Can we ever see the world as it really is? Metaphysical questions such as this go back a long way, and my grasp of all the centuries of ontological and epistemological philosophical wrangling is superficial at best. That we are the creators of our own realities is an idea that shows up in various degrees in many realms of human understanding—certain spiritual traditions and psychological teachings, for example. I wouldn’t have thought that a discussion of this concept would show up in writings about rhetoric. I suppose that was short-sighted of me, since even Plato was concerned with the relationship between what we see around us in the world and the ideas we have about these things as categorical entities. Moreover, since language is the medium through which we connect to the world, and as a vector for knowing, language’s signifiers and signifieds are notoriously difficult to hold in place, Kenneth Burke’s discussion on the creation of mystery through the use of language should come as no surprise.
But surprise or not, I found myself reeled in by Burke’s understanding of these long-debated topics. I especially appreciated his explanation of alienation as a condition that results from the gap between the certainty we wish for in communication and the ambiguity that we must always confront. His model for the sources of this alienating mystery points to the combination of three elements:
our individual life experiences (occupational psychosis)
the interpretive filters we build up on the basis of experience (terministic screens)
the sort of selective blindness we take on for what falls outside of those filters (trained incapacity).
Since the synergy created in the amalgamation of these three factors is highly individual, we are all left virtually in a world of our own, trying to touch another fellow soul, and vice versa, as if we were all wearing furry mittens. Something comes through, but is it ever exactly what we or they meant? For Burke, we have awareness of these distances in understanding one another fully, so we filter our confidence in the message accordingly. That may sound like a good idea, and it probably is, but it is also another layer of filtering, another level of remove from true understanding, from actual reality, or what we think is real. But how many of us have ever truly felt understood in life?
Is there a positive side to this idea that we select our interpretations of what we perceive by sifting through the screening structures we have build up from our life’s experience? For me, it is that if we have built it, we can also remodel it. That is the beauty of taking responsibility for your own reality. And language is the tool we use to make the world what we want it to be. Burke actually discusses the relationship of language with magic, calling rhetoric “word magic.” Words, rhetoric, are magic because they have the power to “induce action.” It is usually the case that before we can induce positive action in the world around us, we must first induce ourselves to move forward. The words we use on ourselves can transform our individual realities radically. Our screens can be cleaned and opened. Perhaps we can even take off the furry mittens for a moment.
I think this discussion comes full circle with the discussion by Weaver correlating Socrates’ conversation on the merits of lovers versus non-lovers and divine love to the various modes of rhetoric that might tend toward evil, good, or fail to move us at all. In each of these cases, we are hearing the rhetor’s argumentation through those terministic filters of Burke, and so we become responsible in large part for what we allow another’s persuasive speech (or text) to determine for us. Once again, we are the creator’s of our realities, and we are the stewards of the mysteries we must confront without ever fully understanding.