Embracing negative capability: the value of not knowing

Acknowledging the unknown

Scottish Social Services are facing a time of change; with changing demographics, increasing budget restraints and policy drivers such as Integration and Self Directed Support. The landscape of Scotland’s services may look radically different in the future.

So how do we cope with a period of change when we are faced with so many unknowns? How do we find the space to be productive and innovative when we can’t anchor our ideas onto any tangible reality?

Negative capability

I’ve become increasingly interested in negative capability, the state in which a person ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. (Keats, 1970: 43.)

Unhelpfully for us, this is the first and last time that Keats used the phrase, so we’re not quite sure what it means. People now use the term in the artistic world, psychoanalysis and in leadership development to describe comfort in the unknown.

Ok, so maybe it makes sense to think about negative capability as a contrast for positive capability. Positive capability is the knowing of stuff – the facts and skills to use them. Negative capability asks that we shy away from ‘knowing’ in favour of staying “in the place of uncertainty in order to allow for the emergence of new thoughts or perceptions” (Eisold, 2000, p.65).

Not knowing can feel uncomfortable

In an environment that rewards activity and action, it can feel very uncomfortable to experience the unknown and be seen not to be doing anything about it. At an event I attended last year on the topic, I spoke with a practitioner who was put under constant pressure to present information that wasn’t available – through a series of speculative presentations and papers. The actual outputs themselves were conjecture and not useful, and actually detracted time away from other meaningful core activity. This activity gave the impression of facts, and the safety net of feeling like the organisation was making decisions based on knowing things. In fact, she felt they were missing out on an opportunity to explore the unknown, and develop their own internal structures to be more resilient no matter what changes faced them.

Negative space is creative space

Negative capability wouldn’t be much use without the positive capability to navigate it – the skills that help us build relationships and learn.

In the state of the unknown, when outside forces can’t be tied to fact or certainty, is the perfect time to set out a vision for your own future. Using the space to think creatively about what you want to do, what your values are and where you see yourself in the future is useful. Ultimately, these are the things that will help you position yourself when events eventually unfold.

I’m reminded of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?””


Walking the talk

Here at IRISS, we find ourselves in the flux of change. Through the recruitment of a new director and the development of a new 3 year strategy, we find ourselves really having to embrace not knowing things too.

In the next three years we will be embarking on a place based project called ‘The Big Idea’. This project will support one geographical area in depth to broker, break and renegotiate the boundaries between the community and services to build lasting connections and a more resilient community. In some ways, this project will use our existing skills as an organisation, but I expect that working in one area in such depth will also challenge and push us.

To achieve the outcomes of this project, we need to be responsive and flexible to what the community wants and needs and embrace our own negative capability.

It’s very unnerving, but full of potential.

Over the course of the project, I hope to capture and share the experience on this blog… Let’s see what happens next!

In this blog I referred to:

Eisold, K (2000) The rediscovery of the unknown: an inquiry into psychoanalytic praxis. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 36(1)
French, R, Simpson, P and Harvey, C (2009) Negative capability: A contribution to the understanding of creative leadership.