Sociology Index

Kenneth Duva Burke

Kenneth Duva Burke was an American literary theorist, as well as poet, essayist, and novelist, who wrote on 20th-century philosophy, aesthetics, criticism, and rhetorical theory. As a literary theorist, Burke was best known for his analyses based on the nature of knowledge. Further, he was one of the first individuals to stray away from more traditional rhetoric and view literature as symbolic action. In "Definition of Man", the first essay of his collection Language as Symbolic Action (1966), Kenneth Duva Burke defined humankind as a symbol using animal. Without our encyclopedias, atlases, and other assorted reference guides, we would know little about the world that lies beyond our immediate sensory experience.

What we call "reality," Kenneth Duva Burke stated, is actually a "clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present ... a construct of our symbol systems." College students wandering from class to class, from English literature to sociology to biology to calculus, encounter a new reality each time they enter a classroom; the courses listed in a university's catalogue "are in effect but so many different terminologies"

Burke was unorthodox, concerning himself not only with literary texts, but with the elements of the text that interacted with the audience: social, historical, political background, author biography, etc. Burke drew not only from the works of Shakespeare and Sophocles, but from films and radio that were important to pop culture, because they were teeming with "symbolic and rhetorical ingredients." We as a people can be cued to accept the screen put in front of us, and mass culture such as TV and websites can be to blame for this. Media today has altered terministic screens, or as Richard Toye wrote in his book Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction, the "linguistic filters which cause us to see situations in particular fashions."

For his career, Burke has been praised by The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism as "one of the most unorthodox, challenging, theoretically sophisticated American-born literary critics of the twentieth century." His work continues to be discussed by rhetoricians and philosophers.

The political power and social power of symbols was central to Burke's scholarship throughout his career. He felt that through understanding "what is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it", we could gain insight into the cognitive basis for our perception of the world. For Burke, the way in which we decide to narrate gives importance to specific qualities over others. He believed that this could tell us a great deal about how we see the world.

His definition of humanity states that "man" is "the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection." For Burke, some of the most significant problems in human behavior resulted from instances of symbols using human beings rather than human beings using symbols.

Kenneth Duva Burke was awarded the National Medal for Literature at the American Book Awards in 1981. According to the New York Times, April 20, 1981, The $15,000 award, endowed in memory of the late Harold Guinzberg, founder of the Viking Press, honors a living American writer for a distinguished and continuing contribution to American letters.