It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: The Power of Negative Thinking

Ryan Gallagher on 2020-01-01

Photo by Joshua Harris on Unsplash

“He could make you see how the world could be In spite of the way that it is”

Andre De Shield’s words as Hermes in the Broadway musical Hadestown, ring in my ears daily. The musical adaptation of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice, artfully captures the power of negative thinking. According to the myth, wherever the poet, Orpheus, travels, singing and playing his lyre, nature and people seem to just…come alive. Anxiety and work stop, and play, recreation, and life begin. So too, in Anaïs Mitchell’s Broadway adaptation. Everyone in the story from Hermes and Eurydice, to Hades and his workers in the dystopian coal mining town begin to question their hopeless world and imagine a better one at the inspiration of Orpheus’ sometimes hopelessly naive, always refreshingly imaginative songs. What Orpheus was doing in making the people he encountered see how the world could be in spite of the way that it was, was thinking negatively.

When we talk about negative thinking, we aren’t talking about pessimism, or some masochistic depressive self-torture. Indeed, it requires an optimist like Orpheus to even attempt. Rather, negative thinking is how some philosophers suggest we encounter our world and our communities. What we mean is literally to negate — to contradict. In contrast to a school of philosophy known as the Positivists—who believed we can only discover truths about the world with our five senses, they only sought to find that which is already there — Hegelian and Marxist philosophers believed that the world as we encounter it is sort of…incomplete, or imperfect—self-contradictory, even. They believed the world had potential which it is not yet meeting, and it is up to humans, through Reason, to change it.

But in order to create a different world, we first have to be able to imagine it. That’s where negative thinking comes in. We have to imagine that the world could somehow be different than it is now, to challenge the status quo, to negate, or contradict, the current status of affairs. We have to analyze, criticize, and identify the ways things could be better. We have to believe that it doesn’t have to be this way.

The problem is, the ruling forces of our society want to convince us that it does have to be this way, that what we have is good, and even the bad bits cannot be improved. (“Freeing African American slaves will destroy the economy,” “Only kings are qualified to govern,” “How will we pay for it?”).

We see this push and pull over and over throughout history. There is always a group that sees problems with our society and has a vision to change them — think Moses & the prophets, Socrates & Plato , Jesus & the early church, Martin Luther & the Reformers, the Enlightenment philosophers & revolutionaries, abolitionists, or the Civil Rights Leaders like MLK Jr., Malcom X, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela — and there is always a group diametrically opposed to them that benefits from the way things are and resists change and, indeed, attempts to convince us that change is impossible — think Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman emperors & the Sadducees, the Pope & Catholic Church during the Reformation, Enlightenment era kings & queens terrified of revolution, and, in the 20th century, white supremacists & owners of capital who were terrified of a potential end to the divisions of race & class.

In all of those eras of momentous change, an ideological war had to be won first. Those who could see a vision for a better world — Moses’ Promised Land, MLK’s “I Have a Dream” — couldn’t bring about those changes on their own. They had to convince the masses of people that it was possible. They had to inspire lots of regular people to recognize their own oppression and imagine something different. Before any migrations, protests, or revolutions could take hold, the people had to think negatively, to negate the way things are, challenge the status quo, and say “it doesn’t have to be this way.”

One of my favorite philosophers, Herbert Marcuse, began the preface to his work on the philosophy of Hegel, Reason and Revolution, with this passage:

“This book was written in the hope that it would make a small contribution to the revival, not of Hegel, but of a mental faculty which is in danger of being obliterated: the power of negative thinking. As Hegel defines it: ‘Thinking is, indeed, essentially the negation of that which is immediately before us.’”

For Hegel, as for Marcuse after him, to think is to critique — to imagine. If we just went around accepting and affirming everything we saw, we wouldn’t really be thinking, we would just be viewing, spectating, but not participating. We don’t walk through the world and say “Yup, that’s a tree, yup, that’s a river, yup, that’s a business.” We think and seek to understand and even change the things we encounter. We notice what makes this tree or that animal different from others. We cut down the tree and build a house out of it, because we see different potentialities in it, other than “tree.” We build a bridge to get over the river, or a boat to use the river as a means of transportation. We domesticate animals to help us with work, or even to just be companions. We see more potential in horses and dogs than just “animal,” and actively mold them to realize those potentialities. We think about ways to improve our businesses, whether it’s the way work is done to be more efficient, or by forming a union to change the way power, wealth, and production are distributed within it, realizing the potentialities of our value, cooperation, and solidarity as workers. We, as humans, exist to think negatively, to mold the world into a better place for all of us.

Marcuse continues:

“[Negative thinking] is a critique of the given state of affairs on its own grounds — of the established system of life, which denies its own promises and potentialities.”

Marcuse recognized that thinking negatively is hard, the world and the ruling forces of society deliberately make it hard to see potentialities that are as yet hidden. Whether that is the potential of a canvas to be a beautiful painting, or an atypical child to learn and prosper, or an oppressed group of people to be free and happy members of society, negative thinking demands discipline, practice, and imagination.

In Hadestown, Hades taught his workers a call-and-response chant, Why We Build the Wall, to indoctrinate and convince them that their work was necessary, their wages generous, and those on the “outside” were the enemy who wanted what they had on the “inside,” the aforementioned jobs and wages.

What do we have that they should want? What do we have that they should want? We have a wall to work upon! We have work and they have none And our work is never done My children, my children And the war is never won The enemy is poverty And the wall keeps out the enemy And we build the wall to keep us free That’s why we build the wall We build the wall to keep us free

It isn’t until Orpheus shows up and his music and life contradict Hades’ propagandized view of the world that maybe they are the ones who are, indeed, not free.

“Why are we digging our own grave for a livin’? Why do we build a wall and then call it freedom?”

they begin to ask themselves.

Our call and response chants are a little more subtle than Mr. Hades’, but if you look closely, they are everywhere. In the news, in the workplace, in business-accepted music and media, in the president’s tweets. The status quo is constantly affirmed, imagination and hope ignored, twisted, or attacked.

So next time when someone tells you we cannot afford Medicare for All or free tuition, or that workers cannot manage their businesses as effectively as their corporate bosses, or that women cannot preach or queer people cannot be who they really are, remember Orpheus. Remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. Dare to think negatively.

“Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

— Karl Marx, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach (1845)