Negative Capability

I should like to explore the notion of negative capability, something that I consider fundamental to the psychoanalytic process. It was first mentioned in relation to psychoanalysis in 1970 by Wilfred Bion in Attention and Interpretation. I think, it is a quality that Sigmund Freud, and other innovative psychoanalyts have possessed.

Firstly I will consider the origin of the term negative capability, its meaning, and its relevance for psychoanalysis. Then I will look at what might influence negative capability including in the analytic session. I will not be dealing with things in the past such as an individuals previous life experience, personal therapy, and training - important as they may be, in particular, of course, the personal analysis. I will be considering day-to-day things - the way we live our lives - that might influence our negative capability, that is, things we may be able to do something about.

It has occurred to me that I might be attempting to control something that I have little say in. Nevertheless, I think there may be a number of ways we can influence our state of mind in and out of the therapy session. There may be some apparently simple things that make quite a difference.

It was in his letter to his friend Bailey, a student of Theology that the poet John Keats gave an early description of a particular attitude rooted in the present that seems to anticipate the term negative capability which he coined a month later. This very sequence of events illustrates the negatively capable approach. In this letter to Bailey, he refers to humility and capability of submission. He also writes nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights. Or a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel. R.S.White puts it thus: Keats is emphasizing the point that we cannot read further than our experience and knowledge will allow us. That we should enjoy the wonder and mystery of the immediate and particular without striving to generalize.

The formulation of these qualities as Negative Capability occurs in a letter written by Keats a month later (21 Dec, 1817) to his brothers George and Thomas following an outing to a Christmas pantomime with his friends Brown and Dilke:

... I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason ....

W. J. Bate paraphrases these famous lines as follows: In our life of uncertainties, where no one system or formula can explain everything ... what is needed is an imaginative openness of mind and heightened receptivity to reality in its full and diverse concreteness. This, however, involves negating ones own ego. Keatss friend Dilke, as Keats later wrote, was a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about everything. The only means of strengthening ones intellect is to make up ones mind about nothing - to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts, not a select party. Dilke will never come at a truth as long as he lives; because he is always trying at it (Keats Letters Vol 2 p. 213 Forman ed) To be dissatisfied with such insights as one may attain through this openness, to reject them unless they can be wrenched into a part of a systematic structure of ones own making, is an egoistic assertion of ones own identity. For Bates, the significant words are irritable and capable. - capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without the irritable need to extend our identities and rationalize our half-knowledge. He associates the quest for certainty as irritable and doomed to failure. Since as Keats puts it fact and reason can only take one so far, we should be capable of remaining content with half knowledge.

We might ask did Keats also have to struggle with a Dilke aspect within himself, which may have influenced his capacity for negative capability. Is there an element of splitting idealization and denigration in what Keats has to say. Proclaiming that Dilke will never come at a truth as long as he lives is not a particularly open statement, and could be a projection and then a dismissal of the Dilke person within himself.

In a subsequent letter, Keats wrote:

As to the poetical Character itself ... it is not itself - it has no self - it is everything and nothing - it has no character - it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated - It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago (Othello) as an Imogen (Cymbeline). What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelio Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. (Overstated to make a point)

Wolf Hirst maintains that Keats again and again evokes the patient open and imaginative approach of negative capability. Mental growth like physical maturation cannot be forced. Keats puts it - in poetry as in nature everything will come to fruition in it own good time. If the ripening of the intellectual powers is gradual all the better for the purpose of great productions.

Keats asserts, that if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to the tree it had better not come at all.

We might consider these thoughts in relation to psychoanalysis. They seem to connect with what Winnicott says: All we do in psychoanalysis is to unhitch developmental holdups and release developmental processes and the inherited tendencies of the individual patient. There are of course other views on this.

Blomfield puts it - The definitive essence of psychoanalysis might well be an acceptance that Negative Capability is an iterative process repetitively applied to its own product. It is like Descartes methodological application of doubt to his own thought; but it is not doubt that we apply but openness. What emerges from an opening-up of intersubjectivity is allowed to take its own form and not have form imposed on it.

The emphasis here is on openness and this seems very important in relation to our patients. It includes allowing them to make what they will of us. I think it is so easy to shift from openness to doubting which is communicated to the patient. It is the pressure of the need to know coming from the analyst or the patient, or from the patients need for someone to know. What follows is - I know and you dont know.

We say something in a know-all way with the message to the patient - What you really mean is - rather than the more open You probably know what youre talking about, but perhaps there is a further meaning or meanings to what you are conveying. I think this can make quite a difference to what emerges, and can facilitate surprise in the session. We see the essence of this openness contained in what Keats writes to Bailey - The first thing that strikes me on hearing a misfortune having befallen another is this. Well, it cant be helped. He will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his spirit.

I think this open approach can contribute to an atmosphere in the session that conveys to the patient that the analyst can accept them as they are, and encourages the emergence of their emotional life into awareness,

Bion draws on Keatss notion of negative capability on many occasions. He opens his final chapter in_ Attention and Interpretation_ with the Dilke quote mentioned above, and goes on to state, Any session should be judged by comparison with the Keats formulation so as to guard against one commonly unobserved fault leading to analysis interminable. The fault lies in the failure to observe and is intensified by the inability to appreciate observation.

Bion emphasizes the importance of the moment. Each session attended by the psychoanalyst must have no history and no future., and, Any attempt to cling to what he knows must be resisted for the sake of achieving a state of mind analogous to the paranoid schizoid position. For this state, Bion has coined the term Patience to distinguish it from Paranoid Schizoid Position which he feels should be left for the Pathological state described by Melanie Klein. Bion writes - I mean. this term to retain its association with suffering and tolerance of frustration. Patience should be retained without irritable reaching after fact or reason until a pattern evolves. This is a state he sees as being the analogue to what Melanie Klein calls the depressive position. For this state he uses the term Security. Bion believes the analyst must pass through both phases Patience and Security to give an interpretation. Furthermore, oscillation between the two is a sign valuable work is being achieved.

Bion writes in his Notes On Memory And Desire - Obey the following rules.

1. Memory.

Do not remember past sessions. The greater the impulse to remember what has been said or done the more need to resist it.

2. Desire

The psychoanalyst can start by avoiding any desires for the approaching end of the session (or week or term). Desire for results, cure, or even understanding must not be allowed to proliferate.

These rules must be obeyed all the time. One might ask, Is this negative capability? The positing of rules that must be obeyed implies an absolute certainty, and certainly sounds like trying at it. On the other hand, the content of the rules are undeniably endorsing negative capability. This is a paradox.

Joan and Neville Symington point out that Bion makes it clear that it is not the memory as such that blocks understanding, but rather the attachment to it.

There is the question what is the relationship between negative capability and free-floating attention (Freud), reverie (Bion), poised attention (Reik), evenly suspended attention, evenly hovering attention etc. They seen to be related but not the same. Negative capability is more a way of being; free-floating attention becomes possible from this way of being.

Considering Freud and his capacity for negative capability:- following the death of his father in 1898, Freud had an episode of depression that has the characteristics of a creative illness. During this illness and as he emerged from it, he carried out his self-analysis which included the interpretation of his own dreams. He realized that via the transference with the use of another person, one could be freed of developmental holdups and work through conflicts, to achieve self-integration. As Bill Blomfield notes, In the taxing setting of clinical reality, Freud developed his procedure of free-association and free-floating-attention, to facilitate the meeting of two individuals in mutual negative capability as Keats put much earlier. Bill Blomfield also reminds us when Freud was a student, he and Husserl attended Brentanos courses in philosophy and it appears that both took away with them a particular idea relating to a discipline of open-mindedness. Husserl developed this painstakingly in a number of philosophical works while Freud with a dedication to practical action, developed it into a method of psychological investigation and therapy ...

I think it is important that we recognize the open-mindedness in Freuds own development, as people have been inclined to see Freud as somewhat rigid and doctrinaire in his approach. This is in part a result of what gets conveyed in the Strachey translation of Freuds works. If we take as an example Freuds The Interpretation of Dreams. It is important to understand that the title The Interpretation of Dreams was a somewhat inadequate translation of what Freud called his works on dreams. The German title is the_ Die Traumadeutung, _and Bettelheim who grew up in Vienna said a more accurate translation would be An attempt at grasping for a deeper sense of the meaning of dreams. I think you will agree this is a somewhat different emphasis from to interpret, the dictionary definition of which is to make clear and explicit. Bettelheim says what Freud intended to indicate was that he would attempt to point out the many-layered nature of dreams, and to elucidate their meaning by showing what lay behind them. He did not meant to promise he would be able to make clear and explicit the meaning of dreams.

Freud demonstrated through his writings that he was continually revising his understandings as a result of his open-minded approach.

Bill Blomfield also reminds us Negative capability is always at risk from attack, neglect or misunderstanding on the part of both partners. As far as the patient is concerned, this forms part of the material with which the analyst must work. But the analysts attitude towards analysis itself puts negative capability at risk in special ways, firstly, by confusing the essence of the method with the ritual and trappings; the couch, the fifty-minute hour; the number of sessions a week and so on. By shifting emphasis on to the level of ritual, contact may be lost with being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any reaching after fact and reason. Secondly, by identifying with or becoming taken up by specific aspects of theory, we risk Keats cutting jibe at a man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about everything ... (and who) will never come at a truth as long as he lives: because he is always trying at it.

That the psychoanalytic procedure works - in the sense of producing psychoanalytic material is self-evident to those who use it. This material is an inter-subjective of two minds. The strength of the method of Negative Capability is that, properly applied, it guards against the weakness of self-evidence as a source of belief underlying the analysts interpretations.

I think that negative capability is related to trusting in the unconscious. Trust in the unconscious is something, which fluctuates. It follows then that this fluctuation also applies to negative capability. We can take it for granted that we need to continue to strive for negative capability. Or is it more like, Wait for it. Keats writes about feeling stuck and having to wait several months before being able to finish his poem Endymion.

We can see an appreciation of this trust in the unconscious in other writings. Nietzsche says that a thought comes when it wants, not when I want, so that it is a falsification of the facts to say the subject I is the condition of the predicate think. It thinks but that this it is precisely that famous old I is to put it mildly only an assumption, an assertion, above all not an immediate certainty. Then we have an anonymous adolescents wise pronouncement, Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups. In his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey quotes D.T. Suzuki the renowned Zen master on the art of archery - As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes ... the arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation, which is miscalculation, sets in .... Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. Childlikeness has to be restored with long years of training in self-forgetfulness. Gallwey adds, perhaps this is why it is said that great poetry is born in silence. Great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious. In this less exalted sphere of tennis for someone whose tennis coach told his mother he would never be a tennis player, I have had some pleasant surprises. This is using the Gallwey approach, which is related to Negative Capability and is being used more and more by sports psychologists. One of his suggestions to help staying in the here and now, the moment(Keats) is to focus on the pattern made by the seems of the ball. This connects for me with staying with how things seem ,without irritable reaching after fact or reason(Keats),memory or desire(Bion), and trusting in what is not conscious.

The negatively capable approach that involves a trust in the unconscious of both the analyst and the patient, and includes a communication between the two facilitates the search for psychic truth - the therapeutic factor in psychoanalysis. An appreciation of psychic truth seems so important, and includes the recognition of the transience of things which carries with it sadness and hope. This is expressed in the Japanese concept Ut-su-roi that means at face value the point of change. In the words of Marina Warner, It locates beauty at the moment when it is altered. It implies an acceptance of flux and of transition, for it means it is not the beauty of the cherry blossom that gives the highest pleasure but the knowledge of its evanescence. The fugitive emptiness between one palpable state and another. The shadows leaping lack of substance. The ephemeral dappling of light under trees. Variations that are undone on the instant - all these answer to the idea Utsuroi. It depends on an understanding that time is not linear nor one event after another in a chain, but an overlapping sequence of the same shapes and a shaken kaleidoscope. (Joan of Arc)

We seem to have several warnings that to approximate negative capability is no easy matter. The Symingtons state. Bions technical recommendations are radical. To carry them out requires considerable discipline of an inner mental kind. What is required is nothing short of an inner emotional ascesis that can open out into a new and unsuspected field of inquiry. The Zen master tells us, childlikeness has to be restored with long years of training in self-forgetfulness. Reik speaks of the courage not to understand which he links with suffering - the pain and discomfort of differing states of mind.

So we might ask the question - What does this all mean and can we do something about it apart from having another analysis? It all sounds very difficult, well nigh impossible. But is it all that difficult if we are fortunate enough to have a good-enough constitutional endowment, a good-enough mother, a good-enough personal analysis, a good-enough training, and not to be forgotten, and a patient who can use the process. Too much emphasis on how very difficult it is, may include a wish to flatter oneself. Nevertheless we have Bion telling us The disciplined increase of F by suppression of K, or subordination of transformations in K for transformations in O is therefore felt as a very serious attack on the ego until F has become established. The progressive stages in the disciplinary exercise proposed for the analyst are repellent rather than attractive. The emotional state for transformations in O is akin to dread. But the rules are relatively easy for psychoanalysts to obey, and if they are obeyed, dissimilar people with dissimilar patients may yet have a similar experience. The experience to which I refer is the contact with the evolved aspects of O.

In looking at what we can do to assist negative capability, I am keeping in mind that we are all different, so it will be different for each individual. At the same time, I think there is likely to be some common ground. What is the relevance of how we live our lives on our capacity to find negative capability in the session? It may be quite hard to give someone else what we dont have, or have never had (with all the good will in the world). Is it important to have a reasonably full life? It seems to me in the broad sense the way we live our lives is probably crucial to how we are in the session. If we cannot give to ourselves what is important to us, then are we likely to have difficulty with openness, patience, humility, and capability of submission? When asked what goes into making a psychoanalyst, Hanna Segal replied - a variety of experience, being familiar in oneself with many different states of mind. And for Winicott - a human being is needed, human beings are essentially human which means imperfect free from mechanical reliability.

What is the importance of having plenty of practice at finding negative capability in the session? Does its achievement bring emotional conviction and enhanced capacity? Bion states the capacity to forget, the ability to eschew desire and understanding, must be regarded as essential discipline for the psychoanalyst. Failure to practice this discipline will lead to a steady deterioration in the powers of observation whose maintenance is essential. The vigilant submission to such discipline will by degrees strengthen the analysts mental powers just in proportion as lapses in this discipline will debilitate them.

I should now like to look at some of the things that might influence our negative capability in the psychoanalytical session.


What to read?

How important is it to read psychoanalytic texts?

Given time restraints, are some more important than others? A broad sweep, or a few writers in depth?

Is it important to read widely as well? - Fiction, non-fiction, the classics, a particular type of writer?

To replenish confidence in the importance of negative capability, might one read those writers whose productions seem relevant? Elizabeth Jolley says: I said writing was an exploration of human feelings and reasons and circumstances; perhaps even more it is an attempt to penetrate into the human heart and recognize our own inner being. I do believe if we are unable to recognize ourselves we cannot recognize anyone else. And without some kind of recognition how can we love. I think it is necessary to love and care deeply before attempting to write. Writing is an act of love carried out in such a way that every aspect of the personality can be examined not for criticism but for an endless questioning towards a hoped-for understanding.

 In trying to write I seem to start from a little picture, a  few words, an idea so slender it hardly matters and then suddenly I am exploring human feelings and reasons and perhaps one day Ill step across that threshold into some deeper understanding. (Elizabeth Jolley A Timid Confidence in _Central Mischief_  p. 175)

 Is it necessary to love and to care deeply for our work?

 I think reading such writers may contribute to a state of mind necessary for finding negative capability. With regard to psychoanlytic writers, is it those such as Bion, Bollas, Meltzer, Milner, the Symingtons and Blomfield etc. who are most likely to assist our capacity for negative capability?


Writing which might also include giving papers and teaching may give an opportunity for more intense involvement with ideas and thinking, allowing new insights to emerge. In my experience, when I have been writing papers, giving presentations, or teaching, I find fresh ideas arriving unsought in the middle of the night, or in the shower. This can give a confidence in the negatively capable approach. Writing a paper can also mean one can become preoccupied upsetting the balance of ones attention. What about when writing involves clinical material from a current patient? I have experiences that suggest this can make a difference. Bion warns us about making notes about current patients.

  The meaning of the writing seems to be important, and how it is used. Is it being used to explore ideas and share them with others, or to push a barrow, or to show off.   Bollas on Freuds writings: He dared to be where one must be to experience news of the self, and his writing of the experience was an integral part of the receptive capacity he facilitated by creation of self-analysis.   Arithmetic

Money - How important is it? Is it important for both analyst and patient to feel that the fee is a reasonable one. If there a sense of the patient not paying what is an appropriate amount, this may say things in relation to avoiding acknowledgement of what the analyst is doing. If the analyst goes along with this, something may be being enacted. Third party involvement is an interference that needs to be acknowledged and negotiated

Recreation and leisure

Recreation as defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary - a process or means of refreshing or entertaining oneself - pleasurable activity

Leisure - free time, time at ones own disposal, enjoyment of free time, opportunity afforded by free time, not occupied, in an unhurried mann er, where one has time, a large public building with sports facilities, bars etc.

 To be able to bear the frustration - the mental pain of our sometimes-called impossible profession - do we need our share of free time, fun, and pleasure with others and ourselves?  Do we need to be able to give this to ourselves in order to give it to others? Keats says, Give me books, fruit, French wine, fine weather, and a little music out of doors played by someone I do not know.


Is it important? I think it is.

I try not to do too much, for example phone calls. I avoid what might be emotionally preoccupying.

I leave room for the experience of one patient leaving and the next one arriving.

Things come up. ` I sense them. I do nothing more. I may, for example, become aware that Im expecting the wrong patient. I just note it. I dont try and work out why. There is the sense of certain things in the half-light. A sense of the patient coming, occasionally something more vivid. In my experience things sensed, or something more vivid at times arrive in the session in a surprising and informative way.

PERSONAL Relationships

How important are these?

 What is the importance of having significant others to be disillusioned with? By this, I mean those we care enough about and who care enough for us not to go along with illusions, delusions, except perhaps when they are definitely not ready to be given up. Is it important to spend time with people with quite different occupations, backgrounds, and interests, as well as with our peers?

 Do we need satisfying personal relationships? If we dont we are in danger of placing too much importance on our patients. The capacity to be without memory and desire may be affected.


What about self-analysis in relation to negative capability? Bollas states, our greatest (personal) professional virtue as psychoanalysts is our commitment to our own personal analysis. As Freud puts it, the ability to receive news from the self.

 With regard to self-analysis, I think Im probably doing it whether I like it or not. Can it be enhanced in certain ways? Or does it just happen? Do we need to provide specific time for it? Klein lying fallow.


Is the health of the local psychoanalytic group of importance? It seems to me that it is. Does mutual trust and respect between the members, a sense of working as a team, acknowledgement of hard work, and cooperation with achieving goals affect the state of mind of the members?

The clinical group that provides an opportunity for open, frank comment and an exploration of capability seems important.


How important is to do analysis and a fair bit of it? Many comment on this - Ricoeur puts it thus: psychoanalysis is an arduous technique learned by diligent exercise and practice. As stated earlier, the discovery of psychic truth in the session helps to strengthen the emotional conviction of the relevance of negative capability.

 What is the relevance of the number of sessions per week, the use of the couch, and the range of patients seen by the analyst?


Bate, W, (1963) Keat’s “Negative Capability” and the Imagination in Hill (1977)

The Romantic Imagination pp. 196-210

Bion, W.R. (1970) Attention and Interpretation. Tavistock. London pp 125

Blomfield, O.D.H. (1993) “The Essentials of Psychoanalysis” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry Vol.27, pp86-100

Blomfield, O.D.H. (1998) “Wilfred Bion –A Short Review Essay”

Gallwey, W.T. (1986) The Inner Game of Tennis. London: Pan Books Ltd.

Hill, John Spencer (1977) (ed) The Romantic Imagination. A casebook. Macmillam

Jolley, E.”A Timid Confidence” in Central Mischief

Keats, John. (1952) Letters, edited by M.B. Forman. 4th edition. London: Oxford University Press

Symington, J. and N. (1996) The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion. London: Routledge

Segal, H. (1994) Psychoanalysts Talk. New York. The Guildford Press pp 45

Warner,M (1991) Joan of Arc. U.K.:Vintage,,,