Carnegie Mellon University

The Argument on Language and the Language of Argument: Kenneth Burke and Wilbur Samuel Howell

Author: Linda Levine
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1991

The argument on language between Wilbur Samuel Howell and Kenneth Burke is usually seen as a specific debate on the definition of rhetoric and poetics. In the exchange, spanning eleven years from 1965 until 1976, the critics defend their positions on rhetoric and poetics, and they consider the role of the symbol, with respect to rhetorical and poetical utterances. The dissertation demonstrates that Burke's and Howell's extreme positions are incompatible, and that the debate should be understood as a fundamental argument (in English studies) on realist and constructionist theories of language and meaning.

The double identities of language and argument (as process and product) make the Burke-Howell exchange an ideal subject of investigation: the argument is, at once a debate about rhetoric and a rhetorical debate. Consequently, the question driving this research derives from both concerns. We ask: on what cruxes does the argument on language hinge, and how is the argument languaged?

Exploring the theoretical and rhetorical dimensions of the exchange requires a sectioned analysis; therefore, the treatment consists of three layers. Point- Counterpoint outlines the main tenets of the argument between Burke and Howell. Theoretical Perspectives reconstructs the theories which inform the critics' positions, considering their respective identifications with Aristotle, and their stance on language, reality, and the symbol. Rhetorical Technique analyzes the argument from the macro and micro perspectives. The concepts of the rhetorical situation and stasis provide a global framework; the micro analysis uses the schemes of Toulmin and Perelman as heuristics to analyze the critics' argumentative technique. Synthesis and Recommendations discusses the implications of the research, and briefly considers how elements of the Burke-Howell exchange resonate in recent ongoing arguments in rhetoric, literary studies, and communication.

The dissertation contributes to scholarship on Kenneth Burke and on Wilbur Samuel Howell. Moreover, Burke and Howell stand in for two distinctive strains in English studies, within rhetorical and literary theory and criticism. Howell, as a descendant of the Cornell School, represents a historical, realist approach to language and literature; Burke's approach to the symbolic nature of language is described as constructionist. The dissertation contributes to research on theories of language, and to research on rhetorical and disciplinary argument.