Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns?

By Bem Le Hunte

Bem Le Hunte (biography)

Why do very few people enjoy sitting comfortably with their unknown unknowns? Why is there an uncomfortable liminality ‘betwixt and between’ the known and unknown worlds?

How can we explore unknowns in a more speculative, playful, creative capacity, through our imaginations? How can we use lack of knowledge to learn about ourselves and let it teach us how to be comfortable and curious in the midst of unknowing?

The power and allure of unknown unknowns have long been recognised by creative practitioners as a holy grail for inspiration. Borges wrote in The Library of Babel about a fictitious library where all books ever written existed together, but this library turns to a dystopia as the reader discovers that “the certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal.” And in those endless corridors lined with books the suicides begin…

For creative practitioners, the art of not knowing (and simultaneously expressing what you do know with confidence) is a careful balancing act. It is exemplified by Shakespeare when he gives Hamlet the statement that: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Here there is an admission that we have to hold knowledge and the lack of it simultaneously, in our being.

Similarly, St John of God wrote these words about unknowing from a prison cell in Toledo:

This knowledge in unknowing
is so overwhelming
that wise men disputing
can never overthrow it,
for their knowledge does not reach
to the understanding of not
transcending all knowledge.

Ann Kerwin, when creating her taxonomy of unknowns wrote: “in creativity we bring life to unknown unknowns. We demonstrate that we ourselves are unknown unknowns: endowed with astounding capacities to reveal ourselves in unexpected ways.” Similarly, in my view, creative practice serves to construct a theory of the world (outside of us), but any revelation about that world is mirrored through a better understanding of ourselves – our own unknowns.

Unlike other research, which is often practiced in one direction in helping to solve problems ‘out there,’ creative practice is like a two-way telescope, revealing insights and connectedness between the researcher and that which is researched. This integrative capacity of creative thinking might well be one of the most powerful reasons for us to keep creative intelligence alive in our education systems, across all disciplines. Bringing the personal dimension into education, after all, does make it seem much more relevant!

It’s also important for leaders, civil and military, to understand how they are implicated in the knowledge they have at their disposal – and to develop the creative capacity to know and not know simultaneously.

But what do we do with our fear of not knowing? Creativity researcher, Vlad Glăveanu, in his new book Wonder, talks about the power of wondering and its capacity to stimulate a range of experiences from contemplation to pondering, curiosity and awe – all encounters with the unknown. Perfecting the art of wondering is a powerful way to encourage a sense of adventure around unknowns, rather than fear.

Glăveanu writes about a phrase that early sixteenth century cartographers from East Asia wrote on their maps – HIC SUNT DRACONES – or ‘here are dragons’ to signify unknown and potentially dangerous territories. He claims that these “might be interpreted as invitations to wonder about but not to wander off, to respect the unknown and yet make it somehow familiar.” The phrase ‘here be dragons’ is still used by hackers when they don’t understand how their code works but know that it does. They leave this message encrypted as an artefact, telling other hackers not to mess with it!

This brings another question – whether our ‘arrival’ at knowledge is always a good thing and whether the knowledge that exists should always be ‘un-encrypted.’ For traditional problem-solving it might be so, but often with creative practice one needs to remain in a state of mystery (and thereby, receptiveness). Poet Lewis Hyde and author of The Gift offers the insight that: “If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labour satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom.” As a writer myself, this phrase resonates deeply. Certainly, I wouldn’t be inspired to write my novels if I knew exactly what I was going to write and which ways my story would travel. This is also discussed by Lelia Green in her blog post on Creative writing as a journey into the unknown unknown.

As we will always be faced at some point in our lives with a world we cannot fathom, it would be useful to teach our students and leaders how to think of these unknowns as gifts – and not to always privilege certainty as our scientific paradigm insists that we should.

Borges, J. L. (1970). Labyrinths. (Eds.). Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, (Trans.). James E. Irby and Anthony Kerrigan. Penguin: London, United Kingdom.

Glăveanu, V. P. (2020, in press). Wonder: The extraordinary power of an ordinary experience. Bloomsbury: London, United Kingdom.

Hyde, L. (2007). The gift: How the creative spirit transforms the world. Canongate: Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

Kerwin, A. (1993). None too solid: medical ignorance. Science Communication, 15, 2: 166-85.

Shakespeare, W. (2008). Hamlet (The Oxford Shakespeare). (Ed.). G. R. Hibbard. Oxford: Oxford, United Kingdom.

St John of the Cross. (2007). A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ. (Trans.). David Lewis. Cosimo: New York, United States of America.

Biography: Associate Professor Bem Le Hunte PhD is the founding Course Director of the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation in the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. This degree is transdisciplinary and future-facing, combining with 25 different disciplines to explore unknowns and investigate the challenges of our times. Over the past three decades she has worked across a broad range of creative industries, from advertising and journalism, to publishing and new media. She is also a globally published novelist and has written scripts for documentaries and film. She researches creativity in education and ways to deliver a ‘Curriculum for Being’ across communities of learning and practice.

This blog post is part of a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

For the ten other blog posts already published in this series, see: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-defence-science-and-technology/

Scheduled blog posts in this series:
February 25, 2020: Theory U: a promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns by Vanesa Weyrauch

9 thoughts on “Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns?”

  1. What a fun and important article. I am taken by the use of unknowing as a verb and the emergence of insight as almost spiritual. That may have a sense of woo-woo, but it may be in line with the dragons and St John’s prison cell experience. (That led to a quick review of St John’s life on wikipedia–talk about a non-linear life!) Actively unknowing, taking on a beginner mindset of curious ignorance, can offer insights into what might be which, in some cases, are what are.

  2. Great insight,Bem. Jan’s pithy comments are also on the money – there are too many “Smart Alecks” who overvalue knowledge. I would argue that “Here be dragons” is a known unknown, rather than an unknown unknown, but we all need to start here. These days, doctors are taught to admit “I don’t know” when they don’t know (one of the reasons they have negative marking). Don’t guess. Admit the magic of the unknown. And don’t be a Smart Aleck. As Dirty Harry said “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

  3. Oh Dear! Your piece casts a harsh light on some university workplaces where so many people carry ‘knowing everything’ around with them proudly, as if they were sporting a glittery designer handbag. But just passing that handbag sucks the life out of everything – especially learning. Those handbags have people orbiting them like unwary suns being sucked into black-holes. There is an allure in knowing it all, isn’t there? Knowledge really does glitter. Prometheus knew that wax melts, but did he have to fly so close to the sun just to learn that there were some ‘knowns’ he had forgotten about?

    Bem, keep us all grounded by showing that not knowing doesn’t glitter, it glows with warmth and promise. In all my years of taking the left hand path, I still have yet to meet one of those dragons. And by now, I say dragons beware, I know the value of your glittery hide, and won’t so easily be mesmerised!

    • Yes, the Academy has always been the place where knowledge is deified, and it can be professionally disastrous for ‘experts’ to own their ignorance. There are financial models in place that bank on academics knowing their material, after all. Yet knowledge is provisional, and the currency is in staying current.

      Anne Kerwin writes: ‘while the known and the knowable are minute portions of the unknown, it is the known we identify with “reality.”’ Experts can get attached to reality as they know it. Added to this is the problem that ‘we cannot equate our non-awareness of something with its nonexistence.’

      I’m really grateful to be in a field where we’re given the freedom to ‘profess’ ignorance (Creative Intelligence and Innovation). Indeed, we’ve designed a variety of creative ‘Ignorance Mapping’ methods to help our students interrogate multiple types of unknowns. If you can encourage learners (and that includes academics) to interrogate everything, including their biases, worldviews and academic egos, it’s easier to get past an attachment to known truths and forge discovery. This often encourages all learners (including academics) to explore the ‘adjacent possible’ as well as radical alternatives to the constructs we have chosen to ‘know’.

  4. Dear Bem, thanks a lot for sharing these interesting thoughts! I was wondering: do you perhaps know good examples of creative practices of simultaneously knowing and not-knowing that have informed actual decision-making processes? And if so, how exactly?
    Susan van ‘t Klooster

    • Susan, my first response to your question is “I don’t know.” But then I stretch my imaginative capacity past the stubborn boundary of not knowing. I ask myself “what if I did know?” (This is a method taught to me by a psychologist, and it’s used in therapy to get to the bottom of issues that people don’t want to ‘know’ – it can just as easily be transported into a creative (unknown unknown) practice – you could call this method a thought experiment, too. So here’s my answer to “what if I did know?”…

      Creative practitioners make thousands of decisions without fully understanding their consequences, often in a playful fashion, trialling and testing the possibillionism of their outcomes. To do this they need a knowledge of their field / practice – plus an enormous amount of trust in the process as they are taking risks. (To quote Louis Pasteur, ‘chance favours only the prepared mind’.)

      So I didn’t know the answer to your question and yet I simultaneously knew it, because I gave myself permission to know it. I hope this serves as a ‘good examples of a creative practice of simultaneously knowing and not-knowing that has informed actual decision-making.’ I am sure there are billions of other such examples!

      • This is a terrific (creative) answer :-)! In my projects, I try to encourage environmental experts and policymakers to think about the ‘unknown’. You provided very useful vocabulary to talk about the ‘not knowing’. Thanks a lot! Looking forward to getting to know your work better!

  5. Thank you Bem! What a wonderful read…it has really got me thinking about why I’m excited about certain projects over others! It is really the opportunity to explore the unknown. Great post. Dena

    • Thank you Dena for your kind words. I think it’s useful to think of our engagement with unknown unknowns as exciting territory. Engaging with unknown unknowns should be alluring, not terrifying – excitement often leads to inspiration to follow our less rational insights, too – our hunches. And so exploring unknown unknowns inevitably becomes a creative process that integrates our whole being. I like Anne Kerwin’s idea that we should use ignorance as a muse!


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