Negative capability: how to embrace intellectual uncertainty

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Certainty is reassuring; what we know can be better understood, managed, and controlled. But intellectual certainty can limit our creativity. Where lies a certain path, many alternative doors leading to innovative ideas are ignored. We follow a fixed roadmap, without giving ourselves the opportunity to explore, make mistakes, and learn. In contrast, negative capability is the art of embracing intellectual uncertainty.

In a letter to his brothers George and Thomas sent in December 1817, John Keats defined negative capability as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Later on, philosopher and politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger described it as the “denial of whatever in our contexts delivers us over to a fixed scheme of division and hierarchy and to an enforced choice between routine and rebellion.”

Notice the key words in these definitions: negative capability is about uncertainty, mystery, and doubt, as opposed to “fixed” and “enforced” conceptions of the world. Negative capability encourages us to keep an open mind and always consider the possibility that we may be wrong.

8 ways to practice negative capability

The benefits of negative capability

Despite its name, negative capability is not harmful. It is only negative because it exists counter to false dichotomies, fixed mindsets, and complete confidence in your thoughts. It is about resisting quick explanations, sitting with our doubts, and questioning our assumptions. Not only can it lead to better creativity, but negative capability can also help us become more curious and more humble.

You can think of negative capability as the negative pole of an electric current. Passive and receptive, the negative pole receives current from the positive pole. In the same way, we can train ourselves to receive impulses from a world — inspiration which cannot be fully understood, but can be channeled into creative work.

In fact, John Keats believed that many of the mysteries of the world could never be explained, which means our environment cannot ever be controlled. But many benefits can emerge from this lack of control, as long as we embrace it. Here are three of the main benefits of negative capability:

  1. Increased curiosity. When you open your mind to unanswerable questions and the mysteries of the universe, you will naturally develop a stronger sense of genuine curiosity — not only about the world, but about yourself as well. Why do things work the way they work? Why do you think the way you think? Are there any alternative ways to navigate your thoughts? Negative capability helps us enjoy the discovery journey rather than rushing to a seemingly perfect solution to our questions. This may also result in a better ability to think and lead in the present moment.
  2. Better creativity. As Christoph Niemann puts it, “a certain amount of insecurity is a very helpful trait for any kind of designer.” And scientific research seems to back this idea: in her book Molecules Of Emotion, neuroscientist Dr. Candace Pert explains that by unlocking complex emotions, insecurity may be linked to higher creativity.
  3. Deeper humility. Negative capability goes hand in hand with continuous learning, discouraging arrogance and encouraging personal growth. By accepting that we don’t know what we don’t know, we are more prone to view our knowledge as ever-evolving and our selves as a constant work in progress.

In the words of Irish author Eoin Colfer: “Confidence is ignorance. If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.” By cultivating a flexible, unprejudiced mindset, negative capability allows us to unlock all of these long-term benefits, with a ripple effect in all areas of life and work.

How to practice negative capability

While it may feel uncomfortable at first, it becomes easier over time to apply the concept of negative capability and to embrace intellectual uncertainty. To get a better idea of how it works, let’s have a look at a fictional example. 

In Philip Pullman’s novel His Dark Materials, the main character Lyra applies the principles of negative capability to use the golden compass. Using Keats’s own words, Dr Mary Malone explains to her companion Will Parry that, in order to use the golden compass, someone must be capable “of being in mysteries, uncertainties, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Throughout the novel, Lyra becomes increasingly comfortable getting in that state of mind where, when she sits long enough with her doubts, without pushing for an immediate solution, answers slowly come to her.

To reach a similar state of mind, start with these simple principles:

  • Embrace your ignorance. According to John Keats, false certainty is a form of arrogance which should be avoided. Become comfortable saying “I don’t know” — it is a form of courage and humility.
  • Suspend your judgement. Instead of rushing to form and express a definitive opinion, refrain from trying to find a solution for a little while. Keep on being a neutral observer, collect more information, consider various perspectives. Finding the truth is not a race, it’s a journey.
  • Sit with your doubts. Because they make us feel uncomfortable, we often brush our doubts away, dismissing them as inconsequential, and focusing on our cosy certainties instead. Take a bit of time to get familiar with your doubts. In the same way some people make a list of their beliefs (see our interview with Buster Benson), you could make a list of your doubts.
  • Question your assumptions. All of our opinions are based on assumptions. That’s fine, as long as we are aware of them. What are the underlying assumptions behind your opinions? What are these assumptions based on themselves? It’s turtles all the way down!
  • Revisit your ideas. It is okay to change your mind! Even when you have formed an opinion, don’t let it cement and become part of a fixed mindset. Regularly revisit your ideas to see whether they have evolved, or whether new information should contribute to a shift in position. Building a digital garden can be a great, practical way to revisit your ideas over time.

Negative capability is more philosophy than science — it’s an art which needs to be practiced to improve, and which can probably never be fully mastered. But through this process we can connect deeper with ourselves, with each other, and with the world.