Trained Incapacity: Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke

Erin Wais, University of Minnesota

Abstract: Recently, a leading sociologist claimed that the phrase “trained incapacity” does not appear in the works of Thorstein Veblen. Kenneth Burke, who attributed the phrase to Veblen in Permanence and Change, was later unsure of its origins. This essay shows that, indeed, Veblen did coin the term, using it particularly in reference to problematic tendencies in business. Burke, on the other hand, gave the term an expansive application to human symbol-using generally.  

IN A 2003 PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS to the American Sociological Association, Robert Stallings challenged conventional wisdom and charged that the widespread attribution of the term "trained incapacity" to Thorstein Veblen is erroneous. Stallings reported that he himself had spent a significant amount of time searching for the term in Veblen's works, to no avail; thus, he was comfortable in challenging anyone to "find the term 'trained incapacity' in any of the published works of Thorstein Veblen." Given his certainty that the term could not be located, he suggested that the connection of "trained incapacity" with Veblen was an example of misattribution in sociology (Stallings 1).

Kenneth Burke made good use of the term "trained incapacity," devoting an entire section to it in his book Permanence and Change. Here he typically attributed the phrase to Veblen, although he later admitted uncertainty as to its origins. As early as a 1946 letter to David Cox, Burke noted that he had tried to remember where he had first heard the phrase "trained incapacity," and even returned to Veblen's books, but was unable to determine where he had originally found the term (“Letter to David Cox” 1). Asked in the 1983 "Counter-Gridlock" interview about the term, Burke stated that he either took the term from Veblen or from Randolph Bourne, who Burke states he was reading at the time he was also reading Veblen (Burke, On Human Nature 336).

Veblen did in fact coin the phrase "trained incapacity."1 In this essay, I clarify its genealogy and explain Veblen's particular use of the phrase. I then compare Veblen's use of the phrase in discussing problems in business and organizations with Burke’s own use, which explored the concept within the broader context of symbol using generally. I argue that Burke drew upon Veblen’s initial idea, but teased out its larger implications for human symbol users much more thoroughly than Veblen.

Veblen’s Use of Trained Incapacity

Despite Stallings’ assurance that the term “trained incapacity” cannot be found in any of Veblen’s published works, Veblen did indeed coin the phrase. It appears first in his 1914 book, The Instinct of Workmanship and the Industrial Arts (IWIA), though the roots of the concept in Veblen’s thinking go back at least as far as his 1898 essay in the American Journal of Sociology. This essay, with the similar title of “The Instinct of Workmanship and The Irksomeness of Labor” (“IWIL”), was largely incorporated into his 1914 book. The essay considers whether humans are predisposed to loathe or to enjoy work. Veblen notes that most economists of his time assumed the former (187), while his essay makes a case for the latter.

Veblen’s argument draws upon evolution theory to suggest that it would hurt the survival of the species if humans loathed and avoided work. He attempts to explain how purposes of survival, goal-directed behavior supporting that survival, and habits of mind and thought have shaped humans as creatures with an “instinct of workmanship.” One of the consequences of this shaping is that humans have evolved to think easily and habitually about things that support this instinct of workmanship (and, thereby, our survival). The implications of this evolutionary imperative, Veblen argues, are significant for human action, thought, and social judgment:

What men can do easily is what they do habitually, and this decides what they can think and know easily. They feel at home in the range of ideas which is familiar through their everyday line of action. A habitual line of action constitutes a habitual line of thought, and gives the point of view from which facts and events are apprehended and reduced to a body of knowledge. What is consistent with the habitual course of action is consistent with the habitual line of thought, and gives the definitive ground of knowledge as well as the conventional standard of complacency or approval in any community. (“IWIL” 195)

On this last point, Veblen makes ethical judgment a product of this evolutionary process, insisting that “[w]hat is apprehended with facility and is consistent with the process of life and knowledge is thereby apprehended as right and good” (195).

Business people develop their own particular habitual lines of thought and action, leading to problems in their focus on business purposes, as Veblen shows sixteen years later in The Instinct of Workmanship and the Industrial Arts. He notes: “It is but a slight exaggeration to say that [business] transactions, which govern the course of industry, are carried out with an eye single to pecuniary gain,—the industrial consequences, and their bearing on the community's welfare, being matters incidental to the transaction of business” (351). Veblen insists that “an eye single to pecuniary gain” puts workers, the community, and business people at cross purposes. It is not simply that different interests are at stake; it is that businesspeople are trained to ignore larger concerns associated with “the industrial situation.” As Veblen explains it, coining the new phrase:

Of course, all this working at cross purposes is not altogether due to trained incapacity on the part of the several contestants to appreciate the large and general requirements of the industrial situation; perhaps it is not even chiefly due to such inability, but rather to an habitual, and conventionally righteous disregard of other than pecuniary considerations. (IWIA 347)

Here “trained incapacity” is distinguished from the “righteous disregard of other than pecuniary considerations,” but they actually function as two sides of the same coin, as the focus on pecuniary interests leads business people to ignore other concerns, such as “the large and general requirements of the industrial situation.”

That the singular focus on pecuniary interest is a type of trained incapacity is confirmed in the comments that follow this passage, where Veblen insists that even workers who are employed in modern factories may suffer from this pecuniary “blindness”—which he also calls “a trained inability”—though not quite as badly as their bosses:

It would doubtless appear that a trained inability to apprehend any other than the immediate pecuniary bearing of their manoeuvres accounts for a larger share in the conduct of the businessmen who control industrial affairs than it does in that of their workmen, since the habitual employment of the former holds them more rigorously and consistently to the pecuniary valuation of whatever passes, under their hands; and the like should be true only in a higher degree of those who have to do exclusively with the financial side of business. (347-48)

Four years later, in Higher Learning in America (HLA), Veblen complains about one kind of training that leads to blindnesses through the overall focus and specialization of business schools:

[These schools’] specialization on commerce is like other specializations in that it draws off attention and interest from other lines than those in which the specialization falls, thereby widening the candidate's field of ignorance while it intensifies his effectiveness within his specialty. The effect, as touches the community's interest in the matter, should be an enhancement of the candidate's proficiency in all the futile ways and means of salesmanship and "conspiracy in restraint of trade" together with a heightened incapacity and ignorance bearing on such work as is of material use. (HLA 152)

This concern over business students’ “widening…field of ignorance” is discussed in a footnote in a chapter concerning the larger, inherent problems with business schools being housed in universities. Although Veblen does not use the phrase that he coined four years earlier, he appears to be dealing with the same problem as the trend toward specialization in business schools sacrifices the breadth of knowledge that more traditional colleges attempt to impart, creating a kind of blindness in business school graduates that has negative consequences.

Although Veblen discusses trained incapacity as a way to account for problems in the modern industrial organization, Veblen’s concerns point beyond an interest in business. In part, this is because he perceives the impact of business practices as wide-ranging, since he holds that business is “a modern force upon cultural growth” (Theory of Business Enterprise vii). Additionally, Veblen’s sociological and cultural investigations led him to explore concepts related to or drawing upon trained incapacity. For example, Veblen’s discussion of human nature in The Theory of the Leisure Class (TLC) offers a broader theoretical backdrop for understanding how business people’s focus on pecuniary interests becomes a kind of trained incapacity. He argues that humans are agents “seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end” (TLC 15). Veblen describes this need for accomplishment as a driving force underlying trained incapacity. It is the focus on a specific goal or end that causes the worker to perceive only what directly affects the specific goal. It is this “end focused” part of every human psyche that allows for humans to have goals, and also makes it possible for such a focus to become an incapacitation. More simply, if a population did not have a specific end to be trained to accomplish, it could not suffer from trained incapacity.

In addition to this need to work toward a goal, Veblen asserts that such goals are parts of a larger complex present in humans. The need for an end to work toward is not socially constructed or culturally imposed; a need for a goal is part of the human need for a “sense of purpose,” which Veblen highlights in Instinct of Workmanship. This sense of purpose is the part of the human condition that Veblen refers to as the “instinct of workmanship” (IWIA 27). This sense of purpose, which underlies human goal seeking, provides the impetus for “trained incapacity.” Because Veblen establishes purpose as something that is innately part of the human condition, he implies that incapacity, which is attendant to that sense of purpose, is also something tied to being human.

Veblen further attaches action (behavior) to instinct (thought) by stating that man has a purpose that is innate, and that this purpose is reflected in man’s behavior. For Veblen, recurring instinctual thoughts are reflected in recurring or habitual actions. This link between thought and action is key to “trained incapacity”; humans may be trained to value certain ideas which are then acted upon. As I noted earlier, Veblen’s “Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor” argues that “a line of action constitutes a line of thought” (195). Frequent repetition of an action leads to a lack of thought in undertaking that action—a kind of incapacitation. A worker’s training includes ensuring his or her acceptance of preferred goals, leading that worker to take action in support of those preferred goals. It is those actions (and therefore those thoughts), to the exclusion of others, that causes incapacitation. Thus, for Veblen, human nature provides an impetus toward goal-seeking behavior, while specific training regimens (as in business schools) can build on those impulses to make particular goals and values preeminent in guiding human action. Such training, in turn, is the root of trained incapacity.

This thought-behavior link highlights the place of habit in trained incapacity. Without the initial thoughts, the behavior would never take place, but once these thoughts have been ingrained, behavior can cease being the result of a carefully considered process and instead occur automatically. Veblen states that “man is a creature of habits and propensities” (IWIA 193). Since a habitual action is easier and faster, it is preferred by both the trainer and the trainee, but, in switching from thoughtful action to action out of habit, incapacitation may insinuate itself. Action prompted by habit may be faster, but it does not take into consideration other incidents or actions that are not allowed for in the training.

A move away from habit is a move toward inefficiency. Once a regimen is learned, less thought is required to perform the task and less time is required to complete the task. The more thought that goes into an action, the more time the action will take. Whereas efficiency increases as the amount of thought and questioning decreases, there is also a concomitant increase in rate of incapacitation. Not only is inefficiency bad for assembly line work, for example, it is also “innately distasteful” according to Veblen (HLA 197). In fact, inefficiency goes against what it means to be human; according to Veblen, humans recoil from inefficiency. Thus, Veblen asserts, humans both seek accomplishment and shun inefficiency. As humans and human organizations become more successful at achieving efficiency, they become less aware of the unintended and unsought consequences of their actions. To the extent that “training” (e.g., education, work experience, socialization) supports this efficiency, it supports a blindness to broader concerns, a “trained incapacity.” Veblen, offers no solution to this problem, but he notes how it influences modern culture (Spindler 49). In fact, in keeping with his typical worldview, Veblen seems resigned to the fact that this training phenomenon is a problem that will always plague humankind.

The next section considers Burke’s references to “trained incapacity” and to Veblen, establishing how and when Burke gives Veblen credit for his ideas, and discussing how Burke works to take Veblen’s initial concept and to extend and adapt it to his own sociological theory.

Burke’s Extension of Trained Incapacity

Kenneth Burke speaks about trained incapacity in an entire section in Permanence and Change appropriately titled “Veblen’s Concept of ‘Trained Incapacity’” (7). While the phrase trained incapacity is mentioned only in Burke’s Permanence and Change, references to its author, Thorstein Veblen, occur throughout Burke’s many texts. Permanence and Change is the first place Burke refers to Veblen. Here Burke speaks of “trained incapacity” as a phrase he believes was coined by Veblen (7). Burke does not give a specific source or page citation, but instead simply attributes the phrase to Veblen. Burke defines the phrase as “that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses” (7). Burke illustrates this concept with a modified Pavlovian example of training chickens, showing how training can “work against” any trainable animal. He notes that chickens trained to come for food upon hearing a bell may suffer trained incapacity when the same bell is used to call them for punishment (7).

Burke notes that Veblen “generally restricts the concept to the care of business men who, through long training in competitive finance, have so built their scheme of orientation . . . they cannot see serious possibilities in any other system of production and distribution” (7). Because he is exploring the concept, rather than simply deploying it to explain one aspect of business culture, Burke is more explicit than Veblen in asserting that trained incapacity “properly applies to all men,” not just those in business. Burke notes that this phenomenon is so predictable and evident throughout the population that it even “seems to be experimentally verifiable” (10).

Burke argues that trained incapacity is also a way to discuss “matters of orientation” without using the terms escape and avoidance (9). That is, Burke says that there is no need to assume that the chickens in his example “refuse to face reality” or that they are using an “escape mechanism,” if their illogical behavior can be explained as a form of trained incapacity (10). Finally, Burke notes that trained incapacity is identical to John Dewey’s notion of “occupational psychosis,” insisting that the terms are “interchangeable” (48-49).

While the term trained incapacity is only cited in Permanence and Change, Veblen and his philosophy appear in two other texts of Burke’s—Philosophy of Literary Form (PLF) and Rhetoric of Motives (RM). Burke refers to Veblen in his book, Philosophy of Literary Form, urging that Veblen, along with Marx and Bentham, consider “material interests” of both “private and class structure” (111). Burke notes that such interests are a part of the “contexts of situation.” These contexts significantly shape action, yet they are constantly in flux, giving rise to paradoxes. Thus, following Veblen, Burke asserts that contexts are “opportunities to get ahead [and] are also opportunities to fall behind” (PLF 247). Burke suggests adopting different perspectives on a situation to see the opportunities and pitfalls that various contexts offer.

By the time a more mature Burke wrote Rhetoric of Motives in 1950, he had moved beyond Veblen’s observations and was looking to construct a more comprehensive theory. At this point Burke insists that Veblen’s “terminology of motives” is too limited in scope, and that his tendency to rationalize wide areas of human relationships is a mistake (RM 127). More specific to our concerns here, Burke insists that Veblen’s distinction between pecuniary motive and instinct of workmanship is “neither pliant nor comprehensive enough” (RM 127). Burke sees Veblen’s “pecuniary motive” not as dramatistic, but instead as a “special case of linguistic motive” (RM 129). He also describes Veblen’s work as “a superficial rhetoric in human relations” (RM 129). Veblen’s psychology, according to Burke, is “not so much dramatistic, as dramatized” (RM 127). Finally, Burke urges that Veblen is “rhetorically bland,” using “satire masked as science.” Veblen uses partisan words, according to Burke, but then wants there to be “no partisan connotations,” something that Burke finds ludicrous (RM 132).

If Veblen failed to develop a comprehensive theory of human culture, he nonetheless laid important groundwork for Burke’s own work. And Burke gives him credit, though he is vague (and later, forgetful) about the sources from which “trained incapacity” was drawn. Specifically, Burke gives authorial credit to Veblen throughout the “trained incapacity” section in Permanence and Change. Not only does the title of the section indicate Veblen is the source of the idea of trained incapacity; the section begins with the statement “Veblen had a concept of ‘trained incapacity’” (7). However, since Burke failed to cite any specific page number or even a particular text of Veblen’s, we must reconstruct his sources.

When Burke discussed the concept of trained incapacity in his “Counter-Gridlock” interview, he obviously had in mind Veblen’s discussion of the concept in HigherLearning in America. As I noted above, Veblen discusses the situation of the education of business students in America in a footnote in Higher Learning. Veblen urges that because these students are taught business methods and are taught to be exclusively economically motivated, the students are unable to see larger social concerns (HLA 152). Veblen sees these students as unable to think beyond their training as business people.

Burke is also discussing Veblen’s Higher Learning example when he writes about “business men” in Permanence and Change (7). Burke’s reference to Veblen is not specific, but the content he discusses is unique to a footnote in Veblen’s Higher Learning. Additionally, Burke must have either read or been exposed to The Instinct of Workmanship and the Industrial Arts, where Veblen first used the phrase trained incapacity in 1914. Again, Veblen was describing the behaviors of those operating in the business community and industry, noting their failure “to appreciate the large and general requirements of the industrial situation” (IWIA 347).

One reason Burke might have been unclear about the origins of the term is that the source of Burke’s own notion of the meaning of trained incapacity is derived from Higher Learning, where Veblen does not use the phrase, but discusses the concept. It is likely then that after reading the Higher Learning passage Burke connected it with the phrase that he had read earlier in Instinct of Workmanship and the Industrial Arts.

In any case, Burke quickly leaves Veblen’s narrow use of the phrase behind, expanding it to include broad sociological and cultural implications. Veblen’s singular use of the phrase trained incapacity in The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts did not indicate that it carried more than a concern for business, business students, and a culture that relies on them. Likewise, his reference to the concept of trained incapacity in Higher Learning in America also appears to restrict the term to businesses and business students. Veblen’s larger body of work, however, while not using the term trained incapacity specifically, does support a broader application of the term. What is of value here to Burke scholars is that Burke manages to take this one phrase and one description and understand it in terms of Veblen’s larger sociological research, drawing his own conclusions about the broad potential for the concept.

Burke’s reference to chickens suffering from trained incapacity may sound absurd, but it clearly makes the point that trained incapacity is not restricted to business students, industrial workers, or even humans in general. Indeed, it follows on Burke’s opening example of a trout that learns a valuable distinction between “food” and “bait,” examining critical distinctions at the most basic level of meaning. Burke’s use of trained incapacity not only expands Veblen’s use of that term, but provides a fecund concept that probably contributed to Burke’s thinking about orientation, perspective by incongruity, terministic screens, and other concepts that make up Burke’s theory of the symbol-using animal.

The article is one of the results of a master's thesis completed at the University Of Minnesota Department Of Rhetoric under the advisement of Dr. Art Walzer. A related paper was presented at the Triennial Kenneth Burke Conference in 2005. The author would like to thank the editors and reviewers of KB Journal—particularly Clarke Rountree—for their aid in taking this manuscript from a bulky thesis to its present state.


1 That Veblen did indeed use this phrase was verified by John Gagnon, who successfully tracked it down in The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts after its "absence" was discussed on the Kenneth Burke discussion list.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 1935. Berkeley: California UP, 1984.

---. Counter-Statement. 1931. Berkeley: California UP, 1968.

---. Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: California UP, 1969.

---. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: California UP, 1966.

---. Letter to David Cox. 14 Aug. 1946. (Hugh Dalziel Duncan Papers, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Special Collections, Collection #17-25-F1 Special Collections/Morris Library)

---. On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows 1967-1984. Ed. William Rueckert and Angelo Bonadonna. Berkeley: California UP, 2003.

---. Permanence and Change. 1935. Berkeley: California UP, 1984.

---. Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: California UP, 1969.

Spindler, Michael. Veblen and Modern America: Revolutionary Iconoclast. Sterling: Pluto Press, 2002.

Stallings, Robert. ”President’s Column.” UnScheduled Events: International Committee on Disasters. 21.N2 (2003): 9 pars. 4 Jan. 2004

Veblen, Thorstein. The Higher Learning in America. 1918. New York: Sagamore Press, 1957.

---. The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts . New York: Macmillian, 1914.

---. “The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor.” American Journal of Sociology 4 (1898).

---. The Theory of Business Enterprise. New York: Scribner’s, 1904.

---. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: MacMillian, 1899.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.


Re: "Trained Incapacity": Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke

For now, I won't attempt a comprehensive response to this essay. (Ed is much better at that sort of thing than I am, anyway.) I do, however, want to make a couple of comments that occurred to me as I read it.

First, I'm impressed with Erin's ability to take on Robert Stallings' challenge so successfully. Not only does she show that Stallings was incorrect in his assertion that Veblen never used the term, she also shows how the term developed in Veblen's work. I'm curious about how Stallings may have responded to this news. He seems quite sure of himself in the original source.

The other thing that interests me is Burke's extension of "trained incapacity." By going beyond the business world, Burke opens the use of the term to my own specialization, the rhetoric of science. I don't recall that Thomas Kuhn ever used the term. But certainly, in viewing their world through their own paradigms, scientists are demonstrating a type of trained incapacity. This trained incapacity of science seems similar to the trained incapacity Burke relates to magic: "The savage's very skill in magic ... would naturally blind him to the limitations of his method" (P&C 17). And yet, I wonder how similar Western science and tribal magic really are in this respect.

In Broca's Brain, Carl Sagan mentions the Fore tribe of New Guinea. They once believed disease was caused by sorcery, "but as the Fore people witnessed yaws yielding entirely to the penicillin injections of Gajdusek and his group, they quickly agreed that the sorcery explanation of yaws was in error and abandoned it; it has never resurfaced in recent years" (91). Sagan expresses regret that Westerners aren't so fast about rejecting false ideas.

But can we really expect to be? Westerners have a huge body of knowledge that trains them to think and act in certain ways, even if those ways create incapacity. As Burke points out, "If people persist longer than chickens in faulty orientation despite punishment, it is because the greater complexity of their problems, the vast network of mutually sustained values and judgments, makes it more difficult for them to perceive the nature of the re-orientation required, and to select their means accordingly" (P&C 23). I certainly don't mean to compare the Fore to chickens; that's not my point at all. But if we concede that a greater complexity of problems leads to a higher level of trained incapacity, and observe that the Fore seem to have less of a trained incapacity than we do in this respect, can we conclude that the magical rituals of tribal cultures are less complex than the scientific rituals of Western culture? And if so, does complexity of ritual imply complexity of concept?

Tom Wright
Department of English
Kansas City Kansas Community College

"Trained Incapacity": Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke

I'm very much interested in the topic Tom introduced in response to this article: scientific terminology as equally susceptible to trained incapacity. I preached a sermon a week ago at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster (PA) with the title, "Screens, Frames, Filters. and the 'Truth.'" In my long-winded introduction, I explained and illustrated Veblen's notion via references to battle tactics in the Civil War and World War I as well-executed regimens for, say, the armies of Napoleon and Wellington. Then I got to my three main points, which I needn't burden you with here.

This, though, is how I concluded my labored disquisition:

"By way of addendum, I have one other terministic screen very much on my mind these days. Last summer, I concluded my sermon on faith on the slant with a reference to the current debate between orthodox Neo-Darwinian evolutionism and advocates of Intelligent Design. That conflict is centered up the highway in Harrisburg and in Dover, PA, and continues virtually as we speak. In response to my harangue last summer, a parishioner sent me copies of two recent articles on the issue, one of them entitled "Darwin's Rottweiler." That piece was on Sir Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world's most influential popularizer of evolutionary theory.

"I went the extra mile with my correspondent. I not only read the two essays with great appreciation. I went and bought two books by Dawkins, THE SELFISH GENE and THE BLIND WATCHMAKER. I bought another one by Ernst Mayr of Harvard, WHAT EVOLUTION IS. Mayr has been called the 'Darwin of the 20th Century' by THE NEW YORK TIMES. I even bought the OXFORD DICTIONARY OF BIOLOGY, and rummaged through all sorts of websites on the internet for more information. Then I posted twelve short essays on the rhetoric of evolutionism to CRTNET, the discussion list of the National Communication Association. I stirred up a lot of reaction from some of the 5000 scholars on the list.

"Here's one point I made in those posts in respect to our topic this morning: Looking at phenomena through the lens of evolutionary biology, Neo-Darwinian evolutionists say some dubious things, and also some of the---let's be kind and just say some of the least helpful things. Their screen serves, in part, as a set of blinders, too.

"For instance, I found this gem from the world-famous Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson: 'Nothing fundamental separates the course of human history from the course of physical history, whether in the stars or in organic diversity.' Are you serious, Professor Wilson? There's nothing fundamentally different between even the higher nonverbal primates and the primates that: use language, bury their dead, worship a transcendent Being or idea, wear clothes, take care of biological functions in private, perform symbolic rites of passage and transcendence, make tools (and tools for making tools) and other artifacts, create art, even art for art's sake, express a sense of irony, 'athlectically' deny themselves, channel, even sometimes oppose, their biological drives, indulge in nonpragmatic self-aggrandizement, create and transmit cultures in constantly changing patterns, organize spectator sports, and establish governments based on the rule of law? Or, if we are sounding overly proud about our species, howabout a verbal primate that authors 'yellow journalism, corrupt politics, pornography, stock market manipulations, and plans for waging thermonuclear, chemical, and bacteriological warfare to the end that all life on [planet] earth' could be obliterated?

"How out-of-focus can your viewfinder get?

"Howabout the following as a definition of evolutionary progress from Richard Dawkins by way of Ernst Mayr: Progress is '"a tendency of lineages to improve cumulatively their adaptive fit to their particular way of life, by increasing the numbers of features which combine together in adaptive complexes."' In other words, don't look for progress in evolutionary history as a whole. Note only how a given order, class, or genus of beings has managed to adapt to its surroundings and perpetuate itself.

"And my favorite specimen of Neo-Darwinian myopia is the recurrent denial of incremental complexity, let alone progress, in the development of life on earch. I have in my hand an essay entitled, 'The Growth of Structural and Functional Complexity during Evolution,' by Francis Heylighen of the University of Brussels. Heylighen begins his Abstract with this sentence: 'Although the growth of complexity during evolution seems obvious to most observers, it has recently been questioned whether such increase objectively exists.' Heylighen goes on in seventeen single-spaced pages to demonstrate the obvious.

"Robert Wright wrote a book called NONZERO: THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY. Chapter 19 is entitled, 'Why Life Is So Complex.' Wright begins the chapter with this passage from John Tyler Bonner: 'While we readily admit that the first organisms were bacteria-like and that the most complex organism of all is our own kind, it is considered bad form to take this as any kind of progression. . . . [One] is flirting with sin if one says a worm is a lower animal and a vertebrate is a higher animal, even though their fossil origins will be found in lower and higher strata.'

"What does this rant, my rant, all add up to? Listen to Kenneth Burke in his comments on comedy, as literature and as a guide to life, in his book ATTITUDES TOWARD HISTORY: 'The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as VICIOUS, but as MISTAKEN. When you add that people are NECESSARILY mistaken, that ALL people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that EVERY insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lessen of humility that undergirds great tragedy.'

"Terministic screens, interpretive frames. They can uncover truths, if not the 'truth,' or anything close to it, in any comprehensive sense. Some screens are more useful than others, without a doubt. How best to discriminate among screens and frames in pursuit of 'truth,' and how productively to combine them into a larger synthesis---that's a tale for another day.

"Amen. Peace be with you. Blessed be."


"Trained Incapacity": Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke

My background coming in to your response inspires what I find an interesting question: What happens to trained incapacity when you’ve been trained in two quite different ways?

I studied evolution for years before I ever heard of Kenneth Burke. And from the standpoint of an evolutionary biologist, Wilson is not only quite serious, but quite correct. The differences you give between us and the higher nonverbal primates are relatively superficial compared with overall evolutionary trends. It’s as if someone were saying that a water spider (Argyroneta aquatica) and a trapdoor spider (Bothriocyrtum californicum) were fundamentally different organisms. At the genus and species level, they’re different. Their habitats are different: one lives underwater, and the other lives underground. Their adaptations are different: one uses webbing to make a diving bell, and the other uses webbing to line a burrow. But fundamentally, they’re both spiders, and most Americans would react the same way upon seeing either in the kitchen: “Eeeek! A spider!” SMACK!

By the same token, the biological differences between us and other primates are hardly fundamental. We share 98.4% of our genetic information with chimpanzees. The differences you mention are primarily social, but even there, the similarities are greater than you might think. In Travels, Michael Crichton devotes a chapter to exploring the statement, “Gorillas are men.” It seems absurd to him before he meets any gorillas personally, but after spending some time with some mountain gorillas, he starts to reconsider. He doesn’t admit that they are men, fortunately, but he does concede that they are like men. And indeed, in many of their social habits, they are. The fact that I read and write better than most gorillas seems a minor detail compared with the great diversity of the animal kingdom, to say nothing of the great diversity of life. (Crichton might be best known as a popular author, but he has two degrees from Harvard and has taught at Cambridge; he knows something about scientific observations.)

Again, however, the last two paragraphs are filtered through the terministic screen of a biologist, for whom phrases like “diversity of life” are so common as to be cliché. The terministic screen of a rhetorician, who uses phrases like “terministic screen,” is quite different. Language and symbols are critical parts of our research, so it makes sense to view man as a “symbol-using animal.” From this perspective, we are, in fact, fundamentally different from all other animals.

But it is not a matter of the biologist’s viewfinder being out of focus. It is in perfect focus—for the view the biologist takes. Just as a telescope can’t be in focus simultaneously for two views that are greatly apart, neither can our worldviews. For a biologist's purposes, a Burkean viewfinder might make no sense at all. (Perhaps Erin can help us here; she knows more about both Burke and biology than I ever will.)

As for who should be creating the terministic screens, and whether we can create one that would work for both Burkeans and biologists, I’m not sure. My first inclination is to say that each discipline should create the terministic screens that allow its members to focus best on the questions and answers it finds most relevant. But then I wonder if we can, or should, work together on this matter. In the prologue of his Elements of Chemistry, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, a competent rhetorician and great scientist, quotes the Abbé de Condillac, a philosopher of science:

But, after all, the sciences have made progress, because philosophers have applied themselves with more attention to observe and have communicated to their language that precision and accuracy which they have employed in their observations. In correcting their language they reason better.

With Condillac’s ideas in mind, Lavoisier worked to create a scientific terminology that would lead unerringly to truth. It’s a worthy goal. We’re still working on it.

Tom Wright
Department of English
Kansas City Kansas Community College

"Trained Incapacity": Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke

Well, dang. If I'm going to be responding to posts on a Kenneth Burke Web site, I really should brush up on my Burke before I reply. I didn't realize, when I made my last post, that Ed's quotation about yellow journalism and corrupt politics came from a section in Language as Symbolic Action that discusses Darwin's terministic screen. Burke argues, "Darwin sees only a difference of degree between man and other animals. But the theologian sees a difference in kind." He continues later, "We don't need theology, but merely the evidence of our characteristic sociopolitical disorders, to make it apparent that man, the symbol-using animal, is alas! something special."

Darwin's terministic screen seems similar to Wilson's. Both of them, like most other evolutionists, see the difference as a matter of degree, not of kind. I understand why Burke would stay otherwise. But I stand by my earlier point. Although it's true that terministic screens can result in trained incapacity, we cannot assume that others are experiencing trained incapacity simply because they have a different terministic screen. Darwin's screen worked for him just as Burke's screen worked for him. They saw the same picture taken with a different color of filter, but each picture corresponds just as well with "reality"--whatever that is.

Tom Wright
Department of English
Kansas City Kansas Community College

"Trained Incapacity": Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke

I certainly did not mean to suggest that terministic screens, which often or sometimes lead to "trained incapacity," are not useful. They can indeed be wonderfully epistemic. Here's my long-winded introduction to the sermon I quoted from in an earlier post. I make that point quite clear, I believe.

About twenty years ago, our back storm door blew off of its hinges. Fierce March winds sometimes assail that part of our house, open as it is to low-lying farmers’ fields to the west. We used to screw a screen into the top half of the storm door in late spring, and take it out in the fall. No more. Our back storm door/screen door is gone. We never replaced it, I’m embarrassed to say. Use of screens even just in the spring and the fall is good for energy conservation.
I remember how our screens used to work, though. They let the air in, and kept the bugs out.
Again, I used to be something of a photography buff a long, long time ago. I was fairly adept at framing the kids or the trees or the buildings so as to balance the images and highlight what was most important to me, when I took my slide pictures. My Argus C 3---that camera surely dates me---My Argus C 3 had a viewfinder. The view finder served nicely enough for selecting in what I wanted in a given picture, and cropping out what I didn’t want to include---even though I couldn’t see the scene in question directly through the lens. My view finder framed the particulars I wanted to call attention to with sufficient, if not perfect, accuracy, and, of course, my framing viewfinder thoroughly, completedly, deflected attention away from everything else.
The lens on my Argus still did its part in coloring the reality I chose to project, via the slides I took, for family and friends. The red filter, the blue filter, the yellow filter each created a certain mood, when I wanted to use a filter, made for a unique interpretation of the children or the landscape or whatever was the focal point of that photographic occasion.
Screens, frames, and filters---I haven’t done much with them literally for quite some time. But the notion of a screen or a frame or a filter of a different sort has been front and center in my recent reflections. We all employ, every one of us, we all employ and in fact are both enlightened by and blinded by, what rhetorician and critic Kenneth Burke called “terministic screens,” specific ways of looking at the world shaped by the language we use. We are all simultaneously informed and disinformed by what sociologist Erving Goffman called an interpretive frame or scheme of understanding. Most everyone has a dominant, probably narrow-gauge perspective on reality, or approach to phenomena, or basis for guidance in their assessment of things, a system of analysis, a conventional set of beliefs or preoccupations, maybe even an operating fiction it might turn out to be. These screens, frames, filters, whatever metaphor you want to use---you can call them lenses, templates, laminations, prisms, the colored glasses of Melville’s chapter in Moby Dick on “The Whiteness of the Whale”---these terministic screens or interpretive frames answer for us the question, what is going on here? What’s in, and what’s out? What’s foregrounded and what is backgrounded? What’s in focus and what is not?
We derive our terministic screens or interpretive frames or filtering attitudes from many sources. Certainly our overall culture, the time-and-place social situation into which we’re hurled at birth, conditions what we can “see” with our mind’s eye, what we cannot “see,” and how we are to make sense of what we’re able to take note of in the world around us. Goffman calls culture the “framework of frameworks.” As philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer suggests, we in the US 2005 cannot interpret, for example, a play by Shakespeare exactly the way Shakespeare intended. Our understanding of the world, our angle of view, is significantly different from his. The Constitution of the United States as our Founding Fathers originally intended? Forget it. Our Constitution was written as an answer to questions, or as a solution to problems, that existed in late eighteenth century America. Some of those questions and problems are universal. Many were not. Judicial “originalism” or “strict constructionism” is a smokescreen for conservative ideology, not fidelity to our founding document.
Within our framework of frameworks, our overall culture, there are specific frames of interpretation, are there not? We belong to subcultures of varying extent that orient us toward certain patterns of thought and action, and away from others. Race, ethnic background, geographic locale, occupation, academic field, religion, political affiliation, gender, sexual orientation---all such variables modify our point of view. Philosopher John Dewey called the frame we derive from the work we do an “occupational psychosis,” virtually a mental illness. If you’re a carpenter and you have a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. Such tunnel vision can lead to what economist Thorstein Veblen labeled “trained incapacity.”
Trained incapacity. For instance, if you’re a high-powered entrepreneur or a radically capitalist economist like Milton Friedman, the profit incentive might be so paramount in your thoughts that other motives get short shrift. A degraded environment from the refuse your plant produces? A workforce earning little more than minimum wage, with a troubled economy as a result? Too bad. Business is business. The editors of National Review think Walmart’s is a wonderful business model. Friedman says shareholder profits should be the only purpose of a corporation’s management. Global warming doesn’t exist for such as these, and outsourcing is a positive value, the local US economy be hanged.
Occupational psychosis and trained incapacity were horribly well illustrated in the American Civil War and World War I. The weapons in these conflicts were way ahead of the tactics. At Gettysburg, soldiers skillfully, skillfully, marched in formation, to the beat of drums, directly into withering rifle and cannon fire. At the Somme in 1915, British soldiers were cut down by the thousands the very first morning of battle, as, wave after wave, they charged toward German machine guns. Their generals had taught them well, taught them well, how to fight for Napoleon.
When it comes to pinched perspectives or ideological blinders, we can cut the pie by way of the philosophic schools. We’re all practical philosophers. Of gay males and lesbians, idealists will say, that’s just the way they are, that’s their nature. We should not be censorious. Realists will say, gays freely choose to perform such actions. They are morally responsible.
When a hurricane strikes New Orleans or Orlando, the scientific materialist will cite as causes water temperatures, barometric pressure, seasonal conditions, and latitude. Devotees of religious mysticism will sometimes say, God is visiting judgment on sinful Bourbon Street and Disney World. Hey, they give benefits to gays, don’t they?
On stem cell research, pragmatists will conclude, if we’ve got the tools to do it, let’s do it. Let’s avail ourselves of whatever technologies are at hand to cure diseases and the effects of trauma.
The small-bore, narrow-gauge thinking our frames of reference generate is inevitable and not altogether bad. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker says, without repression, a mental ability to hunker down and home in on only selected stimuli in our environment, we couldn’t get anything done. The carpenter with the nail fixation can build houses of great utility and beauty. Einstein rode his imaginary beam of light all the way to a reconceptualization of how our universe works. Obsession or engrossment with our parochial interests and points of view can be epistemic. It can produce knowledge. Read the syllabus for every course in each department in a college catalogue for particulars.
The problem with this limited visual acuity arises when we project our myopic screen or screens into a supposedly panoramic view of reality in the large. Such a grandiose projection is the constant temptation of the symbol-using animal, namely us. We’ve got the one true answer, and it is a fit-all-finger simplicity.
This elaborate explanation is by way of introduction to the rather strange screening, framing, filtering I ran into when I prepared for ordination exams in the Presbyterian Church some years ago. I had to familiarize myself, of course, with Presbyterian polity, as set forth in the denomination’s Book of Order. But I was issued, also, the Presbyterian Book of Confessions. This volume contains ten statements of Christian faith, two from the patristic period, like the Apostles’ Creed, and eight of them Protestant declarations, particularly the Westminster Confession of 1648, for 250 years the main source of doctrine for the Mainline Presbyterian Church, and still the founding document for some conservative Presbyterian congregations and for the schismatics at Westminster Church on the Oregon Pike. What was peculiar to me in these confessions is the almost total lack of reference to the sayings of Jesus, as set forth in the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospels modern Biblical scholarship says most closely reflect the teachings of the historical Jesus. The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 has a short concluding section on The Lord’s Prayer, but that’s about it.
What gives here, I asked myself. Name another religion where the teachings of the putative founder apparently count for so little, count for so little not only in the official, historic guidelines, but also in the political morality of Christianity’s most vocal, self-righteously ostentatious exponents today.
I mean, the Jesus of the Synoptics inveighed against the money motive and the accumulation of wealth. He inveighed against making and seeking hierarchal distinctions. He inveighed against judgmentalism toward others in respect to their personal sins. He inveighed against failure to do good to the least of these His brethren: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, welcome the stranger, accept the outcast. He inveighed against retaliation toward those who do us harm. He taught us to love, pray for, and seek reconciliation with our enemies. And he admonished us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourself. And he defined our neighbor as anyone, anyone, we find beaten, robbed, and unconscious along the road of life, even someone of a different religion or ethnic background.
That all sounds great to me as a trajectory of motivation, even though no human being can totally fulfill those commands. Why, then, do so many Fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics turn those teachings on their head, not just ignore them, but rather turn them upside down? Jerry Falwell denounces “do-gooders.” William Buckley and Richard Brookhiser of the Catholic leaning National Review want to “kill” their enemies, they have said without a qualm. Rich Lowry of NR puts “moral judgment” front and center in conservative ideology. The money motive and the hierarchal preferment that goes with sharpened class distinctions are glorified by these preservers of the true faith. Their likeminded representatives in Congress are this very month trying to gut Medicaid and other programs for the poor so as to maintain those lavish Bush tax cuts for the rich.
As I say, what gives? In the Christian Church, or at least its conservative wing, what has happened to Jesus, not the Christ but Jesus, both in past formulations and in present proclamations? I suggest that at least three “screens” have filtered out Jesus and His message. Those screens, frames, or filters are Millennialism, either/or perfectionism, and orthodox Pauline theology.

So, terministic screens can be most valuable in generating knowledge. The problems, as I say, develop when we imagine our screen to be a window on "the whole truth," or when the abilities it fosters don't fit, or no longer fit, the circumstances we face. The later difficulty was the one Burke addressed in particular in P&C.


"Trained Incapacity": Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke

I find Erin's essay truly valuable, and a timely one, too. If the president of the American Sociological Association just recently made reference to the supposed non-existence of the phrase "trained incapacity" in Veblen's work, such a faulty reference testifies to the continued salience of that notion in sociology, and the need to officially set the record straight. In addition, Wais's article nicely follows up on a recent discussion thread on this subject on the kb listserv.

I especially appreciate the precision with which Erin explains Veblen's use of this terminology. Veblen's analysis of the development of such a myopic screen by way of instruction, then commensurate thought, then guided action, then "easy" habit, to a climactic and ingrained constriction of thought, related to the narrowed purposes and horizons of a given endeavor (in Veblen's emphasis, that of the business and manufacturing community), fits so well with Burke's key term, "orientation," in P&C. Burke, of course, as Wais makes clear, expands Veblen's usage to include the blinders all trades, academic fields, cultures, subcultures, ideologies, indeed all terminologies, are vulnerable to.

It should be emphasized that Burke's criticism of Veblen in RM (pp. 127-132) does not undermine the economist/sociologist's concept of trained incapacity. Burke seems to be taking issue there with Veblen's narrow-gauge, "invidious," and "dramatic" treatment of the "waste[ful]" "conspicuous consumption" of the wealthy. Burke would prefer to treat such motives from a higher order of abstraction, as "imitation," "identification," "conformity," not nearly so "competitive" in actuality as Veblen makes them out to be. This more lofty vantage point is the "dramatistic" one. Veblen, in contrast, is emersed in a dialectical debate about the value or censurable nature of such motives.

Veblen, too, succumbs to a scientistic approach to language, which. given Veblen's twisted constructions of the terms he uses, Wais rightly labels "ludicrous" from Burke's perspective.

Veblen's "Trained incapacity" makes a central contribution to Burke's philosophy of language and human relations. Wais's article brings that offering front and center.