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.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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