What are Burke's Relationships with Language?

At the other extreme, each of us shares with all other members of our kind (the often-inhuman human species) the fatal fact that, however the situation came to be, all members of our species conceive of reality somehwat roundabout, through various media of symbolism. (Language as Symbolic Action 52, original emphasis)

Fatal! Here and many other places, Burke is multiply oriented toward language. Symbolism as a kind of indirect mediation signals a kind of intervention that unnerves him, at least to some degree. And yet, the quote above appears in a section titled "Our Attempt to Avoid Mere Relativism." Language enables, disables—identifies, divides. My questions would be whether language is our only means by which to attain a roundabout reality, whether direct reality would ever be available. Language is perhaps a necessary means by which we are enabled to reflect on our experience of reality—but is language or linguistic thought necessary to engage with it? Does it matter?


johnjayjacobs's picture

oh, now that's in interesting idea. Yes, I think that language is essential to our ability to reflect upon our experience of reality -- but I'm not so sure it is necessary to engage with it. If language is necessary in order to engage with "reality", then no creature without language can engage with reality... which I just can't accept.

Yet I can't justify my stance beyond simply acknowledging that I find the idea of language-less beings being unable to engage with reality completely horrifying. (very sense-based, gut reaction there)

DS's picture

Matt. Interesting thoughts. Generally, I would argue that you can't get far without language... of some sort. Does abstract thought count as language?

mramler's picture

I, too, picked up on the unnerving reaction to symbolism. And, yet, we are the "symbol using animal". Again, reminds me of Kundera who warned against the metaphor: "Metaphors are dangerous." In his novel, the metaphor weakened / predisposed one towards falling in love.