John Keats (1795-1821) and Negative Capability

I have always had a soft spot for John Keat’s idea of Negative Capability and the real sense of thinking ‘outside the box’ of our preconceptions and mental lenses. It fits with my dislike of ideology, of seeing the world in pre-conceived ways.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Negative Capability is the state of creative opposition that enables one to transcend any intellectual or social constraints. It describes the ability of the individual to perceive and to think beyond any presupposition of the capacity of the human intellect. It further captures the capacity of human beings to reject the constraints of a closed system or 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 to critique those who sought to categorize all experience and phenomena and turn them into a theory of knowledge

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 categorise knowledge. This position of finding the world and the human to be of infinite depth puts 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 December 21, 1817, Keats used the phrase negative capability for the first and only time.[2] He did so in criticism of Coleridge, whom 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.’

Keats understood Coleridge as searching for a single higher 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 an objectivity and universality of outlook of the human condition and the natural world. In each case he found a mind which was a narrow private path, not a “thoroughfare for all thoughts.” Lacking were the central, indispensable qualities requisite for flexibility and openness to the world, or what he referred to as negative capability.

This concept of Negative Capability is precisely a rejection of set philosophies and preconceived systems of nature. Keates here advocated an acceptance of what we know about the world as necessary being limited, and to not try to analyze, rationalize, or categorize the world. 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.

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. 

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. 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.

See also:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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2 Responses to John Keats (1795-1821) and Negative Capability

  1. Pingback: Poetry Collection: A Prophecy By John Keats | Cotton Ridge Homeschool

  2. martha granholm says:

    thank you

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