Kenneth Burke

American philosopher and literary critic (1897–1993)

Kenneth Duva Burke (May 5, 1897 – November 19, 1993) was a major American literary theorist and philosopher. Burke's primary interests were in rhetoric and aesthetics.



Permanence and Change (1935)

  • Any performance is discussible either from the standpoint of what it attains or what it misses. Comprehensiveness can be discussed as superficiality, intensiveness as stricture, tolerance as uncertainty—and the poor pedestrian abilities of a fish are clearly explainable in terms of his excellence as a swimmer. A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing—a focus upon object A involves a neglect of object B.
    • p. 70

A Grammar of Motives (1945)

  • … the pattern of embarrassment behind the contemporary ideal of a language that will best promote good action by entirely eliminating the element of exhortation or command. Insofar as such a project succeeded, its terms would involve a narrowing of circumference to a point where the principle of personal action is eliminated from language, so that an act would follow from it only as a non-sequitur, a kind of humanitarian after-thought.
    • p. 90

Towards a Better Life (1966)

  • I felt that the man who strove for dignity, nobility, and honour should have his task made as difficult and as hazardous as possible, and that in particular he should be forgiven no lapses in style.
    • p. 3
  • When finding that people held the same views as I, I persuaded myself that I held them differently.
    • p. 3
  • As for bravery: dead on the fields are millions who would have feared to wear a hat in inappropriate season, so I judged that brave warriors are dirt cheap as compared with untimid civilians.
    • pp. 3-4
  • In confessing a reprehensible act, I would sometimes add a still more reprehensible interpretation—and whereas I might forget my own judgments upon myself, those in whom I had confided would carefully store them against me.
    • p. 5
  • Upon my enquiring as to what he feared most of the future, he answered: “Destitution. Destitution of finances, destitution of mind, destitution of love. The inability to retort. The need of possessing one’s opposite in years, sex, and texture of the skin; and the knowledge that by this need one has been made repugnant. The replacing of independence by solitude.”
    • p. 8
  • God pity the man or the nation wise in proverbs, I told myself, for there is much misery and much error gone into the collecting of such a store.
    • p. 8
  • We would not deny the mind; but merely remember that as the corrective of wrong thinking is right thinking, the corrective of all thinking is the body.
    • p. 9
  • You moralistic dog—admitting a hierarchy in which you are subordinate, purely that you may have subordinates; licking the boots of a superior, that you may have yours in turn licked by an underling.
    • p. 9
  • I have seen you grow brutal under a vocabulary of love. If you wanted to thieve, your code would expand to embrace the act of thieving. Feeling no need to drink, you will promptly despise a drunkard.
    • p. 10

On Symbols and Society (1989)

  • Men seek for vocabularies that are reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality.
    • "Vocabularies of Motive," p. 158
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