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I was recently reading a review of Donald Rumsfeld's autobiography. The reviewer cited one of his famous phrases; he quoted it as "unknown known." Now my memory was that the phrase Rumsfeld used was "known unknown" not "unknown known" and it got me wondering: is there a difference in meaning between the two?

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5 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

The full quote is:

[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.

That explains what known unknowns means: we know there are some things we do not know. As for unknown knowns, a philosopher by the name of Slavoj Žižek extrapolated to define this term: the things that we know, but are unaware of knowing.

So, in short, there is a big difference.

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The quote is:

[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.

"Known unknown" implies there are things we know we don't know, while "unknown known" could imploy things we know but don't yet realize the value. Thus, there is a difference in meaning.

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Wow - I got in 37 seconds after you. Man! –  Daniel Jul 22 '11 at 18:11
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At first I was confused since your answer is similar to drm65s, but an upvote to both of you since they were independent and clear. –  simchona Jul 23 '11 at 2:14
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Strictly speaking my answer came in before drm65's, but his is better so he deserves the rep. :) –  Robert S. Jul 25 '11 at 14:38
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Some people were keen to mock Rumsfeld's words, but they really are simple and easy to grasp. To avoid misunderstandings about any of the three combinations he actually used, Rumsfeld defined each one very succinctly immediately after saying it. I won't bother repeating the known bits.

You don't often hear the combination he didn't say – unknown knowns – because we find that one hardest to conceptualise. But I suggest that we have a particularly good example close to home here at EL&U. We all "know" a lot more about the principles governing correct usage of our mother tongue than we're conciously aware of.

This from "In Sleep", in William Logan's Sad-faced Men (1982)...

The stars madden, and satellites hum silently
Where no sound can awaken a sleeper. She dreams
A language which cannot trouble her, a vocabulary

Without voice. She has forgotten the ugly grammar,
The deformed sentences. She has forgotten
The irregularities of memory, the unknown knowns,

The can-no-longer-remembers, the slow impeachment
Of experience. She rises, stunned and serene,
Toward the promise of nothing.
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I think the example you give of unknown knows is really excellent. –  Fraser Orr Jul 24 '11 at 3:18
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@Fraser Orr: I thought of "unconcious knowledge of your own language" when I first heard Rumsfeld's speech years ago, and realised which combination was missing. But I only found the Logan poem a day after answering here. To be honest, I was kinda spooked to find the same idea there - particularly considering that was twenty years before Rumsfeld got the whole world thinking of such things. –  FumbleFingers Jul 24 '11 at 3:30
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Here's Rumsfeld's quote in question:

[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.

If you read him carefully, he explains the meaning of each term within the context of the quote. - Known know: we know - Known unknown: we don't know - Unknown unknown: our state of knowledge is nonexistent

So. To take some real-life examples: The numbers of troops we have abroad is a known known. The numbers of insurgents is a known unknown. What they plan to do in the future is an unknown unknown.

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You forgot unknown known, which was part of the question. –  Daniel Jul 22 '11 at 18:12
    
@drm65: that was the only one I was interested in! –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 0:00
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A good example of an unknown known is when you can and cannot end a sentence with a contraction. First, did you know you knew that? Well, you did.

You know that you are allowed to say He smokes, but I don't. but you must say He's not as happy as I am. You may not say He's not as happy as I'm.

Now that you know you know it, it's a known known.

You also know how to order adjectives. Did you know you knew that? Well, you do. For example, you know you must say A pretty, green car. and not A green, pretty car.

You still don't know why you must do these things, but now you know that you know these rules.

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