Q. In your nonfiction book, you make reference to "negative capability." I've looked up the poet John Keats's use of the phrase and I'm still not quite clear on the concept.
A. We're not sure that anyone has a "clear" understanding of Keats's idea, since he only used the term once in a letter to his brothers. Nevertheless, the concept is so compelling that countless articles and entire books have been written, musing on its intended meaning.
So here's our guess, and the expansive view that we have adopted.
Every living creature is programmed to survive. In human beings that conditioned self-interest extends beyond our physical selves (our bodies) to our social selves (our identities). For most, life is a personal survival puzzle to be solved, and they conceptualize every experience in order to predict and explain it in accordance with that goal.
Let's call that instinct to know everything "positive capability" because, after all, it does help us to... survive.
"Negative capability" is the ability to not know, to tolerate ambiguity and resist that instinctive need to protect oneself through understanding and control. It is the ability to see the truth of the world through an unfiltered lens, no matter how disturbing or threatening it is, and to abandon beliefs that serve to protect one’s identity and create comfort.
The receptive openness of negative capability comes from the insistence of discovering the truth through actual experience, as opposed to idealism which attempts to abstract truth by reducing experience down into ideas and concepts. The person with negative capability willfully submits to being unsettled by experience, by a person or situation, and embraces the feelings and possibilities that emerge.
This may sound counterintuitive, but to possess negative capability means to be disinterested. By not caring one way or the other about meaning, intention, reason, history, outcomes, et al., it opens you up to a vaster realm of understanding and connection. Therefore, a person with negative capability has no fixed “self,” but rather possesses shifting selves which allows her constant sympathies with nature and with others.
To step outside your story—to negate your inherited instincts, cultural conditioning and defensive identity—is the greatest intellectual, creative and moral leap you can make.