“Negative Capability” is an expression that was coined by the famous English romantic poet John Keats. It is not a very popular expression outside the field of aesthetics and poetry. Even those who have read Keats may not be particularly conversant with the construct—after all, the poet only used it once in 1817 (in a letter to his brothers) while reflecting on the unique attributes of Shakespeare. It is a capacity for introspection when we are open to thoughts, feelings, and sensation and able to stay with mysteries, doubts, uncertainties, and ambiguity without the irritable reaching after fact and reason (John Keats, 1817).

An idea so rich—steeped in the dialectic of predictability and unpredictability captivates our imagination. The predictability arises from the fact that all leaders from time to time are thrust into conditions of uncertainty and perplexity. Ironically though, holding this tension requires a unique state of mind---a peculiar disposition such as negative capability where one is comfortable with doubt and uncertainty. As Stephen Batchelor suggests, such doubt is “neither a cognitive hinge, nor a psychological defect, but a state of existential perplexity.”

Neg CapabilityWe suggest that negative capability represents a dialectical tension that is virtually endemic to the human condition. We are thrust into these perplexing spaces wittingly and unwittingly. These discursive tensions are evoked in every relationship, regardless of whether it is personal or professional and may be defined as core tensions or opposing values that arise when two seemingly incompatible forces coexist in the mind. Some examples might be the dichotomous relationship between autonomy and connectedness, disclosure and secrecy, and intimacy and abstraction. We seem to oscillate between these values, often unconsciously, and may view them as contradictions or internal conflicts. These conflicts may sometimes produce the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.

Dr. Anil Behal wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic of negative capability. If you are interested in reading a condensed version of the study, please click here (PDF). You will find the journal article on page 34 of the British Psychological Society, Psychotherapy Section Review, No. 54, Spring 2015.

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