Positive Capability

I posted a few months ago about negative capability – that is, the ability to tolerate uncertainty, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Coined by the Romantic poet Keats, the term is easily associated with art but applies in all disciplines and all areas of life.  Uncertainty pervades everything.  So it behooves us to come to terms with it.

But there’s a complement to negative capability.  I’ll be unoriginal and call it positive capability.  Positive capability is the ability to create certainties in an uncertain situation.  Instead of sitting with mysteries and doubts, you do your best to clear them up.

Negative capability and positive capability are not opposed; they go hand in hand.  Negative capability in the sciences means acknowledging that the theories you rely on may be false and the data you record may be noisy or confounded; positive capability in the sciences means proposing and testing new hypotheses anyway, and provisionally accepting things that seem likely to be true.  Negative capability in community organizing means recognizing that everyone’s perspectives differ and there’s no way to reach a perfectly fair outcome for everyone; positive capability in community organizing means doing your best to understand others and seek consensus anyway, and provisionally accepting compromises as the best you can do right now.

Perhaps I’m inventing a word unnecessarily.  Perhaps ‘positive capability’ as I’ve outlined above is one way of expressing negative capability.  Both rely on a fundamental acceptance of and tolerance for uncertainty.  But Keats’ definition of negative capability seems fundamentally passive, a sort of “sitting with uncertainty” rather than “doing with uncertainty”.

I got into a debate a while back with a writer friend of mine, about art which raises questions vs art that tries to answer questions.  She argued that the fundamental purpose of art is to raise questions but too often, I find myself reaching the end of a book or movie that tries to explore a particular question and going: “And???”

For instance, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is a really lovely exploration of the tension between selfishness and selflessness that never really answers the question of “How do you compromise between the two?”  I found myself frustrated by the story’s ending.  Of course no answer to that question could possibly be a certain one.  But refusing to answer at all seems to be its own kind of uncertainty intolerance.

If you think of it like what is apparently called the Hegelian dialectic, raising a question corresponds to proposing a thesis and antithesis which exist in tension with one another, whereas answering the question corresponds to proposing a synthesis.  All syntheses are just new theses to be debated.  But the discussion can’t move on without them.

I think the key here is actually an emotional one.  You shouldn’t feel pressured into answering a question because you can’t tolerate a question without an answer.  But you also shouldn’t feel pressured into not answering a question because you can’t tolerate having the wrong answer.  The question of when to sit with your thesis and antithesis, and when to push towards synthesis, is itself a question with only imperfect answers.

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