Burke, “Definition of Man”

Burke, Kenneth. “Definition of Man.” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. (24 pages)

Burke defines man in five ways:

  1. Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misuding) animal. In this way, Burke positions the use of symbols as solidly in the lane of man. He offers a few examples with birds (to illuminate the symbol-using nature of man). Birds, like most animals, fall into “tropism” where the animal repeats instinctual behaviors despite its best interest—thus, performing a motion than action. In his second example, he discusses a heron who is coaxed out of his nest by it’s mom by her presenting food away from the nest. Burke notes how such a technique would be considered an act if it can be circulated and repeated with other birds, and to be able to conceptualize this behavior and a way that it can be repeated. Burke also considers motives that either derive from animality or symbolicity (or both). He, thus, returns to the idea of motion and action: where motives for animality is in some way connected to motion, symbolicity is connected to action.
  2. Man is inventor of the negative. Here, Burke focuses attention particularly on the ways language deflects unlike in nature.
  3. Man is separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making. This aspect concerns itself with technologies or tools that man employs beyond survival (like, entertainment, for example). He connects tools with language: “the the development of tools requires a kind of attention not possible without symbolic means of conceptualization” (504). So, like the heron, tools are conceptualized within some kind of purpose to be repeated, redesigned, etc.
  4. Man is goaded by the spirit of hierarchy. Or, alternately, “Moved by a sense of order.” Man is often defined by his incentives for organization and status. “Here man’s skills with symbols combines with his negativity and his tendencies towards different modes of livelihood implicit in the inventions that make for divisions of labor, the result being definitions and differentiations and allocations of property protected by the negativities of the lay” (506).
  5. Man is rotten with perfection Although Burke does not mention this explicitly (so take it with a grain of salt), I interpreted this aspect in terms of prototype and paradigm he earlier outlined in Grammar of Motives. So, man strives toward perfection by acting, creating, behaving, performing, etc. by moving as close along the paradigm or prototype as possible. He specifically reminds us that he is also referring to symbolic action: there is a “compulsion” by man to attempt to carry out the implications of a terministic screen: “A given terminology contains various implications, and there is a corresponding ‘perfectionist’ tendency for men to attempt to carrying out those implications” (510). It is in this definition that he hints toward the emergence of the scapegoat: Perfection (as the 2nd clause outlines) implies imperfection—or in this case a competing paradigm—that is scapegoated for the problems of the “original” paradigm.
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