Thursday, November 6, 2008


This is Kenneth Burke, one of my heroes. He wrote copiously about dramatism and motivation, said unity was the primary human goal, and advocated a revival and adaptation of classical rhetoric. His theories have since been applied extensively to the teaching of writing.

He writes:
Rhetoric is "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols."

So Burke's saying that by our nature, we respond to symbols (you're reading symbols right now). He's also saying that rhetoric's purpose is to induce cooperation among others.

He tells us symbols do not accompany reality, they create it.

From a lecture about Burke: "Every aspect of [a person's] 'reality' us likely to be seen through this fog of symbols. And not even the hard reality of basic economic facts is sufficient to pierce this symbolic veil (which is intrinsic to the human mind)" (Edward C. Brewer).

So we can't really make sense of something until we name it. Or our reaction to something depends upon how we have decided to name it, how we interpret it symbolically. Other people sometimes behave in inexplicable ways, but it helps to understand how they are symbolizing (interpreting) events.

With this in mind, what do we do about the ambiguity, the imprecision, of language? It's like a loaded gun, worse, a weapon without precision of aiming and no predictability about what happens when the bullets do reach the target. OK, weird metaphor, but it makes sense to a Texas girl.

What about this childhood propaganda: "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me." As opposed to this: "The pen is mightier than the sword." Which is it?


Headwrapper said...

He tells us symbols do not accompany reality, they create it.


Carl Jung makes a distinction between archetypes and archetypal images. The archetypal image being the "named" or "imaged" energy structure that he calls the archetype. The archetypal image is for him a symbol whereas the archetype itself is a sort of 'pre' symbolic essence existing 'within' the clothing of symbols. In other words once we speak and name, or image in our head, we start to color and define the energy form, using our perception and vocabulary of "reality", and thus localize it. It becomes symbolic and a part of our contemporary mythology and we in this way "create our reality".

Or something like that..

I havn't read Burke but looking around I found an interesting quote where he says that the concept of original sin, or the bitten apple :), philosophically speaking, is -- "some ineradicable difference between individual and group which the individual eager to socialize himself might experience as a sense of guilt." Kenneth Burke

Sounds true to me.

Thanks for the stimulating post.

Indie said...

Headwrapper, I am familiar with Jungian archetypes but I had not made this connection. Thank you for helping me to see the connection.

Both these great thinkers recognized that we are creatures of symbolism.

I like thinking of it from a linguistic point of view as well as an anthropological one. There is a time in our lives before which learning the symbols of our culture is as easy as breathing. After that, it becomes more difficult, sometimes impossible. I think of the "feral" children, those who spent part of their childhood isolated from other humans, particularly language (symbols). If found after a certain age, they can never learn language.

So this symbolic response of our is probably completely related to culture, our big evolutionary asset.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post!

Headwrapper said...

Now you've got me curious about the art feral children make. What kind of markings, if any, they might make when given some art supplies. I wonder if they can be taught to draw a human, an animal, a flower, a house etc.

Indie said...

A lot of research (and rumor, hearsay and sensationalism) is compiled at, particularly relating to language acquisition.

From "An Account of a Savage Girl," "It is impossible to suppose, that language, the most wonderful art among men, should have been born with us, and practised by us from mere instinct, unless we could at the same time suppose, that other arts came into the world with us in the same manner; nor can we believe that it was sooner invented than other arts much less difficult, and more obvious."