Negative Capability

In a letter to his brothers in 1817, John Keats shared his admiration for Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Where lesser artists backed away from phenomena that upset their reductive understanding of the world, Shakespeare wandered into the mystery and came away with complex psychological portraits that expanded our understanding of what it means to be human.

Underlying this negative capability was a healthy skepticism about the likelihood of always knowing the truth with certainty. Since a degree of skepticism is implicit in Pragmatism, the most distinctively American school of philosophy, it’s no coincidence that John Dewey, one of its founders, echoed Keats in arguing that true philosophy “accepts life in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to intensify its own qualities.” Dewey thought that the provisional quality of this knowledge, combined with the overarching desire to make things work, should dispose us to compromise in the political realm, and to revisit earlier decisions with an open mind.

Unfortunately, the humility necessary for self-correction–even for concessions to reality—has been lacking in our political debate lately, and the one most lacking is the most powerful man in the world. Donald Trump seldom concerns himself with “reaching after facts” because his opinions are based on impulse and self-interest rather than careful deliberation. He arrives at belief without appealing to reason, and he does so with such passionate intensity that he threatens to drown the innocent ceremonies of democracy. Unless they sink him first.

Trump is so certain he’s right that he sees no need to consider multiple points of view, and his narcissism is so strong that ethical reasoning might be impossible for him. Immanuel Kant argued that moral agents must act out of “good will”: they must fulfill a duty and not merely pursue inclination. The ability to follow principle presupposes a broad perspective: “it indicates a man of enlarged thought if he disregards the subjective, private conditions of his own judgment, by which so many others are confined, and reflects upon it from a universal standpoint, which he can only determine by placing himself at the standpoint of others.” Once we put ourselves into other people’s shoes, we can follow the categorical imperative, Kant’s moral directive to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become the universal law.” It’s not hard to detect the kinship between this directive and the “Golden Rule,” wherein Jesus summarized the law of the prophets and echoed or anticipated a key tenet of almost every ethical system worth its salt before him or since. Nor is it difficult to see that the enlarged thought necessary for this approach will not come easily to a president whose favorite form of communication is a tweet. If Trump considers “doing unto others,” he’s probably contemplating revenge or imagining a new sexual conquest—his blank, pitiless gaze indicating that ethical considerations are suspended now that he has been loosed upon the world.

One would think that Trump’s obsession with wealth and rejection of Christian ethics in their most basic form, combined with his utter lack of humility, would alienate followers of a prophet who championed the meek. But evangelicals, often the loudest in proclaiming themselves Christians, ended up embracing the least Christian man imaginable in the last presidential election, 81% of them voting for Trump. And it turns out that his arrogance was actually a selling point, while the restraint of opponents who stopped short of definitive pronouncements was deemed a weakness.

Intellectual humility was once a sign of wisdom. It is “just this little thing” for which Socrates gives himself credit in Plato’s Apology: “What I do not know, I do not think I know, either.” Kant recognized his own limitations and insisted on a “critical spirit,” a willingness to examine his assumptions, as he and other philosophers explored the boundaries of knowledge. Montaigne was similarly dubious about what he could know with certainty. As Sarah Bakewell notes in How to Live, he made a series of medals featuring the word “epokhe,” meaning “I suspend judgment,” along with an emblem of scales “designed to remind himself both to maintain balance, and to weigh things up rather than merely accepting them.” And he seemed to follow this reminder, filling his writings with qualifying phrases to “soften and moderate the rashness of [his] propositions.”

So there’s Socrates, Kant, Montaigne—and then there’s Trump, who in recent months, has declared himself “the chosen one,” trumpeted his “great and unmatched wisdom,” and spoken on all matters with an intolerance of dissent reminiscent of the medieval church. Back then, thinkers who hoped to square scientific findings or Greek philosophy with Catholic teachings tried to shield themselves with the notion of a “double truth,” the view that a theory might be empirically true yet theologically false. Boetius, for example, called one of Aristotle’s theories “true, but heretical,” and he was condemned for the concession to reality. Our founding fathers took a different route. Inspired by the Enlightenment, they separated church and state because they rightly viewed the concept of a “heretical truth” as an absurd threat to thoughtful debate in a democratic republic.

Now that we have a president with a cult following, however, the notion of “double truth” has made a comeback among his minions, who had to ignore a series of disconcerting facts in order to support him in the first place. Evidence of his corruption mounted so quickly in the first months of his presidency that they became troubled by the dissonance, so they were grateful when his handlers presented “alternative truths,” and they soon felt certain of his infallibility again. Brimming with a quasi-religious fervor, Trumpists feeding on faux news reject the very style of thinking that makes “educated elites” suspicious of extreme pronouncements. Evangelicals are particularly afraid of the “critical spirit,” calling it “a danger, a curse, a hidden sin.” It is something we should “beware of, avoid, handle, confront, and combat.” But, they assure us, even if we’ve been “crippled by it,” we can “redeemed from it” and “forgiven for it” as long as we “stop succumbing to it.”

In short, they argue, we should stop questioning and start accepting the new brand of negative capability. Trump’s supporters don’t linger in uncertainty to develop a deeper understanding; they refuse to think. They don’t reach irritably for facts and reason; they become irritable when facts and reason are offered to them. They don’t suspend judgment as they face complex issues, nor do they change their opinions in the face of damning testimony by Trump’s appointees, guilty pleas by those who have lied on his behalf, or taped confessions of wrongdoing by the man himself. Instead, they leap blindly toward the blustering, incoherent certainty the man offers, and many will be surprised to find that the chosen one has left them no place to land—no job, no education, no health insurance, no savings, no home.

And Trump won’t care. About that, they can be certain.