The ability to understand, or respond accurately to, a complex issue without consciously thinking it through and knowing the reasons. The mind gets to the point without knowing why. Many skills, such as playing the piano, drawing, or quickly judging the veracity of a stranger, can only be performed if they are embedded in parts of the brain which get things done without having to consult the conscious mind. But you need to do a lot of work to get there. Antonio Damasio explains,

The quality of one’s intuition depends on how well we have reasoned in the past; on how well we have classified the events of our past experience in relation to the emotions that preceded and followed them; and also how well we have reflected on the successes and failures of our past intuitions. Intuition is simply rapid cognition with the required knowledge partially swept under the carpet, all courtesy of emotion and much past practice.I83

Intuition (if it is correct) gives you answers. And yet, sometimes you are better off without them. That, at least, is what John Keats suggests with his “negative capability” which, as he explains in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, in 1817,

. . . is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason . . . the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.I84

The conscious mind, as Keats notes in Ode to a Nightingale, is a clumsy, uninventive instrument: “the dull brain perplexes and retards”. Negative capability opens the way to going along with something, accepting it and dealing with it with good manners, without having to understand it. It is an encounter with beauty.


Related entries:

Local Wisdom, Humility, Spirit.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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