Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative) separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order) and rotten with perfection.
—  Kenneth Burke. I love this quote. It’s from his “Definition of Man” essay, printed in Language as Symbolic Action. He’s no easy read, but so worth it.
The point of view might be phrased in this way: Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations. In so far as situations are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and strategies for handling them. Another name for strategies might be attitudes.
     … A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary[.]
     … Art forms like 'tragedy’ or 'comedy’ or 'satire’ would be treated as equipments for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes.
—  Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1938) in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941), 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 296-97, 300, 304.
At first, law is hardly more than the codification of custom. But its formulation probably occurs because the customs are ceasing to possess unquestioned authority among the group as a whole, whereas a fraction of the group would greatly profit by the continuance of the old habits. Law is thus an educative, or manipulative device. It begins as theological law, still close to its “magical” origins – but as it develops and proliferates, a new situation arises: though it was originally a mere codification of custom, it now becomes an implement for the molding of custom. The popular resentment at lawyers, as symbolized in the play by Moliére, may derive in part from the fact that their prestidigitation is fundamentally impious, manipulating the abstractions of legal fiat until the commands of law have diverged farther and farther from the commands of custom, and eventually threaten to throw custom into confusion. Law becomes incongruous, except insofar as people can alter their customs to fit the liquid, constantly shifting alterations of law.

Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose 186-7, n 2.

so i’m just starting to read some Burke and i’m actually a huge fan of the way that he bases a philosophy on rhetoric and the ways that people rhetorically understand the world, themselves, and each other

On 'Trained Incapacity'

Burke defines the phrase as “that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses”.

- Kenneth Burk, Permanence and Change (1935) p.7; in: Erin Wais, Trained Incapacity: Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke (2005), KB Journal 2(1)

Burke’s use of trained incapacity not only expands Veblen’s use of that term, but provides a fecund concept that probably contributed to Burke’s thinking about orientation, perspective by incongruity, terministic screens, and other concepts that make up Burke’s theory of the symbol-using animal.

Erin Wais, Trained Incapacity: Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke (2005), KB Journal 2(1)

The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.
—  Kenneth Burke, Attitudes toward History, 1937.
Persuasion and Identification

Kenneth Burke’s Theory of Identification

Kenneth Burke, in his work A Rhetoric of Motives, describes the primary purpose of rhetoric:  persuasion.  More specifically, the basic function of rhetoric is the “use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents” (Burke, 1969, p.41).  Burke presents identification as an effective method of persuasion.  The rhetorician who appeals to an audience to the point where identification takes place has accomplished the purpose of his rhetoric.

           How does this identification occur?  As human beings are separate entities and naturally divided, joining interests can identify one person with another.  Unification for a common goal enables one individual in essence to become one with another.  Burke defines “substance” as action, and a way of life fulfilling that action as “consubstantial.”  For, in “acting together men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, and attitudes that make them consubstantial” (Burke, 1969, p.21).  The consubstantial group finds identification in common effort towards a specific goal, which in turns becomes a way of life. 

           Ironically, the impetus that unites groups together in common identity is often in response to division, or is divisive in its very unification.  According to Burke, “identification is compensatory to division.  If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim unity” (Burke, 1969, p.22).  Burke describes the ultimate extreme divisive act that serves to unify sides together, or unification in response to division:  war.  Burke indicates it is the role of the rhetorician to employ rhetoric to unify the fractured factions into action for a specific goal, even if this means identification through establishing a common adversary.  The rhetorician employs for his purpose the knowledge that man does not wish to stay separate, but eagerly seeks communication and acceptance into a group through identification, even if this leads to a battle.

Where does the drama get its materials? From the ‘unending conversation’ that is going on at the point in history when you are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
—  Kenneth Burke, “The Philosophy of Literary Form” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941), 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 110–11.

A Grammar of Motives - Kenneth Burke

Central question: “What is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it? An answer to that question is the subject of this book. The book is concerned with the basic forms of thought which, in accordance with the nature of the world as all men necessarily experience it, are exemplified in the attributing of motives.” (Grammar of Motives, p.xv)

Central issue: “(…) increase our awareness (my own and others’) of the ways in which motives move us and deceive us, if we are not to goad one another endlessly to the cult of powers that can bring no genuine humaneness to the world.”(The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley: 1915-1981, p.27)

For an extensive summary go to: