6. “Terministic Screens,” in Language as Symbolic Action, 44-55.
In my opinion, this is one the key essays to understanding Burke. It is worth reading and rereading. In the book Language as Symbolic Action, Burke places this essay as number 3 of what he calls “Five Summarizing Essays.” The first one is “Definition of Man.” The second is called “Poetics in Particular, Language in General.” The fourth is “Mind, Body, and the Unconscious,” and the fifth is “Coriolanus and the Delights of Faction.” Of these 5, in my experience, only “Terministic Screens” and the “Definition of Man” tend to be cited much more often than the other 3.
1. Directing the Attention
So much good stuff here. Basically, words direct our attention to one thing or area rather than another. “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (45). Words are like camera lenses. What they focus on changes what we see. Burke says that when he thinks about terministic screens, he is reminded of some photographs that he once saw. They were different photographs of the same objects, and they were different only because the lens on the camera was different.
2. Observations Implicit in Terms
Not only do our terms influence what we see, but our terms also imply much. Each terministic screen reveals things about the person who chooses the terministic screen. To understand an author, one must follow the terministic screen to its logical conclusion by tracking down its implications. That is what the ancient authors meant when they said, “Believe, that you may understand.”
So much of what we know comes to us through symbols. Burke actually quotes a key paragraph here from his essay on “Definition of Man”:
[C]an we bring ourselves to realize just how overwhelmingly much of what we mean by “reality” has been built up for us through nothing but our symbol systems? Take away our books, and what little do we know about history, biography, even something so “down to earth” as the relative position of seas and continents? What is our “reality” for today (beyond the paper-thin line of our own particular lives) but all this clutter of symbols about the past, combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present? In school, as they go from class to class, students turn from one idiom to another. The various courses in the curriculum are in effect but so many different terminologies. And however important to us is the tiny sliver of reality each of us has experienced firsthand, the whole overall “picture” is but a construct of our symbol systems. To meditate on this fact until one sees its full implications is much like peering over the edge of things into an ultimate abyss. And doubtless that’s one reason why, though man is typically the symbol-using animal, he clings to a kind of naïve verbal realism that refuses to let him realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality. (48)
4. Further Examples
We can’t not use terministic screens, since we’re symbol-using animals. All of our words involve choices, and when we choose something instead of something else, we are essentially choosing something over something else.
There’s the physical realm and the symbolic realm. Words straddle the line between the two. When we move around in the physical realm and bump into something, we can move it out of our way physically. But in the social or symbolic realm, we “bump” into people, and the way we move others is with rhetoric. Rhetoric tries to move people (there’s a great passage in A Rhetoric of Motives about this that I can see in my mind but that I’m not going to quote right now).
5. Our Attempt to Avoid Mere Relativism
Are all things mere terministic screens? Or is there some common ground between all symbol-users? Burke seems to say yes to both questions. There are things that act and things that are acted upon. People act, and we experience each other as people, as human beings.
My brief summary/discussion of this essay doesn’t do it justice. Go read it! :)