Via Negativa: The Power of Knowing What Not to Do

The whale exploded on 12 November 1970. Its carcass had washed up on an Oregon beach a few days before. Not knowing how to get rid of the giant mammal, the authorities attempted to disintegrate the 8-ton beast. By blowing it up with half a ton of dynamite. When the dust settled and the pieces of dead meat stopped raining on fleeing spectators, a huge chunk of the whale was still there. News reporter Paul Linnman noted dryly: “It might be concluded that should a whale ever wash ashore at Lane County again, those in charge will not only remember what to do. They’ll certainly remember what not to do.”

The lesson learned the day the whale exploded was a lesson learned via negativa, that is, by way of negation. Via negativa is a little-known approach to improving our decision-making. Let’s take a look at what it is, how we can apply it in our everyday lives and what our exploding whale has in common with Michelangelo’s and Socrates’ way of thinking.

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