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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Toward a systematic theory of symbolic action McKercher, Patrick Michael


Though Kenneth Burke has often been dismissed as a brilliant but idiosyncratic thinker, this dissertation will argue that he is actually a precocious systems theorist. The systemic and systematic aspects of Burke’s work will be demonstrated by comparing it to the General Systems Theory (GST) of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Though beginning from very different starting points, Bertalanffy and Burke develop similar aims, methods, and come to remarkably similar conclusions about the nature and function of language. The systemic nature of Burke’s language philosophy will also become evident through an analysis of the Burkean corpus. Burke’s first book contains several breakthrough ideas that set him irrevocably upon the path of a systemic theory of symbolic action. Burke’s next book, influenced by GST-inspired biology, seeks to understand the nature of associative networks by employing an organic metaphor. Burke’s interest in systems comes from his desire to repair the cultural system crumbling around him as a result of the Depression. Consequently his next book, Attitudes Toward History, studies what happens to such “orientations” (i.e., the systems by which humans classify and evaluate the world) during epistemological crises. The Philosophy of Literary Form is concerned primarily with the function of these orientations. In A Grammar of Motives Burke seeks to understand the basis for transformation of these evaluative systems, and in A Rhetoric of Motives he demonstrates how these transformations are used to persuade. Burke next turns his attention to understanding a small part of the system, a theological doctrine, in The Rhetoric of Religion. Burke’s theory appears plausible when compared to and supplemented by GST and the related self-organizing system theory. Furthermore, a paradigm shift to non-mechanistic cognitive theory allows us to refine and extend Burke’s intuitive theory of symbolic action. The final chapter will argue that symbolic action is the manipulation of the quality space, which is a multi-dimensional model for the super-system composed of mental, linguistic and cultural sub-systems. In mental systems, skeletal information structures called schemas combine to form simple models, which in turn combine to form a model of the world. Similarly, a culture can be seen as a system of schemas held in common by the group. The linguistic system labels, transmits and thus evokes these schemas. The primary means by which the quality space becomes reconfigured is through metaphor, which creates new schemas, and modifies the connections between schemas (and thus the position and relative value of a schema). Metaphor, therefore, is the basis of symbolic action. This systemic theory of symbolic action may be modeled by Connectionist networks. These analogical neural networks provide a model for how brains form and associate categories and support Burke’s assertion that thought is primarily analogical and categorical, thus affording the means for refining Burke’s theory of symbolic action. Ultimately, such a theory may provide a unified field theory for rhetoric, showing how various symbolic action strategies work and interrelate.

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