December 02, 2003

No foot in mouth

I'm as much in favor of good plain writing as the next grammarian writing about Standard English, and no particular fan of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but let's just take another look at this news item about the Plain English Campaign giving Rumsfeld its foot in mouth award for "the most baffling statement by a public figure". Here's the paragraph that got him cited:

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.

Now read that carefully. Because my question is, What the hell is supposed to be wrong with it?

The quotation is impeccable, syntactically, semantically, logically, and rhetorically. There is nothing baffling about its language at all.

Now, admittedly, I don't know whether it's true, but that's a very different matter. What it says is completely straightforward: he pays special attention to negative reports because he's conscious of the possibility of areas of ignorance that are not currently recognized as such. His reminder in passing that there are also (i) areas of knowledge that we are aware of possessing and (ii) areas of ignorance that we are aware of seems to allude to a familiar old Persian apothegm:

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool; shun him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, can be taught; teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep; wake him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is a prophet; follow him.

It also echoes (perhaps unwittingly) the title of Sylvain Bromberger's collection of philosophy papers, On What We Know We Don't Know. Bromberger saw it as an interesting epistemological fact that we can be aware of our lack of knowledge in some domain. Rumsfeld is drawing attention to the importance of our unacknowledged areas of ignorance -- what we don't know we don't know. So what? Is this the best that can be done to identify baffling utterances by public figures, in a world where Judith Butler remains at large, and Michael Jackson's lawyer can say in his client's defense "if these charges were true I assure you Michael would be the first to be outraged"? I don't get it. Hate Rummie if you want for political reasons, but don't try to get grammar or logic on your side. There is nothing unintelligible about his quoted remark, linguistically or logically.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 2, 2003 09:22 PM