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Negative capability

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Title: Negative capability  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Structure and agency, Formative context, Mark Kelman, Evenly-suspended attention
Collection: Human Behavior, Humans, Philosophical Concepts, Skills, Social Concepts, Social Psychology
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Negative capability

Negative capability describes the capacity of human beings to transcend and revise their contexts. The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of a predetermined capacity of the human being. It further captures the rejection of the constraints of any context, and the ability to experience phenomena free from epistemological bounds, as well as to assert one's own will and individuality upon their activity. The term was first used by the Romantic poet John Keats 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 to comment on human nature and to explain how human beings innovate and resist within confining social contexts. The concept has also inspired psychoanalytic practices and twentieth-century art and literary criticism.


  • Keats: The poet's turn of phrase 1
  • Unger: The thesis of negative capability 2
  • Bion 3
  • Other mentions of the term 4
  • Criticism 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • Further reading 8

Keats: The poet's turn of phrase

John Keats used the term negative capability to describe the artist's receptiveness to the world and its natural marvel, and to reject those who tried to formulate theories or categorical knowledge. In this concept, Keats posited the world and the human to be of infinite depth. Such a position put Keats at the forefront of the Romantic movement, and even at the cusp of modernism, according to some commentators.[1]

In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas Keats, on 21 December 1817, Keats used the phrase negative capability for the only time.[2] He did so in criticism of Coleridge, who he thought sought knowledge over beauty:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and 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 and 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.[3]

Keats understood Coleridge as searching for a single, higher-order truth or solution to the mysteries of the natural world. He went on to find the same fault in Dilke and Wordsworth. All these poets, he claimed, lacked objectivity and universality in their view of the human condition and the natural world. In each case, Keats found a mind which was a narrow private path, not a "thoroughfare for all thoughts." Lacking for Keats were the central and indispensable qualities requisite for flexibility and openness to the world, or what he referred to as negative capability.[4]

This concept of Negative Capability is precisely a rejection of set philosophies and preconceived systems of nature. He demanded that the poet be receptive rather than searching for fact or reason, and to not seek absolute knowledge of every truth, mystery, or doubt.[5]

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 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.[6]

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 and the tenets of human experience.[7][8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

This thesis of negative capability is a key component in Unger's theory of false necessity and formative context. 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 (i.e. negative capability) make change possible.[11]

This thesis of negative capability addresses the problem of agency in relation to structure. 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, 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.[12]


The twentieth-century British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion elaborated on Keats's term to illustrate an attitude of openness of mind which he considered of central importance, not only in the psychoanalytic session, but in life itself.[13] For Bion, negative capability was the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.[14] His idea has been taken up more widely in the British Independent School,[15] as well as elsewhere in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.[16]

Other mentions of the term

  • Negative capability has been seen as feeding into the displaced subject of modernism[17] - as contributing to what Baudelaire described as "an ego athirst for the non-ego...a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes".[18]
  • In the 1930s, the American philosopher John Dewey cited Keatsian negative capability as having influenced his own philosophical pragmatism, and said of Keats' letter that it "contains more of the psychology of productive thought than many treatises".[19][20]
  • The title of Nathan Scott's book Negative capability; studies in the new literature and the religious situation was inspired by Keats.[21]
  • Using a metaphor from the Eastern Front in WW II, Ted Hughes considered negative capability to be what enables verse to continue to function in spite of mud.[22]
  • "Negative capability" is used satirically as an instance of critical jargon in the 1979 film Manhattan, in which a character identified as an intellectual offers it as a defense of a stainless steel cube, after the cube's qualities as sculpture have been questioned: "I mean, it was perfectly integrated, and it had a marvelous kind of negative capability." [23]


Stanley Fish has expressed strong reservations about the attempt to apply the concept of negative capability to social contexts. He has written in critique of Unger's early work as being unable to chart a route for the idea to pass into reality, which leaves history closed and the individual holding onto the concept while kicking against air. Fish finds the capability Unger invokes in his early works unimaginable and unmanufacturable that can only be expressed outright in blatant speech, or obliquely in concept.[24] More generally, Fish finds the idea of radical culture as an oppositional ideal in which context is continuously refined or rejected impracticable at best, and impossible at worst.[25] Unger has addressed these criticisms by developing a full theory of historical process in which negative capability is employed.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Li, Ou (2009). Keats and Negative Capability. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. ch. 4. 
  2. ^ Li, Ou (2009). Keats and Negative Capability. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. ix. 
  3. ^ Keats, John (1899). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 277.  
  4. ^ Wigod, Jacob D. 1952. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness." PMLA 67 (4) (1 June): 384-386
  5. ^ Goellnicht, Donald. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness" MA Thesis. (McMaster University, 1976), 5, 11-12.
  6. ^ Goellnicht, Donald. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness" MA Thesis. (McMaster University, 1976), 13.
  7. ^ Dewey, John (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Paragon/Putnam's. pp. 33–34.  
  8. ^ Scott, Nathan (1969). Negative capability; studies in the new literature and the religious situation. New Haven: Yale University Press. 
  9. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. pp. 279–280, 632.  
  10. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. pp. 299–301.  
  11. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. pp. 35–36, 164, 169, 278–80, 299–301.  
  12. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. p. 282.  
  13. ^ Joan and Neville Symington, The Clinical Thinking of Wilfrid Bion (1996) p. 169
  14. ^ Meg Harris Williams, The Aesthetic Development (2009)
  15. ^ Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 10 and p. 13-4
  16. ^ William Betts, "Negative Capability"
  17. ^ Gary Gutting ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2003) p. 353
  18. ^ Quoted in Gutting ed., p. 352
  19. ^ Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Penguin Perigree (2005):33-4.
  20. ^ Kestenbaum, Victor. The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2002): 225.
  21. ^ Scott Negative capability; studies in the new literature and the religious situationYale University Press (New Haven), 1969.
  22. ^ C. Reid ed., The Letters of Ted Hughes (2007) p. 613
  23. ^ W. Allen et al., Four Films of Woody Allen. New York: Random House (1982): 192, cf. 242. "
  24. ^ S. Fish, "Unger and Milton", in Doing What Comes Naturally (1989): 430
  25. ^ H. Avram Veeser ed., The Stanley Fish Reader (Oxford 1999) p.216-7
  26. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso.  

Further reading

  • A. C. Bradley, 'The Letters of Keats' in Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1965[1909])
  • W.J. Bate, Negative Capability: The Intuitive Approach in Keats. Intro by Maura Del Serra (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2012).
  • S. Fish, "Unger and Milton", in Doing What Comes Naturally (1989): 339-435.
  • Li Ou, Keats and Negative Capability (2009)
  • Unger, Roberto (1984). Passion: An Essay on Personality. New York: Free Press.  
  • Unger, Roberto (1987). Social Theory, Its Situation and Its Task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Wigod, Jacob D. 1952. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 67 (4): 383-390.
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