[KB] Burke, Deacon, and Theology

Clarke Rountree rountrj at uah.edu
Fri Mar 6 12:23:37 EST 2015

Dear Burkelers--

My good friend Ed obviously has a passion for seeing Burke as a theologian
(coy or otherwise), despite Burke’s insistence that he isn’t a believer in
God. Of course one can get around the problem of Burke not actually
believing in God through the Spinozan strategy of making God equal to
Nature, so that the GROUND of things itself is equivalent to God. And,
notably, if verbalizing is somehow contained in or implicit in that GROUND,
then, Ed reasons, that is an acknowledgment of at least a God principle at
work. Even an old atheist like me will admit that we humans, surprisingly,
arose from a wordless world, that *post facto *we know carried the
potentiality for creating wordy creature. Note, also, that Burke insists
that when humans are gone it will go back to its wordlessness. (I’m
speaking of Earth only, of course; I think it perfectly obvious that there
is sentient life elsewhere in the universe.)

Last year my son John and I published our essay from the Burke conference
in Belgium where we argued about the potentialities and dangers of the
motivational bias of humans. (We called it a symbol-users guide. I don't
have the citation handy, but I can get it if anyone's interested.) That is,
building on my “Dramatism as Literal” essay in KBJ (2010), we noted that it
is intrinsic to humans to see the world through the grammar of motives, and
that this grammar becomes a problematic terministic screen. (It also is a
wonderful thing, of course, as it makes us recognizably human—my point in
the 2010 essay.) After mulling over that issue, I have a new appreciation
for Burke’s suggestion that toddlers may learn the idea of “No” before they
learn the idea of “nothing.” The implication is that “scientific” or
“objective” understandings of the world are an add-on—something secondary
we have to learn, while the search for motives is primary.

Now, early humans learned to search for motives in prey and in animals that
preyed on them. Scientists may tell us now that animals don’t have the
capacity for the kind of actions we may attribute to them, but thinking
that way may have been beneficial in making us wary of what animals are
doing when they run or attack. Of course, walking around with a “pentadic”
set of glasses on the world undoubtedly gives rise to animism and, later,
more complex forms of religion, with gods in the river, the sea, the sky,

(Let me add quickly as well, that the dramatistic screen did not handicap
humans in developing technology and improving their lot; it’s just that
every agency was connected to a human purpose, every scene implicitly asked
“what can be done [for humans] with this?” Indeed, that's one of the
warning John and I make--that we have trouble seeing anything except as it
relates to us.)

When scientists look at the world as objects, they blind themselves to this
primary way of thinking (though, as Burke says, not so much that they don’t
know to treat their fellow chemists differently than the chemicals with
which they work). When people want to look at more than things,
investigating the human and the social, wearing these blinders threaten to
make them miss the FUNCTIONS of pentadic screens in human interactions.

Now Burke, looking at religion, would be missing much if he were so
blinded; but of course he is not. He not only accounts for the key term
ACTION in human relations (while excoriating those who focus on MOTION),
but he investigates the potentialities of symbolic action. That this leads
him to find a particularly potent (and “perfected”) symbolic form in
religion is unsurprising—religion is one of the oldest, most scrutinized,
most pervasive, most defended, most argued over, and (thus) most perfected
symbolic systems we have.

Ultimately, I believe that the perfectedness of religion as a symbol system
has nothing to do with its intrinsic truth (except as, perhaps, an "end of
the line" human truth, an implication of our terminology). It does have
much to do with its relation to power, making it a key bone of contention
for those who would rise to prominence in social systems. And Burke’s focus
on religion has more to do with the fact that, given its intense scrutiny
by some of the brightest minds for millennia (at least since Augustine) it
is the most thoroughgoing symbolic system around. However, as I noted in a *QJS
*article on the construction of George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential
elections (1995), there are other well developed symbol systems that have
pushed the envelope of what is “thinkable” through our dramatistic
grammar—my key example, criminal law, where hundreds of years of
Anglo-American law (and earlier law as well) helped to refine the
possibilities for guilt and innocence. Had Burke spent more time talking to
law folks, maybe he would have landed on criminal law as a perfection of
symbol systems (though, note, he does spend a lot of time with
constitutions!). That wouldn’t make him a lawyer; and finding perfection in
religion doesn’t make him a theologian. Just an admirer of what has been

That’s my oar in the water.

(On a side note, I’m a great fan of Ed’s explication of Deacon’s work and
its implications for understanding Burke’s work. I look forward to the next



On Thu, Mar 5, 2015 at 2:52 PM, Edward C Appel <edwardcappel at frontier.com>

> Burkophiles,
>         I’ve posted at length here on intersections between Burke and
> Terrence W. Deacon, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Cal
> Berkeley, you may recall.  (Of equal importance, Deacon is a
> neuroscientist, as well.)  In response to a recent e-mail of mine on his
> aptly described “tour de force,” Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from
> Matter (Norton, 2012, 2013), Professor Deacon kindly sent me additional
> materials of his: two more of his published articles, bringing my cache to
> seven in toto; and several series of exceedingly well wrought powerpoint
> frames and other visuals he has used in lectures at the University of Oslo
> in Norway, in Holland, the Ginn Lectures in Atlanta, and a couple of
> presentations to theologians.
>         As some of you will likely suspect, the theology theme immediately
> piqued my interest.  Here we have, it seemed to me, another important point
> of convergence between Burke and Deacon, adding to the considerable list
> I’ve already outlined.   The focal reference here will be to Deacon’s
> coauthored article (with Tyrone Cashman), “The Role of Symbolic Capacity in
> the Origins of Religion,” Journal of Religion, Nature & Culture, 2009, Vol.
> 3 No. 4, pp. 490-517.
>         I want to begin, in this post, with my take on Burke’s anfractuous
> relationship to theology, then in a subsequent edition, summarize Deacon’s
> position.
>         Burke, we know, claimed publicly that his interest in theology was
> entirely secular.  “Logology,” the late-Burke title for his philosophy
> looked at as an “epistemology,” was solely about the contours of symbolic
> action, its motives and tendentious operations, not about any putatively
> transcendental reality.  Logology was 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 in
> language,” language, in Burke’s pat phrase, taken to “the end of the
> line.”  Tim Crusius doubled down on Burke’s affirmation in Kenneth Burke
> and the Conversation After Philosophy (Southern Illinois UP, 1999), and in
> his review of Greig Henderson’s book,  Kenneth Burke: Literature and
> Language as Symbolic Action, in QJS 76 (1990), pp. 340-342.
>         Add to Burke’s official position on logology (was it, or was it
> not, something of a façade that a cluster/agon analysis can maneuver
> around?---I ask, and have asked) Burke’s private claim to have been a
> nontheist.  Wayne Booth  (“Wax ‘N Wayne,” as Burke would call him
> privately) was a frequent correspondent of KB’s.  In his chapter, “Kenneth
> Burke’s Religious Rhetoric: ‘God-Terms’ and the Ontological Proof,” in
> Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry (Yale UP, 2000, pp. 25-46),
> Booth takes note of Burke’s demurrer.  (See, also, “The Many Voices of
> Kenneth Burke, Theologian and Prophet, as Revealed in His Letters to Me,”
> in Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke, Eds.
> Henderson and Williams [Southern Illinois UP, 2001, pp. 179-201], where
> Booth offers a second reprise on his 1996 plenary address at the Duquesne
> Conference, i.e., the Third Triennial.)
>         On his actual belief or nonbelief, I think we have to take Burke
> at his word.  Let’s assume he was the nontheist he told people he was.
>         That having been said, Burke’s demonstrable theological obsession
> cannot be gainsaid.  In Literature and Language (1988), Henderson looked
> behind the curtain: “For Burke logology is in some sense a surrogate
> theology.”  Greig added, “The analogies he makes for heuristic purposes
> betray a psychological need for a sense of permanence akin to a religious
> faith in the curative power of the word made flesh” (p. 105).  That same
> year, at ECA (April 29), Trevor Melia speculated about “what kind of
> Christian” Burke was, suggested that the label “secular Christian” can only
> be a starting point, and concluded that Burke was at least “up to his ears
> in Christianity.”
>         At length, I had already corresponded with Burke on the matter
> (late 1983, early 1984), my case, “Kenneth Burke: Coy Theologian,” later
> published in the Journal of Communication and Religion (September, 1993).
> Burke had even allowed at the Philadelphia Conference (March,1984) that I
> had made a “powerful argument” that he was a theologian.  I got that news
> from Herb Simons, who was present at the after-hours discussion several key
> scholars had had with Burke after the first day’s seminars.
>         Other names that can be added to these speculations about Burke
> and religion include, as per Booth in that Yale publication, Burks, Carter,
> Duerden, Durham, Freccero, Gunn, Gusfield, and Jay.  And I can add Richard
> Thames and Steven Mailloux to their number (Steve’s paper at the Ghent
> Conference: “Under the Sign of Theology: Kenneth Burke on Language and the
> Supernatural Order.")
>         I won’t lay out my entire case on Burke as “coy theologian.”  But
> I’ll highlight a few central points:
>         The bottom line in my correspondence with KB, and in my journal
> piece, was this: It doesn’t matter what Burke personally believed or did
> not believe.  When a theorist posits that symbolizers are inherently
> “theotropic”---I’m borrowing a term from Steve here---that theorist is at
> least a “generic” theologian.  A “lure” in rhetoric, whether in “error” or
> not, strongly nudges homo loquax “Upward” not only toward a “god term” in
> general, but also toward the most “perfectly” satisfying God-term of all
> (GM, pp. 306; RM, pp. 275-76, 290-91; RR).
>         And especially when it can be related to extant or historic
> theological systems, that generic theology takes on some kind of shape,
> affords a bit of implicit commentary this ubiquitous attribute.  I’ve
> characterized Burke’s dramatism/logology as a quasi-gnostic (a radical
> sense of a “Fall” into language, not into a lustful body) universalism (the
> quest for a “god-term” that unites all of humanity, and a focal program
> aimed at “purifying” conflict and “war”), friendly to Whitehead’s process
> theology (with its dialectics, de-perfecting of the Godhead, and rejection
> of a life after death; note what Burke said in the movie shown at Airlie
> House, 1993).
>         Add to these pillars of support what I would conceive as Burke’s
> occasional drift into theological principles in the paradigm sense, i.e.,
> statements that have to do with, or surely adumbrate, the actual existence
> of a Divine Essence of a kind.  When Burke says the “extrahuman ground” out
> of which humans proceeded “contains the principle of personality, quite as
> it contains the principle of verbalizing,” that this “’nonverbal’ ground
> must have contained the ‘potentiality’ of the verbal, otherwise the verbal
> could not have emerged from it,” Burke has crossed the line, I would
> suggest, into theology or religion proper (RM, pp. 289-90).
>         An analogous proposition is found in the Calabi-Yau version of
> string theory via the “anthropic principle,” the “notion that the observed
> laws of nature must be consistent with the presence of intelligent life
> and, specifically, the presence of intelligent observers like us.  Put in
> other terms, the universe looks the way it does because if conditions were
> even slightly different, life would not have formed and humans would not be
> around to observe it” (Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis, The Shape of Inner
> Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions ,
> Basic Books, 2010, p. 345).
>         Analogous, also, as I see it, is this quotation highlighted in one
> of Deacon’s two Ginn Lectures: “We need an understanding of nature such
> that it is not absurd to say that it has us as its products,” by Belgian
> chemist Ilya Prigogine and the physicist Victor J. Stenger.  (“Naturalizing
> Teleology: The Redemption of Science by the Rediscovery of Self and Value,”
> Deacon, 2014.)
>         Illustrative of what different observers will “see” in a given
> statement, question, lacuna, or phenomenon, Stenger was one of the “new
> atheists,” author of God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God
> Does not Exist, 2007.  Stenger, former blogger for the Huffington Post,
> famously said, “Science flies you to the moon.  Religion flies you into
> buildings.”  One could just as “truthfully” say, “Religion prepares meals,
> low cost or free, for the elderly and needy in Lancaster Country,
> Pennsylvania, and in other communities across the world.  The likes of
> godless communism and Nazism kills a hundred million persons, give or take
> a few tens of millions, in quest of a ‘heaven’ on earth.”
>         As Burke says, symbols unite and divide, select in and select out,
> induce attention toward and induce attention away from.  Pick the blinkered
> lenses of your choice.  They’re all free!
>         So, later, an examination of the case for the ubiquity of religion
> Deacon and Cashman make in the article that concludes: “We speculate that
> something like a religious predisposition, in the most general sense of the
> term, should be considered a universal consequence of the symbolic capacity
> evolving, whether here on earth, or in any other context where symbolic
> cognition might arise.”
>         Ed
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Dr. Clarke Rountree
Chair and Professor of Communication Arts
342 Morton Hall
University of Alabama in Huntsville
Huntsville, AL  35899
clarke.rountree at uah.edu
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