26 July 2010

‘Negative Capability’: Rationalism and a Romantic poet’s idea

One of the happy side-effects of watching period films is the curiosity they arouse in the viewer to learn more about the characters and their era – a rewarding practice some call ‘tangential learning’. And so it was that I found myself reading up on the 19th century English Romantic poet John Keats after watching Jane Campion’s beauteous film Bright Star (2009), a partly fictionalised story of Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne.

A prolific writer in his short lifetime (Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 25), aside from his poems Keats wrote many letters to his friends and brother George in which he assayed his thoughts on poetry, philosophy and aesthetics. One idea that Keats expressed in a letter to George was what he called ‘negative capability’.

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

Keats never expanded on his idea, having mentioned it only in his letter to George. It was left to future scholars and fans to second-guess his intentions and infer from his poems the exact nature of Keatsian ‘negative capability’. Those inclined to the mystical, ineffable and irrational may wield the concept of negative capability as a weapon against reason. They may cite Keats’s romanticism as the antidote to the cold, reductionist, authoritarian rationalism afflicting the world today.

But the anti-reason brigade does not have an exclusive claim to Keats. In fact, I intend to rescue him from their jealous possession by demonstrating that Keatsian negative capability – as an attitude and a philosophy – is not inimical to a rational worldview, despite the poet’s implied disapproval of “fact and reason”. On the contrary, negative capability can be interpreted as an endorsement of rationalism and a scientific view of existence.

One reading of Keats’s description of negative capability is that it is a rejection of epistemic absolutism. Yet there seems to be an assumption – by Keats and his intellectual compatriots – that only the stickler for facts and reason is unable to remain uncertain, or live with unanswered questions. Firstly, as a factual assertion, it is incorrect. Secondly, as a moral indictment, it is unjust. I shall address this second point first.

Keats considered negative capability to be a quality that “went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously”. He thought that great people, particularly poets, were stoically disposed to accepting irresolution. That they were able to just, as the song goes, let it be. Yet it seems rather obvious that a significant measure of humanity's material, social, political and ethical progress is due to the efforts of (certainly great) people who were not satisfied to just let it be. Whether they were scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, writers, reporters, politicians or activists, their determination to engage in the “irritable reaching after fact and reason” contributed to a better world. Keats’s belief – that one’s negative capability to allow doubts to remain unresolved and questions unanswered by facts and reason is what makes one ‘great’ – is therefore unjustified.

As for the assumption that only the pedant who relies on facts and reason to dissipate the fog of uncertainty is incapable of allowing mystery and ambiguity to exist, this is demonstrably false. A cursory appraisal of those who subscribe to mystical, religious or pseudoscientific explanations of life, the universe and everything shows that such people are just as incapable of abiding in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”. That they do not reach for facts and reason is, rather than a confirmation of their spiritual loftiness, a symptom of their desperation for answers and certainty. After all, facts and reason are limited. One can’t know everything and one can’t use reason to solve every problem. But instead of accepting this truism, many turn to alternative sources of ‘knowledge’ for comfort and affirmation.

Perhaps one should commit the sacrilege of rephrasing Keats; negative capability is more accurately defined as the ability to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after false beliefs and unreason”.

I have no quarrel with anyone who substitutes the word ‘God’ for all that is inexpressible in this clumsy construct called language, for all that is harmonious and sublime in existence. But one cause of much suffering in the world is due to the unhappy fact that this kind of god – Einstein’s God – is most emphatically not the one worshiped by a great number of our species. The various competing gods of religion are anthropomorphised, their definition serving as an exclusionary tool to separate insiders from those perceived to be (invariably hostile or at least unsympathetic) outsiders.

The ineffable mystery of ‘God’ is annihilated by those who lack that redefined negative capability mentioned above. This annihilation also occurs in all irrational systems of thought that insist on naming the unnameable, on categorising the uncategorisable, on limiting the unlimited to what best serves their advocates’ financial, social or psychological gain. Meanwhile those who reach after fact and reason are usually content to remain within the boundaries of the knowable, while striving to know more as they come to terms with all that cannot be known. If negative capability is a virtue, then such rational people can be said to possess it.


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