Preknown, known, unknown

It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

–If we start with the commonplace that analysis and deliberation center around what is known or not, then the boundaries of the known blur not only into the unknown, but also into the preknown. The latter is the preexisting knowledge that one is born into and “takes for granted.”

In his essay, “The Well-Informed Citizen,” Alfred Schütz, the sociologist, describes it this way:

The zone of things taken for granted may be defined as that sector of the world which, in connection with the theoretical or the practical problem we are concerned with at a given time, does not seem to need further inquiry, although we do not have clear and distinct insight into and understanding of its structure. What is taken for granted is, until invalidation, believed to be simply “given” and “given-as-it-appears-to-me”–that is, as I or others whom I trust have experienced and interpreted it. It is this zone of things taken for granted within which we have to find our bearings. All our possible questioning for the unknown arises only within such a world of supposedly preknown things, and presupposes its existence.

–One consequence of ignoring the preknown, known and unknown have blurred borders is this: We end up acting as if it does not matter that it takes preknowing and knowing enough to avoid entering into the unstudied conditions of the unknown. If Schütz is right, the preknown is where we “find our bearings” with respect to the known and unknown.

–What does this mean?

It turns out that all this talk about “unintended consequences of human action” is itself unintentionally simplistic. “Unintended” when the preknown is an invisible platform that lets us find our bearings so that other factors in the known and unknown carry the weight of argument about “unintended consequences”? “Consequences” rather than the intercalated knowing, preknowing, and not-knowing we chalk up to contingency and exigency?

“Unintended consequences of human action” is a coherent phrase only by missing the rest of that overwritten palimpsest, called “human action,” off of which the phrase is cobbled together and read.

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