Kenneth Burke, “Terministic Screens” & “Definition of Man”

“Definition of Man”

In this chapter, Burke lists the criteria that set humankind apart from animals; in essence, humankind has the capacity to use symbols and words in unique ways. Man is:

  1. a symbol-using animal;
  2. inventor of the negative;
  3. separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making;
  4. goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by a sense of order); and
  5. rotten with perfection.

1. Symbol-using: Humankind uses words to describe words (or language to describe language).

What is our “reality” for today…but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present? (5)

In being a link between us and the nonverbal, words are by the same token a screen separating us from the nonverbal–though the statement gets tangled in its own traces, since so much of the “we” that is separated from the nonverbal by the verbal would not even exist were it not for the verbal. (5)

Language referring to the realm of the nonverbal is necessarily talk about things in terms of what they are not… (5)

Do we simply use words, or do they not also use us? (6) [Berlin?]

Which motives derive from man’s animality [including physicality–motion], which from his symbolicity [symbolic action], and which from the combination of the two? (7)

2. Inventor of the negative: We have the ability to articulate something by saying what it is not; this is an action that does not exist in nature. (“[L]anguage and the negative ‘invented’ man'” [9].)

The negative begins not as a resource of definition or information, but as a command, as “Don’t.” … [T]he negative is but a principle, an idea, not a name for a thing. … In this sense, though we can’t have an “idea of nothing,” we can have an “idea of no.” (10)

Action involves character, which involves choice–and the form of choice attains its perfection in the distinction between Yes and No (shall and shall-not, will and will-not). Though the concept of sheer motion is non-ethical, action implies the ethical, the human personality. Hence the obvious close connection between the ethical and negativity, as indicated in the Decalogue. [Vatz; Consigny?] (11)

There is an implied sense of negativity in the ability to use words at all. For to use them properly, we must know that they are not the things they stand for. (12)

3. Separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making: Humankind chooses to utilize tools and technologies to mediate its relationship with the world. Additionally, our reliance on tools and technologies requires our continued use of language to explain how to produce and use them.

Animals do not use words about words…and though an ape may even learn to put two sticks together as a way of extending his reach in case the sticks are so made that one can be fitted into the other, he would not take a knife and deliberately hollow out the end of one stick to make possible the insertion of the other stick. (14)

“Information” in the sense of sheer motion is not thus “reflexive,” but rather is like that of an electric circuit where, if a car is on a certain stretch of track, it automatically turns off the current on the adjoining piece of track, so that any car on that other piece of track would stop through lack of power. The car could be said to behave in accordance with this “information.” [Algorithms?] (14)

Language is a species of action, symbolic action–and its nature is such that it can be used as a tool. (15)

4. Goaded by the spirit of hierarchy: Humankind is pressured by sociocultural and historical values to order its selves and its knowledge and beliefs.

Here man’s skill with symbols combines with his negativity and with the 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 law. (15)

5. Rotten with perfection: Similar to humankind’s being goaded by a sense of order, it’s also urged forward by a sense of striving for perfection, and this is reflected when we use language to name/define a situation–we seek to use discourse to call into being something through words that, in theory, signify the “real” thing, or the thing, itself. [Saussure: the signified is the thing.] Burke grounds this discussion in the relevance of Aristotle’s entelechy, or the idea that “each being aims at the perfection natural to its kind” (e.g., the tree-ness of a tree).

There is a principle of perfection implicit in the nature of symbol systems; and in keeping with his nature as symbol-using animal, man is moved by this principle. (17)

A given terminology contains various implications, and there is a corresponding “perfectionist” tendency for men to attempt carrying out those implications. … There is a kind of “terministic compulsion” to carry out the implications of one’s terminology… (19)

Interesting: Burke argues that there are linguistic/cultural reasons that we appeal to the divine–we use symbolic action, or the hortatory, so we thus need to appeal to (to beseech, to blame, etc.) powers beyond us.

Reflecting on his description of the nature of humankind, Burke notes that his conceptualization is “normative” in the sense that, given the five aspects of being human and using language intentionally, it can direct our future behavior and even educational objectives. [Is it a “norming” definition?] He can offer no ideal solution to the complexities of being human, but he does assert that, considering his definition, we might become more reflexive, ethical educators and citizens.

“Terministic Screens”

Burke’s dramatism situates language as inextricably related to action, specifically symbolic action, or the per/suasive function of symbols–language–in communication. Whereas scientistic language names or defines (“It is,” “It is not”), dramatist language exhorts or urges (“Thou shalt,” “Thou shalt not”). In this chapter, he lays out his theory of the terministic screen, or the means by which the discourse that we use selects a reality for us. As he puts it, terministic screens “direct the attention”: “Here the kind of deflection I have in mind concerns simply the fact that any nomenclature necessarily directs the attention into some channels rather than others” (45). Reality is called into being insofar as our words filter what we see and do not see: “our ‘Reality’ could not exist for us, were it not for our profound and inveterate involvement in symbol systems” (48).


Logology:  a term to let theological concepts attempt to open up linguistic concerns (47)

Burke discusses the distinction between terms that put things together and terms that dissociate things, writing that there are differences of degree and differences in kind within terministic screens. As an example, he notes that evolutionist Darwin would note “only a difference of degree between man and other animals” because man is “continuous” with other animals; a theologian, however, would see “discontinuity” and a difference in kind because–ideologically–man was created in God’s likeness and is not an animal (50). Yet Burke argues that it’s possible to conceive of humankind as different in kind if we consider how unique ability to use symbols.

We must use terministic screens, since we can’t say anything without the use of terms; whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute a corresponding kind of screen; and any such screen necessarily directs the attention to one field rather than another. (50)

Burke also notes the two extremes that terministic screens can play into. On one hand, there’s the temptations towards relativism: if every individual can define their own reality, what truth or objective meaning can be attributed to their words? On the other hand, however, “all members of our species conceive of reality somewhat roundabout, through various media of symbolism”–that is, to communicate, we share in language systems in which we draw upon symbols to represent ideas. As symbols mediate our interactions and communication, they “divid[e]” or “unit[e]” us, depending on how we use them, and it’s this capacity for using symbols potentially persuasively that sets humankind off from animals (52). Symbolic action, in dramatism, is distinguished from motion, the latter being a movement without intent(ion?). This action, via drama as “the culminative form of action,” necessitates conflict, and conflict implicates victimage, leading Burke to highlight the role of the scapegoat (though not elaborated upon in this chapter) (55).


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