Negative capability: The Posture of Systems Thinking(ers)

Negative capability is such a tantalizing juxtaposition. Keats fanned the flames of intellectual curiosity for many philosophers/designers/org theorists [a group to which I’ll now add systems thinkers] when he described it as a state in which a person ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. (Keats, 1970: 43.) I think it was the “without irritable reaching” that has us most intrigued. Reducing irritability or reaching is liberating as a goal in and of itself.

Touching on history that may be familiar to you, Keats’ first — and only — use of the term negative capability, was in a letter to his brothers in 1817. He was only 22 but only lived to 25 so he had to come up with it at a fairly young age (negative capability joke). Apparently he tried on several options; ‘skepticism’, ‘pessimism’, ‘Wordsworthian humanitarianism’, ‘disinterestedness’ and ‘humility and the capability of submission’. Negative capability was the final blending of concepts in Keats’ emerging understanding of the poetic imagination (Bate, 1964; Caldwell, 1972: 5). Some argue the attempt to establish his unique view of poetic imagination was triggered by Keats’s profound disagreement with the English poet and philosopher Coleridge, whose quest for definitive answers over beauty laid some of the foundations for modern-day reductionism, the concept is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.

My own ‘direct’ experience with negative capability came through my years as an outdoor instructor / guide. Here’s the thing. What we love about being out there for weeks on end was the inherent creative tension of unpredictability. I didn’t then but I would now begin to describe the key factors for success as an instructor as negative capability; tolerance for uncertainty and discomfort, openness to changing one’s mind as conditions changed, reversing ones decisions when a judgment proved inaccurate, doubting ones convictions and even ones experience when you knew that even a seemingly small decision (skipping lunch) could cascade into unanticipated risks hours later when rain, wind or an injury required those extra calories that you skipped when conditions were favorable.

Perhaps the ambiguity of the term, and what it might imply for navigating complexity with a spirit of openness and creativity, is what makes it so tantalizing and intriguing to those of us who deal with the unpredictability of socio-technical change and the vagaries of human relations. Negative capability, as it’s been widely interpreted, suggests a uniquely human capacity for living with and tolerating ambiguity and paradox and opens a space for counterintuitive non-action.

So, what is this capability that is negative and yet a source of ‘tolerance’, ‘openness’, acceptance of mystery, uncertainty and doubt. Is it a skill, a gift, an ability or something altogether different?

Donella Meadows, the doyen of systems dynamics speaks of it indirectly in her paper Dancing with Systems, when she urges us to stay humble and stay a learner in the face of complexity and uncertainty; “the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand, predict and control, what is there to do”? and “in a world of complex systems it is not appropriate to charge forward with rigid, undeviating directives. “Stay the course” is only a good idea if you’re sure your on course”. She confesses that systems thinkers in early days of her work at MIT overestimated it’s potential and underestimated the reality that “science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos leads us into irreducible uncertainty”.

In Meadows writing there is an implied mindset required if one is to sort out what is really going on. A mindset captured by notions like humility, openness, getting the “beat”, paying attention, expanding the boundaries of caring, going for the good of the whole and expanding thought horizons. For the emerging discipline of transition design, posture, mindset and temperament are central to designers as agents of positive social change who use living systems theory as both an approach to understanding problems and designing solutions to address them. Meadows humanizes systems thinking while opening us up to the idea that our paradigms of change may have led to us PUSHING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION.

The mindset and temperament I endeavored to embrace as both an outdoor instructor and now a practitioner in organizational effectiveness [and more often than not failed to grasp] I now see as being akin to what Goethe called the ‘absent whole’ and what Keats called negative capability. Seeing the unity of natural phenomena through a kind of peripheral vision (Bateson;1994), and consequently an ability to see wholes at the edges of parts. The absence of peripheral vision is tunnel vision. Bateson uses several metaphors to describe the ways in which we learn from experience. The first and most central of these is what she calls peripheral vision: “Sometimes change is directly visible, but sometimes it is apparent only to peripheral vision, altering the meaning of the foreground.” Secondly she talks of a kind of ‘spiral learning that allows for one to move through complexity with partial understanding, allowing for later returns. For some people, what is ambiguous and not immediately applicable is discarded, while for others, much that is unclear is vaguely retained, taken in with peripheral vision for possible later clarification.’ (Bateson;1994),

The French philosopher Francoise Jullien approaches this idea of negative capability as a disposition, a natural alignment to the propensity inherent in things. He sees propensity epitomized in the Chinese notion of shi [ translated as either tendency or propensity]; “the kind of potential that originates not in human initiative but instead results from the very disposition of things. Instead of always imposing our own longing for meaning on reality, let us open ourselves to this immanent force and learn to seize it”. Jullien goes on to say that for the Chinese, there is no place in which acting to resolve or reform a condition is possible, where one goes upstream to examine phenomenon as a chain of causality; “it is impossible to go against the propensity inherent in the regular unfolding of processes. This does not, of course, mean that one should completely desist from action; instead, one should simply understand how to put aside all “activism” and disregard one’s own desire to take initiative”. Propensity stands in opposition, as a kind of capability that is negative to efforts at fabrication and planning “moves”. Revealed through an ‘inability’ to see that things that are round tend to turn and that increasing heat leads to melting.

Propensity as an instructor seemed to want a willingness to be immersed in the moment with joy and reverence, sensitive to subtle and dramatic shifts in weather and oscillating emotions that accompany long and physically taxing days; attuned to signals, suggestions and hints of what might be flowing forth from invisible webs of interconnectedness. When speaking of the ‘absent whole’ Goethe saw the unity of a phenomenon as an emergent property of an encounter with the parts. What Goethe acknowledges that many thinkers overlook is that the path to deep awareness (ecology?) is through attention to the wisdom of the parts. Don’t skip lunch, be consistent, disciplined…a sparkling spiders web or a raging storm will be equally appreciated on a full stomach or missed and suffered through on an empty one.

Moving back to systems thinking. Donella Meadows wraps up her paper on Places to Intervene in a System by saying, “Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work hard at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

The brilliance of Keats conception of negative capability may be in its juxtaposition of absence with proficiency. Do nothing, but carve a path that transcends common paradigms and binds together disparate elements into a meaningful whole.

Be tough, yet gentle
Humble, yet bold
Swayed always by beauty and truth