Unknown knowns are the things that we know, but are unaware of knowing. The coining of the term is attributed to Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Žižek and it refers to the unconscious beliefs and prejudices that determine how we perceive reality and intervene in it. It is the Freudian unconscious, the ‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself,’ as French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said.
Žižek first used the term as a response to former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s statement at a press briefing given in, 2002: ‘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.’
Žižek argues that 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. In another article Žižek gives an example for the ‘unknown knowns.’ It pertains to a mysterious disease that has been wiping out honeybees in the US and Europe:
‘In the case of the disappearing bees, there are things we know that we know (their vulnerability to pesticides) and things we know that we don’t know (say, how the bees react to human-caused radiations). But there are, above all, the unknown unknowns and the unknown knowns. There are dimensions of how bees interact with their environs which are not only unknown to us, but which we are not even aware of. And there are many ‘unknown knowns’ in our perception of bees: all the anthropocentric prejudices that spontaneously color and bias our study of them. …This is frustrating: although we know that it all depends on us, we cannot predict the consequences of our acts. We are not impotent but – quite the contrary – omnipotent, without being able to determine the scope of our powers. While we cannot gain full mastery over our biosphere, it is in our power to derail it, to disturb its balance so that it will run amok, swiping us away in the process.’