Negative Capability

Negative Capability

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Negative capability is the ability to perceive and to think more than any presupposition of human nature
Human nature
Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally....

 allows. It describes the capacity of human beings to reject the totalizing constraints of a closed context, and to both experience phenomenon free from any epistemological bounds as well as to assert their own will and individuality upon their activity. The term was first used by the Romantic poet John Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

 to critique those who sought to categorize all experience and phenomena and turn them into a theory of knowledge. It has recently been appropriated by philosopher and social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Roberto Mangabeira Unger is a philosopher and politician. He has written widely on social, political, legal, and economic theory, much of which has laid the philosophical and theoretical groundwork for reimagining and remaking the social and political order...

 to comment on human nature and to explain how human beings innovate and resist within confining social contexts.

Keats: The poet's turn of phrase

John Keats used the term negative capability to describe the artist as one who is receptive to the world and its natural phenomena, and to reject those who tried to formulate theories or categorize knowledge. In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas Keats, on December 22, 1817 he employed negative capability to criticize Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, Romantic, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla...

, whom he thought sought knowledge over beauty:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke
Charles Wentworth Dilke
Charles Wentworth Dilke was an English liberal critic and writer on literature.-Professional life :He served for many years in the Navy Pay-Office, on retiring from which he devoted himself to literary pursuits.- Literary life:...

, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, & at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, & and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

The origin of the term is unknown, but some scholars have hypothesized that Keats was influenced in his studies of medicine and chemistry, and that it refers to the negative pole of an electric current
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

 which is passive and receptive. In the same way that the negative pole receives the current from the positive pole, the poet receives impulses from a world that is full of mystery and doubt, which cannot be explained but which the poet can translate into art.

Although this was the only time that Keats used the term, this view of aesthetics and rejection of a rationalizing tendency has influenced much commentary on Romanticism
Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution...

 and the tenets of human experience.

Unger: The thesis of negative capability

Roberto Unger appropriated Keats' term in order to explain resistance to rigid social divisions and hierarchies. For Unger, negative capability is the "denial of whatever in our contexts delivers us over to a fixed scheme of division and hierarchy and to an enforced choice between routine and rebellion." It is thus through negative capability that we can further empower ourselves against social and institutional constraints, and loosen the bonds that entrap us in a certain social station.

An example of negative capability can be seen at work in industrial innovation. In order to create an innovator's advantage and develop new forms of economic enterprise, the modern industrialist could not just become more efficient with surplus extraction based on pre-existing work roles, but rather needed to invent new styles of flexible labor, expertise, and capital management. The industrialist needed to bring people together in new and innovative ways and redefine work roles and workplace organization. The modern factory had to at once stabilize its productive environment by inventing new restraints upon labor, such as length of the work day and division of tasks, but at the same time could not be too severe or risk being at a disadvantage to competitors, e.g. not being able to shift production tasks or capacity. Those industrialists and managers who were able to break old forms of organizational arrangements exercised negative capability.

This thesis of negative capability is a key component in Unger's theory of false necessity
False necessity
False necessity, or "anti-necessitarian social theory," is a contemporary social theory that champions the plasticity of society and the unlimited potential for transformation. It is foremost a critique of necessitarian thought in conventional social theory, which holds that parts of the social...

 and formative context
Formative Context
Formative contexts are the institutional and imaginative arrangements that shape a society's conflicts and resolutions. They are the structures that limit both the practice and the imaginative possibilities in a socio-political order, and in doing so shape the routines of conflict over social,...

. The theory of false necessity claims that our social worlds are the artifact of our own human endeavors. There is no pre-set institutional arrangement that our societies adhere to, and there is no necessary historical mold of development that they will follow. Rather we are free to choose and develop the forms and the paths that our societies will take through a process of conflicts and resolutions. However, there are groups of institutional arrangements that work together to bring out certain institutional forms, liberal democracy, for example. These forms are the basis of a social structure, and which Unger calls formative contexts. In order to explain how we move from one formative context to another without the conventional social theory constraints of historical necessity (e.g. feudalism to capitalism), and to do so while remaining true to the key insight of individual human empowerment and anti-necessitarian social thought, Unger recognized that there are an infinite number of ways of resisting social and institutional constraints, which can lead to an infinite number of outcomes. This variety of forms of resistance and empowerment
Empowered democracy
Empowered democracy is an alternative form of social-democratic arrangements developed by philosopher and politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger. Theorized in response to the repressiveness and rigidity of contemporary liberal democratic society, the theory of empowered democracy envisions a more open...

 (i.e. negative capability) make change possible.

This thesis of negative capability addresses the problem of agency
Agency (sociology)
In the social sciences, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, "Structure" refers to the factors of influence that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions...

 in relation to structure
Social structure
Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term "social structure" has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis...

. It recognizes the constraints of structure and its molding influence upon the individual, but at the same time finds the individual able to resist, deny, and transcend their context. Unlike other theories of structure and agency
Structure and agency
The question over the primacy of either structure or agency in human behavior is a central debate in the social sciences. In this context, "agency" refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. "Structure", by contrast, refers to the recurrent...

, negative capability does not reduce the individual to a simple actor possessing only the dual capacity of compliance or rebellion, but rather sees him as able to partake in a variety of activities of self empowerment.

Further reading

  • Wigod, Jacob D. 1952. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America
    Modern Language Association
    The Modern Language Association of America is the principal professional association in the United States for scholars of language and literature...

    . 67 (4): 383-390.