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“Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.”

October 5, 2009

Kenneth Burke

“I should make it clear: I am not pronouncing on the metaphysics of this controversy. Maybe we are but things in motion. I don’t have to haggle about that possibility. I need but point out that, whether or not we are just things in motion, we think of one another (and especially of those with whom we are intimate) as persons. And the difference between a thing and a person is that the one merely moves whereas the other acts. For the sake of the argument, I’m even willing to grant that the distinction between things moving and persons acting is but an illusion. All I would claim is that, illusion or not, the human race cannot possibly get along with itself on the basis of any other intuition.”
Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action (1966)

“Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his younger days.

Emerson, “Experience” (1844)

Burke supplies a humane and reasonable alternative to radical behaviorism, whereas Emerson reconciles, or attempts to, his Transcendentalist belief in the ultimate unreality of “personal” identity with his profoundly democratic instincts. But the general tendency is the same, and is a part of American pragmatism: While we are in this world, whatever sort of world it is—and while we are amongst ourselves, whatever sort of “selves” we are—we must somehow “get along.” Beyond that aspiration lies nothing. If you would trace the origins of American pragmatism back through William James to Emerson, as for example Richard Poirier does, in such books as Poetry and Pragmatism, I think you must do it here. All virtue lies in that “perhaps,” and all contingency, and all solidarity (as another American pragmatist, Richard Rorty, might put it). That “perhaps” holds off all final vocabularies, all foundations. It also allows for what any embrace of Emerson within pragmatism must allow for: an escape from Transcendentalism.

N.B.: For a link to Emerson’s complete works, click here. For the University of Minnesota’s “Kenneth Burke Resources Page,” click here.

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