Kenneth Burke

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Kenneth Burke (1897 - 1993) was a major American literary theorist and philosopher. Burke's primary interests were in rhetoric and aesthetics.

Burke, like many twentieth century theorists and critics, was heavily influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He was also significantly influenced by Thorstein Veblen. Burke resisted being pigeonholed as a follower of any philosophical or political school of thought, and had a notable and very public break with the Marxists who dominated the literary criticism set in the 1930s. The political and social power of symbols was central to Burke's scholarship throughout his career. His political engagement is evident, for example, at the outset of A Grammar of Motives in its epigraph, ad bellum purificandum -- toward the purification of war, with "pure" war implying its elimination. Burke felt that the study of rhetoric would help human beings understand "what is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it." Burke called such analysis "dramatism" and believed that such an approach to language analysis and use could help us understand the basis of conflict, the virtues and dangers of cooperation, and the opportunities of identification and consubstantiality.

Burke defined the rhetorical function of language as "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols." He defined "man" as "the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, and rotten with perfection." For Burke, some of the most significant problems in human behavior resulted from situations in which symbols used human beings rather than human beings using symbols.

In Burke's philosophy, social interaction and communication should be understood in terms of a pentad, which includes act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. He proposed that most social interaction and communication can be approached as a form of drama whose outcomes are determined by ratios between these five pentadic elements. This has become known as the "dramatistic pentad." The pentad is grounded in his dramatistic method, which sees the relationship between life and theater as literal rather than metaphorical: for Burke, all the world really is a stage. Burke pursued literary criticism not as a formalistic enterprise but rather as an enterprise with significant sociological impact; he saw literature as "equipment for living," offering people folk wisdom and common sense to people and thus guiding the way people lived their lives.

Another key concept for Burke is the terministic screen -- a set of symbols that becomes a kind of screen or grid of intelligibility through which the world makes sense to us. Here Burke offers rhetorical theorists and critics a way of understanding the relationship between language and ideology. Language, Burke thought, doesn't simply "reflect" reality; it also helps select reality as well as deflect reality.

His principal works include:

  • Counter-Statement (1931)
  • Permanence and Change (1935)
  • Attitudes Toward History (1937)
  • Philosophy of Literary Form (1939)
  • A Grammar of Motives (1945)
  • A Rhetoric of Motives (1950)
  • A Rhetoric of Religion (1961)
  • Language as Symbolic Action (1966)

He also wrote a novel, Towards a Better Life.

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