Splinters: The Final Edition | openDemocracy
I was reading the famous letter the other day that John Keats sent to his brothers, George and Tom. It was December 1817, and Keats reflected on that amazing quality that an “accomplished man” like Shakespeare possessed “so enormously.” “I want to say negative ability”continued Keats, “is when a man is able to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any petulant search after facts and reason”.
Now, 204 years or more after that December, it can be a bit surprising and confusing to see something negative described as amazing. But nothing to worry about. Strictly speaking, what is astonishing for Keats is not a negative capacity, as such, but rather a capacity for the negative; the ability, that is to say, to find oneself in something negative – in uncertainty, for example; in mystery; or when in doubt – without panicking (that’s my word) and irritably resorting to seeking facts and reason.
It was something that Keats saw as related to the arts and the concept of beauty. Her assertion was that reliance on fact and reason is not an enviable quality when beauty is at stake. It reflected a hierarchy of values – or should we call it, bias? – which he shared with many romantic poets of his time.
Still, things aren’t black or white, at least not that way. A can focus on facts and reason, and always be endowed with this amazing quality of negative ability. Take, for example, Freud. You see him in 1933, quoting Heine’s mocking comment about the philosopher who “with his nightcaps and the shreds of his dressing gown he fills in the gaps in the structure of the universe.” Freud was trying to address the question of psychoanalysis’ Weltanschauung, or view of the world. “As a specialized science,” he wrote, “psychoanalysis “is completely incapable of constructing a Weltanschauung which is proper to him: he must accept the scientist. But the Weltanschauung science […] is marked by negative characteristics, by its limitation to what is currently knowable and by its brutal rejection of certain elements which are foreign to it. Science, Freud explains, “assumes uniformity of the explanation of the universe, but it does so only as a program whose fulfillment is relegated to the future.
This brings us to a crucial question. Can our totality of knowledge ever be complete and uniform as Freud postulates? Such an assertion is tantamount to asserting that East Truth, and that Truth itself is uniform and knowable. but is it?
I wrote, in 2020, about the burning of Moscow during the Napoleonic wars. I described how Tolstoy, with his keen observational skills, could see that truth is just a narrative you construct retroactively. That don’t mean the truth does not exist, or something like that. It only states that we human observers are hopelessly confused trying to distinguish business setups from statements about business setups. If we cannot see the whole truth, it is not because the truth does not exist, but rather because our apprehension of the truth implies, and presupposes, a first step, a motor force. In this context, the prime mover is simply accepting This thing are.
Back in ancient times, Archimedes claimed that if you gave him the right place to stand, he would be able to move the Earth. He was right but also, I think, a little cheeky. In any case, we know today that there is nowhere to stand to move the Earth. It’s impossible, because it would mean being able to stay well out of our solar system, well out of our galaxy, out of all of the interstellar space that includes the cosmos. Indeed from outside the world itself. It’s not going to happen. Not even in imagination.
Medieval logicians defined truth as adequatio intellectus ad rem, or adequacy of the intellect to reality. Adequacy, however, implies a prerequisite accept as Heidegger would point out, and can never be established non-circularly.
To generalize a little, we are beings-in-the-world and there is no meta level at which we can stand to establish the truth. Much to our frustrated disappointment, for us speaking beings, the truth is always the outcome of a discursive or language game. Nothing more. Nothing less.
You would think that we could use as many negative abilities as possible to navigate this almost hopeless state of affairs. Negative capacity should give us the strength to face the uncertainty, mysteries and doubts that our limited tools produce.
It’s a challenge. Are we up to it?
The more I think about it, the more I see that the most basic, fundamental even, theme that runs through the thought processes of these arrogant all-too-certain, happy deniers, conspiracy theorists, fanatics, truth-tellers, fanatics and their friends, is their negative common inaptitude. Faced with uncertainty, mysteries and doubts, they cannot help resorting with irritation to the facts and reason that come their way.
They like to think of themselves as seekers of Truth, but they fail to see how what they desire is distinctly secondary to their more primary, fundamental, and inescapable need for certainty. This is their bias. In their hierarchy of values, certainty comes first. They are unable to accept the uncertainty, mysteries and doubts of which our world is made.
And it shows.
Real Problems, False Solutions II
By Samir Gandesha