Advice to Freshmen – Negative Capability

William Hilton, "John Keats"

Our new students showed up at the College last week, and I was delighted when our new dean, although a sociologist, quoted John Keats in her convocation address. Then again, I shouldn’t have been surprised because her talk got at the very essence of the liberal arts ideal. In fact, she also mentioned a geneticist and a political theorist. To honor the new academic year, I share her remarks with you.

By Beth Rushing, Academic Dean, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

I want to introduce you to the concept of negative capability.

I learned about this concept serendipitously – someone mentioned it in a comment to a blog post, and it intrigued me enough to look it up. Yes, I wikipediaed it. And that led me to other sources of information.

I’ve been pondering about negative capability for the past few weeks. I decided to introduce it to you today because I think this concept points us to some ways that we can all be more successful in our endeavors.

In 1817 the poet John Keats wrote a letter to his brothers in which he made some assertions about the nature of creativity. Keats said that the really creative thinkers, like Shakespeare, were characterized by what he called negative capability.

According to Keats, negative capability is the capacity to live with uncertainty, mystery, and doubt, without any “irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Now St. Mary’s College of Maryland is an institution of higher education. Don’t we thrive on reaching after fact and reason? Most assuredly, we do value fact and reason.  They’re on the test.

But we also value creativity, poetics, and artistry. And our ability to develop knowledge and to engage in rational thought is enhanced when we can think creatively, when we can cultivate our negative capability.

So how does a capacity for uncertainty aid in the quest for knowledge?

Barbara McClintock was a plant geneticist, active from the 1920s to her death in the early 1980s. In the early 1950s, McClintock stopped trying to publish her research on genetic regulation because other scientists at the time were skeptical of her conclusions.

McClintock’s findings were substantially different from those of her contemporaries. When asked about how she was able to develop such unique scientific conclusions, McClintock said that the keys for her were to have “the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ and to have ‘a feeling for the organism'” (from Evelyn Fox Keller’s A Feeling for the Organism).

This sounds kind of like woo-woo west coast stuff, yes? And I’m not sure it’s how McClintock talked with most of her science colleagues.

But interviews with McClintock suggest that she approached questions about the natural world with a strong degree of negative capability. She was open to what she might learn, she cultivated her capacity for uncertainty, and she learned a lot. Her research findings were later confirmed and acknowledged by other scientists, and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Barbara McClintock did not, as far as I know, write about negative capability. Roberto Unger, on the other hand, does use the concept of negative capability in his theory of false necessity. Unger is a social theorist and Brazilian politician, and he was one of President Obama’s professors at Harvard.

Unger describes negative capability as the human capacity to reject what seems like the natural or logical consequence of a situation and to empower ourselves against institutional arrangements.

Unger’s theory of false necessity uses the notion of negative capability to assert that people create our own social worlds (within certain contexts), and have the ability therefore to transform those worlds. In this way, then, we can overcome hierarchies and inequalities, and enact change.

And here’s where we get to the point that I find particularly inspirational.

John Keats, writing poetry in the early 19th century, and Barbara McClintock, studying corn genetics in the early 20th century, and Roberto Unger, writing theory and engaging in politics in the early 21st century, have this in common: they found hope, and truth, and beauty in the practice of negative capability, in listening patiently, having a certain level of comfort with uncertainty, and in recognizing that what appears to be given, is not necessarily so.

I urge you to consider the ways that you can cultivate your own negative capability. Take this mindset with you into your classes and late night conversations this year. Discover things for yourselves. Ask questions. Practice empathy. And change the world.


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