Semantic and Poetic Meaning, A Brief Summary of On Symbols and Society Ch. 4

4. “Semantic and Poetic Meaning,” in The Philosophy of Literary Form, 138-167.

There are two kinds of meanings: semantic meaning and poetic meaning, which, though they seem separate, they do, to some degree, overlap.

Semantic meaning is like a street address. It assumes the existence of an organization, and its logical extreme attempts to give a name and an address to everything and every event in the universe. Semantic statements are good only insofar as they are true. In other words, semantic meanings work insofar as the street address gets a person to that desired location.

Poetic meaning, on the other hand, is concerned with attitudes. Attitudes are incipient acts or “implicit program[s] of action” (143). Pointing to a chair and saying, “Faugh!” “Ho, ho!” or “Might I?” is poetic because it includes a certain kind of an attitudes. Semantically, the statement “New York City is in Iowa” is not true. But poetically, it is true because a railroad is like an arm of the city that brings New York City into Iowa. Poetic meanings cannot be just true or false, but they have degrees of trueness and falseness. They are related to each other and are good based on how much one can do with them. Thus, poetic meanings are better (truer?) insofar as one can do more with them (146).

Poetic meanings also have moral and ethical implications. Whereas the semantic ideal would try to describe by eliminating attitude and assume that a statement cannot have moral implications, the poetic ideal “would attempt to attain a full moral act by attaining a perspective atop all the conflicts of attitude” (148). 

Hence Burke says that a fully moral act is an act now, an act which asserts and enacts its attitudinal meaning. The style selected will mold the character of the selector, and each brand of imagery contains in germ its own logic.

Semantic avoids drama, but the Poetic goes through drama. Poetic is aesthetic; semantic is anesthetic.

Here is a table that sums up differences between semantic and poetic meaning:

Semantic Meaning
Poetic Meaning
Street address
Heaping up all brands of emotional imagery
“Bad” style
“Good” style
“Doesn’t judge” but describes places
Invites judgment
Isolates individual
Brings people together
Good if true. 
Bad if not true.
Good to the degree that we can do more with it

Bad to the degree that we can do less with it

Of course, this table unfortunately oversimplifies the issue: semantic and poetic meaning do to some degree overlap, and they are not polar opposites or antitheses.

Ultimately, semantic seems to be an attitude that tries to pretend that it’s not an attitude.

There is nothing wrong with a street address, of course, but, as Burke writes at the beginning of the article, “This essay . . . is intended to give support, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, to the thesis that the ideal of a purely ‘neutral’ vocabulary, free of emotional weightings, attempts to make a totality out of a fragment, ‘till that which suits a part infects the whole’” (138).

In short, for Burke, no vocabulary is neutral. The style selected will mold the character of the selector, and each brand of imagery contains in germ its own “logic.”

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