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Negative capability

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"Negative capability" is the capacity of artists to pursue ideals of beauty, perfection and sublimity even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty, as opposed to a preference for philosophical certainty over artistic beauty. The term, first used by John Keats in 1817, has been subsequently used by poets, philosophers and literary theorists to describe the ability to perceive and recognize truths beyond the reach of what Keats called "consecutive reasoning".

Use by Keats[edit]

John Keats used the phrase only briefly in a private letter to his brothers George and Thomas on 22 December 1817, and it became known only after his correspondence was collected and published. Keats described a conversation he had been engaged in a few days previously:[1]

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.[2]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was, by 1817, a frequent target of criticism by the younger poets of Keats's generation, often ridiculed for his infatuation with German idealistic philosophy. Against Coleridge's obsession with philosophical truth, Keats sets up the model of Shakespeare, whose poetry articulated various points of view and never advocated a particular vision of truth.[citation needed]

Keats' ideas here, as was usually the case in his letters, were expressed tersely with no effort to fully expound what he meant, but passages from other letters enlarge on the same theme.[citation needed] In a letter to J.H. Reynolds in February 1818, he wrote:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.[3]

In another letter to Reynolds the following May, he contrived the metaphor of 'the chamber of maiden thought' and the notion of the 'burden of mystery', which together express much the same idea as that of negative capability:

I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects [which] this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the 'burden of the Mystery,' To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote 'Tintern Abbey' and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. he is a Genius and superior to us, in so far as he can, more than we, make discoveries, and shed a light in them—Here I must think Wordsworth is deeper than Milton[.][4]

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.[5]

This concept of negative capability is precisely a rejection of set philosophies and preconceived systems of nature.[6] 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.[7]

Keat's concept of negative capability can be understood as an author's ability to enter fully and imaginatively into the characters, objects, and actions he represents.[8] In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” According to this line of interpretation, the author negates himself, in order to present a fully independent character, one with all the uncertainty and mutability of a real person. Brian Vickers comments, "By 'negative capability', Keats probably meant Shakespeare's ability to imagine himself in each dramatic scene, to efface himself, and to enter with complete sympathy into the passions and moods of his characters"[9]

Use of the word 'negative'[edit]

Negative capability can be difficult to grasp, as it is not a name for a thing but rather a way of feeling or of knowing. The word "negative" is defined in opposition to the positivism prevalent at the time.[10] In the same way that chameleons are 'negative' for colour, according to Keats, poets are negative for self and identity:[11] they change their identity with each subject they inhabit.[12] The intuitive knowing of the inner life of, for example, a nightingale or a Grecian urn, could not be grasped as a concept, and would known through actual living experience of one's everyday changeable being.[citation needed]

Another explanation of the word negative relies on hypothesising 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.[13]


Negative capability could also be understood as just one of a number of moods competing in the poet's mind before a poem arrives, i.e. during the phase that may be called "prepoetry", after the musical form of the same name which delights in 'uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts'.[14] At one point Coleridge thought of the poet as Truth's Ventriloquist.[15] One way to approach the subject could be through the words of poets themselves, e.g.:

"Emotion recollected in tranquility"[16] and "wise passivity" (e.g. Wordswoth), "the systematic derangement of the senses" [17] (e.g. Rimbaud, "Automatic writing and thought transference"[18] (e.g. Yeats), and "Frenzy"[19] (e.g. Shakespeare).

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V scene 1, from line 1841)[20]


Roberto Mangabeira Unger, 2004[edit]

In 2004, Brazilian philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger appropriated Keats' term in order to explain resistance to rigid social divisions and hierarchies where negative capability was the denial of whatever delivered over to a fixed scheme of division and hierarchy and to an enforced choice between routine and rebellion. Negative capability could empower against social and institutional constraints, and loosen the bonds entrapping people in a certain social station.[21]: 279–280, 632 

Unger claimed an example of negative capability could be seen in industrial innovation, when modern industrialist could not just become more efficient with surplus extraction based on pre-existing work roles, but needed to invent new styles of flexible labor, expertise, and capital management, by inventing new restraints upon labor, such as length of the work day and division of tasks. Unger claimed industrialists and managers who were able to break old forms of organizational arrangements exercised negative capability.[21]: 299–301 

Negative capability is a key component in Unger's theory of false necessity and formative context. The theory of false necessity claims that social worlds are the artifact of human endeavors. In order to explain how people 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 an infinite number of ways of resisting social and institutional constraints, which could lead to an infinite number of outcomes. This variety of forms of resistance and empowerment (i.e. negative capability) would make change possible.[21]: 35–36, 164, 169, 278–80, 299–301 

According to Unger negative capability addresses the problem of agency in relation to structure and unlike other theories of structure and agency, negative capability would not reduce the individual to a simple actor possessing only the dual capacity of compliance or rebellion.[21]: 282 

Wilfred Bion[edit]

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.[22] 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.[23] His idea has been taken up more widely in the British Independent School,[24] as well as elsewhere in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.[25]

Dimitris Lyacos[edit]

Greek author Dimitris Lyacos has considered people living "in the margins" as possessing the negative capability that permits them to cross boundaries and, by accepting "the burden of the mystery", explore uncertainty and the flux of life against western norms and structures. In an 2018 interview in Berfrois Magazine Lyacos noted: "We carry with us a backpack of ideas, theories, insecurities and the detailed scenarios we project onto the future. Unlike us, outcasts, fugitives and people in the margins are the ones possessing the negative capability, the power to bear the "burden of the mystery"; immigrants cross seas that might engulf them. Their fear is overcome not only by the hope of a better life but also by their acceptance of those darker alleys, where time and space are created at the moment in which they are experienced."[26]


The notion of negative capability has been associated with Zen philosophy. Keats' man of negative capability had qualities that enabled him to "lose his self-identity, his 'imaginative identification' with and submission to things, and his power to achieve a unity with life". The Zen concept of satori is the outcome of passivity and receptivity, culminating in "sudden insight into the character of the real". Satori is reached without deliberate striving. The antecedent stages to satori: quest, search, ripening and explosion. The "quest" stage is accompanied by a strong feeling of uneasiness, resembling the capacity to practice negative capability while the mind is in a state of "uncertainties, mysteries and doubts". In the explosive stage (akin to Keats' 'chief intensity'), a man of negative capability effects a "fellowship with essence".[27]


When humans are presented with external stress, the autonomic nervous system provides them with a 'fight or flight' response, a binary choice. Fight or flight has been called positive capability,[according to whom?]. Teachers of mindfulness stress the importance of cultivating negative capability in order to overcome and provide an alternative to our routine reactions to stress.[28] They point out that mindfullness teaches tolerance of uncertainty, and enriches decision making. It may not be productive to discuss whether negative or positive capability is more important, as they are analogous to the poles of a battery: a battery is only a battery if it has both positive and negative terminals.


In 1989 Stanley Fish has expressed strong reservations about the attempt to apply the concept of negative capability to social contexts. He criticized 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.[29] 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.[30] Unger addressed these criticisms by developing a full theory of historical process in which negative capability is employed.[31]

In The Life in the Sonnets, David Fuller made use of negative capability in 2012, addressing the qualities and potential of writing literary criticism. A critic's experience and feelings altogether form a strong framework to expand one's ability in critical thinking, while negative capability replaces the notion of correctness in analyzing literary texts.[32]

In film, poems, songs, and popular culture[edit]

In 2018 the British singer-songwriter Marianne Faithfull released her album entitled Negative Capability. Later in November 2020, the BBC aired the second installment of the second series of His Dark Materials based on the trilogy by Philip Pullman, of the same name.[33] Here the idea of negative capability is given great prominence, in what for the BBC was its most lavish production to date. It is presented not as an idea or a theory or a concept or a thesis, but as a mood which the heroine Lyra is able to sink into, and which enables her especial ability to read the rare and beautiful and truth-telling alethiometer. This device, like a nightingale, issues a code that cannot be understood by purely reductive means. Its beauty is part of its truth. Lyra visits the Dark Materials Research Laboratory where she meets the chief researcher, Mary Malone, who, has the uncanny ability to see particles of dark matter, if she puts herself in the right mood. She tells Lyra "you can't see them unless you put your mind in a certain state. Do you know the poet John Keats? He has a phrase for it: negative capability. You have to hold your mind in a state of expectation without impatience..." The implication is that Keats's nightingale[34] is his alethiometer, whose truth, like the truth of poetry itself, is not amenable to any amount of vivisection. Philip Pullman has written that 'many poems are interrogated until they confess, and what they confess is usually worthless, as the results of torture always are: broken little scraps of information, platitudes, banalities'.[35] But if we can follow Lyra and Mary Malone, and put ourselves in the right mood, the dark materials between the lines may become visible or audible. This is the nightingale's code referred to in popular songs such as in one alternate-take version of Bob Dylan's Visions of Johanna[36] and also in the song of the woodthrush in TS Eliot's poem Marina.[37] In the latter's case 'where all the waters meet' is a neat confirmation of the negative polarity view of negative capability alluded to above. It is as if the poet's mind is the negative terminal or the sinkhole in which everything meets and is reconciled. The negativity here depends on the self abnegation of the poet, and its that which allows the current to flow.

In 2013 jazz guitarist Bern Nix released an album titled Negative Capability, containing liner notes explaining Keats definition.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Li, Ou (2009). Keats and Negative Capability. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. ix.
  2. ^ Keats, John (1899). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 277. ISBN 978-1-146-96754-9.
  3. ^ Keats, John (1899). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 314. ISBN 978-1-146-96754-9.
  4. ^ Keats, John (1899). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 326. ISBN 978-1-146-96754-9.
  5. ^ Wigod, Jacob D. 1952. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness." PMLA 67 (4) (1 June): 384–386
  6. ^ Starr, Nathan Comfort (1966). "Negative Capability in Keats's Diction". Keats-Shelley Journal. 15: 59–68. JSTOR 30209856.
  7. ^ Goellnicht, Donald. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness" MA Thesis. (McMaster University, 1976), 5, 11–12. http://hdl.handle.net/11375/9563
  8. ^ Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "negative capability". Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Apr. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/art/negative-capability. Accessed 12 July 2022.
  9. ^ Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition. Coriolanus. Ed. David George. General Editor Brian Vickers. Thoemmes Continuum, 2004. p. 1
  10. ^ "Selections from Keats's Letters by John Keats". Poetry Foundation. 9 December 2020. Retrieved 10 December 2020.
  11. ^ "John Keats – "The Chameleon Poet" – Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27th, 1818". Genius. Retrieved 9 December 2020.
  12. ^ Li, Richard W. (1995). Ut pictura poesis: Keats, anamorphosis, and Taoism (Thesis). University of British Columbia.
  13. ^ Goellnicht, Crichlow Donald (1976). Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness, MA Thesis. McMaster University (Thesis). Retrieved 5 May 2024.hdl.handle.net/11375/9563
  14. ^ "Pre-poetry". Youtube. 5 March 2018. Archived from the original on 11 December 2021. Retrieved 24 November 2020.
  15. ^ Hodgson, John (1999). "An Other Voice: Ventriloquism in the Romantic Period". Romanticism on the Net (16): 0. doi:10.7202/005878ar. ISSN 1467-1255.
  16. ^ William Wordsworth (23 August 2022). "Famous Prefaces. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14". Collection at Bartleby.com. Retrieved 5 May 2024.
  17. ^ "Rimbaud's Systematic Derangement of the Senses". LanguageIsAVirus.com. Retrieved 5 May 2024.
  18. ^ "W. B. Yeats and "A Vision": Automatic Script". www.yeatsvision.com. Retrieved 5 May 2024.
  19. ^ "poetic frenzy - definition - English". Glosbe. Retrieved 24 November 2020.
  20. ^ "Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene 1 :|: Open Source Shakespeare". www.opensourceshakespeare.org. Retrieved 24 November 2020.
  21. ^ a b c d Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. ISBN 978-1-85984-331-4.
  22. ^ Joan and Neville Symington, The Clinical Thinking of Wilfrid Bion (1996) p. 169
  23. ^ Meg Harris Williams, The Aesthetic Development (2009)
  24. ^ Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 10 and p. 13-4
  25. ^ "Psychoanalysis Downunder". Archived from the original on 4 March 2019. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  26. ^ "Berfrois Interviews Dimitris Lyacos". 16 November 2018.
  27. ^ Benton, R. P. (1966). "Keats and Zen". Philosophy East and West. 16 (1/2): 33–47. doi:10.2307/1397137. JSTOR 1397137.
  28. ^ "Negative capability – why it is more positive than you might think -". Retrieved 19 November 2020.
  29. ^ S. Fish, "Unger and Milton", in Doing What Comes Naturally (1989): 430
  30. ^ H. Aram Veeser ed., The Stanley Fish Reader (Oxford 1999) p.216-7
  31. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. ISBN 978-1-85984-331-4.
  32. ^ Keilen, S. (2012). "Dwelling in/on Reading". The Cambridge Quarterly. 41 (2): 279–284. doi:10.1093/camqtly/bfs010.
  33. ^ His Dark Materials, Series 2: 2. The Cave: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000pk3m via @bbciplayer. See especially position 26.49
  34. ^ "Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats". Poetry Foundation. 17 November 2020. Retrieved 18 November 2020.
  35. ^ "Philip Pullman's introduction to Paradise Lost". The British Library. Retrieved 18 November 2020.
  36. ^ "Three Visions of Johanna". The Panoptic. 23 October 2016. Retrieved 18 November 2020.
  37. ^ "Poem: Marina by T. S. Eliot". www.poetrynook.com. Retrieved 18 November 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. ISBN 978-0-02-933120-0.
  • Unger, Roberto (1987). Social Theory, Its Situation and Its Task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-32974-3.
  • Wigod, Jacob D. 1952. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 67 (4): 383–390.