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One of many 'founding' papers to think about...

Towards a Negative Capability

An introduction to his forthcoming book... an essay 'under construction'.
"The first step to vigilance is the step back from the thinking that merely represents - that is, explains - to the thinking that responds and recalls." - Heidegger


"We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!" - Wittgenstein


"Lessing has said that, if God held all truth in his right hand, and in his left hand held the lifelong pursuit of it, he would choose the left hand." - Kierkegaard


"This is what ... holds me in its grip - the aleatory strategy of someone who admits that he does not know where he is going." - Derrida


"Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." - Keats



Whether we try to speak about Ethics or take up a specific topic such as justice or responsibility, it is not hard to conclude that we have arrived on the scene too late, that our access to what is fundamental to these issues is fading. While we can still speak about these things, even in interesting ways, it can seem that something vitally important has been lost. Imagine if all one knew about plants came from a shop selling cut flowers.


The sense of having arrived too late is close to what contemporary thought alludes to as the 'always already' - that the origin is structurally recessive, that is, it cannot be represented within the conceptual level at which its absence is nonetheless being felt.


The implications for ethics are profound. It does not proscribe thematic, conceptual reflection. But equally there is a recognition that such reflection may itself both rest on and occlude its own conditions of possibility. Our continuing debt to the unthematized and the impossibility of finally discharging that debt is one of the central motifs of phenomenology. But the interminable need to 'step back' is not the Sisyphean 'bad infinity' but rather the ongoing persistence of life, and our contemplation of it. It is no more a sign of failure that this movement must be repeatedly undertaken than that we cannot eat the breakfast to end all breakfasts, or say 'I love you' in a way that would never need repeating.


The illusion of a certain mastery at the conceptual level, a relation to language in which the author would be in control was recognized by deconstruction. Before Derrida had marked this limit, Heidegger wrote about the need to listen to the speaking of language. This was not to recommend passivity, but rather to remind us of how agency is grounding in receptivity, and how easy it is for us to forget this.


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A professional philosophy publication recently included the following ad from a Texas company called Cycorp seeking new recruits for an ongoing project:

Our 'Ontological Engineers' rapidly apply metaphysical distinctions to describe common, practical concepts, then represent those descriptions as predicate calculus sentences. An efficient inference engine (theorem prover) helps them perform/check their work. Our goal: the world's first generally intelligent artifact.[1]


Such a vision needs a more considered response than open-mouthed incredulity. Those who insist that the world as it stands won't play ball may be missing the point. There must once have been similar objections to the rectilinear grids of highway engineers. The issue is not whether these mappings fit the land, but whether the habits through which humans engage the real can be reconfigured in such a way as to allow these new grids to reflect them accurately. Grids are not descriptive, they are prescriptive. And they do not prescribe this (new) pattern rather than that (old) pattern. They prescribe what will often be a legally enforced conformity to such a pattern. Driving cars demands precise rules of the sort that walking or horse-riding never did. While the parallel between conceptual schemes and road grids is illuminating, the stakes are dramatically raised when it comes to thinking. For we are not especially well prepared to protect the ways we think from colonization by such operationalized concepts.


Yet it is particularly important that we do so. Operational thinking is far from being just a lower grade of thinking that we can just brush aside when it fails to deliver. It has the distinct virtue of facilitating constructive complexity in a certain kind of human engagement with the world. Once we are assured of the viability of its key concepts in a particular region, it offers a powerful tool for constructing and managing possible future scenarios,[2] just as the ability to price commodities allows all sorts of virtual transactions to take place. The issue is not simply one of the accuracy and adequacy of such technical concepts; it is rather one of the promise and possibilities offered by the form of life that it opens up. The classic example is perhaps the imposition of distinct property lines on lands inhabited by nomadic tribes, or by hunters. The resulting disputes are tied to deep rifts in habits of land use and social organization between indigenous people, on the one hand, and new settlers on the other. Instead of resigning ourselves to an empty relativism, we would do well to focus on the distinct and often compelling virtues of each mode of inhabiting the world. The constructive/conceptual/operational mode can generate extraordinary interlocking complexity of human/machine/program interaction (think of airline traffic). Conceptually fixing each 'layer' allows another layer to be built on top of the assured stability of the previous layer. Such layered complexity gives rise to combustion processes - engines - planes - airlines - flight schedules - holiday villa construction - vacation patterns etc etc.


The other mode of engagement could be called, in a naive way, de-constructive, in the sense that instead of constructing layers of controlled conceptual operations one on top of the other, it moves in the other direction, maintaining links, input, feedback, from levels of engagement presupposed by conceptuality, but not wholly captured in concepts - such as history, embodiment, nature, perception, social relations, and the texture and weight of language itself.


It is in this direction that we find the privilege that Hegel gives to the slave (over the master) in his engagement with nature, that Nietzsche gives to sensation (over 'language'), that Kierkegaard gives to faith (over Christendom's outward conformity) and subjective knowledge (over the objective variety), that Husserl gives to intentional consciousness (over the natural attitude), that Merleau-Ponty gives to perception (over science)- his name for this movement was hyper-reflection -, that Wittgenstein gives to the 'rough ground' of actual language use (over our conceptual schemes), that Heidegger gives to 'the thinking that responds and recalls' (over representation)[3], that Kristeva gives to the semiotic (over the semantic), and that Derrida gives to disseminating textuality or differance (over logocentric schematization). In each case we may say that the movement in question is one in which the recessive dimension interrupts the pretension to independence, autonomy, or closure of the dimension that has captured the space of representation. This is the movement we are calling the step back.[4] It claims not that the truth has been left behind, and that we must return to it. Rather that something like phronesis lies in maintaining a circulation, or at least a possibility of further nourishment, perhaps a challenge, from the recessive dimension. The step back is in this sense a movement away from the rush of dialectical enthusiasm for moving forward and overcoming. The step back does not argue for a new foundationalism in which the dependence (say) of culture on nature, or language on sensation is accounted for in some formal way. Rather it insists on the danger of closing off such a connection, or attempting to subject it to a law or a rule. The step back marks a certain shape of philosophical practice, one that does not just resign itself to (but affirms the necessity) of ambiguity, of incompleteness, of repetition, of negotiation, of contingency. We have revived Keats' expression 'negative capability' to capture this array of concepts.[5]


This is not the time to offer a fully blown account of the value of the negative. Despite the lonely protest of a Bergson, most European philosophers after Hegel have embraced the significance of negativity in one way or another, though they have often felt the need to explain themselves to a sceptical public. The fundamental idea is that the various negative sounding conditions or operations we listed above (ambiguity, incompleteness, contingency . . .) shed light on social and intellectual formations that would otherwise just appear in their 'positivity'. That is, they would otherwise just seem to exist naturally. This positivity gets disturbed when it is pointed out that things need not be the way they are, which makes visible the possibilities of transformation, whether through art or revolution. Such an imaginative illumination relies on our 'negating' - setting aside, imagining otherwise - the way things actually are. Time itself seems to embody a kind of ongoing negativity, casting aside each passing moment in favor of the next. It is not unreasonable so to suppose that everyday life, as well as reflection on it, is subject to pressures to define, to name, to label, to pin down, and clarify the way things are. If so, one of the dimensions of the real that will be excluded by such pressures is the very existence of such pressures, as well as the way they operate to simplify, even distort the real. What we have called the step back calls into play a negative capability insofar as it resists these pressures to prematurely resolve complex questions, it refuses to pretend that boundaries that have been constructed are just there, it refuses to agree that the way things are is the way they must be, and it consequently affirms the responsibilities of critical reflection and patience that flow from these refusals. By negative capability we do not mean what Hegel would call the work of the negative, which would take shape as dialectical progression. Negative capability, rather, liberates philosophy from the naivety of those established discourses and practices it finds itself faced with, and it protects philosophy from its own tendency to a new kind of positivity - that of conceptual construction. In such liberation and protection negative capability can be seen to have a fundamentally ethical dimension, not in the sense of prescribing or proscribing first order rules or virtues. But rather in focusing our attentions on the space of possibility within which our practical engagement in the world takes place. To be clear, the sense of 'possibility' here is not just that of the empirical options (typically consumer choices) we are offered, but rather has to do with the further possibilities both of constructing meaning, and of acknowledging the incompleteness of the narratives with which we provide ourselves.



This book is a response to many different ways in which contemporary philosophers have marked the ethical and (often) marked a distance from bestowing upon it any positivity. Maintaining this position is not always comfortable. Every time the ethical is 'marked', the cry goes up 'But where is your ethics?' For Kierkegaard, the ethical is doubly inscribed - both as opposed to the aesthetic, and as superceded by the religious. In a broader sense what Kierkegaard means by the religious is a sense of the ethical that cannot be circumscribed by rules, or by any closed economy, and the willingness, as Nietzsche would say, to affirm, not merely to accept this. Wittgenstein, in his turn, offers us important ways of translating between the religious and the existential, marking the ethical, again, as a space of contextualized practices not fully able to be articulated. For Heidegger, the challenge of the ethical is to think it in a broader sense than that traditionally offered by humanism, a way that eludes representation, a way closer to the Greek sense of ethos, or way of dwelling. When Levinas tells us that ethics is 'first philosophy', it soon becomes clear that he is not speaking of ethics, but of the space within which the ethical at first arises, a space that in our view is colored with ontological choices and constraints. We could say that for Levinas, the ethical is the space of infinite responsibility for the other man. And the word 'responsibility' captures the centrality of the ethical in Husserl's vision of phenomenology as alone adequately honoring (or responding to) the contours of our experience. For Derrida, this responsibility takes on a more general openness to the sites at which otherness - and not just the other man - is occluded in our thinking and writing.[6] And we have plotted this exemplary accentuation and suspension of the ethical in the work of that Nietzsche in America, Charles Scott, whose concern with both response and recall nonetheless closely captures Heidegger's sense of the step back.


Scott attempts to extend our response-ability beyond the human to our relation to the stars, to the most inhuman, the mineral. We argue that the avoidance of the first order morality of guilt - central to his concerns here - does not require this move, that our responsibility to the living of all sorts can be thought of without guilt.


Stars aside, there is no doubt that 'nature' in its many levels does constitute a dimension of essentially incomplete conceptualization, one on which we continuously depend, and which solicits in so many ways our response and acknowledgement. Something like an eco-phenomenology, which lays bare some of the natural forces constituting the boundaries of the real, both in space and time, also makes a contribution to a negative capability. Nature becomes visible both as constructed, and as participating in its own construction, and as such solicits a different kind of response.



With the theme of globalization, we return to the concrete ethical and political questions with which we began. The central issue we confront is that of freedom. Globalization is the site for the most powerful ideological contestation over the question of freedom. For some it is precisely what brings freedom to countless people drawn by its opportunities into the circle of trade and development. For others, globalization heralds a new era of economic oppression and servitude. Does it help to be told that the very idea of freedom is tied to the eminently deconstructable subject? And is this 'subject' a creature of metaphysics or of the West? Does globalization teach us the vanity of the hope that the third world might provide sufficient force to resist the march of the one dimensional man of commodity capitalism? We argue that globalization forces a return to thinking through the material conditions of freedom, while exposing the folly of supposing that some particular oppressed group will spearhead the revolution.



Finally a word about violence, which is a constant concern of the book. If we identify philosophy with 'reason' then continuing public violence can appear both as a challenge to reason and an indictment of its impotence. And yet we might think that it is precisely the fact of violence, quite as much as wonder and astonishment, that has led men and women to philosophize, to try to construct models of state and community in which cooperation would replace conflict. Continuing violence raises the question as to whether philosophy has failed to implement its vision of reason, or whether that vision was flawed in its very conception. Some (such as Lyotard) have argued that modern violence is precisely the consequence of attempts at implementing Enlightenment ideals, perhaps even the consequence of the very belief in the implementability of these ideals. The suggestion is that when such ideals move to being implemented they are turned into utopian blueprints by which the real is violently coerced. And those who resist, or who do not fit, become the victims of violence.


Negative capability here takes the form of recognizing the complex mediations between the ideal and the real, the aporetic space of progress, bearing in mind that very often the game may not be worth the candle. Where violence erupts from the clash of national or ethnic identities, it may not help that philosophers have up their sleeves less rigid ways of understanding identity. But the processes by which peace is negotiated, (or conflict prevented), typically involve a dismantling of the hysterical affirmation at any price of tribal identities, and a search for alternative guarantees of peace and security.


The suggestion here is not just that philosophy has a role in thinking through the constructions of identity and difference that can foment violence, but that the way we understand and practice philosophy has a direct bearing on its power and promise for peace. I argue that the step back, the promulgation of negative capability, is the key to philosophy serving the ends of peace, rather than promoting the unthinking identifications whose defense leads to violence.



There is perhaps one aspect of negative capability that deserves special attention, an attention already evident in the quotations that head this introduction, and that is the relation between negative capability and time.[7] We misunderstand the philosophical enterprise if we identify it with some sort of goal-oriented activity that could be achieved once and for all, like climbing Everest. Instead we are directed to an ongoing process or practice, the character or quality of which is itself the achievement. The achievement, then, is not a terminus ad quem, not a point in time, but a different way of relating to time. It suggests that what we most value are dispositions of engagement, ways of carrying on, which can of course be acquired, and in that sense accomplished, but whose value and significance comes in being repeatedly deployed. And in stepping-back from the fantasy of a 'final solution', or an irreversible achievement attained at some point in time, we find a luminous example of the affirmative aspect of negative capability. Negative capability here means letting go of the seemingly attractive idea of reaching an end, never having to struggle again. Negative capability is both a conceptual and an existential achievement - the recognition of ongoing contingent engaged temporality as the plane on which we all must make our fragile sense.


It is not uncommon to hear that a concern with the way one philosophizes suffers from vagueness, that it appeals to lazy minds and muddy thinkers. (Concerns about 'method' might seem sterile but at least they demonstrate a commitment to rigor.) The usual response is to remind one's critic of Aristotle's remarks about the importance of matching one's demands for precision to the subject-matter. But that might seem merely to justify rather than contest the charge of vagueness. The more radical response would contest the very terms of the indictment.


The difficulty that some people have with mathematics or logic shows or at least suggests, that the question of precision must be raised at two different levels. Logic is all too precise in its own terms. What some people just don't get is not just how to think that way, but why one would want to do so. While mathematical or logical operations can be explained precisely, the same cannot be said for the disciplines of mathematics and logic themselves. Those who are logophobic may have failed to connect with the very idea of precise, calculable representation. Consider the terms in which we might critically compare the respective values of a strictly mathematical approach to gardening, with a more intuitive approach that sticks a finger in the air or tastes the earth for sweetness? One could not introduce �precision� as the decisive value without begging the question. It is true that quantification might maximize yields. It might enhance 'crop management efficiency'. But it is still an issue as to which way of gardening is 'better', because the practice of gardening does not itself have a technical definition, any more than fishing. People happily 'fish' all day without catching anything. Would their fishing be 'better' if large trout were attached to their hooks by unseen underwater assistants? The appropriateness of this analogy to philosophy depends not just on how we define philosophy, but whether we think of it as appropriately 'definable' at all. It is not for nothing that Nietzsche wrote: 'only that which has no history can be defined'. Philosophy would be nothing if it were not intrinsically, and at many levels, historical. If it resists definition, it is not because it is 'vague', but 'precisely' because, as a historically invested and situated practice, it is not primarily an object of taxonomic scrutiny. It is historical even in its essential capacity to reflect on or step back from its own time, in a certain fashion, the better to contribute to it. This way of thinking and talking about philosophy is precisely what cannot be avoided. And it has nothing to do with vagueness.


I have not tried to position the �methodological orientation� represented by this book on the contemporary map. While I deal with many of the usual suspects, the reader will find few of the usual signposts, those that would mark our distance from postmodernism, or deconstruction. At times it may seem that lines of philosophical correctness have been crossed with a promiscuous disregard for boundaries. The book's title is drawn from Heidegger, but the sub-title comes from an English romantic poet. I have argued for a deconstructive phenomenology, where many would hear a contradictio in adjecto, I have upheld the language of critique and its importance, even though I have not endorsed its traditional philosophical underpinnings. I have reworked many of the ethical motifs of contemporary deconstruction, while taking Levinas and Derrida to task for their residual humanism. It matters to me how we read others and I have on the whole tried to read the various philosophers dealt with here in a constructive way. The philosophers who have most influenced me in this respect are Ricoeur, (for his ecumenical generosity), Heidegger (for his sense that to read another is ideally to recover the scene of their encounter ...), and Derrida (for his sense of our incomplete mastery of the language we write in). As I suggest in the Postscript, I understand the achievement of philosophy to lie in reintroducing difficulty quite as much as solving problems. It requires a double vision, with one eye on the glistening texture of the real, and the other turned to the margins, the background, the conditions of possibility, and the possibilities of transformation. In a different key: while there are many who can pick out a tune on the piano with one hand, playing the piano, like thinking, requires the coordination of the right hand with the left.


If to some the resulting performance sounds like heresy, so be it.



[1] I have Pascal Massie to thank for bringing this to my attention. [Summer 2002]

[2] This may be the clue to the scene in which operational thinking flourishes. It allows us a hold over the future that it is essential for many of the systems we have established to be able to rely on. That hold is not based on (scientific) knowledge of nature, but on our ability to sustain a practical/informational complex to which this operational thinking does indeed adequately apply, for the most part. It would be instructive to compare the attack on the World Trade Center and the collapse of Enron in the lights of this formulation. The WTC was attacked as a symbol of the American domination of global capital markets. What is remarkable is that despite the demonstration of the vulnerability of such institutions, the large loss of life, and a temporary 'loss of confidence', there seemed to be no real interruption of the operation of global trade or markets, implying that the information, and the systems in question, had no unique storage site. The response (on the part of the US military) was to attempt to subject an underdeveloped country (Afghanistan) to its military/technological machine, which nonetheless kept running up against pre-capitalist tribal formations that limited its operational effectiveness (sheltering suspects, for example). And one can only speculate on the long-term damage to the interests of globalization effected by the political fall-out from this military operation. In the case of Enron, what is interesting is that its collapse made clear that those who advocated deregulation did so in order to be able to fix the markets in which they sold their energy. The phenomenon of 'gaming' - engineering profits through artificially induced scarcity - exposes what we could call a black hole arising out of operational thinking. The fact that regulations do not regulate themselves suggests that such uncontrolled consequences will always be possible. My argument in the Postscript is somewhat parallel - that complex institutions (including universities and other educational institutions) are, in principle, subject to corruption (I define corruption technically as 'treating regulative principles as constitutive'), and philosophical dispositions are well-suited to counter this pathological tendency.

[3] This formulation is taken from Heidegger's own introduction of the 'step back' in 'The Thing', in Poetry, Language Thought, New York: Harper and Row, 1975, p.181. Obviously, we are broadening the scope of this expression in this book.

[4] It would be interesting in this context to bring together the various references philosophers have made to steps, paths, walking etc. and the variations philosophers have played on this theme. To Heidegger's step back we would add Blanchot's 'pas au-dela' [the step (not) beyond], Kierkegaard�s leap (of faith), Nietzsche�s dance ('my style is a dance ...'), and leap ('...an overleaping mockery of symmetries'). To these we would have to add the many references to the path and the way (Tao). Indeed even the ubiquitous (for some iniquitous) word 'method' would have to be included, with its Greek root hodos (way). The question raised by this lexicon has to do with the status of its contribution to philosophical discourse, whether it is a wholly dispensable metaphorical legacy from a distant past or whether it reflects another way in which human embodiment is ineliminable from thought.

[5] Our quotation from Keats on the first page of this Introduction comes from a letter he wrote to his brothers in 1817. Obviously, we are developing this notion in a somewhat different way; we are not, for example, foreswearing fact or reason, but (not surprisingly), the inappropriate grasp of their significance.

[6] At this point, of course, there is a clear parallel with at least the aims of Foucauldian genealogy.

[7] Allow me to refer here to my The Deconstruction of Time, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001, and Time After Time, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming, where these issues become thematic.

by Professor David Wood of Vanderbilt University

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X-posted to philosophy. Would love to post to real_philosophy but i'm banned from posting there for various debatable reasons... mostly, i believe, to do with the contents of this post :)

Hope you enjoy!
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