Printer Friendly

Negative capability: the psychotherapists' X-factor?


Exploring the paradox of active passivity goes back at least as far as The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century classic of devotional literature, in which the unknown author recommends that an individual deliberately enters into a place of spiritual darkness in order to develop a relationship with God. It is consistent with the nature of the topic that the author is not known, because the concept of 'negative capability' refers to the benefits of not having a fixed identity. Several hundred years later, and in a different context, the poet John Keats created the term 'negative capability' to describe a similar phenomena, in a letter to his brothers:

... Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reach after fact & reason....

(Keats, 1817)

Keats' is referring to a fluidity of identity that enables a creative and deeply empathic appreciation of others; it was a quality he h ad noticed, particularly in literary people of 'achievement', such as Shakespeare.

This paradoxical phrase also has resonance for psychotherapists too. The 'negative' aspect of 'negative capability' refers to an individual's capacity, or emotional range, for being actually in uncertainty, openness to being impacted, and actively not knowing. The 'capability' aspect of 'negative capability' denotes a persons' ability to tolerate, and embrace that uncertainty and permeability of identity. Negative Capability has also been compared to Heidegger's concept of gelassenheit'--which refers to a spirit of availability to what-is (Bate, 1964), on that basis that in our life of uncertainties, in the absence of any ultimate explanation, what is required is an imaginative openness of mind and heightened receptivity to reality in its full and diverse concreteness.

Modes of Inhabiting Uncertainty

Inhabiting uncertainty in some form or another, whether it is personal, theoretical or related to the client, is an inherent aspect of psychotherapy, as in life. It involves straddling the tension between embracing the aliveness and opportunities that arise through change and uncertainty, as well as addressing the challenges of uncertainty, and these are not inconsiderable--fear of the unknown, fluidity of identity and awareness of death to name but three. Relating to uncertainty forms the bedrock of existential practice in particular, and so is familiar territory to most psychotherapists of this orientation.

A qualitative research study undertaken amongst senior practitioners from a variety of approaches about how they inhabit uncertainty in clinical practice revealed that rather than being an inherent quality or unitary attitude, 'negative capability' in a psychotherapeutic context may be more accurately understood as a dynamic process of movement, undertaken by the therapist, between two different modes of inhabiting uncertainty being 'with' uncertainty, and being 'in' uncertainty.

Being 'with' uncertainty, as the term implies, refers to a kind of instrumental form of uncertainty. Even though there may be a felt sense of uncertainty in being 'with' uncertainty mode, it is a ' you' rather than 'I' orientated uncertainty because the uncertainty is located elsewhere. For instance, when the uncertainty is related to the situation being grappled with, or a clients' experience of being in uncertainty. However being 'in' uncertainty' is a qualitatively different mode, it is a personal and more directly experienced mode of inhabiting uncertainty that opens the therapist to numerous possibilities. This could well include experientially touching into the therapists vulnerability and existential anxiety, or vicariously experiencing the clients' world, or be a s pace for imaginative exploration and play.

In terms of therapy, these two modes of inhabiting uncertainty, 'with', and 'in' are necessary, but not equal. The emphasis will shift depending on the client, at different points in the therapy relationship, and indeed within each session. Each mode has the potential to be extremely facilitative, or inhibiting--too much of the skilled containing and knowledge-based enquiry that accompanies being 'with' uncertainty can become functional, and close down the liveliness of the therapeutic space--too much being 'in' uncertainty is confusing and frightening, which also closes down the space--hence the task for the therapist in negotiating the dialectical relationship between them.

The chart below summarises some of the different terms that could be used to compare and contrast the distinction between 'with' and 'in' in psychotherapy:
Modes of Inhabiting Uncertainty

With                             In

Professional                     Personal/Mine
Unknowing                        Un-knowing
Mindfulness                      Embodied Attunement
Technique                        Imagination
Science                          Art
Learning                         Experience
Accessible to anyone/clients     Therapists' particular capacity
Knowing about not knowing        Altered state
Supportive/facilitative          Alchemical
Deficit-orientated/reparative    Growth-orientated/developmental
You                              We
Otherness                        Impressed upon
Intellectual uncertainty         Experiential Uncertainty
Instrumental uncertainty         Principled Uncertainty
Trained-in uncertainty           Embodied Empathy
Knowing about not knowing        Therapeutic not knowing
Public                           Personal
Explicit                         Implicit
Capability                       Capacity

'Negative capability', in the sense that it has been adapted here, means the movement between being 'with' and being 'in' uncertainty. The term describes an aspect of the therapists' intrapersonal process that is largely intuitive and always subjective. It is an ephemeral phenomena, the shift between modes can be fleeting and microscopic, or conscious and significant. It is therefore a process that is rarely made explicit, despite the fact that capacity to move in and around and between these different modes of uncertainty is a distinguishing feature of everyday psychotherapy, or at least as it is conceptualised here, which makes it hard to apprehend.

Keats was a poet who had extraordinary access to the working of his own mind, which enabled him to know how, why and what he was doing, and so the character and fluidity of 'negative capability' may perhaps be best described by looking at one of his poems and considering how this process could translate into clinical practice.

Negative Capability: description of process

'Ode to a Nightingale' is a subjective description of the intrapersonal process of the poet, that illustrates 'negative capability' in action, and parallels to the process of the therapist can be made.

Before even starting to read the poem, it is worth noting the choice of bird--a nightingale that represents the paradoxical nature of the 'negative capability' concept. The nightingale only sings at night, so its presence is heard in the silence of the dark hours, it is vocal, with being verbal or visible. The nightingale is also associated with love, which could be referred back to the understanding of the concept in The Cloud of Unknowing.
Ode to a Nightingale


   My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
   My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
   Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
   One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk;
   'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
   But being too happy in thine happiness,-
   That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
   In some melodious plot
   Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
   Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


   O, for a draught of vintage! That hath been
   Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
   Tasting of Flora and the country green,
   Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
   O for a beaker full of the warm South,
   Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
   With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
   And purple-stained mouth;
   That I might brink, and leave the world unseen,
   And with thee fade away into the forest dim:


   Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
   What thou among the leaves hast never known,
   The weariness, the fever, and the fret
   Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
   Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
   Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
   Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
   And leaden-eyed despairs,
   Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
   Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.


   Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
   Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
   But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
   Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
   Already with thee! Tender is the night,
   And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
   Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
   But here there is no light,
   Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
   Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.


   I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
   Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
   But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
   Wherewith the seasonable month endows
   The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
   White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
   Fast fading violets cover 'd up in leaves;
   And mid-May's eldest child,
   The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
   The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.


   Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
   I have been half in love with easeful Death,
   Call'd him soft names in many amused rhyme,
   To take into the air my quiet breath;
   Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
   To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
   While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
   In such an ecstasy!
   Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain-
   To thy high requiem become a sod.


   Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
   No hungry generations tread thee down;
   The voice I hear this passing night was heard
   In ancient days by emperor and clown;
   Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
   Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
   She stood in tears amid the lien corn;
   The same that oft-times hath
   Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
   Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


   Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
   To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
   Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well
   As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
   Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades
   Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
   Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
   In the next valley-glades:
   Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
   Fled is that music:-Do I wake or sleep?


The poem begins with Keats describing a feeling of the mind being dulled; the sense of knowing that one is not thinking clearly, there is "a drowsy numbness pains" we could associate with the darkening of understanding. In psychotherapy this could be related to a therapist subjugating their 'knowing' or intellectual understanding in order to enter the clients' world. At this point it is also the dullness of ignorance he seems to be describing, he wonders of he has been poisoned or drugged. Keats' reference to the "Lethe-wards" at the beginning anticipates Wilfred Bion's famous comment about approaching sessions 'without memory or desire'--Lethe is one of the rivers Hades that the dead have to drink from in order to forget everything said and done when alive.

Keats goes on t o contrast the dull heaviness of his feeling with the ethereal ease and vitality of the nightingale, noting their separateness. As in a psychotherapy session, one can read the poem in terms of process and structure as well as content. It can be seen how Keats starts to give himself over to being drawn into the nightingale's world. He notes his awareness of having no particular desire to possess the nightingale's happiness for himself, he is eager to share in the feeling and seems to merge into the world of beauty represented by the nightingale.


In the second stanza Keats fully enters, and becomes overwhelmed in this state, which he is thoroughly enjoying. Keats refers to Hippocrene, the fountain associated in Greek myth with poetic inspiration. In therapy this might be the point at which the therapist, having found themselves immersed in a s lighted altered state, makes imaginative associations or connections occur.


Then, Keats starts to notice himself dissolving into this other world altogether, and begins to think he would like to disappear in this way, starting to tap into his own uncertainties, which thought brings him back to his earthbound reality "the weariness, the fever, and the fret.... where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin and dies". This was something he knew well--at the start of his career Keats worked for a surgeon at St. Thomas's hospital, and shortly after this poem was written, he nursed his dying brother, which ultimately caused his own death as well. This movement, back and forth, in and out of the client's world, one's imagination and the reality of the present, is very illustrative of the therapists' process too.


Having returned to the reality of mortal existence, Keats shifts back again towards the nightingale, demonstrating the fluidity of 'negative capability' --both in his process, but also the content. Again, as at the beginning of the poem, the process starts with thickening of the cognitive intellectual aspects--"the dull brain". Now it is not associated with wine, sunshine and the countryside anymore, it's night-time. Paradoxically, although he is aware of the moon and stars, there is no light and he vividly intuits, rather than sees, where he is, just as one might during a therapy session.


Again, he is overwhelmed in the peaceful sweetness of his experience, "an embalmed darkness" , and then, as he reflects on the beauty of the natural world which he finds himself a part of, he becomes aware of its transience, there are "fast fading violets", and an awareness of the existence of time future in the present, with "the coming musk-rose'" and "the mumurous haunt of flies on summer eves".


Once more, Keats shows us his process, as this leads him on to thinking about death. It's also worth noticing here how he doesn't differentiate between the senses, his experience is so intense, for instance in stanza 5, the "soft incense hangs on the bough" the smell is so powerful it i s physically tangible. The aural evokes the visual, at the beginning of the poem the nightingales song took him deep into the country, as far as the south of France which he describes visually, and now, at the beginning of stanza 6, the visual evokes the aural, as he listens to the darkness "Darkling I listen" ... The parallels between Keats process and clinical work are clear here as the practice of listening to the almost tangible quality of an atmosphere is familiar territory to psychotherapists.


The darkness associated to his earlier sense of time passing, and the intense poignancy of his experiencing, lead him to think about death "It would be rich to die". Here again, another shift back to the paradoxical reality of our life, as he realises that then, if he were dead, although he would be free of pain, it also means he wouldn't be able to enjoy the ecstasy of the nightingale's song. He contrasts his mortality with the immortality the nightingale's song, becoming aware of their separateness as again he wonders about joining the bird, or his ill brother, as he refers to the biblical figure Ruth, (an iconic, and therefore immortal, representative of loyalty and loving kindness in human beings, who said "Where you go, I go." (Ruth 1:16-17)). In therapy, fleeting and random connections between the world of the therapist and the client can occur, or the shared existential concerns made apparent, accompanied by awareness of otherness.


Still, following Keats's process, this leads him on to think about powers in the universe that can be operating that are beyond our knowledge, he refers to "Charm'd magic" in the midst of perilous seas, in "faery lands forlorn", or perhaps that magic is the human capacity for hope and love that emerges in the midst of difficult times. In clinical practice one could relate this to 'trusting of the process', in the sense of relying, or hoping, for a power that is not directly accessible to sustain the therapist through times of stuckness and frustration.

Then, Keats finds himself called back to himself again--the words "bell" and "toll", are reminders of our earthly mortal existence. We can think here of "the call" (Heidegger, 1962) that brings one back to awareness, often accompanied by uncertainty or anxiety, that also brings clients into therapy. This seems to be Keats's experience, he uses the term "sole self" which sounds like it could refer to both our essential aloneness, that our existence is only ours, but "sole self" could also be a reference to our soul, or psyche, to whom Keats wrote another ode. Psyche, in Greek mythology, was eventually granted immortality following her period of suffering after Cupid left; perhaps here Keats caught a g limmer of hope for something beyond too.

It is worth noting at this point that in Greek, therapeia, from which the term therapy is derived, is associated with attendance--therefore making psychotherapists 'attendants to the soul' (psyche=soul/therapeia=attendant), which underlines the case for the kind of sensitive attuned movement that 'negative capability' implies.

That was a rather tangential comment, and at this point, Keats also wonders if he has strayed too far. Creative doubt, a key characteristic of negative capability, sets in. Is all this an evasive deception? He wonders if the imaginative powers he described earlier as "the viewless wings of Poesy", (poesy = the art of writing poetry) which as therapists we might understand as professional neutrality, are actually just imagination, a fancy, "a deceiving elf". This sort of doubt is not unfamiliar to most therapists at times. What is psychotherapy? Am I a fraud? Is this of any help at all? How real are our therapeutic relationships? He wonders if all this that he has so intensely experienced is a vision, or a waking dream?

'Ode to a Nightingale' is a subjective poem--it starts with "My heart aches" and ends with "Do I wake or dream?" illustrating how the poet (and also the psychotherapist) paradoxically draws on what is most personal, to communicate in a way that resonates with others. The poem shows the scope for movement between different positions enabled by his negative capability. Within this short poem, he moves around from joy to despair, from mortal to immortal and reality to imagination, and here too, parallels can be made to a therapists' allowing themselves this sort of scope within a session and having the emotional agility to use it.

Whilst in many ways this poem can be understood as an ode to the benefits of being in uncertainty, and a celebration of the freedom of doubt and mystery, it also warns that the desire for imaginative transcendence should not replace focusing on the truth of human suffering, or the need for discipline and structure to support the wandering into the realms of uncertainty. Keats work here is grounded in the very disciplined poetic format that holds it all together, and attention to technical detail in terms of his precise use of grammar, language, and depth of knowledge regarding the historical references, which translated in terms of psychotherapy, would also include theoretical knowledge base and adherence to therapeutic conventions.

Negative Capability: duality and identity.

'Negative capability', understood in this way, is clearly a complex and multi-faceted process of movement between the 'with' and 'in' uncertainty modes, and rests on the therapists' capacity for being 'in' uncertainty mode.

Being 'in' uncertainty is a disempowered mode--it can involve imaginative associations and fantasy, the relevance of which to the work with the client is not immediately apparent, it can also involve feeling lost in where the therapeutic relationship is going, one can feel ignorant and stupid, it can evoke shame, there can be a loss of sense of self and merging of identity, and, it can feel thoroughly enjoyable and like playing, or scary and disturbing.

As such, being 'in' uncertainty can appear to be in conflict with a therapists' professional identity, a sense of fraudulence that as the therapist, trained and knowledgeable in the art of being 'with' uncertainty, one can be in this somewhat altered state. However, to integrate the 'in' uncertainty with the 'with' uncertainty would mean that the authenticity of the 'in' uncertainty disappears, and becomes transmuted into 'with' uncertainty. In order for the paradox of active passivity to be effective, it needs to remain a paradox, in which 'with' and 'in' uncertainty are qualitatively different states. Each different mode of inhabiting uncertainty requires the other. Consequently, it is the 'in' uncertainty mode that forms the basis of professionalism, because it is the therapists' negotiation of their duality that forms the basis of negative capability.

Therefore, rather than overlaying 'in' uncertainty with knowledge, and vulnerability with competency, or making attempts to integrate them in some way, the 'double agent' status, of being alternately and variously 'in' or 'with' uncertainty needs to be embraced as it is, despite the fraudulence, ignorance and lack of evidence associated with the 'in' uncertainty mode, since the capacity to be precisely 'in' this uncertainty is a foundational aspect of the work of being a therapist.

The conflict regarding 'in' uncertainty and professional identity is reflected institutionally, as well as being a personal concern of therapist, and this is evidenced by the current debates around regulation and protected titles. Being 'with' and being 'in' uncertainty are based on different underlying philosophies of what constitutes a professional. If it is accepted that a considerable part of the expertise in psychotherapy is concerned with being able to not know, and be in uncertainty, how can this be communicated to those outside the field without appearing vague and unprofessional? How transparent is it possible, or desirable to be? If the 'in' uncertainty is operationalised then has it lost its essence?

It is particularly appropriate that the therapist is enabled to grapple with this uncertainty tension since, in the context of our post-modern culture that emphasises plurality and multiple identities, in which the only certainty is uncertainty itself, it parallels the challenges that are confronting many clients. Whilst they may come to therapy initially in search of the certainty that is inherent is consulting a professional, they will ultimately be more enriched by developing ways of relating to uncertainty as a result of seeing and experiencing it in action through the therapy process.

Negative Capability: the X-factor?

An on-line search reveals that the 'X-factor' is, "a term for the unknown factor". It is also defined as a "hard-to-describe influence", an "explanatory thing which adds a certain value to that object, element or person", or "an important element with unknown consequences". On the basis of these three definitions, negative capability, qualifies as a psychotherapeutic X-factor.

1. Negative capability is a 'hard-to-describe influence' because it is a paradox, as it is largely about being capable in not doing or being something. This 'not' quality means that it is difficult to write or theorise about, and when one gets close to articulating the phenomena, of course it loses its' 'not' essence and tends to disappear. However, indirect appreciation of how negative capability might operate in clinical practice has been attempted drawing on Keats' poem, which describes his own particular process. Another illustration of the capacity to be in uncertainty in action might be the quest of Socrates in response to the Oracle's declaration that he was the wisest of men. After questioning many so-called wise people who thought themselves wise, Socrates realised that paradoxically he was the wisest because he was the only one who knew he didn't know! but again, but he too was only able to apprehend this as a result of a circuitous and indirect route.

2. Negative capability is "an explanatory thing which adds a certain value to that object, element or person"; therapists tend have a greater capacity for being 'in' uncertainty, and a more fluid sense of self, in the first place, which is either gifted, or emerges as a result of earlier life experiences. This particular capacity is then developed professionally to become a capability, so that ultimately, what distinguishes psychotherapists from other professionals is the way in which it involves working from our vulnerability, and being able to be both 'in' uncertainty and 'with' uncertainty, and fluently move between the two therapeutically.

3. Negative capability is "an important element with unknown consequences" because it is an aspect of clinical process that is always present and active, but since it is hard to describe and therefore rarely articulated, the consequences and role negative capability plays in the process are largely unknown. It could be one of those important elements that tend to get taken for granted, a bit like health, or breathing something that tends to be noticed by its absence rather than by its presence, and it is interesting to note that the topic of the role of uncertainty in clinical practice arose in response the current evidence-based certainty-orientated culture. Parallels could even be drawn between trying to offer an analytic description of the process of 'negative capability', as I have attempted to do h ere, and Heideggers' project in exploring the meaning of Being because it is a phenomena that is both everyday, and essentially important, and also because having the situated perspective that we do, it makes it difficult to apprehend something that is already part of one's way of being.


The paper has attempted to describe the 'negative capability' process with a view to making it a more explicitly appreciated aspect of the therapeutic process. Although it seems particularly important to retain a s pace for uncertainty in the current evidence-base culture, reflecting on ways to creatively engage with being both 'in' and 'with' uncertainty has a long history in psychotherapy--Freud's construction of the unconscious, or Roger's development of the core conditions, are also illustrations of their ways of relating to uncertainty, but which have since become crystallised as part of the body theoretical knowledge without reference to their founders capacity to be 'in' uncertainty, without which they would never have been developed. It is hoped by apprehending the role of the therapists' capacity to be in uncertainty indirectly, by drawing a poet's description of the process, rather than a therapists', such reification has been avoided, but will nonetheless be sufficiently evocative to resonate with other practitioners and contribute to safeguarding and promoting this key therapeutic x-factor.

In seeking for an ordinary way of describing psychotherapy we are faced, time and again, with the problem of finding our way between the 'hard', obsession ally neat formulations of the scientist and the 'soft' flowery words of those who write about their work with naive sentimentality. The task is comparable to that of writing good poetry. The man-in-the-street may be moved by a sunset as deeply as the poet but if he tries to describe his emotions he will likely utter banalities. The psychotherapist who attempts to convey the significant experience in his work will almost certainly lack the necessary poetic gift, yet he can no more improve his communication by resorting to special language than can t he poet. He can only write as clearly and truthfully as possible, recognizing that to take cover behind the rigidity of the conventional, objective 'case history' may ensure professional respectability, but lead him into the fatal error described by Blake:

He who bends to himself a joy May the winged life destroy....

(Lomas, 1981:110-111)


Bate, W.J. (1964). John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. Trans. Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lomas, P. (1981). The Case for a Personal Psychotherapy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Diana Voller is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice, and a lecturer at Roehampton University. E-mail address:
COPYRIGHT 2011 Society for Existential Analysis
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Voller, Diana
Publication:Existential Analysis
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2011
Previous Article:Ageing-towards-death: phenomenology of finitude during old-age.
Next Article:What is the difference between existential anxiety and so called neurotic anxiety? 'The sine qua non of true vitality' an examination of the...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters