Burke, “Terministic Screens”

Burke, Kenneth. “Terministic Screens.” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. (19 pages)

Some of this ground has already been laid in Burke’s Grammar, but he specifically takes up the idea—and names explicitly, the concept of terministic screens, and it’s function in mediating reality. As he aptly (and iconically) writes, “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology, it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (1341). Burke notes the ways in which terministic screens direct attention: he uses the analogy of color filters on photographs as a way terministic screens mediate reality: how it’s perceived, recorded, and interpreted. He also makes reference to the ways that mental states are necessarily “fictions” “in the sense that we must express such concepts by the use of terms borrowed from the realm of the physical” (1342). Such borrowing of the physical world—the materials that inhabit our reality—directs our attention in interesting ways. In this way, he sees the powerful ways that symbol systems—namely, language—operate in reality: “’Reality’ could not exist for us, were it not for our profound and inveterate involvement in symbol systems” (1343).

Burke also notes the ways terminology creates (or breaks down) our relationships. He notes distinction between terministic screens positing difference of degree and difference in kind. It is from this distinction that he claims that the occupation of different terministic screens are not, in fact, a matter of mere relativism. Rather, he notes the duel ideas of people each having their own individual perspectives (no two people are alike) and being consubstantial in the ways that symbols mediate our reality. In other words, our relationship between people (and of course animals) is a matter of finding consubstantiation among people who may be different in kind or degree. He notes, because of all people are “symbol-using animals” it would seem the differenes among us would in degree; however, the difference between action and motion is one of kind: “and the difference between a thing and a person is that the one merely moves whereas the other acts


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