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Just Imagine…Negative Capability

“John Keats, Portrait by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn (National Portrait Gallery, London)” by Books18, CC BY-SA 2.0

February 23, 2021 is the 200th anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats. Many of us studied his poems “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale”. But Keats was more than a poet. He gave us a concept that has remarkable viability 200 years after his death.

In a letter to his brothers, Keats developed the concept of negative capability. At its essence, negative capability means that there may not be definitive answers to some phenomena. Some things may always remain a mystery. The negative in the term refers to resisting having to explain what we do not understand.

Keats advocated that we leave space for doubt and think instead of possibilities. Rather than drawing conclusions about what we don’t understand, Keats advises us to continue to explore the phenomena from multiple perspectives. Those who have negative capability have the ability to question their tentative beliefs and assumptions to gain new insights.

Keats argued against binary choices such as good vs. evil or religion vs. science. He believed that phenomena and humans are much more complex than can be described as one thing or another.

Keats also believed that uncertainty, while uncomfortable, can also add beauty to the mundane. Thus, a nightingale and an urn can be made beautiful when described in a poem. Uncertainty can also generate hope where certainty may lead to an intolerable reality.

Negative capability has a lot to say for our society today. It recognizes that there are many perspectives on any issue we face. Our decision-makers should not look at issues as binary choices but should explore issues as multiple possibilities. We need to suspend judgment as long as possible so we can understand issues more fully.

Just imagine what it would be like having political leaders with negative capability. What if we grew comfortable electing representatives who tell us they don’t know how they will vote until they have explored all possibilities? What if we normalized the practice of candidates for office refusing to answer unequivocal yes/no questions? What if a candidate’s strength was found in his/her ability to suspend judgment and explore possibilities? What if we elected representatives who are willing to see the beauty in uncertainty and the hopefulness that uncertainty opens up about the future? What if all citizens in a democracy did the same?

Just imagine what it would take to populate our governmental leadership with persons who have negative capability. Just imagine what our public deliberations might look like, if we all embraced this openness. Just imagine what it would take to explore possibilities rather than have binary choices forced upon us. Just imagine what it would take for all of us to embrace uncertainty for the hopefulness it portends.

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“The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” – John Keats


This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.