Triple knowledge

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A few days ago, I was puzzled by the triple know in one of Gov. Mark Sanford's interviews:

Everybody's got their own value system, but to me, even if it's a place that I could never go, if I wanted to know that I knew that I knew, if that's more important to me than running for president, that's my prerogative as a human being.

I wondered whether he might be exhibiting an unexpected run of multiple-target speech errors (compare "the biggest self of self is self" from his earlier press conference). But a commenter, William Ockham, set me straight:

"To know that you know that you know" is a stock phrase in fundamentalist evangelical speech that's used to make an experiential claim about a supernatural reality. "To know" something is to have learned about it. "To know that you know" is to be certain of something you've learned. "To know that you know that you know" is to be certain of something because you learned it by experiencing it directly.

I think Sanford is saying that he went to Argentina because he believed that he had discovered true love and wanted to be certain of that, even if it went against his own moral code.

Today's news brings another example of the same construction, this time from Sarah Palin.

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Kate Snow: Are you happy?
Sarah Palin: I’m extremely happy!  I know that I know that I know this is the right thing for Alaska.

The boring and obvious interpretation would be that piling up instances of know that is just a form of emphasis by duplication, something like very very very or big big big. But we don't usually create emphasis by stacking up propositional complements. You can say "I hope hope hope that X" to mean "I really hope that X" —  but "I hope that I hope that I hope that X" is just a strange form of emotional detachment, not an emphatic hope.

So William's analysis explains something that seems to need explaining. And the prevalence of religious examples among the web hits for "know that I know that I know" adds plausibility to his account.

But it's strange, if true, that each epistemological layer should add the specific non-compositional meaning he gives: "To know" something is to have learned about it. "To know that you know" is to be certain of something you've learned. "To know that you know that you know" is to be certain of something because you learned it by experiencing it directly.

Most linguistic theories allow for this kind of phrasal semantic suppletion, in principle — there's the special meaning of idioms, for example. But I can't think of any other examples like this one.


  1. MB said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    I wondered if it began as a misunderstanding of the "Arabian proverb" that appeared in sententious commonplace books in the early part of the twentieth century, which begins,
    "He who knows not, and knows not he knows not is a fool — shun him"
    and ends
    "He who knows and knows that he knows is wise — follow him."

  2. MB said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    alternatively, or of "a familiar old Persian apothegm"

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    I've had that "Arabian proverb" / "familiar old Persian apothegm" taped to my office door for about twenty years, both because it mystifies me and because it reminds me of themes about knowledge that run through the pages of my favorite Chinese thinker, Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu. Zhuang Zi talks about greater knowledge and lesser knowledge; he doubts that he really knows what he seems to know. This gives rise in the scholarly literature on Zhuang Zi to discussions of meta-knowledge, true knowledge, and so forth.

    Now, in the case of governors Sanford and Palin, they wanted to make sure that everybody understood that they really, really, really knew what they were talking aobut.

  4. Sili said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

    Not directly related, but I'm reminded of the psychology of my own insecurities.

    I'm very much to inclined to distance myself from conclusions and feelings by piling up in this manner: "I believe that I think that I want to love you." There are levels to selfawareness. There's the feeling, but as much the feeling that the feeling may be wrong. And then of course the feeling that the feeling that the original feeling may be wrong may be wrong.

    I really should fall back on my partial training in maths to write that recursion more clearly …

    But whatever this phenomenon is, it seems to be applied in the reverse direction of the governors "know"s.

  5. Sili said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    That aphorism seems to run counter to Socrates who was wise exactly because he knew that he didn't know.

  6. Carl said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

    Reminds me of Bart Simpson in "The Canine Mutiny," "I can't promise I'll try, but I'll try to try." In the case of "try to try" each repetition is a weakening, rather than a strengthening.

  7. nico said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

    What about " You know that I know that you know?" It more or less slams together three ideas that should really be explained a lot more.

  8. Noetica said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    Sili, I find your example useful: "I believe that I think that I want to love you." It is not pointed out often enough that believe and those others work differently in first-person use, as opposed to both second- and third-person use. Consider:

    "A believes that P";
    "You believe that P".

    It would be standard for A and you to report the same information as follows:

    "I know that P".

    On the other hand, when one says

    "I believe that P",

    this is normally intended as contrasting with

    "I know that P".

    In fact "I believe that P" normally means something like "I suspect that P", or "I am inclined to believe that P" (where believe is now used canonically). If one believes (canonically, in the non-first-person sense) that P, one is committed to the truth of P; so one naturally reports canonic beliefs as knowledge, knowledge being construed roughly and provisionally as true belief. And similarly even if knowledge is to be construed as belief + truth + justification + X.

    Conversely, we sometimes use know irregularly or ironically, as involving firm and often unjustified belief, with or without truth, and the like:

    "Agatha knew that there was a God; Meredith knew that there was not."
    "I just knew it wouldn't be an ace; I should have held on to the pair of kings."

    Whence some of the observed peculiarities from Palin and others. Iteration may be an attempt to reinforce one's claimed knowledge as true belief, rather than mere purportedly strong suspicion – or whistling in the dark, to use the technical term. Contrasted, as you point out, Sili, with your own similar attempt to disclaim knowledge through iteration.

  9. Haamu said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    "I’m extremely happy! I know that I know that I know this is the right thing for Alaska."

    A truly fascinating expression. It intensifies in two dimensions, doesn't it? Not only is "know" triplicated, but so is "I". So even while the speaker advances from awareness to conviction to metaphysical certitude, she also retreats from the merely subjective to the solitary to the (in my view) completely isolated. Probably not the effect she intended.

    Sarah doesn't seem to see this, but her issue isn't whether she's certain her decision is right; it's whether she can convince anyone else. Coming from an epistemological tradition that apparently spirals ever inward, she does not seem well equipped either to succeed at this endeavor or to understand why she's having a problem.

  10. A-gu said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 12:45 am

    I don't have any evidence to present, but the Governor's comment strikes me as almost certainly meaning "if I wanted to confirm that I was sure that I knew [I was in love, had met my soul mate, etc], if that's more important to me than running for president, that's my prerogative as a human being."

    And that ambiguity of how he is using know is then accounted for.

  11. William Ockham said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 12:48 am

    Elmer Towns, an associate of the late Jerry Falwell, apparently attributes the phrase to Falwell in an August 2007 Sunday School lesson:

    5. Jerry Falwell said, “I know that I know that I know.”
    a. First know: by observation.
    b. Second know: by rational understanding.
    c. Third know: by assurance of the Holy Spirit.

    I'm fairly certain that the phrase predates Falwell. My father and Jerry Falwell attended the same "Bible College" in the 1950s. My father says he heard the phrase in church when he was a child. I also think that Falwell is putting his own spin on the phrase. I certainly don't think that's how Sanford was using it. Palin, on the other hand, is implying something very close to Falwell's meaning. To an evangelical, Palin is saying that her resignation is part of God's plan for her life.

  12. Vincent said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:43 am

    Dr Rowan Williams, present Archbishop of Canterbury, said in a sermon:

    “Kipling knew more than he knew that he knew, and, if I can add one more refinement of complication to that phrase, he knew that he knew more than he knew that he knew.”

  13. Dierk said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 3:24 am

    Is it just me or is the specific evangelicalistic [sic!] phrase in use nothing more than a convoluted way of saying 'I believe'? And that's 'believe' as in 'Faith' as in 'God f*** with me directly'.

  14. peter said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 3:38 am

    Epistemic logicians talk of positive (and negative) introspection: knowing what it is you know (or, respectively, knowing what it is you don't know). Someone can know some proposition and yet not know that that they know it.

    Knowing that you have the positive introspection quality would be knowing that you know what it is you know. This is closer to Rumsfeld than to Sanford/Palin.

  15. acilius said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 7:35 am

    @Haamu: You've made the perfect observation.

  16. Joel Gillespie said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 8:27 am

    Ockham: "I think Sanford is saying that he went to Argentina because he believed that he had discovered true love and wanted to be certain of that, even if it went against his own moral code."

    Ockham is, I am pretty sure, well maybe, almost certainly, right. No, he is, I am sure of it. Except that the "even if" should refer less to Sanford's moral code than to his political aspirations. Narcissistic as it all may be, I find Sanford's comments refreshingly honest.

  17. Justin said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    Reminds me of Frankfurt's first/second order desires.

  18. Karen said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    People like Palin and Sanford use this formula because in their culture it's both powerful and meaningful. They couldn't care less if others don't understand it, but I doubt they sit around parsing it. It's set, and they use it.

  19. language hat said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    Karen is the only commenter here who seems to have actually grasped what was said in the post. Analyses of what it might mean if it weren't an idiom are beside the point; it is an idiom (in a particular circle alien to most of us here), she is using it as such, and it no more sheds light on her thought processes or personality than a linguist's use of "colorless green ideas" shows a personal obsession with color. Once again, the blinders of politics hinder people from seeing what is in front of them.

  20. Nathan Myers said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    I'm kind of surprised, and maybe even heartened, that no one has brought up the other biblical meaning of "to know". It seems at least Freudian-slip-ically related to Sanford's usage. A little such knowledge can be a dangerous thing for a politician.

  21. Noetica said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    Karen and Language Hat:

    Sure it's an idiom – or a meme, to use a current idiom. But idioms have their motivations and aetiology. Why did people start saying such a thing, if an unreiterated I know would have conveyed all of the intended meaning with all of the intended force?

    We can grant that Palin is parroting something she heard and approved of, in circles she wants to be associated with. I suppose we all do that, often with playful or some other extra-linguistic intent. But it would take some argument to show that this is all she is doing.

    Here we have floated various conjectures; some few of them might hit the mark. We do well not to assume simplicity and singularity. Un train peut en cacher un autre. (That's an idiom.)

  22. acilius said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    I'm with Noetica on this one. Certainly it matters if an expression is idiomatic or not- if the repetitious speech patterns of the governors were not idiomatic, it might be a sign of mental illness on their part. However, the fact that such idioms took hold in evangelical circles and not elsewhere does warrant investigation. Such investigation might well result in conclusions of the sort that (for example) Haamu has speculated about above.

  23. Noetica said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    Perhaps of interest:

    One of the most spectacular examples [of a syntactic pattern that is salient for the foreign learner, as opposed to a lexical item] I am aware of in the languages I have worked on is the French pattern “Un X peut en cacher un autre” (‘One X can hide another one’), which is derived from the well-known warning sign at level crossings throughout France (Un train peut en cacher un autre), but which, nowadays, is used in a virtually limitless way with a variety of nouns referring to people as well as to objects, situations and abstract ideas. In Peeters (forthcoming), I formulate the hypothesis that this productive syntactic pattern is an immediate reflection of the French cultural value of méfiance (not so much ‘distrust’ or ‘mistrust’, as most translation dictionaries have it, but ‘wariness’, a virtue rather than a shortcoming), and I provide extensive additional, linguistic as well as non-linguistic, evidence in support of that hypothesis. (Bert Peeters, Language and Cultural Values)

    An idiom need not be a mere idiom; there may be a further story to tell. From this distance Palin's usage looks typically American. From long observation I conclude that we in Australia are less likely to use repetition for rhetorical effect. I wonder if there is a story to tell there, about some lurking cultural value?

  24. language hat said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    the fact that such idioms took hold in evangelical circles and not elsewhere does warrant investigation.

    Yes, of course, but the results of the investigation will apply to the evangelical circles in general and not to Ms. Palin in particular. I am as little a fan of Palin as anyone else here, but to mock her (or psychoanalyze her) for this is as pointless as to do the same to Rumsfeld for his perfectly coherent and sensible statement about "known unknowns," or Bush for his perfectly normal pronunciation of the word "nuclear."

  25. Noetica said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

    I take your point, LH. We ought to be moderate in our inferences from such slight evidence. (And I agree about Rumsfeld, against whose famous statement we can level nothing beyond a flimsy ad hominem.)

    The temptation is to hypothesise over-liberally, since that is pretty well the game we are invited to play, at a blog like this. I appreciate your caution. Let's play this useful brainstorming game, but let's not mistake our diverse and ingenious results for settled conclusion backed by thorough argument.

  26. Nathan Myers said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    Rumsfeld's statement about "known unknowns" may have been grammatically coherent, but it was very far from sensible. He left out the most important case, the one where you think you know something that is not, in fact, so. Many of the administration's failings can be traced to that omission, and the failure to guard against its consequences.

  27. Noetica said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

    Well Nathan, perhaps. But the overwhelming response to Rumsfeld's famous dictum has been ad hominem, relying on the supposition that, being a down-and-dirty hypocritical warmonger, he is as likely to be doing violence to the language as he is to abuse hapless prisoners of war who are ultimately in his custody and care. The link is spurious, and we should evaluate his statement dispassionately.

  28. Nathan Myers said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

    Noetica: This is why it seems odd that both Rumsfeld's accusers and (howsoever reluctant) defenders have all seemed to miss this manifestly salient point. Despite Language Hat's assertion, the statement was not sensible, and criticism need not (pace) depend on ad hominem. It was a smugly fatuous, incomplete, and thereby misleading remark, and would have been so whoever had said it. Still, Rumfeld's accusers come off the worse for having relied on bad arguments when a sound criticism was ready to hand, and for failing to propagate that criticism to the world when they had its attention. We can only hope the next opportunity to level it is not accompanied by disasters of the magnitude that came alongside the last one.

  29. Joshua J said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 7:36 am

    I grew up (and remain) in conservative evangelicalism. This is an idiom I'm unfamiliar with, though I don't doubt its status as an idiom. Evangelicalism and fundamentalism are quite diverse, and various wings never come in contact at all, particularly in terms of who they read, watch, and listen to. (I guess we come in contact at the voting booth more often than not.)

  30. Aaron Davies said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    @Noetica, re your first post on varying meanings of "believe": it seems like something of an evidentiary question about the possibility of knowing another person's mental state. i'm reminded of my japanese teacher's admonition that the "hoshi desu" construction for "want" was not to be used (in the indicative) of other people, since you can never truly know what someone else wants.

  31. Aaron Davies said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    @Nathan: the quote frequently attributed to Will Rogers or Mark Twain seems apropos here: "It ain't the things we don't know that get us into trouble, it's the things we know that just ain't so." Quick research suggests it started with an earlier humorist by the (stage) name of Josh Billings, who wrote, in spelling that reminds me of the origin of "OK", "It iz better to kno less than to kno so much that ain't so.")

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