[KB] Burke, Deacon, and Theology

Edward C Appel edwardcappel at frontier.com
Fri Mar 6 19:57:42 EST 2015


Thanks for your extended and insightful reply to my post.  Hey, thanks for even reading my long rant!  You certainly make some good points, though I would interpret the "potentiality" claim in RM as making our emergence out of a "wordless" Ground as maybe "more complicated" than that.  Following Burke, I could quote Scripture here, a passage in Romans and one in Hebrews on how the visible things of this world adumbrate a reality that is beyond.  I'll let Deacon expand on the matter in his own way in a subsequent post.

(Not that Deacon is necessarily a theist.  The religious sensibility that comes so "naturally" to the "symbolic species" is, for Deacon, just that: inevitable, yes, but natural.  "Teleology" is real, one of the last frames in his second Ginn Lecture proclaims, but to transcendentalize it is "redundant, Deacon avers.  An unsatisfactory denouement for the "symbol-users" or the "symbolic species," i.e., coming at the matter from either Burke's perspective, or Deacon's.  That's why 86 percent of Americans believe in God, or some such figure, as Deacon and Cashman note at the beginning of their journal article.)

By way of illustration, I offered in one of my posts to Deacon the characters in Samuel Becket's black comedy, "Waiting for Godot."  At the end of the play, they are still waiting, and the implications are that Godot is not going to show up, yet these forlorn wretches will continue to wait . . and wait . . . and wait . . . and never stop waiting.  

On the symbol-user's tendency to "see" drama in, or superimpose drama on, the supposedly blind motions of the universe---Deacon has a powerful explanation for that, which I'll get to eventually.

Thanks again for replying---and rebutting!


On Fri, 3/6/15, Clarke Rountree <rountrj at uah.edu> wrote:

 Subject: Re: [KB] Burke, Deacon, and Theology
 To: "Edward C Appel" <edwardcappel at frontier.com>
 Cc: "kb at kbjournal.org" <kb at kbjournal.org>
 Date: Friday, March 6, 2015, 12:23 PM
 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
 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, etc.
 (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
 investigating the human and the social, wearing these
 blinders threaten to make
 them miss the FUNCTIONS of pentadic screens in human
 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
 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
 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 wrought.
 That’s my oar in the
 (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>
         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
         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
         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
         I won’t lay out my entire case on Burke as
 “coy theologian.”  But I’ll highlight a few central
         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.
         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.
         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.”
 KB mailing list
 KB at kbjournal.org
 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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