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John Keat's negative capability, ambiguity, and Ash Wednesday mortality

John Keats was a poet who lived from 1795 to 1821, so really not a very long time. In this short time though Keats came up with a remarkable idea which he called "negative capability." "Negative capability" is an idea Keats first wrote about in a letter to his brothers George and Tom in 1817, which basically states that it is a psychological framework where someone is "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Rather than coming into an immediate conclusion about some situation or event that took place, people should rest in doubt and ambiguity, all the while continuing to pay attention to understand the situation and event even more. Daniel Kahneman the author of the very great book "Thinking Fast and Slow," also cautions us against a naive and simplistic view that "what you see is all there is." It is a good idea to look at things from multiple viewpoints, so we can not "judge a book by it's cover," as the old cliche goes.

The thing is though, living in a state of "negative capability," and ambiguity, is very difficult. There are literally hundreds of world issues out there, where the world issues are always changing and very dynamic. For some odd and often very partisan reason, most of us think our opinions on these hundreds of issues are almost always correct, right, and true. For example the situation in the Ukraine, and their war with Russia, while being very dangerous, also changes so rapidly that it is hard to keep up on all the news about the war. We all have an ego that wants to be Right with a capital "R." "Negative capability" though shows us the importance of humility, where Keats described this as the "capability of submission."

None of this is to say that some type of affirmative and positive knowledge isn't possible. Science, especially since the enlightenment, has exploded our understanding of the world and given us great technological advancements. This computer I am writing this blog on, to go out on the internet, is one of those great scientific advancements. The internet also though can spread misinformation, make people feel isolated and alone, and even have a Kierkegaardian "leveling" effect, where individual thought and individual greatness can get swallowed up by the herd.

Ash Wednesday is today, and I plan on getting the ashes on my forward later today myself. The first day of Lent is a time of prayer and fasting for many Christians and a time to reflect on not our epistemological arrogance but our epistemic humility, and the utter ambiguity of our complicated and confusing world. The dictum "remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," is the dictum of the day in Christianity where we not only remember ambiguity but ultimately our own mortality. We are limited, and finite, and in the end creatures that will die. Late stage capitalism has provided us with many comforts but trying to stay in a space of "negative capability," and especially on Ash Wednesday a space of death awareness is very important. In the end though, we are as people all star dust, on a rock, shooting through outer space, while revolving around the sun, ultimately waiting for the day we will all become worm food, groping for some meaning in our lives. So, what do I know? :) Thank you.

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