[KB] Burke, Deacon, and Theology

Edward C Appel edwardcappel at frontier.com
Thu Mar 12 15:53:35 EDT 2015


	At the outset of their article, “The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion” (2009), Terrence W. Deacon and his coauthor Tyrone Cashman cite polling data that 86 percent of human beings believe in God or some sort of Supreme Being.  Burke, as I’ve argued, gives good reasons why that is the case IMPLICITLY.  From a very different academic vantage point, Deacon and Cashman do so EXPLICITLY.  Language is central in the case they, the three of them, make for the ubiquity of belief in the god-term, and the case for the global occurrence of belief in the Divine, as characterized in many variant ways.

	Deacon, the biological anthropologist/neuroscientist (I know nothing about Cashman) is coming at the relationship between symbolic capacity and the religious “predisposition” very much from an evolutionary and neuroscientific angle.  One notable point needs made at the outset: Forget about homo sapiens/homo dialecticus, language in tow, suddenly appearing on the scene circa 200,000 years ago.  D and C say language development and brain size-and- structure development gradually and reciprocally occurred over the entire Pleistocene, which is to say, across the whole near-2-million-year duration of the Quaternary Period.  Brain evolution gradually brought linguistic facility into being, while, at the same time, emerging symbolic capacity reciprocally altered the human brain.

	(Sounds a bit analogous to the Wallace/Lovelock/Gaia hypothesis on reciprocal changes in both life and the nonliving material scene over 3.5 billion years, but that’s another matter.)

	At the outset, also, the coauthors summarize the three most-cited theories about the origin of religion via evolutionary change: religion as “nonadaptive,” or useless, by-product of formerly adaptive changes, “misapplications,” so to speak, of evolved tendencies; more or less “adaptive” proofs against mortality; and “parasitic memes” concocted socially, rather than individually, as oppressive sanctions of one kind or another.  The first of the above is the most favored.  All these explanations are inadequate “reductionistic” takes on this universal human phenomenon, Deacon and Cashman contend.  
To get to the pith and marrow of the issue, as Deacon and Cashman see it: With the evolution of language, three “synergies” emerged that made religious speculation and belief, as well as the general “metaphysical” search for underlying “First Principles,” an inevitable consequence of biological change  (“Metaphysics” for Burke?  “Coy theology,” you will recall).

	“Synergy”: “The production by two or more agents, substances [structures, capacities, etc.] of a combined effect greater than the sum or their separate effects . . . Increased effectiveness or achievement produced by combined action.”

	“Emergent,” quite similar in meaning: “An effect produced by a combination of causes but unable to be seen as the sum of their individual effects” (Shorter OED).

	Three “synergies,” occasioned by the evolution of symbol use over that long span of time, brought into being this “religious” or “metaphysical” being, the “symbolic species,” making religion, D and C assert, humankind’s “synergy of synergies.”  These combinations of, or symbol-generated interactions between, structures and capacities our mammalian ancestors possessed and utilized, are: 
(1)	“The role of language in a novel synergy between 2 previously orthogonal modes of memory storage which is the basis for the narrative predisposition that is distinctively characteristic of human reasoning, identity, and culture.”

(2)	A tropism toward conception of what D and C call a “bi-layered world,” namely, an “evolved attentional bias toward discerning a pattern behind-the-pattern, a bias required for language learning, which makes metaphysical dualism intuitively natural, and also makes the double-world metaphysics common to most religions a likely leap of symbolic imagination.”

(3)	 “The dramatic expansion and transformation of the mammalian emotional repertoire by virtue of the use of symbolic blends to induce unprecedented interactions and novel experiential synergies that we describe as emergent emotional experiences.”

“Orthogonal”: As inferred from Deacon’s work as a whole, the meaning here, I would assume, is “straight, normal, proper [I think we can add “natural”], without external influence,” “completely independent,” which is to say, “free” of influence by the “absential feature,” or nonsymbolic negative, that nonhuman living beings are beholden to.  Hence, we’re talking here about the  “orthograde.”  “Orthograde,” in Deaconese, serves, it seems to me, as the opposite of “contragrade.”  “Contragrade” refers to a force that runs counter to mechanical nonliving processes.
	Yet, there seems to me to be an ambiguity here with this term.  “Orthogonal,” seen as a derivative of “orthograde,” would likely characterize nonsymbolic living beings, as well as symbolic.  Lower animals and plants appear to be “contragrade,” too, in the sense that they uniquely resist entropy by way of reproduction and photosynthesis, or by reproduction and direct or indirect ingestion of the products of photosynthesis.  Maybe I can get Deacon to bring me up to speed on the definition “orthogonal,” as employed here, when I forward the post to him.

	I’ll try to unpack the three synergies in subsequent posts.


On Fri, 3/6/15, Edward C Appel <edwardcappel at frontier.com> wrote:

 Subject: Re: [KB] Burke, Deacon, and Theology
 To: "Clarke Rountree" <rountrj at uah.edu>
 Cc: "kb at kbjournal.org" <kb at kbjournal.org>
 Date: Friday, March 6, 2015, 8:57 PM
 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.  
 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>
  Subject: Re: [KB]
 Burke, Deacon, and Theology
 "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
  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
  itself is equivalent to God. And,
 notably, if verbalizing is
  in or implicit in that GROUND,
 then, Ed reasons, that is an
  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
  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
  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
  understandings of the world
 are an add-on—something
  secondary we have
 to learn,
  while the search for motives is
  Now, early humans learned
 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
  the sky, etc.
  (Let me
 add quickly as
  well, that the dramatistic
 screen did not handicap humans
 developing technology and improving their lot; it’s
  just that every agency
 connected to a human purpose, every scene implicitly
  asked “what can be
 [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
 world as objects, they blind
  themselves to
 this primary way of thinking (though, as Burke
  says, not so much that
 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
 so blinded; but of course he is not. He not only
  accounts for the key term
 ACTION in human relations (while excoriating those who
  on MOTION), but he
 investigates the potentialities of symbolic action. That
  this leads him to find
 particularly potent (and “perfected”) symbolic form
  religion is
 unsurprising—religion is one of the oldest, most
  scrutinized, most pervasive,
 most defended, most argued over, and (thus) most
  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
 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)
  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
  Anglo-American law (and
 earlier law as well) helped to refine the possibilities
  guilt and
 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
 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
  between Burke and Terrence W.
 Deacon, Chair of the
  Department of
 Anthropology at Cal Berkeley, you may
 recall.  (Of equal importance, Deacon is a
  as well.)  In response to
 a recent e-mail of mine on his
 described “tour de force,” Incomplete Nature: How
  Mind Emerged from Matter (Norton, 2012, 2013),
  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
 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. 
  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
 “systematic study of theological terms for the light
  they might throw on the forms of language,”
  terms being the most
 thoroughgoing, far-reaching, ultimate
 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,
  and in his review of Greig
 Henderson’s book,  Kenneth
 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
  privately) was a frequent correspondent
 of KB’s.  In his
  chapter, “Kenneth
 Burke’s Religious Rhetoric:
 ‘God-Terms’ and the Ontological Proof,” in
  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:
 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
 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
 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
  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
  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
  here---that theorist is at least a
  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
  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
 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
  “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
  the movie shown at Airlie House,
          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
  to do with, or surely adumbrate, the
 actual existence of a
  Divine Essence of a
 kind.  When Burke says the
 ground” out of which humans proceeded
 “contains the principle of personality, quite as it
  contains the principle of verbalizing,” that
  “’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
  principle,” the “notion
 that the observed laws of nature
  must be
 consistent with the presence of intelligent life
  and, specifically, the presence of intelligent
  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
  observe it” (Shing-Tung Yau and Steve
 Nadis, The Shape of
  Inner Space: String
 Theory and the Geometry of the
 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
  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
  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
  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
 and select out, induce attention toward and induce
  attention away from.  Pick the blinkered
 lenses of your
  choice.  They’re all
          So, later, an examination of
 the case for the
  ubiquity of religion
 Deacon and Cashman make in the article
 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
 capacity evolving, whether here on earth, or in any
  other context where symbolic cognition might
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  Clarke Rountree
  Chair and
 Professor of
  Communication Arts
  342 Morton Hall
  University of
 Alabama in Huntsville
  Huntsville, AL 
  clarke.rountree at uah.edu
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