Negative Capability: Definition, Example, Function

Negative Capability: A Comprehensible Approach

Negative Capability

Negative Capability Definition

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. 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. Keats was seen as rejecting the Enlightenment’s attempts to rationalize nature.


The most famous romantic poet John Keats“the Chameleon Poet”  is the expounder of the term “Negative Capability”. Writing to his brothers, George and Thomas, in December 1817 letter found in Selected Letters, Keats coins the phrase “Negative Capability”:


“I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”

Negative Capability Psychology

The world is full of uncertainties. No one really knows what happens next. 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.


Negative Capability Examples


The most prominent references of ‘Negative capability’ are found in Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode to Autumn” etc. In “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats wants to escape from the real world full of ‘fever’ and ‘fret’ to the magical and ideal world of Nightingale. The inspirational power of beauty, according to Keats, is more important than the quest for objective fact; as he writes in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.


If we think of the Harry Potter universe, most of us are aware that magic doesn’t exist in real life, but J.K. Rowling dumps us right into the world of witches and wizards, giants and dwarves, goblins and ghosts, and she fully expects her readers to keep up with her.

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Negative Capability Function

Therefore, negative capability gives the reader permission to sit back and enjoy the ride, and it can also give them an idea of what to expect from the rest of the work. If we don’t make the attempt to explain all the details, the reader will subconsciously receive our permission to not worry about the hows or whys.

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