The Known and the Unknown

At a February 12, 2002, news briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained the limitations of intelligence reports: “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.”

            Scientific American

When I first read this quote years ago, it made no sense to me. It seemed nonsensical at best. But then last month, I stumbled upon a Mediation Kluwer blog post discussing a book on the Jewish Secret of Problem Solving entitled Yiddishe Kop by Rabbi Nilton Bonder (Shambhala, Boston and London, 1999). The blog post as well as the book discuss the four types of knowledge which turns out to be what Defense Secretary Rumsfeld mentioned:

The Apparent Realm of What is Apparent (Information).

The Hidden Realm of What is Apparent (Understanding).

The Apparent Realm of What is Hidden (Wisdom); and

The Hidden Realm of What is Hidden (Reference).

In the book, Rabbi Bonder explains that “Yiddishe Kop “literally means “Jewish head” It

… is neither a method nor a system of knowledge, but the accumulation of a minimal “critical mass” of problems needed to trigger a conscious, existential process of questioning the notion of the impossible. Yiddishe kop represents the turning point at which after having given up hope, you recover the twinkle in your eye and dare to jump back into the game. It is that unique capacity to turn the table and checkmate your opponent when you’re up against the wall, to reject conventional thinking that keeps you stuck in a losing position and reframe yourself as a master of options that you simply hadn’t thought of before. (Id. at 1.)   

 The first realm is the apparent of what is apparent. In this realm, almost all of the information is known; there is only one small piece that may be missing. The danger is that we may easily forget to look for that one missing piece of information. Because everything is “concrete and obvious” (Id. at 6), we may miss the blind spot or not pick up on what is NOT being said. (Id. at 11.) To avoid this trap, the author suggests that we keep asking questions. Each question should lead to a further question and in this way, one will find that missing piece of information among the apparent. (Id. at 16.)

Then, there is the hidden realm of the apparent or the situation in which “…what is apparent has been covered up by something likewise apparent. “(Id. at 27.) That is, the obvious has been hidden. The revelation comes upon asking yourself “Why didn’t I ever notice that before.” (Id.) This “ah hah” moment can be discovered by looking for similarities- “that which is like” or by reframing, by asking the tough question whether one “can’t or don’t want to” do something, by using transparency, paradoxes or irony. (Id. at 30- 48.)

Wisdom is involved in the apparent realm of what is hidden. This involves our subconscious; for a moment we knew something and then forgot it, or it was hidden in our subconscious. (Id. at 51-52.) It is our intuition. (Id. at 54.) It is our premonitions. (Id. at 63.) We know it but it is not a conscious knowing; it is in our gut.

And finally, there is the hidden realm of what is hidden. The author quotes Pascal: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” (Id. at 80.) That is, there are times when we will act without reason. We become committed: “When we come to understand something at its deepest level, that is, when we internalize something, it will impact out behavior and the way we think. “(Id. at 81.)  And so, by taking such action, we will make mistakes and by making mistakes, we will learn and gain knowledge. We will learn, not by reading books or listening to lectures, but by doing and making our own mistakes along the way. Through those mistakes, we will gain a deeper understanding and thus some knowledge of the unknown. (Id. at 85-93.)

While Rumsfeld’s quote may not make sense on first reading, a deeper dive into it as evidenced by Rabbi Bonder’s book, shows that it provides a path to solving problems. Just keep asking questions!

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE

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