How to Think Like Shakespeare: The Positive Value of Negative Capability

How can a uniquely Shakespearean habit of mind can be applied to our own lives in order to help us think more creatively?

What does it mean to think like Shakespeare? The poet and playwright was much more than just a clever wordsmith. Shakespeare has long been admired for his deeply sympathetic identification with all things human. The psychological portraits Shakespeare painted, with a masterful touch of disinterestedness, embraced amazingly disparate aspects of life. It was as if he had met every single person in the world, it has been said. 


This is a topic that has been explored in some depth here on Big Think. Today, in honor of Shakespeare's birth and death on April 23, we are revisiting the idea of how this uniquely Shakespearean habit of mind can be applied to our own lives. 

'Negative Capability'

John Keat's letters, according to T.S. Elliot, were "the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet." The letters represent a uniquely intimate record of Keats's creative development, indeed his worldview. In one of these letters we are introduced to the concept of 'negative capability,' which is a term Keats invented to contrast his contemporaries with the sensibilities of the Elizabethans, most notably Shakespeare. Keats writes:

"What quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & 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 & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge."

Throughout the years, many critics have taken a hack at distilling this concept. Here is the critic Li Ou, from his book Keats and Negative Capability, observing that the key elements of negative capability include

imaginativeness, experiential and artistic intensity, submission of the self, sympathetic identification, the dramatic quality of a poet, disinterestedness, a neutral intellect tolerating diversity and contradiction, and a tragic vision of human experience, all of which are intricately related to one another.

Ou argues that negative capability "reveals a prominent non-Egotistical tradition in English poetry," one that can be traced back to Shakespeare and which finds its expression as well in Modernist poetry. And yet, this concept has deeper philosophical ramifications. Here is the Irish poet Aubrey Thomas de Verey's take:

the doubt of one who would rather walk in mystery than in false lights, who awaits that he may win, and who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing completeness of a delusion.

Negative capability is a poetic state of mind, but it also gives us insights into the nature of scientific inquiry (the "irritable reaching after fact & reason" notwithstanding). So can we cultivate our own negative capability?

This concept has been appropriated for use in different contexts, such as the social theory of Roberto Unger. Unger argues that negative capability can be used to empower ourselves over social divisions. Stanley Fish argues against that idea. The concept has also been applied to psychology by Wilfred Bion and to organizational management by Robert French

What these appropriations of the concept all have in common is the question of how we might improve our creative thinking. I happily stumbled upon a perspective on the subject by Beth Rushing, a Dean at St. Mary's College of Maryland, who wrote the following "Advice to Freshman" in 2011. Rushing sees negative capability as the essence of a liberal arts education. It is about asking questions. It is about keeping an open mind to problem-solving. It is about developing empathy. Rushing writes:

John Keats, writing poetry in the early 19th century, and Barbara McClintock, studying corn genetics in the early 20th century, and Roberto Unger, writing theory and engaging in politics in the early 21st century, have this in common: they found hope, and truth, and beauty in the practice of negative capability, in listening patiently, having a certain level of comfort with uncertainty, and in recognizing that what appears to be given, is not necessarily so.

So what are some steps that can be taken to put this concept into practice? Among his contemporaries, John Keats stands alone in that he left an intimate record of his thoughts in the form of letters, private contemplations that he shared with his brothers. And in that sense, perhaps no one knew how to think like Shakespeare quite like Keats, who used his letters to "project himself into different roles" and embrace creative uncertainty, as the scholar John Mee argued in his introduction to Keats's Selected Letters.

Mee also senses that the desire to inhabit other identities and other roles has an element of insecurity, perhaps neurosis, which also may be a key ingredient to creativity:

The provisionality of the correspondence might be taken as a triumphant demonstration of negative capability, recording Keats’s ability to project himself into different roles and live in a state of creative uncertainty, but these letters also seem to express a deep sense of insecurity, which frequently took the form of a desire to escape the fever and the fret of the life around him.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.