The Fell Gard Codices

Being in Uncertainties

December 5th, 2012

A brief conversation the other day on Facebook led me to refer to the Dunning-Kruger effect: briefly, the tendency for stupid or incompetent people not to realise how stupid or incompetent they are, and therefore believe themselves to be highly intelligent and highly incompetent. Basically, the more sure you are about something, the more likely you are to be wrong.

What dawned on me afterward was why this seemed so familiar. It seems to me something very similar was first said a bit under two hundred years ago. Here’s a letter by John Keats outlining his concept of ‘negative capability’:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

So the poet is one who avoids the Dunning-Kruger effect by dint of negative capability; by being in uncertainties. It’s an odd connection, but seems to me an accurate critical principle. The more sure a writer is about a given idea or belief, the more it seems to deform their work—unless the writer examines it closely, or makes it a key structural principle. At which point it’s no longer a belief, but part of the artwork. Negative capability is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

Or, to put it more briefly: John Keats was one sharp customer.

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