msb ~026 Negative Capability

Negative Capability

John Keats life mask, by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1816)

In Why we believe in magic, novelist Philip Pullman discusses Negative Capability, poet John Keats’ famous recipe for creative approaches to “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” For Pullman, “everything that touches human life is surrounded by a penumbra of associations, memories, echoes and correspondences that extend far into the unknown.” This ‘shadow world’ of human life is where Negative Capability is at play.

In Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions, scholar Keith Grint draws on Negative Capability in leadership roles. Whatever actions you take, ‘wicked problems’ “remain ambiguous, so the real skill is not in removing uncertainty but in managing to remain effective despite it.” In generating time and space to reflect, Negative Capability helps avoid the pitfalls of the overwhelming urge to “be decisive — but decisively wrong.” Grint uses ‘wicked problem’, while I prefer ‘predicament‘ to describe deeply entangled, shape-shifting and persistent issues such as climate change, but either way the ambiguity, uncertainties and mysteries remain. And what we need, in his words, is a form of sense-making which helps us “to tolerate anxiety and ensure that it does not become excessive (leading to panic) or denied (leading to inaction).”

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