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Topoi (2006) 25:137142 DOI 10.


Philosophy, the unknown knowns, and the public use of reason

iz Slavoj Z ek

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 todays 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 unconscious ideology truth paranoia 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 dont know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we dont know we dont know. What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the unknown knowns, things we dont know that we knowwhich is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the knowledge which doesnt 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
iz ek (&) S. Z International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK e-mail:

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 reection 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 gure, 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



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in the West the false notion of the Easts weakness. On top of it and most catastrophically for the Western intelligence community, Angleton dismissed practically all KGB defectors offering invaluable information as fake defectors, and sometimes even sent them back to the USSR (where, of course, they were immediately put to trial and shot, since they were true defectors!). The ultimate outcome of Angletons reign was total immobilizationcrucially, in his time, not one true mole was discovered and apprehended. No wonder Clare Petty, one of the top ofcials in Angletons section, brought the Angleton paranoia to its logical selfnegating climax by concluding, after an exhaustive and long investigation, 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. Indeed, one is tempted to raise this question: what if Angleton was a mole justifying his activity by the search for a mole (for himself, in the nal 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 ultimate deception assumed the guise of truth itself: there WAS a Monster Plot (the very idea of the Monster Plot); there WAS a mole in the heart of the CIA (Angleton himself). The nicety of this solutionand the ultimate condemnation of Angletons paranoiais that it doesnt 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 result is exactly the same. Therein resides the truth of the paranoiac stance: it is itself the threat, the destructive plot, against which it is ghtingthese are its unknown knowns. In what, then, resided the deception here? In our failure to include in the list of suspects the very idea of (globalized) suspicion, i.e., to put under suspicion the very idea of suspicion. Recall the old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, when he was leaving the factory, the wheelbarrow he was rolling in front of himself was carefully inspected, but the guards could not nd anything, it was always emptytill, nally, they got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheelbarrows themselves ... such a reexive twist stands for a minimum of philosophical gesture. Under what social-ideological conditions is, then, such a gesture possible? We are led to become aware of the unknown knowns of our predicament when time gets out of joint, when our full and spontaneous (prereexive) immersion in what Hegel called social substance is disturbed.

Therein resides, more than ever, the future task of philosophy. Todays sciences shatter the basic presuppositions of our everyday-life notion of reality. So how are we to react to their breakthroughs? Is it not the time to start with patiently discerning the actual lessons of, among others, recent bio-technological breakthroughs? In 2003, Japanese telecom carriers came up with the worlds rst mobile phone that enables users to listen to calls inside their headsby conducting sound through bone. 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, instead of relying on the usual method of sound hitting the outer eardrum. With the new handset, 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. What we encounter here is a weird Real that has no place in the external reality to which we are used. As a step further, in 2003, at the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University, monkeys with brain implants were trained to move a robot arm with their thoughts. 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; the volunteers then played videogames while the electrodes recorded the brain signalsthe scientists trained a computer to recognize the brain activity corresponding to the different movements of the joystick. This procedure of eavesdropping on the brains digital crackle with electrodes (where computers use zeros and ones, neurons encode our thoughts in all-or-nothing electrical impulses), and transmitting the signals to a computer that can read the brains code and then use the signals to control as machine, already has an ofcial name: brainmachine interface. Further prospects include sending the signals to somebody standing nearby with electrodes implanted in his hearing centers, so that he can telepathically listen to my inner voice ... the Orwellian notion of thought control will thus acquire a much more literal meaning. Even the proverbial Stephen Hawkings little ngerthe minimal link between his mind and outside reality, the only part of his paralyzed body that Hawking can movewill thus no longer be necessary: with my mind, I can DIRECTLY cause objects to move: it is the brain itself which will directly serve as the remote control machine. In the terms of German Idealism, this means that what Kant called intellectual intuitionthe closing of the gap between mind and reality, a mind-process which, in a causal way, directly inuences reality, this capacity that Kant


Philosophy, the unknown knowns


attributed only to the innite mind of Godis now potentially available to all of us. And since, as we learned from Kant as well as from Freud, this gap of nitude 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, as Karl Popper put it, let them die instead of ourselves), the direct short-circuit between mind and reality implies the advent of a radical closure. In May 2002, it was reported that scientists at New York University had attached a computer chip able to receive signals directly to a rats brain, 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). For the rst time, the will of a living animal agent, its spontaneous decisions about the movements it will make, were taken over by an external machine. Of course, 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.e., was it totally unaware that its movements were steered?), or was it aware that something was wrong, 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, ethical questions notwithstanding, shouldnt be much more complicated, technically speaking, than in the case of the rat). In the case of the rat, one can argue that one should not apply to it the human category of experience, while, in the case of a human being, one should ask this question. So, again, will a steered human being continue to experience his movements as something spontaneous? Will he remain totally unaware that his movements are steered, or will he become aware that something is wrong, that another external power is deciding his movements? And, how, precisely, will this external power appearas something inside me, an unstoppable inner drive, or as simple external coercion? If subjects remain totally unaware that their spontaneous behavior is steered from the outside, can one really go on pretending that this has no consequences for our notion of free will? No wonder that, with the prospect of the biogenetic manipulation of human physical and psychic features, the notion of danger inscribed into modern technology, elaborated half a century ago by Martin Heidegger, has turned into common currency. Heidegger emphasizes how the true danger is not the physical self-destruction of humanity, the threat that something will go terribly wrong with biogenetic

interventions, but, precisely, that NOTHING will go wrong, that genetic manipulations will function smoothlyat that point, the circle will in a way be closed and the specic 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-scientic developments (which potentially made the human species able to redesign and redene itself) will affect our being-human. Their panic reaction is best encapsulated by the title of Bill McKibbens book: enough.1 Humanity as a collective subject must put a limit to, and freely renounce, further progress in this direction. McKibben endeavors to empirically specify this limit: somatic genetic therapy is still this side of the enough point, one can practice it without leaving behind the world as weve known it, since we just intervene into a body formed in the old natural way; however, germline manipulations lie on the other side, in the world beyond meaning. When we manipulate psychic and bodily properties of individuals before they are even conceived, we pass the threshold into full-edged planning, turning individuals into products, preventing them from experiencing themselves as responsible agents who must educate themselves by the effort of focusing their will, thus obtaining the satisfaction of achievementin short, such individuals will no longer relate to themselves as responsible agents. The insufciency of this reasoning is double. As Heidegger would have put it, when we try to dene the limit of the permissible in this way, the true catastrophe already took place: we already experience ourselves as in principle open to technological manipulation, we just freely renounce to fully deploy these potentials. 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 is to say, the future of technological self-manipulation only appears as deprived of meaning if measured by the traditional notion of what a meaningful universe is. Who knows what this posthuman universe will reveal itself to be in itself? What if there is no singular and simple answer, what if the contemporary trends (digitalization, biogenetic self-manipulation) open themselves up to a multitude of options? What if the utopiathe wellknown dream of the passage of human identity from hardware to software, so that we will oat freely in a digital immortality, downloading ourselves from one to

See McKibben (2004).



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another embodimentand the dystopiathe nightmare of humans voluntarily transforming themselves into programmed beingsare 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 prejudicesin short, not just to measure and judge them with our traditional standards, 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), philosophy emerged in the interstices of substantial social communities, as the thought of those who were caught in a parallax position, unable fully to identify with any of the positive social identities. In On Tyranny, Leo Strauss answered the question In what does philosophic politics consist? as follows: In satisfying the city that the philosophers are not atheists, that they do not desecrate everything sacred to the city, that they reverence what the city reverences, that they are not subversives, in short that they are not irresponsible adventurers, but the best citizens.2 (This, of course, is a defensive survival strategy trying to cover up the actual subversive nature of philosophy.) This crucial dimension is missing in Heideggers account: how, from his beloved pre-Socratics onward, philosophizing involved an impossible position displaced with regard to any communal identity, be it economy as the household organization or polis. Like exchange according to Marx, philosophy emerges in the interstices BETWEEN different communities, in the fragile space of exchange and circulation between them, a space which lacks any positive identity. 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 ones own tradition is no better than what appear to us as the eccentric traditions of others: I had been taught, even in my College days, that there is nothing imaginable so strange or so little credible that it has not been maintained by one philosopher or other, 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, but may be possessed of reason in as great or even a greater degree than ourselves. I also considered how very

different the self-same man, identical in mind and spirit, may become, according as he is brought up from childhood amongst the French or Germans, or has passed his whole life amongst Chinese or cannibals. I likewise noticed how even in the fashions of ones clothing the same thing that pleased us ten years ago, and which will perhaps please us once again before ten years are passed, seems at the present time extravagant and ridiculous. I thus concluded that it is much more custom and example that persuade us than any certain knowledge, and yet in spite of this the voice of the majority does not afford a proof of any value in truths a little difcult to discover, because such truths are much more likely to have been discovered by one man than by a nation. I could not, however, put my nger on a single person whose opinions seemed preferable to those of others, and I found that I was, so to speak, constrained myself to undertake the direction of my procedure.3 One should therefore always bear in mind the insubstantial character of the cogito: It cannot be spoken of positively; no sooner than it is, its function is lost.4 The cogito is not a substantial entity, but a pure structural function, an empty place (Lacan: $)as such, it can only emerge in the interstices of substantial communal systems. The link between the emergency of the cogito and the disintegration and loss of substantial communal identities is thus inherent, and this holds even more for Spinoza than for Descartes: although Spinoza criticized the Cartesian cogito, he criticized it as a positive ontological entitybut he implicitly fully endorsed it as the position of enunciated, the one that speaks from radical self-doubting, since, even more than Descartes, Spinoza spoke from the interstices of the social space(s), neither a Jew nor a Christian. In fact, Spinoza is a philosopher as such, with his subjective stance of a double outcast (excommunicated from the very community of the outcasts of Western civilization); which is why one should use him as a paradigm enabling us to discover the traces of a similar displacement, of a communal out of joint, with regard to all other great philosophers, up to Nietzsche who was ashamed of Germans and proudly emphasized his alleged Polish roots. For a philosopher, ethnic roots, national identity, etc., are simply not a category of truth; or, to put it in precise Kantian terms, when we reect upon our ethnic roots, we engage in a private use

Descartes (1994), p. 33. Karatani (2003), p. 134.

Quoted from Norton (2004), p. 217.


Philosophy, the unknown knowns


of reason, constrained by contingent dogmatic presuppositions, i.e., we act as immature individuals, not as free human beings who dwell in the dimension of the universality of reason. This, of course, in no way entails that we should be ashamed of our ethnic roots; we can love them, be proud of them, returning home may make us feel warmth in our heartsbut the fact remains that all this is ultimately irrelevant. We should act like Paul who, while being proud of his particular identity (a Jew and a Roman citizen), was nonetheless aware that, in the proper space of the Christian absolute Truth, there are no Jews or Greeks. The struggle which truly engages him is not simply more universal than that of one ethnic group against another; it is a struggle which obeys an entirely different logic, no longer the logic of one self-identical substantial group ghting another group, but of an antagonism that, in a diagonal way, cuts across all particular groups. It would be easy to counter here that this Cartesian multiculturalist opening and relativizing ones own position is just a rst step, the abandoning of inherited opinions, which should lead us to acquire the absolutely certain philosophic knowledgethe abandoning of the false shaky home in order to reach our true home. Did not Hegel himself compare Descartes discovery of the cogito to a sailor who, after long drifting around the sea, nally catches sight of rm ground? Is thus the Cartesian homelessness not just a deceitful strategic move? Are we not dealing here with a Hegelian negation of negation, the Aufhebung of the false traditional home in the nally discovered conceptual true home? Was in this sense Heidegger not justied in approvingly quoting Novalis determination of philosophy as longing for the true lost home? Two things should be added here. First, Kant is unique with regard to this topic: in his transcendental philosophy, homelessness remains irreducible, we remain forever split, condemned to a fragile position between the two dimensions and to a leap of faith without any guarantee. Secondly, are things with Hegel really so clear? Is it not that, for Hegel, this new home is in a way homelessness itself, the very open movement of negativity? Along these lines of the constitutive homelessness of philosophy, Kant formulated the idea of the cosmopolitan world-civil-society [Weltburgergesellschaft], which is not simply an expansion of the citizenship of a Nation-State to the citizenship of a global trans-national State; it involves a shift from the principle of identication with ones organic ethnic substance actualized in a particular tradition to a radically different principle of identicationone can

refer here to Deleuzes notion of universal singularity as opposed to the triad of individualityparticularity generality; this opposition is the opposition between Kant and Hegel. For Hegel, world-civil-society is an abstract notion without substantial content, lacking the mediation of the particular and thus the force of full actuality, i.e., it involves an abstract identication which does not grasp substantially the subject; the only way for an individual to effectively participate in universal humanity is therefore via full identication with a particular Nation-StateI am human only as a German, Englishman ... For Kant, on the contrary, world-civil-society designates the paradox of the universal singularity, of a singular subject who, in a kind of short circuit, bypassing the mediation of the particular, directly participates in the Universal. This identication with the Universal is not the identication with an encompassing global Substance (humanity), but the identication with a universal ethico-political principlea universal religious collective, a scientic collective, a global revolutionary organization, all of which are in principle accessible to everyone. This is what Kant, in a famous passage of his What is Enlightenment?, means by public as opposed to private: private is not the individual as opposed to ones communal ties, but the very communal-institutional order of ones particular identication, while public is the trans-national universality of the exercise of ones Reason. 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 ones substantial communal identicationone is truly universal only as radically singular, in the interstices of communal identities. The task of philosophy as the public use of reason is not to solve problems, but to redene them; not to answer questions, but to raise the proper question. In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: Lets establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false. After a month, his friends get the rst letter written in blue ink: Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theaters show lms from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affairthe only thing unavailable is red ink. The structure is here more rened 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



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message acrosshow? By inscribing the very reference to the code into the encoded message, as one of its elements. Of course, we encounter here the standard problem of self-reference: since the letter is written in blue, 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. 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 specic condition of censorship. And is this not the matrix of critical philosophy, not only in totalitarian conditions of censorship but, perhaps even more, in the more rened conditions of liberal censorship? One starts with agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wantsand 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. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conictwar on terror, democracy and freedom, human rights, etc. etc. are FALSE terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. In this precise sense, our freedoms themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedomthis is what philosophy should make us see.

Descartes R (1994) Discourse on method. University of Notre Dame Press, South Bend Karatani K (2003) Transcritique. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA McKibben B (2004) Enough. Staying human in an engineered age. Henry Holt and Company, New York Norton A (2004) Leo Strauss and the politics of American empire. Yale University Press, New Haven