Kenneth_BurkeThis is my second post in the series I am doing reflecting on readings from my Foundations of Composition and Rhetoric Class. For this week, we were assigned to finish reading Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives. You can find my first post about mystery in Burke here. In this post, I want to briefly explore one of Burke’s central claims, namely that human rationality, the logic of symbols, is prior to any particular human. That what makes us human, what separates us from animals and other beings, is our facility with symbols, our rationality.

Burke explains it this way: “[T]he dog cannot discourse about his discourse, cannot talk about his grammar, rehtoric, and symbolic. Similarly, all animals use tools in the primary sense. But only humans are tool using in the secondary sense (as when external agencies are used to produce other external agencies). Thus, technology depends upon the kinds of intuition and tradition that are impossible without the dialectic of ‘rationality'” (288).

Burke writes these words at the end of a section dealing with his objections to leaning too heavily on psychoanalytic theory (incidentally, I read this section rather gleefully since I don’t put much stock in psychoanalytic theory (especially Lacan and his descendants) since so many of its central claims have been debunked by contemporary psychology and contemporary linguistics). One of the problems that Burke seems to have with psychoanalytic theory is that it treats “a dialectical motive implicit in the nature of language . . . as a mere derivative of psychological motives” (279). That is, psychoanalytic theory has a tendency to subordinate motives to something other than rationality. But since the logic of abstraction precedes people, that doesn’t make much sense. Burke clarifies: “Word using is prior to tool using even in the obscenely punning sense. The emergence from infancy into word using precedes by many years the emergence into sexual potency (hence the ‘polymorphous perverse’ nature of infantile sexuality becomes interwoven with the power of symbols long before clear and direct sexual purpose has developed; and when it does develop, it must accommodate itself not to the ‘glandular situation’ alone, but to the many years of symbolic practice that preceded it” (288).

What I take from this is that it is possible to persuade others by appealing to human rationality; it is possible to approach something like an objective persuasion not subordinated to unconscious desire. While the symbols themselves are products of social location, the logic of their use is not. And, in fact, neuroscience confirms that our brains are hardwired to make use of language. Here are a few places this insight might take us:

1) Symbolic persuasion, usually through language, is at the heart of who we are as people. It has never been more important to study how rhetoric affects people, how it persuades. If we are the persuading animal, then that’s where our focus should be.

2) The heart of who were are as people takes place across our interactions with other people. If there is no one to persuade, we can’t realize our humanity. What is real and true is what takes place in the space between people, not what happens locked up in our heads.

3) This, of course, opens up the door to a revival of a civic rhetoric. If we understand ourselves as people in persuasive interactions with other people, and we acknowledge that we derive a meaningful life from these interactions, then the main of our activities should be oriented toward working toward the civic ordering of a common life.