Kenneth Burke's Definition of Humanity

Kenneth Burke tinkered with this definition over many years, in response to readers' comments. As this wiki page grows it will add commentary and note the composition history of each clause. Text for this version drawn from the fairly late “Definition of Man, ” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966, pp. 3–24. These clauses will remain as headings.


Man is the symbol using animal,

Inventor of the negative,

Separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making,

Goaded by the spirit of hierarchy,

And rotten with perfection.

General Commentary

One set of changes occurs within the pages of "Definition of Man."1 By the time he concludes his first exposition of each clause, the definition reads:

Man is
the symbol using (symbol making, symbol misusing) animal
inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)
separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)
and rotten with perfection

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