Kenneth Burke

What IS a human?


First published in abbreviated form in The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), and then expanded in later versions in The Hudson Review (Winter, 1963-64), Language as Symbolic Action (1966), and a 1989 CCCCs presentation, Kenneth Burke‘s “Definition of Human” encapsulates many of the key tenets of Dramatism, his theory and philosophy of language. In its final form, the definition reads:

Being bodies that learn language
thereby becoming wordlings
humans are
the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal
inventor of the negative
separated from our natural condition
by instruments of our own making
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy
acquiring foreknowledge of death
and rotten with perfection (qtd. in Coe 332-333).

The following image map is based on a plaque that KB kept in his office. Click on the words below the image to see it in detail and to read an analysis/interpretation of the particular clause in Burke’s definition.

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4 thoughts on “Kenneth Burke

    • This last portion of Burke’s definition has particular importance to his other philosophical theories of man. Man being rotten with perfection speaks to the motives that are distinct in man; motives being an intrinsic part of Burke’s Dramatism, distinguishing action from motion.

      Burke refers to Aristotle’s notion of entelechy, which states that we seek to reach the perfection of our kind. This, however, is not present in nature. Burke points out that a rock and a tree are perfectly acceptable as being what they are, but not so with man for he aims to be higher than he is.


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