‘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…

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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.