Negative capability

Negative capability

Negative capability describes the resistance to a set of institutional arrangements or a system of knowledge about the world and human experience. It explains the capacity of human beings to reject the totalizing constraints of a closed context, and to both experience phenomenon free from any epistemological bounds as well as to assert their own will and individuality upon their activity. The term was first used by the Romantic poet John Keats to critique those who sought to categorize all experience and phenomena and turn them into a theory of knowledge. It has recently been appropriated by philosopher and social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger to explain how human beings innovate and resist within confining social contexts.

Contents

Keats: The poet's turn of phrase

John Keats used the term negative capability to describe the artist as one who is receptive to the world and its natural phenomena, and to reject those who tried to formulate theories or categorize knowledge. In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas Keats, on December 22, 1817 he employed negative capability to criticize Coleridge, whom he thought sought knowledge over beauty:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, & 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 & 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.[1]

The origin of the term is unknown, but some scholars have hypothesized 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.[2]

Although this was the only time that Keats used the term, this view of aesthetics and rejection of a rationalizing tendency has influenced much commentary on Romanticism and the tenets of human experience.[3][4]

Unger: The thesis of negative capability

Roberto Unger appropriated Keats' term in order to explain resistance to rigid social divisions and hierarchies. For Unger, negative capability is 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." It is thus through negative capability that we can further empower ourselves against social and institutional constraints, and loosen the bonds that entrap us in a certain social station.[5]

An example of negative capability can be seen at work in industrial innovation. In order to create an innovator's advantage and develop new forms of economic enterprise, the modern industrialist could not just become more efficient with surplus extraction based on pre-existing work roles, but rather needed to invent new styles of flexible labor, expertise, and capital management. The industrialist needed to bring people together in new and innovative ways and redefine work roles and workplace organization. The modern factory had to at once stabilize its productive environment by inventing new restraints upon labor, such as length of the work day and division of tasks, but at the same time could not be too severe or risk being at a disadvantage to competitors, e.g. not being able to shift production tasks or capacity. Those industrialists and managers who were able to break old forms of organizational arrangements exercised negative capability.[6]

This thesis of negative capability is a key component in Unger's theory of false necessity and formative context. The theory of false necessity claims that our social worlds are the artifact of our own human endeavors. There is no pre-set institutional arrangement that our societies adhere to, and there is no necessary historical mold of development that they will follow. Rather we are free to choose and develop the forms and the paths that our societies will take through a process of conflicts and resolutions. However, there are groups of institutional arrangements that work together to bring out certain institutional forms, liberal democracy, for example. These forms are the basis of a social structure, and which Unger calls formative contexts. In order to explain how we 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 that there are an infinite number of ways of resisting social and institutional constraints, which can lead to an infinite number of outcomes. This variety of forms of resistance and empowerment (i.e. negative capability) make change possible.[7]

This thesis of negative capability addresses the problem of agency in relation to structure. It recognizes the constraints of structure and its molding influence upon the individual, but at the same time finds the individual able to resist, deny, and transcend their context. Unlike other theories of structure and agency, negative capability does not reduce the individual to a simple actor possessing only the dual capacity of compliance or rebellion, but rather sees him as able to partake in a variety of activities of self empowerment.[8]

See also

  • Passion: An Essay on Personality
  • Empowered democracy

Further reading

  • Unger, Roberto (1984). Passion: An Essay on Personality. New York: Free Press. ISBN 9780029331200. 
  • Unger, Roberto (1987). Social Theory, Its Situation and Its Task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521329743. 
  • Wigod, Jacob D. 1952. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 67 (4): 383-390.

Notes

  1. ^ Keats, John (1899). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 277. ISBN 9781146967549. 
  2. ^ Goellnicht, Donald. “Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness” MA Thesis. (McMaster Universtiy, 1976), 13. http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/opendissertations/4675.
  3. ^ Dewey, John (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Paragon/Putnam's. pp. 33–34. ISBN 9780399500251. 
  4. ^ Scott, Nathan (1969). Negative capability; studies in the new literature and the religious situation. New Haven: Yale University Press. 
  5. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. pp. 279–280, 632. ISBN 9781859843314. 
  6. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. pp. 299–301. ISBN 9781859843314. 
  7. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. pp. 35–36, 164, 169, 278–80, 299–301. ISBN 9781859843314. 
  8. ^ Unger, Roberto (2004). False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. London: Verso. pp. 282. ISBN 9781859843314. 

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