The Liberal Arts Are Dying Because Liberalism is Dying
Negative Capability Is Rarer Than We Thought
“The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts, not a select party.”
Keats calls the ability to entertain doubt and uncertainty without going mad or becoming hyper-rational in reaction, “negative capability.” Discomfort is not just generative for the poet, but the greatest source of creative achievement for any person devoted to understanding and self-improvement. Hegel makes a similar claim in his Phenomenology of Spirit when he describes his method—and the method of historical progress—as “tarrying with the negative.”
There is a Jewish saying which resonates with this Hegelian dictum: “Though the messiah will tarry, I will wait for him.” Heard in a romantic light, the point is not that we should wait in spite of the messiah’s delay, but rather, that waiting—enduring negativity—itself is the virtue most needed to bring redemption. Open-mindedness is a world-saving virtue.
The Keatsian endeavor has never been popular, but is particularly unfashionable today. Religious fundamentalists reject it on the grounds that revelation and commitment are needed to orient oneself in the world. The amorality of a poet who is a “thoroughfare for all thoughts” risks heresy or destabilization. Tell me where you stand, where your loyalty is, first, and only then can we engage in discussion.
Western Activist culture, which is a mutated form of New Awakening Protestantism, rejects negative capability for similar reasons. How can I be asked to check my commitments at the door when power is so imbalanced? Isn’t it just an ideology of “privilege” that allows the most fortified to become the devil’s advocate while all for whom the stakes are real are branded “snowflakes”? For all their disagreements, cultural conservatives and cultural progressives share a suspicion that negative capability is not a neutral value, but a Trojan horse for relativism and atomization. Critics regard “Negative capability” as ahistoric and flattening. For the political animal, the only question is who has the power and who is marginalized. The antidote to negative capability, they offer, is what Wordsworth calls the egotistical sublime—my right to self-expression, and, with the advent of social media, to go viral.
Our moment is one in which the popularity of Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” especially among the young, is in decline. If I stand behind a veil of ignorance, what is even there? Identity and tribalism precede any ability to engage in “public reason,” say the critics.
We find similar critiques of mindfulness meditation, the preferred practice of the “Nones.” Both the identitarian left and the localist right are uncomfortable with the idea of an emptiness that is more truthful than doctrine, the notion of a no-self upstream of identity. If Buddhism is to be mobilized for political ends then what matters is not the illusory nature of the self (which casts doubt on all political projects) but the prescribed nature of “compassion,” which unsurprisingly confirms my own ideological priors and the priors of those who share my class.
Woke: Moral indignation.
The dream of a Liberal (arts) education—which is the scaled, democratic form of the Keatsian ideal of negative capability—cannot hold up when liberalism itself is held to be suspect. What kind of a subject is so malleable, so care-free that she can bracket her feelings and identifications to just let thoughts be, without judgment and reaction? To understand our moment, consider the case of an excommunicated Spinoza as if it were a contemporary event. The Op-Ed would read: “There’s no such thing as cancel culture, just consequences.”
Leo Strauss was a strong proponent of liberal arts education, and yet he was also aware that it is not for everyone. Socrates was put to death because most people, rightfully prefer myth to critical thinking. Strauss understood that Athens and Jerusalem are two competing ideals, two mutually exclusive models, for organizing society. Athens espouses the ideal of negative capability, but Jerusalem espouses the ideal of obedience to the Divine Law. Even the ancient Greeks did not think everyone should philosophize. They thought that philosophers should maintain a critical distance from society, whose myths are needed to maintain order. The truth is not always adaptive—at a collective level—even if it is, for an individual, the most ennobling cause.
Strauss would have recognized in our “post-liberal” moment a vindication of his thesis that great thinkers should write “esoterically” out of consideration not only for their own fates, but out of respect for society. For Strauss, the problem is not the Keatsian ideal of “negative capability,” then, but the expectation that most people can or should achieve it. Negative capability is a rare talent.
What Jonathan Haidt calls “safetyism” (the rejection of negative capability) Strauss would simply call Jerusalem. “Intersectionality” is a new catechism, demanding a priori faith. It is the mirror-image of Catholic integralism. You cannot reason to it. One simply takes communion and joins the body of the faithful. Jerusalem is alive and well. The problems we face as a society, then, are not new. Culture war (a sublimated form of religious war) is to be expected. It is a mild expression of what Strauss calls the “theological-political” problem. We should expect college campuses to be the ground-zero for this problem, as they are the place where the nature and purpose of education is decided. The cognitive dissonance kicks in only when we assume that the purpose of the university to stand for “the liberal arts” en masse. The ability to stand for liberal arts values rises and falls with the cultural popularity of liberalism.
The suggestion that “negative capability” is not for everyone may strike some as aristocratic, a retreat from the promise of democracy. And yet, ironically, it has been forced to retreat because of strong charges of elitism. If we accept this retreat as inevitable, if not desirable, the question then becomes, “Who are the people on the margin who might benefit from negative capability but are currently blocked?” The quest to preserve this value would no longer be a quest to elevate it to a national or cultural ideal. Rather, we might think of it as a sport. The task of teachers of the liberal arts would be to serve as scouts, looking out for a small vanguard in the next generation onto whom to pass the torch.
The liberal arts are in decline not primarily because of STEM’s ascendancy, not simply because humanities programs are being defunded, and not because deconstruction has dug its own grave—these are co-morbidities—but because liberalism itself is unfashionable.
Rather than decry this situation we might simply acknowledge the reality that true thinking and poetizing is clandestine. No annual report or resume will be able to measure it. Even in a modern society, poets must remain “unacknowledged legislators.” For the world is not yet ready for negative capability. The messiah has been delayed. Supply chain issues.