Kenneth Burke’s Defintion of Humans and Use of Symbols

Kenneth Burke’s work is important because as a theorist, Burke recognized that the art of rhetoric was a necessity to achieving wholeness in several aspects of our lives. In addition he believed we shared the ability and potential to achieve this wholeness through rhetoric and that this similarity which people share can bring them closer to themselves and to each other. Burke believed that people are inherently separated by their differences in a symbolic world, but that rhetoric can break through barriers and bring people together in their similarities through identification – a by-product of rhetoric that he wrote was “a necessary remedy for our alienation from one another.” (Herrick, p223.) Burke believed that people could use rhetoric and language to their benefit, continually explaining, symbolizing and interpreting the world around them in order to find common ground with others. Instead of language being arbitrary, Burke suggests that we choose our words and symbols, to effect change, choose social circles, and basically communicate ourselves to the highest level. In addition, people can suss out emotions, intentions and identities by the words we choose. Burke’s work holds the view that rhetoric is used to persuade both intentionally and unintentionally based on word choices and how one sets the stage for their presentation to others- concepts he discussed in his work , A Grammar of Motives, written in 1945. (Herrick, p228). Burke questions whether a person’s use of rhetorical symbols is deliberate or not- do we use rhetoric as a tool or as a way to identify with one another? Or is it something more? If symbols are the way we organize data and ideas, they can be unorganized too. Symbols and language unify people with our world and with one another, and the rules of rhetoric which we have created organize the system of symbols and language for whatever situation we deem appropriate.
I do agree with Burke’s main ideas that man (and woman) are symbol using, making and misusing animal. Taking an online class employs every use of rhetoric he describes in this piece. Also, for example, we are born with no idea what language is or its power, but we learn very quickly what to say and how to say it. Also we learn what gestures and actions to make with our words to create persuasion, evoke emotion and so forth. We are born without it, but we trust others to tell us about it. And when they do we simply act on it and become part of the system of rhetoric which has been growing and updating itself, through our own doing, for thousands of years. We use symbols and language to form hierarchies and we inadvertently place ourselves in that hierarchy by the words, language and symbols we choose. I agree with his theory that we create negative by making words for things immoral, with a negative bias toward others, or against ourselves. Perhaps in his time people were “rotten with perfection” when it came to rhetoric but I believe as we become more politically corrected and less inclined to be elite people will move away from this perfectionist tendency and more toward mediocrity. Although the potential for creation of new words or symbols is technically, infinite, I do not believe it will happen very fast, just little by little.
Burke believed the idea of identification- the antithesis to division amongst humans- was a vital reason for the use of rhetoric and particularly, symbols. He believed that separation or isolation from others was something we automatically felt hurt by and that we yearned to identify with others through our use of symbols and not be apart from them. In fact people are usually drawn to similarities in one another at least at first. I am not sure that it replaces persuasion, however, as the major theme of rhetoric. Rhetoric was born out of the need for ideas to spread quickly and to invoke thought and commonality. People believed those who spoke because they used rhetoric to gain support for themselves, not always with the noblest of intentions. Persuasion continues as a very strong use of rhetoric even past Burke’s meaty writing during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and probably became even stronger as time went by. This I believe is mostly due to the mass media taking shape and specifically, television. Most recently, the internet has spread persuasive ideas, articles, points of views and blogs to anyone willing to read them. People may seek identification first and foremost, but we end up being swayed into some idea or another as we seek it. It’s possible the two ideas are so intertwined they really cannot be separated. The need for identification makes us vulnerable to the threat of negative persuasion. In turn, positive persuasion may give us the identity with each other we seek.


Burke, K. (1966). Language as Symbolic Action. University of CA Press: Berkeley.
Herrick, J.A. (2005). The History and Theory of Rhetoric. Allyn & Bacon: New York.


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