Extract from critic Kenneth Burke's 1963 paper "Definition of Man", which was reprinted in his Language as Symbolic Action. Burke proposes this definition: "Man is the symbol-making animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, moved by the sense of order, and rotten with perfection." This is from his discussion of the first phrase.

    The "symbol-using animal", yes, obviously.  But can we bring ourselves to realize just what that formula implies, just how 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 the 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 naive verbal realism that refuses to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality.  In responding to words, with their overt and covert modes of persuasion,... we like to forget the kind of relation that really prevails between the verbal and the nonverbal.  In being a link between us and the nonverbal, words are by the same token a screen separating us from the nonverbal -- though the statement gets tangled in its own traces, since so much of the "we" that is separated from the nonverbal by the verbal would not even exist were it not for the verbal (or for our symbolicity in general, since the same applies to the symbol systems of dance, music, painting, and the like.)  A road map that helps us easily find our way from one side of the continent to the other owes its great utility to its exceptional existential poverty.  It tells us absurdly little about the trip that is to be experienced in a welter of detail.  Indeed, its value for us is in the very fact that it is so essentially inane.
    Language referring to the realm of the nonverbal is necessarily talk about things in terms of what they are not -- and
in this sense we start out beset by a paradox.  Such language is but a set of labels, signs for helping us find our way about.
Indeed, they can even be so useful that they help us to invent ingenious ways of threatening to destroy ourselves.  But even
accuracy of this powerful sort does not get around the fact that such terms are sheer emptiness, as compared to the substance of the things they name.
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