

    They should find, on the market, good-true-beautiful creative works which don’t violate the Christian worldview, in amidst the ones that do. And then they should be empowered to select and pay money for those which don’t, without being obligated simultaneously to fund those which do. (*Cough* cable-channel bundling! *cough*)

    We Christians, after all, usually stink at the “boycott” whenever there aren’t plausible substitutes for the product we reject. But we’re AWESOME at the “buycott.” (Ask Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby.)

    So all that’s necessary is that the creative works which don’t violate the Christian worldview be high-quality, good, true, beautiful.