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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The full quote is:
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.
The quote is:
"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.
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)...
Here's Rumsfeld's quote in question:
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.
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
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
You still don't know why you must do these things, but now you know that you know these rules.