The Later Corpus
The preceding chapter has shown that Burke's work in the Thirties placed him squarely on a systems theory path. By the end of the decade he seems rather sure that the structure of the system is a network, and he also knows that this network of associations is not static. Any given concept can rise or fall, and it would accordingly form new linkages and break old ones. This process allows the system to grow and change in order to avoid epistemological crisis. Clearly a complete systemic theory of symbolic action will require that Burke account for change and function, which are the tasks of his next two books, the first installments of a projected trilogy that will occupy him for the next decade. Having accomplished that, the next logical step would be to attempt a chart of the system. Accordingly, Burke's following book attempts to map a part of the overall system. Before looking at this undertaking and its results, a brief look at the time that gave rise to it is in order.
4.1 Biographical Background
In the Thirties, we have noted, Burke witnessed massive dislocation of people's lives because of a fluctuation of the stock market, which is, in some ways, a purely symbolic system; the day after the Crash there were just as many workers, just as many dollars, just as many factories as before, yet somehow everything was devastated. Not coincidentally, Burke has also seen the rise of Hitler, who through purely symbolic manipulation managed to take control of a country, and then a continent. Then in the Forties came the worldwide conflagration set in motion by these disruptions. In such a chaotic world, the search for unity and meaning become much more difficult, but also more compelling. Burke dedicates his next book "ad bellum purificandum"--to the purification of war (and perhaps the purifying war as well).
To understand human behavior becomes all the more crucial when humans have demonstrated the logistical ability to commit genocide and have the technological ability to incinerate cities in a matter of seconds. Consequently, science turned itself to this important task of understanding human behavior using the same basic methodology that had led to such spectacular results at Los Alamos. Such methods led to stimulus-response psychology, operationalism, behaviorism in the behavioral sciences, and General Semantics in language study. While Burke asserts that all methods and points of view can make contributions, he is equally certain that to understand human thinking and actions requires understanding its context.
In the critical wars of the time, there were the relativists who claimed that context could not be accounted for, and thus certainty was impossible. At the other extreme were the formalists and empiricists who felt that context did not matter, and thus ignored it as much as possible. Burke avoids both extremes and comes up with a model for dealing with context: Dramatism. Burke seems to intuitively see that human symbol systems are of a different order than machines, and thus require different methods and models. The model that Burke eventually finds that will allow him to consider all the factors is the drama.
After completing The Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke had originally planned to publish a volume called On Human Relations, which he describes as a post-Machiavellian study of the tactics people use to outwit themselves and others (1968 217). However, he felt that he first needed to do some background work. At the same time he was tutoring his students at Bennington College in philosophy. The result of this combination of factors was A Grammar of Motives (1945), the first of a projected trilogy on motives. The first volume, the grammar, was intended to demonstrate the purely "logical" dimensions of linguistic structures by distilling out the principles of symbolic action through the analysis of theological, legal and metaphysical texts (1968 218). The second volume, the rhetoric, was to investigate the polemical uses of such strategies. The projected third volume, the Symbolic of Motives, was to carry further the problems of poetics and ethics examined in The Philosophy of Literary Form.
In the middle Fifties, Burke altered the plan somewhat and intended to split poetics from ethics and deal with the latter in a fourth book, but as most of what he wanted to say about poetics appeared in Language as Symbolic Action (1966), he decided that a third book on ethics would complete the Motivorum. The ethics book, On Human Relations, was in fact published some years back, but it turned out to be an anthology of essays already published in earlier volumes. Instead of the projected ethics, Burke published a short book, The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), in which he introduced Logology (the study of words as words) as a supplement to Dramatism.
The last of Burke's major works, Language as Symbolic Action, appeared five years later. Burke attributes the cessation of writing major texts to the death of his wife, Libbie, in the late Sixties. Despite the fact that (or perhaps because) he had stopped publishing major texts, in the early Seventies Burke notes to his friend Malcolm Cowley that the world is catching up, and as a result Burke is finally getting the recognition and acclaim that he has long deserved (Jay 359-360). The final chapter of the present work will be largely devoted to showing how the world has indeed caught up with Burke.
4.2 A Grammar of Motives
We noted at the outset that the task for the human sciences in this century has been accounting for context. Burke tries to account for the complexities of context by bringing in sociological, psychological, anthropological and other fields' terminologies and metaphors. In A Grammar of Motives Burke discovers that the dramatic metaphor is commodious enough to allow him to make a comprehensive analysis of human action in context. For Burke, human beings are like actors in a drama: they act in a given scene (context), with instruments, for a purpose. In all, Burke's Dramatistic Pentad offers five terms--act, agency, agent, scene and purpose--for analyzing human behavior. He claims that no account of motives can be complete without them.
In A Grammar of Motives Burke demonstrates that all philosophical schools are permutations of this set of terms. For example, the scientistic approach tends to reduce behavior to scene, because it eliminates the teleological (purpose) and leaves the mechanistic. Causality is simplified as well, dealing only with final cause, thus eliminating any need for a prime mover or a material cause (78-79), a criticism echoed by Bertalanffy as well. If any set of terms achieves hegemony, the inevitable result is an impoverishing reduction. This, of course, is precisely why Burke has been opposing scientism. Burke finds reductionist science so oppressive that he traces its origins, perhaps to demonstrate its shortcomings.
4.2.1 The Roots of Scientism
Burke notes that when materialism is applied to the physical realm, generally atomism is the result (129). He traces this debilitating scientistic reduction back to the materialist Thomas Hobbes who proclaimed that "All that exists is body, all that occurs is motion" (131). Materialism narrows the circumference of scene so much that action is reduced to motion, hence the popularity of using machine models. In such a scheme imagination is demoted to decaying sense, a kind of echo of real sensations. Even will is reduced to mechanism (145), which brings Hobbes "quite close to the metaphysics of modern behaviorist psychology" (136). Because machine models cannot account for telos, purpose is reduced to rational necessity (and eventually to instinctual drives or conditioned reflexes).
We find in Hobbes an exemplar of another notion of seventeenth century empiricism: he not only sets up the reduction to the machine model, but he also denigrates language and metaphor.26 Language is annoying and even dangerous to a classical scientist because it will not stay put. Metaphor in particular is suspect because it allows for all sorts of sleight-of-hand, and rousing the mob. Eventually, historical philologists will see systematic resemblances among languages, and some of the more readily understandable aspects of language will be found to be systematic (e.g., syntax and phonology). But the kinds of language use that Burke looks at are not as neat, and thus their systematic attributes are not nearly so discernable, as we shall see in the next chapter.
Contradicting the scientistic tradition, Burke also heretically declares that not only is language not dismissable, but that it is the ground of human behavior and thinking. Earlier he had described humans as communicators, but now he promotes them to actors who establish an identity (role) and act by means of and in a context of words (passim). This Dramatistic model is appropriate for studying human situations because it allows for complex consideration of complex phenomena (though literary characters will be somewhat less complicated than a real human being, and thus their motives will be simpler and more evident). Moreover, the Dramatistic Pentad allows Burke to think in terms of context, and eventually, system. It also gives him a way of making what he calls "rounded" (i.e., systematic) statements about action. More interesting in the present context is that he wants to consider the interrelationships (called "ratios") between the five elements--certainly evidence of systemic and systematic thinking.
In A Grammar of Motives, Burke repeats his earlier assertion that motives cannot be reduced to the terms favored by classical science (i.e., trying to treat entities in terms of their particles is a limited methodology). In this volume Burke continues his objections to over-reductionist models in the human sciences (particularly Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics). Rather than choosing as his representative anecdote the conditioned motions of a chicken, Burke chooses action.27 But Burke is not content to merely show the shortcomings of standard methodology. He must also show the advantages of his own systemic approach.
Whereas in his earlier work Burke postulated the existence of social systems, here he offers some ideas about the constitution of these systems and their function. These systems are made up of names, allowing human beings to classify and thus evaluate phenomena (96). Certain that he is dealing with systems, Burke sets out to explain how they operate. However, his argument that language is systematic cannot be accepted if he cannot discern systematic behavior in what linguist Edward Sapir called "a perfect hornet's nest of bizarre and arbitrary usages" (Duerden 201). But because the symbol system is always in flux, anyone who wants to be able to examine it must be able to deal with change. In consequence, the mechanism of transformation is the subject of Grammar of Motives. Burke identifies two related sources: the paradox of substance, and the overlaps in the network which allow for "alchemic opportunities" for transformation and thus for symbolic action.
Burke's metaphor for the paradox of substance is a central moltenness which throws forth distinctions that can be reabsorbed (xix). The ambiguity of language allows for transformation, which, as the last chapter will argue, is essentially, "substantially," metaphor. That is, metaphor is a primary way of reorganizing categories. Because of its importance in the theory to follow, we must look at Burke's thinking on classification.
Because of the flexibility in the system provided by the paradox of substance, people can not only classify, but reclassify. The idea of classification (as evaluation) occurs frequently in this volume. Humans classify automatically and effortlessly; for example, Burke points out that even a tic that arises from the mentioning of a certain thing is evidence of the presence of a scheme of classification (418). Burke's view is that in order to understand anything we must place it in terms of something else (24) and that we cannot see otherwise than in terms of categories (190). Thus all thinking involves classification; a generalization takes a group of items and gives them a single property, which allows them to be considered as one thing. Even to apply a proper name to anything over time is to recognize a principle of continuity (96).28
What is interesting rhetorically about classification is reclassification. Transformation in human symbol systems occurs by merging and splitting classes. Burke explains that merger and division are resources operating in all classification systems--from the most formal and scientific to the most informal and poetic (401-4). We will return to the issue of classification in Chapter Six.
The idea of classification brings us to the second and related source of transformation: terminological overlap. We have posited that metaphor is the process of transformation wherein related things can be classified together, but so great is the transformational potential of language that ostensibly unrelated things can be grouped together (in fact, opposites can). As Burke (following Hegel) points out, everything is the other: this speaks to the transformative ability of symbolic systems (1973 77). This system is so flexible because, according to Burke, all distinctions "arise out of a great central moltenness where all is merged" (1969a xix). These distinctions are thrown up and reabsorbed so that "A" can become "not-A," not by a leap from one to the other but by returning to a point where the two are consubstantial. So "substance" can come to mean nothing (just as "sanction" can mean both something permitted and forbidden).
This flexibility in the categorization system allows it to be restructured as required. For example, one of two contrasting categories to be expanded until the two merge. Moreover, Burke demonstrates that terms can be stretched to cover different cases, which increases the overlap between terms. These overlaps make alchemic transformation possible; for example, pirates can call themselves purveyors in an attempt to reposition themselves in the quality space (i.e., the pirates return to a level of generality at which there is no distinction between legitimate and illegitimate transportation of goods. Similar effects can be gotten by division as well: buccaneers who steal from the government are hanged, whereas privateers who steal for the government are knighted). The conclusion of the present work will show how such association and dissociation strategies are employed to reclassify quality space for rhetorical purposes.
By current standards, Burke's ideas on language appear plausible, but at the time they were treated with a great deal of skepticism. In particular, Burke's anti-scientistic ideas were criticized. In his review of A Grammar of Motives, Abraham Kaplan urges Burke not to throw out the scientific baby with the scientistic bathwater (Rueckert 1969 70-77). Kaplan also accuses Burke of writing a thesaurus; however, to show the overlap between terms is to demonstrate the existence of a system. He also takes Burke to task for concerning himself with words and neglecting "reality"--a recurrent accusation. John Crowe Ransom sides with Burke in the humanistic vs. mechanistic argument, but agrees that Burke disregards reality, dismissing his dialectic as a "verbal trick" (163). Philosopher Max Black (whom Burke refers to as Black Max) skewers Burke for his lack of precision and for not using the proofs of academic philosophy, calling the book a "vast rambling edifice of quasi-sociological and quasi-psychology [which] rests on unexamined metaphysical assumptions" (168-169).
A Grammar of Motives is important to Burke's overall project to analyze symbolic action because he attempts to account for the transformational abilities of the system that underlies symbolic action. This is essential for several reasons. First, if one wants to argue, as Burke has, that an epistemological crisis is caused by a system not adapting, the way such a system changes is important to know. Second, if one wants to claim that a static scientific approach to language is too limited, demonstrating the dynamic nature of the system would be useful. Third, if symbolic action is itself the transformation of the system, it would behoove Burke to understand how such transformation takes place.
This volume is also significant because in it Burke inaugurates Dramatism, a method which allows for a complete (i.e., systematic and systemic) description of human behavior. Here Burke's work is not only systematic, but metasystematic, since he is analyzing the relationships between philosophical systems. In the next volume he will show how the alembic possibilities that the transformative nature of symbol systems make possible are used in "The Wrangle," as he liked to call it, of public discourse.
4.3 A Rhetoric of Motives
A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) is the second book in the projected Motivorum trilogy. As the title suggests, it is concerned with persuasion (i.e., with how the strategies enumerated in the Grammar are actually employed in persuasive discourse). The specific goal of this volume is to reclaim, expand and update rhetoric, whose subject matter had been taken over by social sciences or abandoned. In order to make such a reclamation possible, Burke must demonstrate the need for rhetorical study. Thus he must point out the shortcomings of the then current scientistic methodology.
4.3.1 Contra Scientism
While, as we have seen, all his previous work takes issue with reductionist scientism, here Burke indulges in what might be considered unfair criticisms. He repeats his imputation of scientistic experiments being motivated by sadism, and associates the Holocaust with scientific genocide (32). More defensible, perhaps, is his recrimination of science for producing the atomic bomb. But Burke's major quarrel with science remains its reductive nature. Because the dominant ideology is scientism, and because scientism had denigrated rhetoric, Burke is obligated to attack scientism in order to reclaim rhetoric. He employs four strategies to accomplish this, some of which he has employed previously.
One way that he defends rhetoric from scientistic attack is to put it on a plane beyond science, a strategy also employed by I.A. Richards and Yvor Winters (Knox 28). Burke claims that rhetoric and metaphor are outside the realm of true-false. Using one of his favorite dialectical moves (showing the common substance of things generally considered opposites), Burke asserts that opinion is not the opposite of truth--an assertion that would not become a Kuhnian commonplace for a decade or two.
Burke's second strategy to reclaim rhetoric is to demonstrate that it is important to account for human behavior and motives, and that positive science cannot accomplish this. Science wants to dismiss rhetoric as verbal trickery which science has superseded as it has any other kind of magic or superstition. Burke counters that magic is not bad science but bad rhetoric; i.e., applying exhortation to things that cannot respond (40-42). However, the "word magic" of political discourse is real, and can be extremely effective, even fatal. Similarly, Burke points out that words about the supernatural are real, even if the supernatural is not.29
Despite the claims of the Logical Positivists, Burke shows that words have meaning even when they do not correspond to a physical thing. In fact, the most powerful words (God-terms) do not, for example, God, Apartheid, patriotism, etc. Thus any science whose method is confined to finding a one-to-one correspondence between words and objects is going to be little help in trying to understand human thinking and behavior. Burke's third anti-scientistic strategy is closely related to his second. He attempts to show that science is not as positive as it wants to portray itself. Even if a thing is positively there, the relationships between the things, and even the principles of positivism are not (184).
Should anyone remain unconvinced of the importance of rhetoric, Burke has a fourth and final strategy: "if you can't beat'em, join'em" (or rather, show that the scientists have already joined him). A Rhetoric of Motives incorporates anthropology and psychology, and even the General Semantics he had attacked in the previous volume (77). Burke even goes so far as to claim that information and even science itself are derived from persuasion--though information is usually contrasted with persuasion (177). As one might expect from someone who is usurping territory, Burke does finally have some "positive" views about positive methodology; he calls it athletic and precise, and perfectly adequate, except when dramatistic elements are present (191). The positivist ideal of a physicalist vocabulary is simply not up to accounting for motives, which necessarily involve purpose and action. The pseudo-scientific "cult of the questionnaire," Burke asserts, is inadequate because quantifying is not helpful (15).
In the reviews of A Rhetoric of Motives, most critics (at least the sympathetic ones) have caught on to the systematic nature of Burke's project. While philosopher Kermit Lansner acknowledges that Burke "has devoted the last twenty years to the elaboration of a system of theories which embraces many crucial problems," he also characterizes the dialectical nature of the work as "a strange mixture of sense and nonsense. . . . system and no system" (Rueckert 1969 261-2). Lansner states that Burke's is a "systematic intellect" which appears to be unsystematic, but the merging of opposites is in fact "the key to Burke's system" (Rueckert 1969 261-2). Malcolm Cowley discerns in this book "the outlines of a philosophical system on a grand scale" (Rueckert 249).
Critical acceptance (or at least acknowledgment) of Burke's systematic aspects after the publication of A Rhetoric of Motives is no coincidence. Evidence of Burke's systemic thinking is readily seen throughout the work; in fact, there is much more theorizing about systems, both direct and indirect, than in earlier works. Not only does Burke analyze many of the systems that have intrigued him over the years, but he discusses the interrelationships among them as well: e.g., biological systems (both physiological and ecological), psychological, linguistic (i.e., symbolic) systems, and social and economic systems.
Burke's systemic approach is radically opposed to the dominant methodologies of the time, such as stimulus-response psychology. Though Burke knows that human beings are animals, with the attendant instinctual drives that Freud and empiricists want to make so much of, human beings also inhabit a symbolic system. Because this is so, humans and animals are completely different. To use Burke's example, when a human hears a bird's song in the spring, it is not a stimulus to a particular response. Rather, this song activates a "wider orbit of meanings" (175). The human mind is a system of associated clusters of ideas, including spring, rebirth, plenty etc. So humans respond to the idea of spring, not just to a stimulus per se.
This qualitative difference in response between humans and animals is the reason that Burke thinks that the medieval idea of allegorical, tropological or anagogic meaning is more apt for studying human behavior than studying the responses of chickens on electrified plates. Burke asserts that objects have secret identifications (associations) with the judgement of status; here he hints at the system being evaluative and, consequently, hierarchical (219). As we saw in Chapter Two, hierarchy and teleology are crucial concepts in systems theory in general, and Burke makes much of it in examining symbolic action in social systems in the present volume. In order to fully appreciate the systemic nature of Burke's thinking, a brief examination of his ideas about hierarchy and telos is in order.
Hierarchy is central to Burke's conception of system. He declares that hierarchy is inevitable in complex human thought, and seems to ground hierarchy in both language (279-80) and the brain, observing that the expression of some impulses requires the suppression of others (330). But most of Burke's thinking about hierarchy comes about in his analysis of social systems. According to Burke, the hierarchy of social classes came about because of property and the division of labor. Thus all social systems are hierarchies, and hence create mystification, which in turn requires social courtship and "consubstantiation" (Consubstantiation is compensatory to biological separateness as well as social.) (21). But not only is there a hierarchy of social roles, there is also a hierarchy of social concepts and goals. The possession of symbol systems makes such abstract goals possible (and possibly inevitable: that is why Burke will later claim that human beings are "rotten with perfection," and that hierarchical quality space is a goad to action) (1966 16). As Burke and Bertalanffy both assert, the existence of levels provokes efforts to transcend them. This brings us to teleology.
Perhaps it is not that odd to find words like "purpose," "rounding out," "perfection" and "completion" in a volume of the Motivorum, the analysis of purpose. But empiricists typically regard such ideas as mystical and useless. Their models and representative anecdotes are chosen specifically to exclude such problematic concepts (as Burke demonstrated in his examination of Darwin; even biology attempts to mechanize living systems, and reduce them to physics) (61). But, as we noted in Chapter Two, teleological terms are essential when one begins to study systems of any complexity. And when dealing with a study of human systems it is very difficult to ask questions about the function of a system without asking questions about purpose. This explains Burke's preference for biological models over mechanical ones. A machine is designed with a function (e.g., to refine oil or count red blood cells), whereas a living system's rudimentary purpose is to perpetuate itself. A human system, however, seeks to perfect itself (here again we find the crucial distinction between self-awareness and self-consciousness--between thinking and thinking about thinking). Entelechial ideas like perfection, which Burke calls "end-of-the-line thinking," are possible only in human symbolic systems (14). Burke and Bertalanffy's accord on this issue will be examined in the next chapter.
4.3.5 Culture as System
Part Three of A Rhetoric of Motives is devoted to order, by which Burke seems to refer to social order, but he makes frequent references to linguistic, ideological, psychological and economic systems as well. Clearly Burke's interest in culture demonstrates his systems approach: he describes a society as a "superentity," a term used in General Systems Theory (130). Burke asserts that human society is cooperative, so it should not be regarded as an aggregate of isolated individuals (an atomistic, Newtonian view), but rather as "a superentity involving principles of interdependence that have been called rationality, consciousness, conscience and 'God'" (130). By whatever name, these are the systemic aspects of human social cooperation.30 Though humans are biologically separate, they will aspire to unity and order. These ideas are more fully developed in Language As Symbolic Action.
In reviewing The Rhetoric of Motives, Richard Chase makes the now familiar complaint that Burke overlooks reality in favor of words. He complains (not alone and not entirely without merit) that Burke's work is "uncontrolled" and "centerless," perhaps a reference to Burke's synthetic method (Rueckert 1969 252). In fact, a number of critics dislike Burke's synthetic method, since it dissolves distinctions they find necessary (e.g., R. P. Blackmur). Others recognize that it is this creation of unity which leads to a unified critical apparatus.
Philosopher Kermit Lansner sees some value and validity in Burke's methods, but he also finds Burke's reduction of science to positivism annoying, infuriating and even malicious (Rueckert 1969 267). In addition, he feels that Burke's work is "bad philosophy," in part because he does not define his terms clearly. Marie Hochmuth Nichols admits that Burke uses various vocabularies and neologisms (and converts old terms to new uses), but asserts that the flaws found by others critic are also the source of Burke's strengths: compactness, unique organization, insight and breadth (283). Cowley too admits that Burke writes to be read twice, but holds that he is worth the effort (250). The reviews of the last two books have been mixed, perhaps because Burke's attacks on scientism were, to use the scientific stoicism, "premature." While there is some merit in the criticisms, systemic thinking requires concepts not used in the mainstream.
In A Rhetoric of Motives Burke returns to his consideration of the Wrangle which occupied him in the Thirties, but this time he is fortified by a more sophisticated systems theory set forth in the Grammar. Here Burke wants to find out how the resources afforded by the paradox of substance are used and to what end. The essential function of the symbol system is evaluation, but when one person attempts to get another to accept a certain way of seeing a situation, we are in the realm of rhetoric. This is undoubtedly why Burke devotes the first half of the Rhetoric to the traditional lore of rhetoric.
But Burke is not content with the traditional approach to rhetoric. He seeks to expand the scope of rhetoric by introducing identification (which Chapter Six will argue is a subspecies of metaphor). The flexibility of the symbol system created by the paradox of substance makes identification possible. Identification is a key term in this text, synonymous with sociality itself (or perhaps with symbolic action, since the goal of both is consubstantiation--the overcoming of biological division and social stratification). Clearly, Burke is working in system theory when he contends that identification is compensatory to biological division, since compensation, transformation and hierarchy are basic systems terms. When Burke refers to language as a motive force, he is dealing with entelechy, another systems concept.
At this point in his career, Burke has a very nearly complete system theory which encompasses mind, language and culture. Had Burke proceeded according to plan, his next book should have been the Motivorum's poetics or ethics. Instead, he begins to chart the structure and transformation of part of a cultural system--a theological system. He might have opted for this because to chart an entire cultural system is logistically nearly impossible, whereas a religious system is only a fraction of a cultural system. In addition, religious systems are the least susceptible to real-world "resistance," and thus have the greatest clarity and symmetry.31 Theological systems are also interesting to Burke because they allow the freest use of symbolic action.
4.4 The Rhetoric of Religion
The Rhetoric of Religion (1961) is often seen as a good introduction to or review of Burke because so many of his ideas are distilled in it. Certainly many of the ideas Burke has about system and scientism are present in this volume. He asserts that the goal of this book is to show that any terminology or description of language which excludes symbolic action is doomed to inadequacy (14). Burke chooses to study symbolic action in theology because it is the realm in which the resources of symbol systems have freest range and ultimate expression. Theology, in contrast to scientism, uses words to refer to things that do not exist, at least empirically; it is all metaphor. (If metaphor is the heart of symbolic action, then Burke's choosing to study it cannot be considered entirely coincidental.) Theological language is also useful to Burke because it is the realm of pure action and creation (as opposed to simple labelling or mere motion).
Because they are not subject to real-world "resistance," theological systems are cleaner and more symmetrical. This makes them attractive to Burke because a theological doctrine is a system of words which can be more readily charted. Such a system is simpler, smaller, more static and more self-contained than a culture as a whole. Though Burke has been advocating the charting of a culture for some time, and has made some attempts to track down key terms, the task would be daunting even if the cultural system were not in flux. However, as complex as even a theological system is, it is much more manageable. In addition, this microcosm reveals much about the use of symbol systems in general, since it has all the transformational strategies of the cultural system as a whole. One of Burke's main assertions in this book is that what is said about words in the empirical realm can also be said of God in the theological realm; that is, by studying a doctrinal system we can discover the resources of the larger symbolic system (2-4).
Somewhat paradoxically, dealing with the smaller theological realm also gives Burke greater scope for his analysis; his goal is to study human motives with a complex theory of transcendence, not with the terminology of simplified laboratory experiments (5). While "transcendence" seems like a purely theological or metaphysical term, it is really a systemic term. As we saw with "purpose," when dealing with the most sophisticated systems, the real emergent properties of these systems require such terms. Burke must deal with transcendence because it is essential to symbolic action.
Transcendence is important to Burke because language allows humans to transcend the level of animal or machine. Hence Burke asserts that language is the source of everything distinctly human. It allows transformation and hence symbolic action, the creation of order, the ability to question and evaluate. Because symbol systems allow for systematic thought, human beings can create ethics, social unity (or rebellion), and socio-economic systems in general, an idea that we shall shortly see seconded by Bertalanffy. Because of language, the human world is fundamentally different from the animal world. Whereas animals have rudimentary classification abilities (e.g., this is good to eat, or that is dangerous), humans live in a symbolic world of their own creation: even physical things stand for something (signify) because they are situated in a system of concepts (301). To an animal, a berry does not stand for food, it is food. For a human being, a steak is food, but it also stands for wealth or celebration. This fundamental difference is why Burke objects so strenuously to laboratory experiments with animals being used to explain human behavior.
4.4.1 Contra Scientism
Burke's stated aim in this book is to show the limitations of positivist methodology. Why does Burke feel the need to continue his attack on positivism? One answer might be found in his choice of subject matter and his methodology (theology and analogy, respectively).32 Both are scientistically suspect. One could also argue that by choosing thus Burke is placing himself so far beyond the scientific pale into philosophy that he is out of range of scientistic attack. This makes sense when we recall that the early Sixties were the high water mark for techno-hubris and Skinnerian Behaviorism. But the nature of Burke's project discussed above provides a plausible explanation for his choice of subject matter as well.
Burke uses some of the same strategies to derogate positivist approaches that we have seen in his previous two or three volumes: 1) positivism is too limited to be useful because it does not provide a full and apt description of human actions and motives. 2) Positivism is not as positive as it claims to be. Burke argues that positivism is too limited in his assertion that "quasi-scientific reductionist theories, with their caricatures of perfection, will not only not see it [the role of symbolic action] in the first place, but will be so constructed that they never miss the loss" (301). By "caricatures of perfection" Burke means that all humans are driven by purposes inherent in language. Scientists seeking fame, perfecting a system, or just answering a question are not immune to such influence, though they may be the last to realize it. Burke also demonstrates the limitation of positivist method by pointing out the "trained incapacity" of scientistic methodology, returning to his favorite example (or representative anecdote) of symbolic action: games. In order to play a game a person must understand both its rules (form) and its purpose (38-39).
Burke's second strategy is to demonstrate that positivism is not positive: pseudo-objective accounts often smuggle in "shall" (279). For example, the most objective of scientists looking at ozone depletion might conclude that we "ought" to stop it. Moreover, he repeats his assertion from earlier books that any generalization (i.e., interpretation) moves us from the realm of the positive to "quasi-positives" (24).
But perhaps Burke's strongest argument against reductionistic scientism is itself scientific: Burke wants to argue that the human mind really works more analogically (as in theology) than by mechanical association or conditioning (i.e., one should study symbolic action and dreams not because they are the way the mind should ideally work, but because the mind does work that way).
As in previous works, Burke investigates different systems and their interactions. The Rhetoric of Religion argues that not only is a culture as a whole a system, but all contending doctrines within a given culture are as well (301). Both systemic and structuralist thought are exemplified in Burke's assertion that human beings are not just individual identities, but fulfill a social role: i.e., they are a function of a social system (310). Systems thought is also evident in Burke's observation that a society will seek to maintain order, which requires rules and the repression of disorder. Rules lead to violations (intentional or accidental) and hence to guilt, and to redemption, which in turn requires sacrifice (314). Again, as with transcendence, these seem like purely theological terms, but these are essential strategies that can be found in any culture at any time. For example, political scientists and psychologists both must deal with the concept of guilt and its consequential compensatory devices. Compensation, transformation and substitution are systemic phenomena.33
Reviews of The Rhetoric of Religion were disgracefully few, according to Rueckert (1969 420). However, in the reviews that were written, he points out that no one felt the need to defend Burke or argue for his importance as had previously been necessary. In his review Joseph Frank acknowledges the systematic nature of the book, which he characterizes as a "remarkably thorough and ingenious study" attempting to integrate all types of vocabularies into one framework (Rueckert 1969 402). Sociologist Hugh Dalziel Duncan finds a great deal of what Burke says about religious systems insightful about social systems as well. He states that Burke now has a finished system which provides a method for showing how language affects social relationships (408).
In The Rhetoric of Religion Burke continues to clarify the contrasts between Dramatism and scientism: scientism deals with epistemology: what is it and how do I know? It is the realm of motion and knowledge. Dramatism, on the other hand, is ontological: its concerns are what transformations brings this term or concept into being? What goes with what? What does it do? This is the realm of action and form (39). Sometimes the theoretical distinction between human action and mechanical motion gets blurred (and will become more so as computers become more complex), but in practice it is not so problematic: usually people are fairly certain about who will respond to petition and what will not.
4.5 Language As Symbolic Action
Several of the themes we have seen are repeated in Burke's last major text, Language as Symbolic Action (1966). This repetition is not surprising considering that Burke's life's work has been the study of symbolic action (coupled with the fact that this book is an anthology). And though there will be some later revisions and refinements, this volume may be viewed as the culmination of the development of Burke's system. In this text Burke summarizes many of his earlier ideas, a number of which are distilled in his well-known definition of (hu-)man:
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 a sense of order)
and rotten with perfection. (16)
We are especially concerned in the present context with the idea that humans are separated from their natural condition, since they are separated by being enclosed in the quality space which is made possible by language. Thus human "reality" differs from its scientistic conception.
4.5.1 Contra Scientism
Another very familiar theme to which Burke returns here is his opposition to reductionistic scientism. He continues to assert that in trying to reduce reality to the sensory, scientism attempted to purge symbolic action by reducing it to motion. Having accomplished this reduction, the scientistically-minded could plausibly use the machine model as its representative anecdote. Burke claims that if we cannot get rid of the mechanistic scientistic model altogether, it must at least be supplemented. So it appears that after a third of a century of attacking scientism almost single-handedly, Burke is willing to settle for a truce.
Burke softens his position towards scientism somewhat, either because he is not so much the lone voice in the wilderness anymore, or conceivably because he has made his point. Also, with the mechanistic view being abandoned even in the hard sciences where it has its greatest successes (cf. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg et al.), perhaps that methodology could not be applied with so much authority in the human sciences as it had earlier. By way of a peace parlay, Burke shows the realism in his position and the poetry of positivism, as he did in A Rhetoric of Motives (379).
Although Burke is always willing to look for common ground with his opponents, he is in no way retreating from his fundamental position. In fact, he cannot, since the professed aim of this volume is to track down the implications of symbolic action (vii), and the mechanistic methodology of his opponents is not compatible with this goal. Actually, in retrospect it is apparent that this pursuit of symbolic action has been the aim of Burke's entire career. But in order to understand symbolic action, one must understand the system that underlies it and how that system operates; similarly, in order to understand the system's function, one must understand transformation. That is why Burke devoted so much of The Grammar to the paradox of substance. Accordingly, Burke's opening salvo in Language as Symbolic Action is the claim that substitution (read: transformation) is a "rational resource of symbol systems" (7, 66). Burke's privileging of this idea lends support to the idea that symbolic action is essentially transformation of quality space.
We have noted that in dealing with complex phenomena, science prefers to deal with the smallest and least complex "building block" and study it in isolation, preferably in a static condition, as when a biologist prepares a thin cross section slide for a microscope. Because of the limitations of mechanistic methodology, scientists tend to become a bit nervous when something becomes something else; Burke claims that classical science prefers to think in terms of what is and what is not, not what does something else become. What becomes what and what goes with what, however, are the central questions of Dramatism. In a religious system, for example, gods merge and divide, just as entities in a symbol system do (407). But by examining the system of texts, and by tracking terms in all sorts of discourse, Burke has learned that transformations are bewildering, but, as with substitution, they are not random (7).
Along with Lévi-Strauss, Burke has discovered that not only is change systematic, but also that transformation is the essence of systems (431). In a symbol system, a word can change, and give up part or all of its function to another term in the system (367). These sorts of changes have long been demonstrated in linguistics and structuralist studies. In fact, Burke's methods, particularly when he talks of hierarchy, polarities, and the Negative, share many structuralist methods and assumptions.
Another important and related anti-scientistic strategy that Burke uses is to derogate the utility of making one-to-one correspondences between words and things. For Burke, context counts. The relations between things are as important and real as the things themselves. When perspective or scope changes, the name for a given situation will often change as well. Though science seeks to provide one unambiguous term to define an entity, different people, with different experiences and associations will name the same thing differently, particularly in the realm of the contingent. Hence, naming and definition cannot be purely objective (360). Burke's shorthand "trade name" for the phenomenon of a vocabulary acting as a filter for perception is "terministic screen" (44-46).
Burke has been working on his distinction between scientism and Dramatism for some time, but he makes the argument the most clearly and succinctly here. He repeats his claim that the epistemological scientistic methodology has "side-tracked" the older ontological way of thinking (23). But then he wants to argue that the two are not mutually exclusive, though their paths do diverge, and that it is important to identify the point of divergence. The two overlap in that both are grounded in definition. Definition (which he declares to be the basis of science) is a symbolic act. But the two -isms are different in that they view language differently and have different aims. Whereas scientism views language as the label for a thing, Dramatism sees the essential function of language as attitudinal or hortatory (i.e., a word is a label used to reinforce or alter the way one feels and acts with respect to an entity or situation). Furthermore, the end of scientism is symbolic logic, whereas the end of Dramatism is symbolic action (44-45).34
Burke makes the distinction between action and motion over and over in each of the last several volumes because this dichotomy is both problematic and crucial. Its importance is evident when we recognize that for Burke symbolic action is the basis for everything human, everything important. In the essay "What are Signs of What?" we find the culmination of Burke's reclamation of the importance of language after its scientistic denigration. Presumably aware that this essay could prompt outrage from those who want to minimize the importance of words, Burke asks his audience to consider this a thought experiment: What if we reverse our common sense notion that words are signs of things? Here again he employs the argument that the really important uses of language are generalizations which cannot be empirically verified.35
Systems thinking in Language as Symbolic Action is evident in Burke's continued discussion of entelechy. He observes that there can be no action without an end, i.e., a goal or purpose (483). We noted in Burke's definition of human in the introduction that one important result of humans' existing in a symbol system is that they are "moved by a sense of order." Burke claims that because human beings are sensitive to patterns, they are driven to complete them (19). The perfectionism inherent in symbol systems makes humans want to "round out" or act in terms of such systems and culminates in God-terms (456). Entelechy only makes sense in terms of systems: humans exist within a system, and thus will tend to behave systematically, no matter how unpredictable or irrational the behavior seems from outside the system.36
We can also see Burke's concern with system in his interest in context and interrelationship. To examine an entity in context is to consider it in terms of a system of interactions. Burke is interested in how clusters are formed, how a "whole family circle" of terms interrelates, how these clusters modify one another, and how they combine into larger networks (General Systems Theory demonstrates that the size and complexity of a network are important; as we shall see in the concluding chapter, even the simple yes-no switches in a computer can achieve remarkable results if enough of them operate quickly enough) (65). We can also see Burke's systemic contextual concern in the Pentad, which is a device for examining context and interactions.
Burke's interest in a systems approach is apparent in his influences, his methods, and in his philosophy of language as a whole. Because of Burke's immense scope and synthesizing abilities, he was able to incorporate systems ideas from philosophy (e.g., Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead), sociology (Marx, Weber), anthropology (Mead and Malinowski), biology (Woodger), literary criticism (Richards, DeGourmont) and psychology (Freud, Gestalt psychology). Some of these thinkers influenced Bertalanffy as well, and all share a concern with context and/or function characteristic of systemic thinking.
Burke's systems approach is evident also in his methods and terms. His Dramatistic Pentad allows for a full account of both function and purpose, and for the interrelationships in a given situation. Dramatism is supplemented by Logology, the study of how a system of terms functions, transforms and interrelates (47). The charting of this system of terms, and their endless associations and dissociations was a prime goal for Burke. His interest in structure, hierarchy, "courtship," mediation, order, transformation, epistemological crisis, entelechy, and identification also demonstrate his systems thinking. Burke's characteristic methods overlap with his major terms, both of which demonstrate his concern with systems.
Drawing on the works we have surveyed so far, Burke's systems theory of symbolic action may be summarized thus: humans are fundamentally different from other less complex systems such as machines and animals because humans have language. Language is a symbol system that leads humans to create complex models of the world. In fact, humans inhabit a symbolic world of their own creation. Symbols allow people to name and thus evaluate and adjust to a situation. Proverbs are exemplary names which a culture codifies to name situations (e.g., a stitch in time saves nine).
Over time, as a culture becomes more complex, the number of names needed to account for the new and more complicated situations increases. However, there cannot be a new term for every situation, so some terms must be used to cover a number of situations that are classified as similar. Because of the terministic screen afforded by a term, a sort of template can be applied to two very different situations in order to make them similar; e.g., Saddam Hussein is Hitler. Eventually through the accumulation of terms an orientation or frame of acceptance evolves. This system, when healthy, is never static; terms arise and wear out, or become irrelevant. When a given system cannot adequately adapt in order to classify what is going on, however, epistemological crisis is the result. Such crises can lead to the repair of the system, chaos, or defection to a rival system.
Now that we have an understanding of Burke's theory of symbolic action, we can compare his work to General Systems Theory in order to see how the two can be mutually elucidating. Fundamentally, Burke and Bertalanffy are complementary because they are both systems thinkers, and Burke takes up where Bertalanffy leaves off. Though he managed to extend his thinking from the workings of the body to the mind, he could only point the way for others when it came to the study of culture. Bertalanffy concluded that at the social level
we must concern ourselves with the content and meaning of the messages, the nature and dimensions of value systems, the transcription of images into a historical record, the subtle symbolizations of art, music and poetry, and the complex gamut of human emotion. The empirical universe here is human life and society in all its complexity and richness. (1975b 29)
Even Norbert Wiener, the founder of the cybernetic branch of General Systems Theory, comes to very much the same conclusion in his assertion that "society can only be understood through the study of the messages and communication facilities which belong to it" (Davidson 204). Burke undertakes precisely this task. We can only assume that Bertalanffy would have approved of Burke (as some of his disciples in fact have), since Burke's interpretive system is comprehensive, his methods are pluralistic, non-reductionist, and systematic, and his task is to understand the systemic nature of symbolic action and the system in which it is grounded. Each point deserves further consideration.
Burke's theory constitutes a valuable interpretive system. Burke's critical system is valuable because it is comprehensive yet utilitarian. It provides methods for studying a text in context (e.g., he traces the interrelationships within a text, between texts, between the author and a text, between the reader and a text, between a text and the environment, etc. Moreover, his Dramatistic Pentad allows full description of any human situation, real or literary). William Rueckert asserts that Burke's system "is a coherent and total vision, a self-contained and internally consistent way of viewing man, the various scenes in which he lives, and the drama of human relations enacted upon those scenes" (1963).
Burke's system is comprehensive because he has managed to synthesize so many methodologies of different fields. As a result, Burke has at hand all the tools (or "speculative instruments," in Richards' excellent phrase) to analyze nearly any aspect of any situation. He is often the first to use a given speculative instruments, and he hesitates to discard a method even when he has found its limits. For example, he was one of the first to employ the formalism that would give rise to the New Criticism, though he refused to limit himself to formalism alone, and was often attacked for this. He has long employed structuralist methods, but again avoided the sort of reduction in literary criticism that led to post-structuralism (in many respects he anticipated deconstruction as well).
Burke's method is plausible and systematic. We noted above that Burke applies quite a number of different methods, but his aim finally is to chart the system of quality space and its transformations. Of course, because of the vastness of the task, he must choose something manageable. Consequently, often his immediate object is a literary or persuasive text, but such a subject can be a "representative anecdote" that gives important clues to how the system as a whole operates. In some of the earlier books, he could not show the correlations among the strategies of symbolic action, so he had to content himself with merely providing lists (e.g., the Lexicon Rhetoricae, or the Dictionary of Pivotal Terms), but as his interpretive system developed he was much better able show the interrelations of terms and strategies (Chapter Six will offer some refinement of this possibility).
Burke's subject matter, symbolic action, is itself systemic. Burke asserted that symbolic action is the functioning of the symbol system. We know this is true because symbolic action is essentially transformative, and transformation only happens in systems. Burke's intuitive account gives us a solid foundation to work from, since he describes the origin, structure and function of the system. The precise origin of language will probably never be known, but Burke asserts that it is inextricably bound up with the Negative, which does not exist in nature (1966 18). The Negative is the difference between the verbal and non-verbal (and hence the human and the less than human). The "linguistic marvel" of the Negative leads to many human capabilities, the most important of which is metaphor, as the concluding chapter will argue.
Burke also begins to account for the structure and development of quality space: it is made up of associated concepts, which increase in number and interconnectedness with time. The function of this system is the evaluation of a given situation. The next chapter will build on and refine Burkean theory in order to put forth some ideas about the nature and operation of this system. These ideas might seem as mystical as transcendence once did, but they are in line with a new paradigm emerging in many fields. In any case, mysticism, as Burke points out, is nothing but the farthest reach in the search for new perspectives (1984b 223).
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