Preknown-known-unknown and the implications for “unintended consequences”

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 just 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, described 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 blurred borders of preknown, known and unknown is: 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.

–So what?

It turns out that all the talk about “unintended consequences of human action” is itself unintentionally simplistic:

  • “Unintended?”: When the preknown is the platform that has nothing to do with intentions but that enables us to take our bearings so that other factors in the known and unknown carry the weight of argument about “unintended consequences.”
  • “Consequences?”: Rather than that blurred borders of knowing, preknowing, and not-knowing we chalk up also to contingency and exigency.
  • “Unintended” + “consequences”?: When too often what we are really dealing with are contingencies with disproportionate effects about which we have little or no causal understanding.

To rephrase the point, “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.

Principal source

Schütz, A. (1964). “The Well-Informed Citizen.” In: Alfred Schütz, Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory. Edited and introduced by A. Brodersen. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

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