Tag Archives: rhetorical analysis

Burke’s ‘Definition’ of Us All, in Five Clauses

                     Kenneth Burke

Rarely has a writer so economically represented the forces that act on the mind. 

Kenneth Burke was a rhetorician, poet and public scholar. The New Jersey resident had a keen sense of the centrality of language to human thought, making him what W. H. Auden described as “unquestionably the most brilliant and suggestive critic now writing in America.” (1941).  To this day the pull of his ideas is still immense.

Cognitive psychologists remind us that consciousness arises from language.  Burke went much further.  For him, language isn’t the residue of some other experience, it frequently is the experience.   If we ask what it means to live as sentient creatures, Burke’s compelling answer is that we are driven by labels used by and applied to us.  We live is a sea of verbal constructions.  In his words, as laid out in the third clause of his “definition of man,” language is the “instrument of our own making” that separates us from our natural condition.  And so it goes in Burke’s evocative five part “definition.”  We live the most meaningful parts of our lives in the symbolic world.

This is how he expressed his perspective in Language as Symbolic Action (University of California Press, 1966), 16.

1.Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-                  misusing) animal,

2. Inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative),

3. Separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making,

4. Goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order),

5. And rotten with perfection.

There is a lifetime of exploration contained in these five defining features, and even a journal devoted to this prodigious thinker.

Other animals communicate.  But they communicate in signs.  We connect using a broad mixture of signs and inherited symbols.  If you don’t speak Norwegian, the language will be a mystery.  Of course, a Norwegian stop sign can still be understood, as can most Norwegian faces.  But the linguistic universe that permeates the culture offers few visual clues about what they mean.  And since symbol making is a constant human project in any culture, the words we choose are existential. Stories, tracts, reports and conversations define the common boundaries of our world.  Think of the descriptors that others have used about you and how deeply some of them have burned into your memory.


Behaviorists  in his day sought to de-emphasize what Burke saw as obvious: that symbolic action is the representative human gesture.


The great threshold of language is why schools are structured to advance students mostly on their literacy skills.  Language is the gateway to experience.  Language shapes perception.

In his first clause Burke was pushing back against the reduction of human “behavior” to what can be physically observed.  That was the fools-errand of the behaviorists  in his day who sought to de-emphasize the obvious: that symbolic action is the representative human gesture. 

The second clause adds a wonderful insight.  We are not only symbol-makers and users, but the very act of expression through language makes possible a cognitive life that includes what is not or what should not be.  We are the inventors of the negative. Language allows the construction of the past and predictions about the future.  It makes it possible to imagine worlds present and missing.  Most dramatically, consciousness of the negative means that we are alone in the natural world as creatures who can imagine their past and future.  Bless their hearts, our pets live in the present.  But our use of language as a tool of consciousness means that we carry the heavier baggage of knowing we have a finite life.

It is a keystone of ordinary language that it does more than name.  It often judges as well.  And so any practical understanding of our communication essence must include the rhetoric is infused with terms of judgement: words that praise and blame, words that suggest who is up and who is down.  Ordinary language is hierarchical in ways that the languages of mathematics or programming almost never are. It would be odd, indeed, if a person “liked” the number 2 more than the number 4.  Mathematical terms do not have what rhetoricians call “tendency.”  Mathematical terms say nothing about their user’s feelings and attitudes. But my reference to someone I know as a “jerk” or “windbag” represents a hierarchy of preferences that I carry with me.  As a symbol-user I cannot avoid marking my attitudes in word choices. Our personal rhetoric leaves impressions as clear as footprints in fresh snow.

As to the odd coda, “rotten with perfection.” The resources of language are equally available to enlighten or deceive, help us ‘know’ or distract us from ‘knowing.’  Our miraculous capacity for language gives us all of the tools we need to be disingenuous.  And some of us are far too good at it.

The Melioristic Bias

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010
 President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010

The melioristic perspective is a useful indicator of how an individual has constituted the future and their role in it.

When most people use the term “rhetoric,” they usually mean it as the name for a verbal facade: an artificial construction far removed from what a person actually thinks.  But a University of Chicago thinker a generation ago made a convincing case that our rhetoric tends to have its own unique “signature.”  Our words, he noted, always “mark” us.

Richard Weaver
         Richard Weaver

Richard Weaver never demonstrated his point more convincingly than in his observation that the sciences have a “melioristic bias.”1  His idea was that those working in the social sciences have faith in their abilities to find solutions to human problems that will make things better.  That’s the essence of the bias: a conviction that human institutions tend to evolve rather than devolve.  His point was that our scientific discourse reveals how much we operate on the underlying assumption that we can ameliorate social dislocations.  From this perspective, a program like Social Security is an answer to the once chronic problem of old-age poverty.  It’s the result of the kind of progressive lawmaking in the mid-1930s that many of us still admire.

Here’s the interesting thing about the melioristic bias. Operating on the assumption of the transformative power of institutions is what gives political progressivism its energy. Challenging social conditions are seen as opportunities for fixes, reforms and new policies that can further the cause of social justice.  This belief is the core catechism of American liberalism.

Weaver became an important figure in the evolution of conservative thought in the 1960s.  It seems clear from his work that he viewed the “true” political conservative as someone who is more willing to accept certain human tendencies as givens and less amenable to bureaucratic fixes.  In simple terms, societies are not going to be significantly transformed for the better simply by using the rhetoric and machinery of social change, which ask for more than it is in the nature of institutions to deliver.

This belief in the need to recognize certain “essences” of human nature was central to Weaver’s view.  From his perspective the rhetoric of change and the realities of change are two different things.  We may idealize a solution—increased access to medical care in the Affordable Care Act, for example—but the actual organizational response to a given social issue is always going to be problematic. A conservative usually can’t imagine so complex a piece of organizational planning as likely to be effective.

This skeptical stance is representative of a baseline view that puts greater faith in individual human agency rather than bureaucratic power, a difference that explains the “government-is- the-problem-not-the solution” logic that thrived in the Reagan years and survives in the current Republican Congress.  Somehow massive corporations are mostly seen as immune to the same problems.

Of course this simplified view of the world overlooks how individuals can be dispersed along the continuum that separates these polar opposites. Nonetheless, it remains a useful kind of insight to look for the melioristic perspective as a sign of how an individual has constituted the future and their role in it. See the world as a place of eminently doable reforms–still my view, even though its picked up some dings over the years–and you have a reasonable indicator of a political liberal. In contrast, identify someone who sees progress largely through individual rather than organizational initiatives, and you have probably discovered a classical conservative. Either way, the bias is easily discovered when a person’s rhetoric drifts toward consequential topics.

1Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: Gateway, 1953), 194-200.


Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu