Character development via negativa

The process of intelligence via negativa is one in which I’m always tickled pink to find new applications.

If you’re not familiar with via negativa, read the following: “A philosophical approach to theology which asserts that no finite concepts or attributes can be adequately used of God, but only negative terms”. That’s Oxford’s. But in reference to the study of knowledge or epistemology, the via negativa process defines thing by what they are not. This process has the benefit of being more sound. The common example is that of the black swan. If I see 1 million white swans in a row, this still cannot make me 100% certain that only white swans exist. It is all positive information. But if I see just one black swan, I can safely assert with 100% confidence that not all swans are white. The via negativa process carries great weight.

And so in application to character development does the process of via negativa carry weight. Instead of defining the characteristics of the person you would most like to emulate, define the characteristics of the person you would most despise. Don’t personalize this by saying, “Oh that’s Jerry down the street for sure. He’s a dick.” Because when you personalize, you start getting into some tricky business, since you can never know how Jerry’s life experiences have effected him mentally and how hard he tries to be a good person. Instead simply create a fictional person to whose motivations, life experiences and underlying thought processes you are 100% privy. 

And then work your hardest to never be that person. The process of defining that thing you most detest does not need to be a morbid one. It’s supposed to uncover or put in new light what you’re working towards. 



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3 responses to “Character development via negativa

  1. Chanelle

    If you are defining the thing you most despise, are you then not giving life and power to that same thing? Why contemplate on the wrong turn you took instead of accepting and moving on in the right path?

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  3. Elizabeth

    Many psychologists tell us that the characteristics we most despise in others are frequently those characteristics that we least accept in ourselves and are actually repressing. They bother us the most because they stir up the parts of ourselves that we reject and repress and it becomes harder to control that part of our subconscious. In order for us to keep that “shadow” part of ourselves under wraps, we must vigourously reject it. I am currently reading Anodea Judith’s book Eastern Body, Western Mind and she writes “Through judgement, we attempt to remove stimuli that might awaken our shadow.” The book is a fascinating combination of Western psychology and Eastern spirituality btw. The two philosophies together make a fascinating read. Anway, my point is that when we come across a characteristic we despise, it might be worthwhile to explore why we despise it so much. Becoming aware of our “shadow” and accepting its existence is an important part of being happy. We do not become monsters, we are simply aware of our more negative traits and can them face them more honestly. If we simply work hard to not be a certain way without understanding why that characteristic bothers us so much, we risk simply repressing that part of ourselves even more. The book above does a better job of explaining this than I am, I highly recommend it.

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