Burke, Kenneth "Definition of Man"

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In "Definition of Man," Kenneth Burke outlines his philosophical exploration of the essence of man, or what makes us human and therefore fundamentally different from other animals. Although Burke concedes that humans might be classified as animals, he argues that our mode of being is distinct.

I. Introduction In Section I of his "Definition of Man," Burke describes the relationship between definition and meaning. Definition, Burke believes, inspires meaning as it is "prior to the observations it summarizes" (Burke, 40). He notes that definition is essential and prior to discussion of any idea or object. In this sense, a definition exists “prior” to its attributes. This understanding of discussion provides the framework for the rest of Burke's essay, and emphasizes his belief in the power of language to shape reality.

II “Symbol-Using Animal” Burke begins section II with an anecdote about bird to illustrate the difference between man (a symbol-using animal) and animal (unable to use symbols). He uses the anecdote to illustrate how non symbol-using animals are limited in their transfer of ideas due to an inability to illustrate complex ideas through the use of symbols, as well as lack the attention necessary to complete the task. Burke notes, however, that while limited by this inability, birds are also freed from the constraints associated with living a reality constructed by and through symbols.

This illustration helps Burke segway into his discussion about how our realities are limited by the terministic screens we erect when we begin to name and define things. He believes that apart from personal experience, our conception of the world is simply a symbolic representation enabled by language. We use the symbol-sets to navigate "reality," even as they screen us from the "non-verbal." Words, he argues, are like a map which help guide us through life but say little about the true nature of their substance. Additionally, just as humans have control over the construct of words, words also have control over the construct of our being, causing us to view the world through prescribed lenses, or “ideologies.” Language itself can help us "find our way about," while at the same time neglecting the inexpressible.

Ideologies may function negatively, as in the examples he gives of brainwashing or hexing. Words and symbols can be so powerful that they may affect not only the way we perceive our physical reality, but also our very bodily functions.

He concludes the first clause with a discussion of how substitution is inherent to symbolism, and how symbols are substitutes for often complex, detailed actions that cannot be illustrated by evoking the symbol alone. The symbol is a substitute, an abbreviation, for a specific and detailed object or action. In this way, the symbol becomes “transcendent,” as it leaves the realm of the physical, and enters into the realm of the psychological and theoretical.

III. “Inventor of the Negative” Burke begins the third clause of his argument with the observation that the “negative” is a human construct that does not exist in nature. A lamp is never “not a table,” or “not a child” - it can only possess its true nature, not the nature of things it is without. This differentiation is a human construction.

The negative is most often employed in regards to what Bergson, a quoted scholar, calls “unfulfilled expectations.” In other words, if we are expecting something to turn out a certain way, and it turns out differently than expected, we say it “did not happen.” Burke then argues that while we cannot have an idea of “nothing,” we can have an idea of “no,” which is why employing the negative is essential to our understanding of the world. In fact, he argues that the negative is so essential to our world that almost all seeming “positives” are in fact “quasi-positives,” or reactions to the negative - what things are “not” in society.

The word action (he differentiates this from the neutral “motion”) implies a choice, a response made to a “shalt not” or a “do not” negative imbued via life. He then raises the question of whether the positive or negative proceed the other, while acknowledging that by their very essence they imply the other - the positive cannot exist without the negative space, and vice versa. He argues that negativity proceeds positivity, because negativity is the predecessor of definition; before we deduct what something IS, we must figure out what it IS NOT.

He ends this section by suggesting that exploration of the “do not’s” can be incredibly rewarding.

IV. “Man as a Tool-Using Animal” In this clause, Burke acknowledges that since primitive times, humans have consistently been seeking ways to improve their existence outside the realm of the basic needs of food, shelter, sex. Tools and language, he notes, are intrinsically linked, as it would be impossible to use tools in a communal building session without the aid of language. Humans using tools and language represents our “second-level” nature - our ability to develop complex systems to improve our lives, and then develop words about words to demonstrate how to use those systems.

He concludes this clause with the argument that man as a symbol-using animal precludes man’s status as a tool-using animal, because in order to label man as a tool-using animal we must first find a definition for what man is, and what he is not. This is symbology.

V. “Goaded by the Spirit of Hierarchy” This clause is fairly straightforward as it is built on the foundation of Burke’s previous clauses. Man, as defined by his nature of a symbol-using animal, conforms to the rules of hierarchy as created by negativity. Negativity defines what man “is not,” and he conforms to this position in both the physical (class, education, etc.) and spiritual (man as subordinate to God).

VI. "Man is Guided by a Perfectionist Nature" Burke argues that man constantly aims towards a state of perfection, while acknowledging that philosophers such as Aristotle have recognized that by his very being, man is in a state of perfection, existing in this moment as it is meant to be.

Freud calls man’s fruitless hunt towards perfection a “destiny compulsion” - man becomes stuck in his compulsion to achieve success in an area that earlier proved a failure.

In addition to being a philosophical exploration, Definition of Man serves as political and religious commentary. Burke’s assertion that humans are capable of higher thought and of contemplating the negative necessarily leads to religious questions. If humans are capable of higher thought, then what is higher thought, and where does it come from? And where does “nothing” come from? Burke argues that the existence of “yes” and “no,” of “something” and “nothing” make a strong argument for the existence of God and Devil. Definition of Man is political commentary in that Burke attempts to answer questions about why we make war. His short poem at the end and various comments throughout the essay demonstrate is disgust and awe at the possibility of nuclear war.

In “Definition of Man,” Kenneth Burke takes a fairly dark view of human beings and their use of language. He defines man, using five clauses, as “Man is a 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” (53-54). At the beginning, Burke clearly states that his definition is subject to debate and modification. Burke asserts that our symbols-systems are what allow humans to survive and innovate; however, these same systems can also lead to destruction, thus introducing a duality of symbols or language, a main theme in this article. Continuing with the idea of duality, Burke introduces the clause regarding humans as the inventor of the negative, as he claims that nothing in nature is negative and that the negative was constructed by the symbol-systems. He continues to reference language used in the discussion of morality, i.e. the “Thou shall-not.” He believes in stating this negative phrase brings both positive and negative ideas. Then, Burke argues that our symbol-systems construct social networks and norms, etc., that separate us from our natural instincts; in other words, we regard natural occurrences or “things” as negative as a result of language. Furthermore, when he says “rotten with perfection,” Burke does not mean that humans are perfect. He means that humans strive to fulfill their perfect, already formulated ideas. This can lead to political scapegoating and a number of other sad occurrences.

Glossary Terms

The following key terms are defined in the Glossary: adumbration, ancillary, continuum, elocutio, entelechy, etymology, logology, parlance, perennial, promulgation, suasory, telos, tropism

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