Things Fall Apart, pt 3: Unknown Knowns and the Research Seminar

by zunguzungu

In the class I’m currently teaching about the problem of “first contact,” we read books like Things Fall Apart not only because I want to read them, but because “first contact” between different cultures gives us a uniquely useful critical distance from the epistemological problem of how to make knowledge out of ignorance, the deceptively difficult problem of how to identify the things we don’t know so we can go about learning them. And because it’s a research seminar, I’ve been trying to take advantage of the way the problem of research and the thematic problem of the class converge: both when we meet people we don’t know and when we attack a research subject we know nothing about, the first task is a similar one, the problem of identifying what we don’t know so that we can know it.

The poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, as always, is our guiding star in these troubled waters:

The Unknown
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.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

We get a certain schadenfreude in making fun of Rumsfeld, of course, but mocking it as poetry doesn’t change the fact that what he was saying makes perfect sense, as Geoffrey Pullum pointed out at the time, a distinction between “(i) areas of knowledge that we are aware of possessing and (ii) areas of ignorance that we are aware of” which, Pullum asserts, “seems to allude to a familiar old Persian apothegm:

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool; shun him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, can be taught; teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep; wake him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is a prophet; follow him.

The problem for Rumsfeld, of course, was that he had inherited* a piece of critical epistemological without fully understanding it (or, at least, was willing to mis-uses it so as to retroactively justify an already made decision). As John Quiggin noted, for example, an awareness of our own intelligence limitations is a much better case for not going to war, since it indexes precisely our inability to understand just what kind of genie we might be releasing when we uncork the bottle. And assuming that a thing which we don’t know to be true is true is precisely the opposite of what this line of reasoning should lead us to conclude: contra Rumsfeld on the WMD’s we hadn’t yet discovered the definitive absence of (and never will, by definition) not having disproved a fact doesn’t make it true.

But more troublesome, as Zizek nicely pointed out, is that is also our own knowledge that sometimes gets in the way. From a nice In These Times column, “What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib”:

“What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know-which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the “unknown knowns” – the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.”

Zizek might have added the “knowledge” of the existence of WMD’s as an unknown known, in fact; because our leadership was so positive of their existence, they never realized (not that they cared) that the thing they “knew” was actually unknowable, because wrong. But the more germane point here is simpler: how we learn the things we don’t know is always a function of the things we do already know. One proceeds not from ignorance to knowledge, but through ignorance into a kind of knowledge that therefore still carries the trace of its origin. Not that I say it to my students in this way, of course; I emphasis, instead, that the choices we make when we first set out will have consequences in how we proceed once we are farther along that path.

Something as simple as how you frame that first google-search, after all, will shape everything you do from that point on. I presume that my students, like me, generally begin with the easiest option in attacking an absence of knowledge, and thinking about this process provides a semi-clear illustration of something that’s otherwise true but not so apparent: because the tree of possible second steps that emerge from a first step google search will be radically unique to the particular search terms one uses, it’s really, really important to think critically about which search terms you start with (and not be bound by one’s original formulation of the problem). A paper whose author googled “Things Fall Apart Igbo Culture” and one which began with “Things Fall Apart African Culture” will not only be very different beasts, most likely, but a better paper than both will be the one which (understanding the distinction) googles both.

(If I can get my head out of my own ass long enough, I’ll try to write a followup to this post illustrating how Things Fall Apart addresses this problem thematically; at every stage of the “first contact” process, Achebe very programmatically treats this very problem, the difficulty of how old knowledge helps and hinders the discovery of new ignorances and the process by which they are converted to new knowledge.)