Kenneth Burke

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Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) was a major American literary and rhetorical theorist and critic. He was influenced by Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but did not explicitly follow any particular school of thought. Burke defined (hu)mankind as the "symbol-making (symbol-using, 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" (Definition of Man 53-54).


Notable Quotes

"The best I can do is state my belief that things might be improved somewhat if enough people began thinking along the lines of this definition; my belief that, if such an approach could be perfected by many kinds of critics and educators and self-admonishers in general, things might be a little less ominous than otherwise" ("Definition of Man" 58 in Professing the New Rhetorics).

"So far as is known at present, the only typically symbol-using animal existing on Earth is the human organism. The intuitive signaling systems in such social creatures as bees and ants would not be classed as examples of symbolic action. They are not conventional, arbitrary symbol systems such as human speech, which is not inborn but has to be learned depending upon where the child happens to be "thrown," an accident of birth that determines whether the child learns Chinese, or French, or whatever idiom may prevail in the given locality. Symbol systems of that sort also differ from intuitive signaling systems in that they have a second-level (or "reflexive") aspect. That is to say: they can talk about themselves. Cicero could both orate and write a treatise on oratory. A dog can bark but he can't bark a tract on barking." "(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action" (141 in On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows 1967-1984, edited by Rueckert and Bonadonna)

Article Summaries

Burke, Kenneth "Definition of Man"

Additional Works/ Publications

A full lists of Burke's publications can be found here


Towards a Better Life
Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method
Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose


Further Readings

University of Minnesota, Kenneth Burke Resources Website

Other Scholarly Views


Those authors that agree with Burke.


Those authors that disagree with Burke.


External Links

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