Topoi (2006) 25:137–142 DOI 10.1007/s11245-006-0021-2 Philosophy, the ‘‘unknown knowns,’’ and the public use of reason ˇ iz Slavoj Z ˇ ek Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006 Abstract There are not only true or false solutions, there are also false questions. The task of philosophy is not to provide answers or solutions, but to submit to critical analysis the questions themselves, to make us see how the very way we perceive a problem is an obstacle to its solution. This holds especially for today’s public debates on ecological threats, on lack of faith, on democracy and the ‘‘war on terror’’, in which the ‘‘unknown knowns’’, the silent presuppositions we are not aware of, determine our acts. Keywords philosophy Æ unconscious Æ ideology Æ truth Æ paranoia Æ reason In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: ‘‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.’’ What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘‘unknown knowns,’’ things we don’t know that we know—which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the ‘‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself.’’ If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the ‘‘unknown unknowns,’’ the threats from Saddam about which we do not even suspect what they may be, the Abu Ghraib scandal shows where the main dangers are: in the ˇ iz ˇ ek (&) S. Z International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK e-mail: [email protected]
‘‘unknown knowns,’’ the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values. To unearth these ‘‘unknown knowns’’ is the task of an intellectual. This is why Rumsfeld is NOT a philosopher: the goal of philosophical reﬂection is precisely to discern the ‘‘unknown knowns’’ of our existence. That is to say, what is the Kantian transcendental a priori if not the network of such ‘‘unknown knowns,’’ the horizon of meaning of which we are unaware, but which is always-already here, structuring our approach to reality? Let us take an even more extreme case, that of James Jesus Angleton, the ultimate cold warrior: for almost two decades, till 1973, he was the chief of the counter-intelligence section of the CIA, with the task of unearthing ‘‘moles’’ within the CIA. Angleton, a charismatic, highly idiosyncratic ﬁgure, literary educated (a personal friend of T. S. Eliot, even physically resembling him), was prone to paranoia. The premise of his work was the absolute conviction in the so-called ‘‘Monster Plot’’: a gigantic deception coordinated by a secret KGB ‘‘organization within the organization,’’ whose aim was to penetrate and totally dominate the Western intelligence network and thus bring about the defeat of the West. Not only was Angleton convinced that there were innumerable ‘‘moles’’ in the very heart of the CIA, not to mention the Western-European intelligence establishment (he thought that, among others, Henry Kissinger, Harold Wilson, and Olaf Palme were KGB agents); he also dismissed all the signs of disunity in the Socialist ‘‘camp’’ (the autonomous way of Yugoslavia; the split between the USSR and China; ‘‘Eurocommunism’’ in the 1970s and early 1980s) as an orchestrated deception destined to arouse 123 Angleton dismissed practically all KGB defectors offering invaluable information as fake defectors. I can DIRECTLY cause objects to move: it is the brain itself which will directly serve as the remote control machine. So how are we to react to their breakthroughs? Is it not the time to start with patiently discerning the actual lessons of. In the terms of German Idealism. not one true ‘‘mole’’ was discovered and apprehended. The ultimate outcome of Angleton’s reign was total immobilization—crucially. directly inﬂuences reality. Even the proverbial Stephen Hawking’s little ﬁnger—the minimal link between his mind and outside reality. Under what social-ideological conditions is. the volunteers then played videogames while the electrodes recorded the brain signals—the scientists trained a computer to recognize the brain activity corresponding to the different movements of the joystick. to put under suspicion the very idea of suspicion. more than ever. the ultimate deception assumed the guise of truth itself: there WAS a ‘‘Monster Plot’’ (the very idea of the ‘‘Monster Plot’’). With the new handset. it was always empty—till. brought the Angleton paranoia to its logical selfnegating climax by concluding. such a gesture possible? We are led to become aware of the ‘‘unknown knowns’’ of our predicament when time gets ‘‘out of joint. they were immediately put to trial and shot. in his time. so that he can ‘‘telepathically’’ listen to my inner voice . such a reﬂexive twist stands for a minimum of philosophical gesture. the key to better hearing in a noisy situation is thus to plug your ears to prevent outside noise from drowning out bone-conducted sounds.’’ Further prospects include sending the signals to somebody standing nearby with electrodes implanted in his hearing centers. a mind-process which. there WAS a mole in the heart of the CIA (Angleton himself). they got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheelbarrows themselves . Indeed.’’ when our full and spontaneous (prereﬂexive) immersion in what Hegel called ‘‘social substance’’ is disturbed. Japanese telecom carriers came up with the world’s ﬁrst mobile phone that enables users to listen to calls inside their heads—by conducting sound through bone. resided the deception here? In our failure to include in the list of suspects the very idea of (globalized) suspicion.. in the ﬁnal real-life version of The Big Clock/No Way Out plot)? What if the true KGB Monster Plot was the very project to put in circulation the idea of a Monster Plot and thus immobilize the CIA and neutralize in advance future KGB defectors? In both cases. the wheelbarrow he was rolling in front of himself was carefully inspected.. i. On top of it and most catastrophically for the Western intelligence community. Z in the West the false notion of the East’s weakness. at the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University. of course. Today’s sciences shatter the basic presuppositions of our everyday-life notion of reality. the only part of his paralyzed body that Hawking can move—will thus no longer be necessary: with my mind. but the guards could not ﬁnd anything. against which it is ﬁghting—these are its ‘‘unknown knowns. in 2003. then. the future task of philosophy. one of the top ofﬁcials in Angleton’s section. the Orwellian notion of ‘‘thought control’’ will thus acquire a much more literal meaning. one is tempted to raise this question: what if Angleton was a mole justifying his activity by the search for a mole (for himself. Therein resides. then.138 ˇ iz ˇ ek S. and transmitting the signals to a computer that can read the brain’s code and then use the signals to control as machine.. The phone is equipped with a ‘‘Sonic Speaker’’ which transmits sounds through vibrations that move from the skull to the cochlea in the inner ear.. As a step further. that Golitsyn (the Russian defector ` with whom Angleton was engaged in a true folie a deux) was a fake and Angleton himself the big mole who successfully paralyzed the anti-Soviet intelligence activity. The Duke researchers have now moved onto researching similar implants in humans: it was reported that they succeeded at temporarily implanting electrodes into the brains of volunteers. monkeys with brain implants were trained to move a robot arm with their thoughts. This procedure of ‘‘eavesdropping’’ on the brain’s digital crackle with electrodes (where computers use zeros and ones. this capacity that Kant 123 . Therein resides the truth of the paranoiac stance: it is itself the threat. neurons encode our thoughts in all-or-nothing electrical impulses). since they were true defectors!).e. after an exhaustive and long investigation. instead of relying on the usual method of sound hitting the outer eardrum.. in a causal way. the result is exactly the same. this means that what Kant called ‘‘intellectual intuition’’—the closing of the gap between mind and reality. and sometimes even sent them back to the USSR (where. What we encounter here is a weird Real that has no place in the external reality to which we are used. when he was leaving the factory. The nicety of this solution—and the ultimate condemnation of Angleton’s paranoia—is that it doesn’t matter if Angleton was sincerely duped by the idea of a Monster Plot or if he was in fact the mole: in both cases. the destructive plot. No wonder Clare Petty. Recall the old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening. already has an ofﬁcial name: ‘‘brain–machine interface. among others. ﬁnally.’’ In what. recent bio-technological breakthroughs? In 2003. technically speaking. how. preventing them from experiencing themselves as responsible agents who must educate themselves by the effort of focusing their will. thus obtaining the satisfaction of achievement—in short. the true catastrophe already took place: we already experience ourselves as in principle open to technological manipulation. the ‘‘unknown knowns’’ 139 attributed only to the inﬁnite mind of God—is now potentially available to all of us. we pass the threshold into full-ﬂedged planning. let them die instead of ourselves). precisely. as Karl Popper put it. or will he become aware that ‘‘something is wrong. ethical questions notwithstanding. what if the contemporary trends (digitalization. in the case of a human being. so that one could control the rat (determine the direction in which it will run) by means of a steering mechanism (in the same way one runs a remote-controlled toy car). the circle will in a way be closed and the speciﬁc openness that characterizes being-human will be abolished. The same point is made in more common terms by cultural critics from Francis Fukuyama to Habermas: they worry about how the latest techno-scientiﬁc developments (which potentially made the human species able to redesign and redeﬁne itself) will affect our being-human.’’1 Humanity as a collective subject must put a limit to. the notion of ‘‘danger’’ inscribed into modern technology. shouldn’t be much more complicated. or as simple external coercion? If subjects remain totally unaware that their spontaneous behavior is steered from the outside. will this ‘‘external power’’ appear—as something ‘‘inside me. that genetic manipulations will function smoothly—at that point.e. was it totally unaware that its movements were steered?). however. precisely. its ‘‘spontaneous’’ decisions about the movements it will make. the direct short-circuit between mind and reality implies the advent of a radical closure. will a steered human being continue to ‘‘experience’’ his movements as something spontaneous? Will he remain totally unaware that his movements are steered. Of course. the threat that something will go terribly wrong with biogenetic interventions. than in the case of the rat). can one really go on pretending that this has no consequences for our notion of free will? No wonder that. the big philosophical question here is: how did the unfortunate rat ‘‘experience’’ its movement which was in fact decided from the outside? Did it continue to ‘‘experience’’ it as something spontaneous (i. again. The insufﬁciency of this reasoning is double. downloading ourselves from one to 1 See McKibben (2004). but.’’ an unstoppable inner drive. germline manipulations lie on the other side. turning individuals into products.’’ that another external power is deciding his movements? And. McKibben endeavors to empirically specify this limit: somatic genetic therapy is still this side of the enough point. such individuals will no longer relate to themselves as responsible agents. the ‘‘will’’ of a living animal agent. 123 . and freely renounce. In the case of the rat. As Heidegger would have put it. That is to say. And since. this gap of ﬁnitude is at the same time the resource of our creativity (the distance between ‘‘mere thought’’ and causal intervention into external reality enables us to test the hypotheses in our mind and. has turned into common currency. when we try to deﬁne the limit of the permissible in this way. Who knows what this ‘‘posthuman’’ universe will reveal itself to be ‘‘in itself’’? What if there is no singular and simple answer. as we learned from Kant as well as from Freud. with the prospect of the biogenetic manipulation of human physical and psychic features. in the world beyond meaning. or was it aware that ‘‘something was wrong. it was reported that scientists at New York University had attached a computer chip able to receive signals directly to a rat’s brain. For the ﬁrst time. the future of technological self-manipulation only appears as ‘‘deprived of meaning’’ if measured by the traditional notion of what a meaningful universe is. since we just intervene into a body formed in the old ‘‘natural’’ way. further ‘‘progress’’ in this direction. so that we will ﬂoat freely in a digital immortality. Heidegger emphasizes how the true danger is not the physical self-destruction of humanity.Philosophy.. So. one can argue that one should not apply to it the human category of ‘‘experience. one should ask this question. one can practice it without leaving behind the world as we’ve known it.’’ while. were taken over by an external machine. Their panic reaction is best encapsulated by the title of Bill McKibben’s book: ‘‘enough. But the crucial point is that the dystopian descriptions of the ‘‘meaningless’’ universe of technological self-manipulation are a victim of a perspective fallacy: they measure the future with inadequate present standards. that NOTHING will go wrong. In May 2002. When we manipulate psychic and bodily properties of individuals before they are even conceived. elaborated half a century ago by Martin Heidegger.’’ that another external power was deciding its movements? Even more crucial is to apply the same reasoning to an identical experiment performed with humans (which. biogenetic self-manipulation) open themselves up to a multitude of options? What if the utopia—the wellknown dream of the passage of human identity from hardware to software. we just freely renounce to fully deploy these potentials. unable fully to identify with any of the positive social identities. national identity. I could not. that there is nothing imaginable so strange or so little credible that it has not been maintained by one philosopher or other. in short that they are not irresponsible adventurers. philosophy emerges in the interstices BETWEEN different communities.3 One should therefore always bear in mind the insubstantial character of the cogito: ‘‘It cannot be spoken of positively.2 (This. which is why one should use him as a paradigm enabling us to discover the traces of a similar displacement. Is this not clear especially in the case of Descartes? The grounding experience of his position of universal doubt is precisely a ‘‘multicultural’’ experience of how one’s own tradition is no better than what appear to us as the ‘‘eccentric’’ traditions of others: I had been taught. Spinoza spoke from the interstices of the social space(s). but a pure structural function. when we reﬂect upon our ethnic roots. up to Nietzsche who was ashamed of Germans and proudly emphasized his alleged Polish roots. may become.’’ with regard to all other great philosophers. philosophy emerged in the interstices of substantial social communities. philosophizing involved an ‘‘impossible’’ position displaced with regard to any communal identity. 4 123 . Z another embodiment—and the dystopia—the nightmare of humans voluntarily transforming themselves into programmed beings—are just the positive and the negative of the same ideological fantasy? What if the true PHILOSOPHICAL task still lies ahead of us: to explore the bio-genetic challenges without prejudices—in short. I likewise noticed how even in the fashions of one’s clothing the same thing that pleased us ten years ago. its function is lost. In fact. he criticized it as a positive ontological entity—but he implicitly fully endorsed it as the ‘‘position of enunciated. and I further recognized in the course of my travels that all those whose sentiments are very contrary to ours are yet not necessarily barbarians or savages. 33.140 ˇ iz ˇ ek S. Like exchange according to Marx. that they are not subversives. 134. of a communal ‘‘out of joint. neither a Jew nor a Christian. because such truths are much more likely to have been discovered by one man than by a nation.) This crucial dimension is missing in Heidegger’s account: how. as the thought of those who were caught in a ‘‘parallax’’ position. etc. 217. put my ﬁnger on a single person whose opinions seemed preferable to those of others.’’ the one that speaks from radical self-doubting.’’ with his subjective stance of a double outcast (excommunicated from the very community of the outcasts of Western civilization). but the best citizens. Leo Strauss answered the question ‘‘In what does philosophic politics consist?’’ as follows: In satisfying the city that the philosophers are not atheists. so to speak. according as he is brought up from childhood amongst the French or Germans. and I found that I was. seems at the present time extravagant and ridiculous. that they do not desecrate everything sacred to the city. of course. or. that they reverence what the city reverences. Spinoza is a ‘‘philosopher as such. I thus concluded that it is much more custom and example that persuade us than any certain knowledge.. In On Tyranny. ethnic roots. and this holds even more for Spinoza than for Descartes: although Spinoza criticized the Cartesian cogito. no sooner than it is. in the fragile space of exchange and circulation between them.’’4 The cogito is not a substantial entity. is a defensive survival strategy trying to cover up the actual subversive nature of philosophy. The link between the emergency of the cogito and the disintegration and loss of substantial communal identities is thus inherent. p. it can only emerge in the interstices of substantial communal systems. identical in mind and spirit. be it ‘‘economy’’ as the household organization or polis. a space which lacks any positive identity. since. I also considered how very 2 different the self-same man. but to clearly perceive how they will compel us to change these very standards? This was the task of philosophy from its very beginnings: at its very inception (the Ionian pre-Socratics). are simply not a category of truth. an empty place (Lacan: $)—as such. we engage in a private use 3 Descartes (1994). and which will perhaps please us once again before ten years are passed. even more than Descartes. or has passed his whole life amongst Chinese or cannibals. p. and yet in spite of this the voice of the majority does not afford a proof of any value in truths a little difﬁcult to discover. For a philosopher. constrained myself to undertake the direction of my procedure. even in my College days. p. to put it in precise Kantian terms. not just to measure and judge them with our traditional standards. Quoted from Norton (2004). however. but may be possessed of reason in as great or even a greater degree than ourselves. Karatani (2003). from his beloved pre-Socratics onward. after long drifting around the sea. but of an antagonism that. movie theaters show ﬁlms from the West.’’ the Aufhebung of the false traditional home in the ﬁnally discovered conceptual true home? Was in this sense Heidegger not justiﬁed in approvingly quoting Novalis’ determination of philosophy as longing for the true lost home? Two things should be added here.. Secondly. this new ‘‘home’’ is in a way homelessness itself. the very open movement of negativity? Along these lines of the constitutive ‘‘homelessness’’ of philosophy. not as free human beings who dwell in the dimension of the universality of reason. ﬁnally catches sight of ﬁrm ground? Is thus the Cartesian homelessness not just a deceitful strategic move? Are we not dealing here with a Hegelian ‘‘negation of negation.Philosophy.. but to raise the proper question. all of which are in principle accessible to everyone. there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair—the only thing unavailable is red ink. we remain forever split. The paradox is thus that one participates in the universal dimension of the ‘‘public’’ sphere precisely as a singular individual extracted from or even opposed to one’s substantial communal identiﬁcation—one is truly universal only as radically singular. in a diagonal way. no longer the logic of one self-identical substantial group ﬁghting another group. his friends get the ﬁrst letter written in blue ink: ‘‘Everything is wonderful here: stores are full.e. ‘‘there are no Jews or Greeks. This is what Kant. in the proper space of the Christian absolute Truth.’’ The struggle which truly engages him is not simply ‘‘more universal’’ than that of one ethnic group against another. The task of philosophy as the ‘‘public use of reason’’ is not to solve problems. but to redeﬁne them. while ‘‘public’’ is the trans-national universality of the exercise of one’s Reason. First. Did not Hegel himself compare Descartes’ discovery of the cogito to a sailor who. while being proud of his particular identity (a Jew and a Roman citizen). ‘‘world-civil-society’’ is an abstract notion without substantial content. for Hegel. it involves an abstract identiﬁcation which does not grasp substantially the subject. a global revolutionary organization. was nonetheless aware that. directly participates in the Universal. the only way for an individual to effectively participate in universal humanity is therefore via full identiﬁcation with a particular Nation-State—I am ‘‘human’’ only as a German. returning home may make us feel warmth in our hearts—but the fact remains that all this is ultimately irrelevant. ‘‘world-civil-society’’ designates the paradox of the universal singularity.. lacking the mediation of the particular and thus the force of full actuality. are things with Hegel really so clear? Is it not that. constrained by contingent dogmatic presuppositions. Kant is unique with regard to this topic: in his transcendental philosophy. we act as ‘‘immature’’ individuals. means by ‘‘public’’ as opposed to ‘‘private’’: ‘‘private’’ is not the individual as opposed to one’s communal ties. not to answer questions. it is a struggle which obeys an entirely different logic.’’ The structure is here more reﬁned than it may appear: although the worker is unable to signal in the prearranged way that what he reports is a lie. he nonetheless succeeds in getting his 123 . It would be easy to counter here that this Cartesian multiculturalist opening and relativizing one’s own position is just a ﬁrst step.e. For Hegel. the ‘‘unknown knowns’’ 141 of reason. if it is written in red ink. i. bypassing the mediation of the particular. a scientiﬁc collective. i. homelessness remains irreducible. a German worker gets a job in Siberia.. he tells his friends: ‘‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink. on the contrary. This identiﬁcation with the Universal is not the identiﬁcation with an encompassing global Substance (‘‘humanity’’). aware of how all mail will be read by censors. We should act like Paul who.’’ which is not simply an expansion of the citizenship of a Nation-State to the citizenship of a global trans-national State. condemned to a fragile position between the two dimensions and to a ‘‘leap of faith’’ without any guarantee. which should lead us to acquire the absolutely certain philosophic knowledge—the abandoning of the false shaky home in order to reach our true home. but the identiﬁcation with a universal ethico-political principle—a universal religious collective. it involves a shift from the principle of identiﬁcation with one’s ‘‘organic’’ ethnic substance actualized in a particular tradition to a radically different principle of identiﬁcation—one can refer here to Deleuze’s notion of universal singularity as opposed to the triad of individuality–particularity– generality. we can love them. in the interstices of communal identities. the abandoning of inherited opinions. This. food is abundant. Kant formulated the idea of the cosmopolitan ‘‘world-civil-society [Weltburgergesellschaft]. in a kind of short circuit. be proud of them. of course. in a famous passage of his ‘‘What is Enlightenment?’’. it is false. of a singular subject who. In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic. but the very communal-institutional order of one’s particular identiﬁcation. this opposition is the opposition between Kant and Hegel. it is true. in no way entails that we should be ashamed of our ethnic roots.’’ After a month. Englishman . apartments are large and properly heated. For Kant. cuts across all particular groups. 142 ˇ iz ˇ ek S. Cambridge. South Bend Karatani K (2003) Transcritique. as one of its elements. New York Norton A (2004) Leo Strauss and the politics of American empire. References Descartes R (1994) Discourse on method. in the more reﬁned conditions of liberal censorship? One starts with agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wants—and then one merely adds that the only thing missing is the ‘‘red ink’’: we ‘‘feel free’’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. Henry Holt and Company. MIT Press. What this lack of red ink means is that. Yale University Press. today.’’ ‘‘human rights. Z message across—how? By inscribing the very reference to the code into the encoded message. University of Notre Dame Press. Of course. is not its entire content true? The solution is that the very fact that the lack of red ink is mentioned signals that it SHOULD have been written in red ink. not only in ‘‘totalitarian’’ conditions of censorship but. Staying human in an engineered age.’’ ‘‘democracy and freedom. The nice point here is that this mention of the lack of red ink produces the effect of truth independently of its own literal truth: even if red ink really WAS available. the lie that it is unavailable was the only way to get the true message across in this speciﬁc condition of censorship. we encounter here the standard problem of self-reference: since the letter is written in blue. etc. In this precise sense.— are FALSE terms.’’ etc. mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. And is this not the matrix of critical philosophy. perhaps even more. New Haven 123 . MA McKibben B (2004) Enough. all the main terms we use to designate the present conﬂict—‘‘war on terror. our ‘‘freedoms’’ themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom—this is what philosophy should make us see.