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Rumsfeld Missed “Unknown Knowns”

July 21st, 2021 by dk

Donald Rumsfeld didn’t originate the concept of “known unknowns” but he brought the matrix (“the Johari window” to psychologists) into popular awareness. And for that he will be remembered after his death last week.

His pontification to the press about weapons of mass destruction (and warfare in general) was derided at the time, but reporters were probably reacting to his lecturing ton. Journalists bristle at any condescension, real or imagined. It’s an occupational hazard of being asked to be an expert on something different every day.

Here is Rumsfeld’s statement that was awarded the 2003 Foot in Mouth Award by the Plain English Campaign: 

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because 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.”

Had this been a prepared statement, Rumsfeld might have used the verb “to know” sparingly for clarity, but he was speaking off-the-cuff. Dinner party patter and microphones don’t mix well, unless alcohol is flowing. The Johari window may have been curtained by verbal decoration. The insight was still clear.

We should acknowledge a vast expanse — all of what we don’t know that we don’t know. It puts in perspective how little we know we don’t know and how even littler what we actually know that we know. You can learn how the theorem applies to you. Go to Wikipedia and type in “Special:Random” to be taken to a random page.

Some people read the randomly chosen entry, then click on an embedded link. They read that entry and click on a link. They continue until they reach a topic they already knew something about. Some people have time on their hands.

All that we know we know amounts to the thinnest sliver of what can be known. It’s good to be reminded of this. It’s humbling, but also reassuring. It fuels the imagination and rewards curiosity. Whatever certainties we harbor are miniscule. This puts them in context and us in our place.

Overlooked by Rumsfeld (but not by many commentators who followed him) was the fourth quadrant of the Johari window: those things that we know without knowing that we know them. Meditation techniques work to acquaint us with bodily sensations that don’t demand our attention until they fail — breath, warmth, balance, harmony.

Other “unknown knowns” are environmental — sun and shade, breeze on boughs, distant sounds, colors and fragrances, the terrain under our feet. There’s so much we’re experiencing but not acknowledging. Our lives are fuller than we know, waiting to be known.

And then there are those things that cannot be verified but are known nevertheless. Our family loves us. Life will continue. Our next breath. Not everyone puts God in this fourth quadrant, but faith is an essential corrective when attempting to summarize all that is known and unknown. I wonder if Donald Rumsfeld would agree.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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