Deacon, Burke, and Evolution of the "Symbolic Species": Six Points of Connection from Biological Anthropology

Edward C. Appel, Lock Haven University


Terrence W. Deacon, University of California, Berkeley, has become an international star in biological anthropology and evolutionary neuroscience. His empirical research appears to provide intriguing analogues to, and confirmations of, Kenneth Burke's Dramatism/Logology. This essay explores six intersections between Deacon's semiotics and Burke's dramatism that mark that correspondence. The study concludes that, by Burke's own standard, the label "coy," reluctant theologian may characterize both these seemingly secular theorists.

Terrence W. Deacon is Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is both a biological anthropologist and laboratory neuroscientist (Tallerman and Gibson xvii). Deacon's account of primate and pre-primate evolution, before the appearance of what he has called the "symbolic species," and his description of human symbolic attributes and behavior thereafter, appear to significantly articulate with Kenneth Burke's dramatism/logology. As both biologist and neuroscientist of national and international stature, Deacon's pre-symbolic and post-symbolic claims about communication have bearing on, and add perspective to, Burke's philosophy.1

Deacon's theory serves to support Burke in the main, while calling Burke into question on one key point. Deacon's challenge to Burke's sweeping binary between "(Nonsymbolic) Motion" and "(Symbolic) Action" is apparent (Deacon, Incomplete; Burke, Human Nature 139). Burke's facile inclusion of nonsymbolic animals and inanimate natural phenomena in the same "motion" bin may stand in need of nuance. From the vantage point of Deacon and his mentor Gregory Bateson, presymbolic animal activity and interaction are of such "intentional[ity]" and "sentience" that they form a more distinct and structured bridge to the drama of the "symbolic species" than Burke gives credence (Deacon, Incomplete 10, 485-507; "Re: Fw: Re: Deacon's Neo-Aristotelian Complication": "Bateson . . . was a powerful personal influence on me").2

The central piling undergirding that presymbolic bridge to Burke's symbolizing animal is Deacon's (and Bateson's) notion of the "absential," or intuition of some kind of negative, that motivates the "behavior," or "self-movement," of nonsymbolic animal life on all levels, microbial to the great apes (Incomplete 3; Burke, Permanence 5-6; Grammar 157). This sense of "what is not" denotes recognition of a "difference which makes a difference," as Bateson phrased it (381). The "difference" in "expectation" nonsymbolic animals respond to, Deacon asserts, is not merely a difference of any particular kind. It is a difference that is grounded in a "teleonomic," end-directed, consequence-oriented matter of survival or reproduction (Incomplete 281-83, 377, 392-420).

"Teleonomy" is a central concept for Deacon. Analogous to Aristotle's notion of "entelechy," it is "a middle ground between mere mechanism and purpose," as Deacon defines it. "Teleonomy" refers to behavior "predictably oriented toward a particular target state," even with "no explicit representation of that state or intention to achieve it" (Incomplete 553).

From the protonegative intuition that authors the teleonomic activity of nonsymbolic animals, there devolve multiple adumbrations of the fully realized "drama" of the symbolic species. As Deacon describes it, such predramatic animal behavior evinces a kind of protopentad in operation (Burke's agent, act, purpose, means, and scene). These "basic forms of thought," as Burke calls them, as reflected, Deacon makes explicit, in Aristotle's pentad-related "Four Causes" (material, efficient, formal, and final), explain the "function[ing]" of that protonegative in the behavior of all animal life. Something like Burke's "terms for order" ("order," "constraint," "work," then the denouement of "survival") bring to fruition such animal activity. The "noncomponential" negative the impetus for it all, such "activity" is not reducible to "spontaneous" motion, irreducibility a highlight of Burke's notion of the symbolic negative (Incomplete 34-35, 50, 161, 185-86, 190-205, 207, 210-14, 326-70, 508; Deacon, "In Response"; Burke, "Dramatism" 10; Burke, Religion 16). These are conceptions that prefigure Burke's reading of human language, life, and rhetorical orientation (Burke, Grammar, Religion, "Dramatism").

A case for a critique of Burke on the so-called "motion" of presymbolic animal life is thus implicit in Deacon's evolutionary theory. That critique will remain implicit for now. Deacon's support for Burke on the explicitly moral "action" of the "symbolic species," as evolving and fully evolved, is herewith offered. Negative intuition as prime motivator characterizes both Deacon (Incomplete) and Burke (e.g., Religion, Language). Their shared emphasis on the motive power of negation will not be elaborated here. Suffice it to say, the attributes of the presymbolic negative remain "enigmatic" in Deacon (Incomplete 1). Deacon concedes the idea is something of a "nontechnical . . . heuristic," a kind of exploratory assumption ("In Response"). Clearly nonmoralizing, the protonegative remains elusive conceptually. Yet, both Deacon and Burke argue for the same trajectory of implications, rooted in the "what is not": order, constraint or restriction structuring that order, negation energizing that constraint, leading to purpose (Deacon, Incomplete 23, 190-95, 273; Burke, Grammar 294-97, Religion 4-5, 20-21, 184). These notions go hand in glove in the thought of the scientist and the rhetorician. For Deacon, these interlocking motives suffuse the world of animate being in general. For Burke, they underpin his "Definition of Man [sic]" alone (Language 3-24).3

That shared negative affirmation will be taken as given. The concept suffuses Incomplete Nature and the thought of late Burke. Six additional Burkean themes, all of them features of the evolving and evolved symbolic species, are recapped in Deacon in empirically ponderable ways. Deacon's analysis of the "symbol user" highlights: content-empty abstraction; a "bi-layered" human symbolic existence "revers[ing]" reference and entitlement; origin of language in "absential[ly]"-induced, which is to say negatively-induced, purpose; hexadic attitude as inherent in proto, and fully-emergent, language; symbolism as the human essence; culminating in theological dispositions as the symbolizer's normative wont (Symbolic Species; "Beyond").

We begin with the similarities between Deacon and Burke on their anti-representationalist view of human symbolic abstraction.

"Icons," "Indexes," and the Subversion of Signifier-Signified

The particulars of the nonsymbolic communication of so-called "lower" animals held little theoretical interest for Burke, overall, even though Burke occasionally paid those creatures significant attention (Hawhee). It is the necessary starting point for Deacon's semiotics. Following American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, Deacon founds his semiotic theory of emergence on the "iconic" and "indexical" communication of presymbolic animals (Symbolic Species 70-71, "Symbol Concept" 396-98). Such animals keep in touch by way of "sinsigns": "icons," or significant forms, and "indexes," vocal or physical gestures that "point" to those significant forms, "one-by-one" (Symbolic Species 70-71, 89). Here is where a naïve "signifier-signified" has relevance. "Dolphin signature whistles," for instance, "are indexical sinsigns," Deacon says ("Re: 'The Symbol Concept'"; Symbolic Species 59, 69). They point or indicate in particular. The signifier, the whistle, points directly to the signified, the dolphin in question. The symbolic stick figure on a restroom wall, in contrast, is an iconic "legisign," as per Peirce. It portrays in general. Its reference is to another symbol, not an identifiable person (Deacon, "Symbol Concept" 396-98, 401).     

In respect to the symbolic species, then, Deacon alters the verbal realism of "signifier-signified," word-thing (Symbolic Species 69-70). For Deacon, the relationship is signifier-signifier, not signifier-signified. Symbolic reference is internal to itself. Symbols refer, abstractly and generally, "irrespective of any natural affinities" ("Symbol Concept" 393, 401). In other words, as per Burke, symbols synthesize, synthetically, disparate beings, entities, or events for seemingly pragmatic, culturally-conditioned purposes that transcend mere appearance of similarity (Permanence). Symbolic reference cannot be "map[ped]" in terms of any material aspect, according to Deacon (Symbolic Species 69). To the extent that a common word or symbol "maps" anything, it "maps" a position in a given lexicon in relation to other terminologies in that symbol system. Consult a dictionary or thesaurus to ascertain symbolic reference and relationships.

One point of clarification is required. Vervet monkey calls look, on the surface, something like symbolic abstraction. "Distinct [Vervet] calls referred to distinct classes of predators," eagles, leopards, or snakes (Deacon, Symbolic Species 54, 56, emphasis added; Seyfarth and Cheney 61). "Generalized . . . iconic overlap," or "stimulus generalization" of a "conditioned," "rote," one-to-one variety, is not, however, symbolization. "The grouping of these referents is not by symbolic criteria (though from outside we might apply our own symbolic criteria)" (Deacon, Symbolic Species 70, 81, 84).

A new kind of "generalization" is made possible by an "insight" a proto-symbolizer can summon: a shift from "stimulus generalization or learning set generalization" to "logical or categorical generalization." It is a shift from sheer token-object reference to "sense" or "semantic" reference, made possible by a dawning and interlocking network of abstracting gestures and sounds (Deacon, Symbolic Species 70, 83, 88, 93). Expanding "prefrontal computations" in the brain facilitate higher-order connectivities and thinking across all cortices, necessary for symbolization (Deacon, Symbolic Species 265-66). The larger prefrontal area in hominids supports the "sequential, hierarchic, and subordinate association analyses" required by human language and thought.

The prefrontal is not, though, the locus of language per se. "Widely distributed neural systems must contribute in a coordinated fashion to create and interpret symbolic relationships," Deacon maintains (Symbolic Species 265-66). Latent non-symbolic indexicality is superseded, but not obliterated, by the powers of cognition a mighty forebrain enhances. Echoes of the one-to-one indexicality of presymbolic mammals still reverberate, but are now subordinate to "higher-level associative ["hierarchical"] relationships" (Symbolic Species 73).

Symbolic reference, therefore, for Deacon, functions like this: "A written word [for example] is first recognized as an iconic synsign (an instance of a familiar form), then an indexical legisign (a type of sign vehicle contiguous with other related types), and then as a symbolic legisign (a conventional type of sign [making] . . . a conventional type of reference)" ("Symbol Concept" 397-98). Thus, in the symbolic communication of modern hominids, an emergent hierarchy of mental actions takes place that builds on their long mammalian past.

What is happening neurologically to effectuate this emergent hierarchal synergy is "counter-current information processing" that generally proceeds from lower to higher structures of the brain, and from back to front: from limbic, peri-limbic, and peripheral (e.g., thalamus and amygdala) to "specialized" cortical regions, and from "posterior (attention-sensory) cortical systems," to "anterior (intention-action) cortical systems"—and back again. This electro-chemical "counter-current" serves to monitor, check and balance, generate iconic, indexical, symbolic "equilibrium" (Deacon, "Emergent Process" 14-20; Deacon and Cashman 9). Transition, reference, syntax in general, are learned processes in Deacon-world. They become second nature, so to speak, via the mammalian "procedural" memory system, given detailed context below in the explanation of symbolism and religion (Deacon, Symbolic Species).

The empirically "empty" abstractiveness of Deacon's semiotics puts him at odds with positivist, representationalist, and scientist points of view. Crusius (69, 88-89, 228-32) and Appel ("Implications" 52-54) have argued the same for Burke. As Burke has said, in his pentad of terms, for instance, each element stands for "nothing" whatsoever, "no object at all . . .  not this scene, or that agent, etc. but scene, agent, etc. in general" (Grammar 188-89). Burke's notion of "Argument by Analogy" further explains the symbol-object disconnect: In the service of a common interest, intention, expectancy, purpose, or value, that functions as a unifying metaphorical, teleological perspective, or by way of analogy between disparate beings, entities, or events, analogy not synonymy, symbols generate the perception of similar strains in dissimilar events, leading to the classification of those events together in a common, idealized, essentialized abstraction (Permanence 102-07).

The Underlying "Hidden" Symbolic World of a "Bi-layered" Species

Following on that similarity between Deacon and Burke on the airy abstractiveness of symbolic reference, there devolve two radical, but congruent, conceptions: Deacon and Cashman's assertion that symbolizers live essentially in a "bi-layered" world, the interpretive layer symbolic, the interpreted layer practical, material, quotidian; and Burke's claim that "'things'" ought preferably be seen as "'the signs of words,'" not vice versa. Or, as Deacon put it, note "how icons can indicate symbols," "how . . . dissonant iconic relations point to symbols" (Deacon and Cashman 16; Burke, Language 361; Deacon, "Origin and Consequences of Life in a Bi-Layered World").

The symbolic species gives evidence of a two-world metaphysics, Deacon claims ("Beyond," "Symbol Concept"). Symbolizers, like nonsymbolic animals, confront a natural environment of "real," "material," "tactile and visible objects and living beings," a world of "concrete . . . events." Unlike those avian and mammalian precursors, however, symbolizers inhabit a "second world," as well. This underlying realm is one of "symbols that are linked together by meaningful associations," a "virtual," indeed "spiritual" world, one accessed directly and most basically by taking in hand a dictionary or thesaurus ("Beyond" 37, "Symbol Concept" 401; Deacon and Cashman 13-18). The title of Viktor Frankl's book comes readily to mind as summative legend for this hidden domain: Man's Search for Meaning.

Humans are "symbolic savants," as Deacon puts it. "We almost certainly have evolved," he says, "a predisposition to see things as symbols, whether they are or not." "The make-believe of children," "finding meaning in coincidental events," seeing "faces in the clouds," "run[ning] our lives with respect to dictates presumed to originate from an invisible spiritual world" are conspicuous expressions of this singular susceptibility. "Our special adaptation," Deacon goes on, "is the lens through which we see the world." With it comes an irrepressible urge "to seek for a cryptic meaning hiding beneath the surface of appearances" ("Beyond" 37, Symbolic Species 433-38; Deacon and Cashman 15-18).

Analogously, Burke's philosophy evolved from a concern with "being" to a focus on "knowing," from ontology to epistemology, from dramatism to logology, from what humans essentially are to how they come to understand the universe they live in (Grammar 63-64, "Dramatism and Logology"). Burke turned to the epistemic from his essays on the negative, 1952-53, to the mid-1960s and beyond ("Dramatistic View" in Language 419-79). Burke's version of that "lens through which we see the world" is much like Deacon's in its quest for higher meaning. Encapsulized in his definition of "logology," Burke describes that epistemic template as, "the systematic study of theological terms . . . for the light they might throw on the forms of language," theological terms being the most thoroughgoing, far reaching, ultimate terms one can imagine (Language 47; Religion v-vi, 1-42). Burke's book The Rhetoric of Religion and his essays "Terministic Screens" and "What Are the Signs of What? A Theory of 'Entitlement'" epitomize Burke's rendering of drama, especially theological drama, as perfected filter or frame (Language 44-62, 359-79).

Hence the partly, but not altogether, new and central concerns of late Burke: that theological "motive of perfection" as an all-too-often impetus toward "tragic" drama; the sin/guilt/redemption cycle of dramatic stages endemic to human thought, action, and social cohesion, yet lamentably taken so recurrently to tragic excess; the drama-cum-theology lens as humankind's window on the world; "reality" as approached through variants of such a terministic screen; "reality" a kind of virtual world of transcendental meanings, with its "fantastic pageantry, a parade of masques and costumes and guildlike mysteries," nature "gleam[ing] secretly with a most fantastic shimmer of words and social relationships," as Burke describes it (Permanence 274-94; Language 44-62, 379; Human Nature 54-95; Religion; Attitudes 37-39, 188-90n).

Burke's "theory of entitlement" served first as direct answer to Heidegger's "metaphysical" attention to the nature of "reality." Burke's focal point: the principle of the verbal, particularly as energized by infinite negation, as sole access to that "reality," as "deflect[ing]" as well as "reflect[ing]" prism (Language 45; Mailloux 7-8).

Two Million Years of Brain-Language Co-Evolution

Deacon says language came slowly to hominids. Homo Habilians got their start about 1.8 million years ago, at the beginning of the Quaternary. If it stretched across the Pleistocene until about B.C.E. 200,000, the Habilian-to-Sapient progression took a long time evolving toward its unique adaptation. Those adjustments between brain, on the one hand, and symbolic gestures and "talk," on the other, were reciprocal, Deacon maintains. Neurostructures and linguistic skill ramified together (Deacon and Cashman 14; Deacon, "Beyond" 33-34, Symbolic Species 328-29).

Deacon's conception of the origins of language sounds much like Burke's. Burke emphasizes, as generative force, a "'pre-negative' . . . tonal gesture" (Deacon's "absential"?) "calling attention to" "danger" with "sound[s] . . . hav[ing] a deterent or pejorative meaning" (Language 423-24). Not surprisingly, the negative as implicit impetus underpins Deacon's account as well. Deacon speaks of "an undifferentiated starting condition." "We must ask: What's the form of a thought "—or "the idea that a sentence conveys"—"before it is put into words," the "'mental images' not quite formed or desires and intentions to achieve some imagined goal only vaguely formulated?" These "embryos of a speech act" would be "focused on aiming for and achieving expressive [which is to say, emotionally-charged] goals," which is also to say, making a choice among not-yet-realized "options" ("Emergent Process" 5-6).

Iconic "significant forms" would prompt those nascent attempts at "speech" communication. Such arresting icons would likely be those that pose a danger or alert to an opportunity. Gestural symbolic reference to them would warn kin or other group members of a need to act cooperatively. The "absential feature," the protonegative, already functions in Deacon as the basic engine of intentionality Burke deems the negative to be. Goal-seeking, or "end-directedness," and the absential go hand in glove in all living beings, Deacon affirms. The negative "Don't do," and the seemingly positive, "Don't fail to do," serve well emerging human "teleology," in Deacon's scheme. The absential did the same, and continues to do the same, with respect to the pre-linguistic "teleonomic" (Burke, Language 419-79; Deacon, Incomplete 10, 24-31, 553).

Where Deacon may differ from Burke on the origins of language: The "vocal gesture" as "symbol" may have come fitfully to the process. Varied forms of vocality were difficult, Deacon states, for early primates ("Beyond" 31). In addition, like Stephan Jay Gould, Deacon sees no directionality or inherently upward thrust toward ever-greater complexity in the evolutionary process itself. Like Gould, his watchwords are "diversification" and "distribution," not complexification. The symbolic species may exist in lonely isolation on this small planet, a chance once-and-done phenomenon in an incredibly vast cosmos (Symbolic Species 29-30; Gould). That bleak conclusion was basically beyond the purview of Burke, though Burke hints at such possible symbolic uniqueness at the end of The Rhetoric of Religion (315-16).

"Mood" as "Focused Readiness and Expectation"

The above brings us to Burke's hexad as integral to the symbolic mix. Language, for Burke, primarily expresses an "attitude," Burke's sixth grammatical term, the adverbial "in what manner" of high school English. Language as essential bearer of "attitude" creates an orientation toward certain pathways of action, gives cues to action and a command to follow those cues. "Attitude," connotation, symbolic communication as more inherently "active" than impartially informative—such are the fundamentals of Burke's dramatism (Grammar 235-47).

For Deacon, that attitudinal "expressive" dimension is denominated a "mood." In respect to symbolic origins, "Within this frame of social communicative arousal, what might be described as the 'mood' of the speech or interpreted act is differentiated," Deacon says. "This 'mood,'" he goes on, "needs to be maintained." It is a "focused readiness and expectation with respect to social interaction" ("Emergent Process" 6-8).

Cognition and emotion go hand in hand in communication, Deacon affirms. A tendentious arousal state, however slight, attends all symbolic operations (Deacon and Cashman 20: "Emotion cannot be dissociated from cognition").

For Good or Ill, the "Symbolic Species"

Burke famously defines humans as the "symbol-using," "symbol-making," and, do not fail to take note, the "symbol-misusing animal." These symbolizing creatures are "moralized" by a sense of negation that not only opens up vistas of infinity and eternity, but also serves as goad to strive for whatever "perfections," transcendent or immanent, their heart chooses to reach for. That top-of-the-ladder denouement could be eternal life with God in streets paved with gold (speaking metaphorically or not), or richest, most distinguished, man or woman on their block or in their town, industry, state, or nation. In the face of their weakness and vulnerability as very imperfect animals, this vision of the flawless existence they "ought" to fulfill so often leads, sadly, to destructive excess. "Rotten with perfection" is the concluding codicil in Burke's assessment of the human (Language 3-25).4

Thus, "rational animal" or "political animal" is off the mark as anthropological entitlement. Symbolizing animals possess a marvelously gifted intellect. Burke so acknowledges. Intellect, though, is not what fundamentally drives these beings, according to Burke. Symbolizers are best thought of as "methodical," not rational (Human Nature 72-75, Permanence 234). "Perfection," malign as well as benign; "entelechy," Burke style; excess, are then humankind's constant temptation and lure, much less the "humbler satisfactions" Burke would enjoin to temper the "linguistic factor," with its "absurd ambitions" (Language 16-20, Grammar 317-20, Dramatism 57-58).

Deacon's "symbolic species" functions as virtual synonym for the first article in Burke's "Definition of Man [sic]" (Language 3-9). "In my work," Deacon says:

I use the phrase symbolic species, quite literally, to argue that symbols have literally changed the kind of biological organism we are. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that language is both well integrated into almost every aspect of our cognitive and social life, that it utilizes a significant fraction of the forebrain, and is acquired robustly under even quite difficult social circumstances and neurological impairment. It is far from fragile.

So rather than merely intelligent or wise (sapient) creatures, we are creatures whose social and mental capacities have been quite literally shaped by the special demands of communicating with symbols. And this doesn't just mean we are adapted for language use, but also for all the many ancillary mental biases that support reliable access and use of this social resource. ("Beyond" 32-33)

So says Deacon. What these myriad traits all add up to serves as transition, for the biological anthropologist, into a climactic attribute he shares with Burke as final reckoning.

Theological "Savants"

Kenneth Burke self-identified as a nontheist (Booth, "Burke's Religious Rhetoric" 25). Nevertheless, the theme of Burke as a theologian-in-spite-of-himself is a well-traveled interpretive path. Wayne Booth has claimed so in multiple venues (Booth, "Many Voices," "Burke's Religious Rhetoric," Plenary Lecture). Booth cites eight other scholars who have noted much the same ("Burke's Religious Rhetoric" 44; see, for example, Appel, "Coy Theologian"). Supports for such a reading are many. Suffice it to say, in this brief treatment, the implicit route from the hexadic grammar of language to the sin/guilt/redemption cycle, as energized by a necessarily hortatory negative, leads to Burke's "motive of perfection" as culminating and most fully realized in some religious system (Burke, Religion 297-304, Permanence 292-93; Appel, Burkean Primer 1-85). If "perfection" were as thoroughly attained in mundane endeavors, Burke could just as readily have labeled this existential urge the hierarchal motive of perfection, and let it go at that. "Call them [those linguistic arrows that point in a theological direction] the 'basic errors' of the dialectic if you want," Burke allows. "We are here talking about ultimate dialectical tendencies, having 'god,' or a 'god-term,' as the completion of the linguistic process" (Rhetoric 276).

In a coauthored article, "The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion," Deacon puts a neuroscientific exclamation point on Burke's religious obsessions. Most typically, evolutionary biologists call religion a nonadaptive mistake, a "misapplication" of a perhaps once-useful adaptation of a kind. Deacon says these Dawkins/Gould/Lewontin types offer only a superficial explication. Sources of the religious impulse are more complex, and their outcomes similarly complex, if virtually inevitable (Deacon and Cashman 2-3; e.g., Gould and Lewontin).

Three "synerg[ies]," or emergent combinations, of mammalian neurostructures and abilities, account for the religious intuition, Deacon and Cashman claim. As emergent phenomena, these compositions give rise to outcomes greater than the sum of their separate effects. Symbolic facility, it is averred, puts together all three (12, 26).

First, "procedural" and "episodic" memory-functions, extant but operating separately in all previous mammals, were integrated by language. The result is "narrative," with the particulars of episodic ("synchronic") recall dropping into "slots" generated by the rote procedural (or "diachronic"), second-nature memory function that follows the learned pathways of syntax and indexing. This facility for narrative came with the "absential" end-directedness that seeks for a meaningful "telos" beyond the stark and unfinished details of many, if not all, human lives. A religious denouement of a kind most satisfactorily provides that narrative consummation (Deacon and Cashman 7-13).

Second, the "two-world" synergy previously described accompanied symbolic power, as well. The mundane world accessed and reconnoitered iconically and indexically by dolphins, lions, and chimps, via one-to-one signs and gestures "mapped" by way of signifier and signified, was now grounded upon a hidden world of internal symbolic relationships. From thence a leap is so readily made, from those relentlessly inferred symbolic connections, via the "infinite flexibility," "final causality," and "special exaggerated compulsion that complements our unique gift," toward a "virtual" world of transcendental meanings (Deacon and Cashman 13-18; Deacon, Symbolic Species 434-35; see Burke on the analogous motive of "perfection" and the dialectical "Upward Way," e.g., Permanence 292-95; Religion v-vi, 1-5, 300-305; Grammar 295).

Finally, unprecedented emotional experiences of the kind often associated with religious experience emerged. Evolving symbolic equipment fused primary mammalian arousal states into the likes of awe, reverence, sacredness, elation, transcendence, and spiritual renewal, perceptions of unity with the cosmos, a sense of the holy and the sacred. Other feelings, tied especially to the highest of human ethics, experienced within and outside the bonds of conventional religion, surfaced as well: charity, humility, lovingkindness, selfless action for others. Humor, irony, and the "eureka" moments of discovery, scientific and otherwise, derived from the same kind of often-contradictory syntheses (Deacon and Cashman 18-25).

Thus, Deacon, like Burke, makes explicit a theotropic trajectory in human symbolic evolution. Like Burke, also, Deacon drops hints that the theological motive may serve as humankind's downside, if not a siren call to illusion and impracticality. In his "Religion" piece, Deacon compares these "symbolic savants" to often remarked "idiot savants," generally handicapped individuals remarkably adept at one operation, like math or music. In addition, Deacon alludes to the first two of the above synergies as falling well enough within the purview of the nonadaptive theme of conventional evolutionary theory. The third synergy, the symbolic confluence that produces those noblest of human emotions and ideals, many of which can accompany any belief or ideology, not just those of a transcendental cast, escapes invidious comparisons (Deacon and Cashman 15-16, 18-25; see Symbolic Species 436-38 for a less subtle treatment of what Deacon calls the "most noble and most pathological of human behaviors").

As for Burke, rhetoricians are generally aware of his deep dubiety toward "perfection," expressly theological or otherwise, and its melancholy manifestation in tragic drama. Yet, as Burke has said, the "magic spell" of language cannot be broken. The most we can hope for is to "coach" a "better spell." That "better spell" is George Meredith's "comic spirit," as anatomized in Burke's conception of comic drama. Perhaps that is why, when asked for his favorite theologian at SCA in Boston, 1987, Burke answered without a pause, "Niebuhr," Reinhold, the very embodiment of comedy's sense of "limitation" (the Christian realism of Moral Man and Immoral Society), coupled with the charitableness of mid-twentieth-century liberal Mainline Protestantism. In that "comic" orientation, the severities of eternal judgment had long since disappeared (Grammar 101, 406-408; Permanence 195-97, 286-94; Attitudes 37-44, 166-75, 188-90n; Philosophy 119; Meredith, Comedy; Queens College Reception). Burke's bête noir was always an earth-bound "cult of empire," a "perverted religiosity" he called it, not transcendental religion. "Empire" in Burke-speak stands for an immanentized perfectionism. The insatiable quest for "more," and yet "more" still, here in this life—it is this unquenchable striving that prompted the Helhaven Papers, Burke's final assessment of Homo Loquax and their telos. That vision of a decimated planet, the perpetrators of the carnage having escaped to an ultimate gated community in the sky, a "Moon" for the truly "Misbegotten," fleshes out Burke's prediction in the Grammar: the symbol-motivated as bent on carrying their technological project, come what may, to "the end of the line" (Grammar 317-20, 441-43; Human Nature 54-95; O'Neill).

Deacon appears no less pessimistic in his "Epilogue" to Incomplete Nature. There he "sens[es] the tragedy of being part of a civilization unable to turn away from a lifestyle destroying its own future . . ." (539).

Both Deacon and Burke seem to go well enough with the darker predictions about a planet in crisis.


Comparisons between the semiotic theory of anthropologist and scientist Terrence W. Deacon and the dramatism/logology of Kenneth Burke strengthen, it would seem, the validity of Burke's system as a philosophy of language, that is, of distinctly human communication. Six dimensions of support for Burke's dramatism were cited and explored, all of which devolve from, or reflect in some way, negative, noncomponential transcendence of the material world (Incomplete 484). Symbolic abstraction that articulates directly with other symbols in thesaurus-like relationship, not "objects" in the "real world"; a "bi-layered" conception of the human species that mirrors Burke's preference for "things" as necessarily the "signs of words," not vice versa; evolutionary linguistic development founded on an inextricable connection between "purpose" and negation, a hallmark of both Deacon's theory and Burke's philosophy; attitude, or "mood," as essential and motivating accompaniment of any symbolic action; and the nature of the human as, for good or ill (depending on one's ability to moderate via a "comic" linguistic "discount"), essentially symbolic and theological—all these features of Burke's "symbol-using animal" derive reinforcement from Deacon's research (Burke on "discounting," Attitudes 244-46).

One point of conceivable contention is Deacon's potent demonstration, or postulation, of that very "negative" ubiquity. For Deacon, some capacity for negative intuition apparently suffused and suffuses the "behavior" of all nonsymbolic, as well as symbolic, forms of animal life (Incomplete 480). To use Aristotle's term, an "entelechial" purposivness of a kind extrudes in animate beings in general, not just in the "symbol-using animal," one of Deacon's fundamental claims (Burke, Dramatism 57-58; Language 3-9). Four "precursors," as Deacon calls them, of symbolic action anticipated in some "enigmatic" way the full-blown drama of human striving: the negative "absential," the "act"-to-"purpose" trajectory, terms of a kind for "order" that seem to make sense when applied even to the minimally sentient, and an incommensurable, nonreductive aspect to it all, as to purely physical causation. Burke's usually unqualified contrast between symbolic "action" and nonsymbolic "motion" may therefore necessitate some revision. Too often, Burke's dichotomy places lower animals, plants, and the processes of inanimate physical nature all in the same "motion" bin (e.g., Human Nature 139-71).

Where the preliminary purposefulness, or "teleonomic" tendencies, of Deacon's theory may have originated, in the case of nonsymbolic living beings, still poses a dilemma. Deacon argues for an intermediate "morphodynamic," or "form-generating," step. Snow crystals and the hexagonal convection cells in a heated liquid, for two examples, become "spontaneously more organized and orderly over time," via "perturbation" between two morphodynamic systems, "spontaneously" self-organizing "without . . . extrinsic . . . influences" (Incomplete 235-63, 305, 462, 550; "Emergent Process" 3). The crystals and convection cells adumbrate pre-teleonomic dispositions as precursors to life. How convincingly Deacon closes this divide between inanimate and animate is for scientific peers to assess.

"Incidently," Burke says (actually not so "incidently"), "Logology would treat Metaphysics as a coy species of theology" (Religion 24n, 300). Speculation along those metaphysical lines leads to the possibility that "coy" theologian may apply to Terrence Deacon, as well as to Burke. According to Arthur N. Prior, some establishment philosophers call even the linguistic negative "metaphysically embarrassing," let alone one as ostensibly unexplainable and ontologically confounding as Deacon's (Prior 459). Many such thinkers evidence that embarrassment in strained attempts to turn negatives into positives, or by defending a pristinely scientist semiotics in which negation barely fits (Alston, Hacking, Heath, Mundle, Owen, Rosen, Wiggins). A pre- to proto-"drama" of a sort, devolving from a pre-symbolic tropism toward negation and end-directedness of an admittedly "enigmatic" kind, suggests realms of transcendence Neo-Darwinians understandably ignore (Incomplete 31-34). Surely, "bi-layered" beings that see "faces in the clouds" and "run their lives" by "dictates" from an "invisible spiritual world" will follow such transcendental cues to their "compulsi[ve]" "end of the line" (Deacon and Cashman 15; Mish 780, "metaphysical," def. 2a; Burke, Philosophy 70, 84, 86, 88; Dramatism 57-58, on the "metaphysics" of Aristotle's "entelechy").


The author wishes to thank Professor Terrence W. Deacon for his gracious help in facilitating research for this essay, as well as the KB Journal editor and reviewers for their careful reading and useful comments.


1. Deacon's first book, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, is widely considered a seminal work in the subject of evolutionary cognition (Schilhab, Stjernfelt, and Deacon 9-38; Deacon, "More Praise," Symbolic Species, frontispiece). Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter has been called, along with other encomiums, "Kuhn[ian] . . . revolutionary science," promising "a revolution of Copernican proportions" and "a profound shift in thinking . . . [to] be compared with . . . [those of] Darwin and Einstein" (qtd. in Deacon, Incomplete i-iii). Deacon has been accorded distinguished lectureships at universities and graduate schools in, among other venues, Holland, Norway, Denmark, and Atlanta, Georgia (Deacon, "Re: Update on Incomplete Nature"; e.g., "Naturalizing Teleology," "On Human (Symbolic) Nature").

2. Crusius calls the categorical distinction between "nonsymbolic motion" and "symbolic action" the "basic polarity" in Burke's philosophy. It subsumes or supersedes "mind-body, spirit-matter, superstructure-substructure . . . thought and extension" (164).

3. On the possibly cryptic meaning of "Incomplete" in the title Incomplete Nature, the order-constraint-"absential"/negative-purpose set of linkages can shed some light. With the term "incomplete," Deacon is referring to the telos, or end-directedness, "absential" or negative motivation confers on all nonsymbolic animal life, as well as the "symbolic species." Deacon posits such a trajectory, attenuated, "understood in a minimal and generic sense," for all living creatures (Incomplete 23, 190-95, 273). "Lower" animals are thus, like humans, creatures perpetually in transition, incessantly "not-quite-there-yet," oriented toward change, fulfillment of a kind, "completion," analogous, at least, in a sense, to the way humans are driven (Burke, Religion 42).

However, according to Deacon, such a negation-prompted "teleology" is, in reality, an "intrinsic teleology," bounded within earth's systems, or should be so conceived. Teleology names a "functional relationship" between "something physically present [that] depends on something specifically absent." Consequently, "Transcendent top-down [beyond-what-is-physically-present] teleology is redundant." The "eternal" does not, or should not, factor in. The quest for the likes of self-enhancement in the broadest sense, in the here and now, is as far as Deacon would take a useful notion of telos.

The symbolizers'problem, according to Deacon: Prompted by language, they, in the mass, do not see things that way (Deacon, "Naturalizing Teleology").

4. That hierarchal "motive of perfection" would not necessarily prompt a need to be "number one" oneself. It could be satisfied by attainment of a position within a respected, if not perfected, hierarchy, from the whole of which one can assess his or her personal standing as a worthy member. Thereby one becomes "a participant in the perfection of the total sequence," perhaps a "vessel of the major attribute identified with the 'superior' class" (Burke, Rhetoric 191, 287).

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