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 A new book and a film have revived interest in a famous quote of Donald Rumsfeld speaking about the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:

Reports that say there's -- that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that 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.

The quotation has sometimes been criticized and even mocked. But it called to my mind the use made long before of the same threefold distinction by Canadian philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan. He appealed it to explain what is meant by the term “horizon,” much-used by existentialist philosophers, in particular Martin Heidegger.

Visual horizons are defined by a viewpoint and a field of vision, the first determining the second. On the tenth floor of the Empire State Building, a certain field is open to view until the meeting of sky and earth define one’s physical horizon, the point beyond which one cannot see. Go up to the 86th floor, and a much larger field is open to view. Move from the western to the eastern side of the observation deck and a different field of vision appears. Your viewpoint determines what you can see, how far you can see, where the horizon is beyond which you cannot see.

Lonergan proposed to consider one’s existential viewpoint as the sets of questions one is asking or could ask.

There are questions we have asked and answered, and they yield the known known, things we know and know we know. Beyond that is the far vaster field of the known unknown, determined by questions that we are asking but haven’t answered yet and by questions we know others are asking but we are not. The questions whose answers we are actively pursuing lie closer to us; others lie further out–someone, but not I, might be interested in the chemical composition of the moons of Saturn. Finally, there are questions that we not only are not asking but aren’t even aware that they could or ought to be asked, and that is the field of the unknown unknown. One’s existential horizon is the boundary between one’s known unknown and one’s unknown unknown.

One’s unknown unknown, of course, is (Duh!) unknown. You can no more know what it is than you can see what lies beyond your visual horizon. That there is much that we not only do not know but don’t know we don’t know would be a confession of modesty about one’s present achievement and the range of one’s interest. One can perhaps catch a sense of it by reflecting on one’s personal history. Are there things that one is interested in now that one was not interested in, say, ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Are there questions one is asking now that back then one didn’t even know or suspect could be asked? If so, then one is reflecting on the expansion of one’s own existential horizon over these decades, and one can hope that further expansions of horizon may occur in the future when some new experience may prompt questions undreamt of before.

Note that the questions may concern not only the world and what it is like–think of questions scientists ask today that were not being asked in previous generations–, but also one’s own self and what one is like, what one might be like, even ought to be like. It is quite possible that one’s personal growth has been accomplished because questions about oneself arose that one had not been asking before, didn’t even know could, or should, be asked. Sometimes this expansion of horizon has been accomplished by gradual, perhaps imperceptible growth–one only knows that one is asking questions today that one didn’t ask before. Sometimes the expansion occurs dramatically, when some new experience leads or forces one to ask questions unconsidered before. Lonergan spoke of the “existential gap” that may exist between the self one thinks one is and the self one really is–the latter perhaps lying beyond one’s horizon, as it lay beyond Peter’s horizon when he boasted that he would remain faithful to Christ even if all others abandoned him (Mt 26:30-35).

Lonergan borrowed from Heidegger the notion of Sorge, existential care, to describe what it is in us that determines the questions we are able or likely to ask. It is the existential orientation that defines us as presently constituted, poised between the past that has made us who we are and a future that we will choose and that will make us who we will be. (There once was considerable discussion about the “fundamental option,” which I think may refer to the same thing.)

I found this analysis very illuminating, giving some substance to the notion of “horizon,” and my students were always intrigued by it.

A request: Please, if you wish to comment on this post, don’t turn it into a discussion either of the Iraq war or of Donald Rumsfeld.


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ISTM that often it is the reasonable thing for the single sibling to care for parents if they need help.

Actually that makes sense: people who have been taken care of by their parents when they were children return the service, in the case of people who have children, by taking care of their own children, and, in the case of people who do not have children, by taking care of their parents when they age.

The business of who cares for the aging parents deserves a thread of its own.  I have seen the single children get "stuck" with it.  In the cases where the adult children have become scattered all over the country or all over the world, I have seen the geographically-closest child (married or not) get "stuck" with it.  

It seems to me that women rather than men generally get "stuck" with it.  In the years when our children were young and my wife was staying home, she predicted that if anything happened to one of *my* parents, she would be the one who would be "stuck" with caring for the other one.  

In the world of deacons, a widowed or divorced deacon generally is not able to remarry and remain a deacon; the expectation is that if he remarries, he leaves the diaconate.  But there is an exception: he may remarry if his ministry is considered indispensible to the community, if his children are young, and if his parents need care.  Thus even church law expects the woman to be "stuck" with it.

I have to say that, in my limited observation, I've never seen an adult child relish the care of his/her elderly parents.  Young adults invest a lot of hope, a lot of emotion, into having children of their own and then sacrifice and rearrange their lives around their children.  But caring for parents seems to be universally considered to be drudgery.  Maybe it's just that we're not cute when we're old.


Going back to the original topic: I know that having children opens new horizons. We experience the parent-child relationship from the other side, it reminds one of early childhood experiences, lost memories come back unbidden, and suddenly we understand things about our parents and about ourselves that we never knew before - including now-obvious answers to questions we had never even thought of asking. For me it was one of the most extraordinary and completely unexpected aspects of parenting.

Does caring for an aging parent also bring its own share of new horizons?


Jim P. ==

I think there are two big reasons why care of aged parent these days is considered drudgery.  First, it is added work, and the caregiver is now middle-aged, not the young person who had loads of energy when caring for children.  I cared for my parents and disabled brother, but it wasn't drudgery because we had a maid who was devoted to my parents, and we also had a part-time maid to do the heavy cleaning for the old maid.  Plus both of my parents were very easy-going old people, and I knew that my younger brother would take them if need be. So we all were lucky.  These days few families have maids, so there is always a good deal of physical work involved.  That is where I think that the non-caretaker siblings need to offer some part-time help, even if they have to pool some money to get a maid every once and a while for the caretaker.  It's only fair.  All children owe their parents care, at least some care. Not to mention that if they are remiss in heping their parents that will just teach their kids that they needn't help either.

These days it's the Boomers who are called on to be caretakes, and they typically seem to have ambivent feelings towards their parents.  They're the ones who said "Don't trust anyone over 30", and I think a lot of that still lingers.  So while they do care, they also don't have the same respect that earlier generations seemed to have. Maybe it's time for reconcilition.