Negative Capability


John Keats (1795 – 1821). English Romantic poet.

Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason

Negative capability – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Stumbled upon this quote from John Keats.  Interesting concept.  It describes

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 poetJohn 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.

Do we have to know, understand, and explain everything, categorize things and place them into some mental bins and compartments, creating stereotypes in our mind?  Doesn’t this habit deprive us from perceiving beauty and wonder of this world and makes us slaves of “what we know” closing the door to unlimited possibilities of the unknown?  Logic and reason seem to be neither the only, nor the best way to describe reality.

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4 thoughts on “Negative Capability

  1. I actually believe that much of what we perceive as wondrous derives precisely because of our previous experiences and expectations. For example, if we are used to a dull, grey world, then colour seems a marvellous and magical exception. If we lived in a very brightly coloured world, then colour by itself would no longer delight us.

    To experience beauty, we must first construct mental models of what is ordinary.

    • To experience beauty, we must first construct mental models of what is ordinary.

      How about shunning all preconceived opinions and expectations altogether — deliberately forgetting what “the ordinary” is? Perceiving world like a child, as if we see it the first time? Doing it all the time, perhaps, does not make sense. Otherwise, Alzheimer’s disease would be considered a bliss. But retaining the ability to perceive the world this way may be valuable.

      • Yes, to experience life fresh without preconceptions – that is what meditation and some Eastern religions strive for. It’s a key ingredient of happiness. And yet, what we really perceive is not the raw experience. That is just light, colour and sound sensations. Our mind creates an imagined version of reality, and this is where the true beauty lies. Those among us who are particularly gifted have the ability to make this imagined reality tangible. We call this art.

        • I totally agree. What we “see” are photons exciting visual sensors. Images are created in the brain. Recognizing images requires previous experience. So, getting rid of preconceptions completely is only possible by stopping consciousness. I think, Eastern teachings cannot be understood by logic. This stuff needs to be practiced to “make sense”.

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