Negitive Capability

John Keats


Last week in a post on practice, I sketched the simple pragmatist approach to action which I found scattered through the notebooks of the poet Charles Olson: thought, belief, action.  In Olson’s poetics, the poem flowed onto the page from a place of certainty, but certainty defined with one caveat: negative capability.

In a letter written in 1817, John Keats wrote:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Action flowing from right relation to the cosmos; how difficult it is to hit the mark.  It’s interesting that Gladwell’s Outliers is to be released this week.  The premise there, that it takes 10,000 hours engaged in the practice of whatever to reach mastery in the given activity.  We intuitively know it to be true for athletes and musicians…but the fact is, its true for everything.

Beware the danger: 10, 000 hours of commitment and still the unfortunate “irritable reaching after fact & reason.”  William James refers to this lack of intentional open mindedness coupled with a reliance on common sense as the result of cowardice when faced with the chaos of things.  Such cowardice James claims engenders all and every form of absolutism.

That seems like plenty to chew upon…

(image cc via Wikipedia)

Author: Richard Reeve

I'm the Senior Director of Development at Panthera, a global conservation organization committed to stemming the population decline of cats in the wild. I enjoy rural living with my wife Judith and our two children in the Catskill Mountains of New York.