In an 1818 letter to his brothers, a former medical student, and burgeoning poet, named John Keats described what he considered to be the most important quality possessed by “a man of achievement.” He called it “negative capability” and defined it as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Trained as a surgeon, Keats might have been expected to stress, say, a keen grasp of the scientific method as his ideal mode of thought. Through his studies he would have to have been quite familiar with facts, theorems, and all the latest medical certainties of his day. Yet, in his letter, the quality he emphasized was not the scientist’s finely tuned analytic instrument, but the ability to exist comfortably amidst uncertainty and doubt.
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