Definition and Examples of Symbolic Action

The Meaning of Symbolic Action
Symbolic Action. credit: greensefa

A term used by 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke to refer in general to systems of communication that rely on symbols.

Symbolic Action According to Burke

In Permanence and Change (1935), Burke distinguishes human language as symbolic action from the "linguistic" behaviors of nonhuman species.

In Language as Symbolic Action (1966), Burke states that all language is inherently persuasive because symbolic acts do something as well as say something.

  • "Books such as Permanence and Change (1935) and Attitudes Toward History (1937) explore symbolic action in such areas as magic, ritual, history, and religion, while A Grammar of Motives (1945) and A Rhetoric of Motives work out what Burke calls the 'dramatistic' basis of all symbolic action." (Charles L. O'Neill, "Kenneth Burke." Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. by Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997)

Language and Symbolic Action

  • "Language is a species of action, symbolic action--and its nature is such that it can be used as a tool. . . .
    "I define literature as a form of symbolic action, undertaken for its own sake."
    (Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action. Univ. of California Press, 1966)
  • "To comprehend symbolic action, [Kenneth] Burke dialectically compares it with practical action. The chopping down of a tree is a practical act whereas the writing about the chopping of a tree is a symbolic art. The internal reaction to a situation is an attitude, and the externalization of that attitude is a symbolic action. Symbols can be used for practical purposes or for sheer joy. For instance, we may use symbols to earn a living or because we like to exercise our ability to use them. However philosophically distinct the two are, they often overlap."(Robert L. Heath, Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke. Mercer Univ. Press, 1986)
  • "The lack of a clear definition of symbolic action in The Philosophy of Literary Form [Kenneth Burke, 1941] is not the weakness some might imagine it to be, for the idea of symbolic action is just a beginning point. Burke is simply distinguishing between broad classes of human experience, with the intention of confining his discussion to the dimensions of action in language. Burke is more interested in how we craft language into a 'strategic' or 'stylized answer' (that is, in how symbolic action works) than in defining symbolic action in the first place." (Ross Wolin, The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke. Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2001)

Multiple Meanings

  • "The conclusion to be drawn from setting various definitions of symbolic action side by side is that [Kenneth] Burke does not mean the same thing every time he uses the term. . . .
  • "An examination of the many uses of the term reveals that it has three separate but interrelated meanings . . .: linguistic, representative, and purgative-redemptive. The first includes all verbal action; the second covers all acts which are representative images of the essential self; and the third includes all acts with a purgative-redemptive function. Clearly, symbolic action includes much more than poetry; and clearly, almost anything from the full range of human action could be a symbolic act in one or more of the senses given above. . . .
  • "Burke's almost dogmatic assertion that all poetic acts are always symbolic acts in all three meanings is one of the unique features of his system. His argument is that though any act may be 'symbolic' in one or more ways, all poems are always representative, purgative-redemptive acts. This means that every poem is the true image of the self which created it, and that every poem performs a purgative-redemptive function for the self." (William H. Rueckert, Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations, 2nd ed. Univ. of California Press, 1982)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Symbolic Action." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of Symbolic Action. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Symbolic Action." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).