24 January 2009

On negative capability (a.k.a. "I don't know")

After some discussion with colleagues about how to "do reflection", it occurs to me that it might be interesting to devote occasional posts to "tools to reflect with". The first is the sine qua non;

(drafted Friday)

I spent over three hours in the car today, as ever listening to news and comment about the recession and the incessant question, "how long will it last?" Only the bravest pundits were prepared to say, "I have no idea."

Being not only prepared to admit that, but also to defend it against both explicit and insidious pressure until it is no longer true, is the prerequisite of reflection. John Keats coined the phrase:
Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
[Letter to George and Thomas Keats (21 Dec 1817).
in H. E. Rollins (ed.), (1958) Letters of John Keats, Vol. 1, 193]
This more than merely not "jumping to conclusions"; it is an active—and sometimes tense—determination to stick with ambiguities and uncertainties, lest their richness be lost in coming down on one side or the other. Most conclusions are reached "on balance"; like an election won with 51% of the vote, where the 49% of the losing side may well count for nothing, it is important not to lose the possibilities inherent in the alternative accounts of what may have been going on.

In the days when I taught residential social work, I had a simple exercise to illustrate this;
  • A 12-year-old child* comes to you at breakfast time and complains that she has a pain in her tummy.
  • On the basis solely of this information, what might that mean?
All the answers would be written up on a flip-chart—and I would not be inclined to let a small group off the hook until I had at least a dozen accounts. Only then might we proceed to eliminate some of them on the basis of more precise information and look at the potential consequences of acting on any of them. It is perhaps worth noting that field social workers, who rarely acted precipitately or without lengthy consultation, found it much easier than residential social workers, for whom there was no premium in dithering. For them, it was more important to act, even if they acted wrongly.

* You can tell how long ago this was, by the presence of a twelve-year-old in a children's home.


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