Reading Kenneth Burke’s “Terministic Screens” through Plato’s Theaetetus


Kenneth Burke’s “Terministic Screens” begins by “directing the attention” to two approaches to the nature of language: scientistic and dramatistic —not only are these two “screens” created by terms derived from how humans perceive the world, but, by being “terministic,” both screens can either “direct attention” away from or towards specific interpretations of a world-perceived. For Burke, the “scientistic” screen “begins with questions of naming, or definition”(44)—that is to say, this “scientistic” approach considers terms by way of an essential function inherent in them that can be “treated as attitudinal or hortatory” (44). To be sure, at this level, language—through the use of terminology—is viewed as defining and describing what an object of understanding is, or what it is not. When I use the term “object of understanding,” I am referring to something that can be named or defined—setting aside any Kantian baggage to this term, object of understanding has a Heideggerian “ek-sistence” which allows it to be named or defined, for the epistemological purposes of explaining what has been understood or misunderstood about the object that “stands out” and has been perceived.

In other words, for me to say that an object of understanding “is something,” I must perceive its ek-stence as, on one hand, something capable of being objectified, and on the other, something that can be understood. In this case, I would argue that, in order for an object of understanding to be namable, it must have a certain “thing-in-itself” quality, which can ultimately be assessed on a broader epistemological canvas of the perceived-world. Yet, when I refer to anything as an object of understanding, I can only do so by ascribing that name to “something,” and acknowledging that this “something,” once objectified and understood, can be explained. Here, issues of objectification and understandability work through Burke’s “scientistic” screen—both regulate an initial encounter with any object of understanding, so that we can assess “is-ness” and “not-ness” as attitudinal (with expressions of complaint, fear, gratitude) or hortatory (with commands or requests).

Even at a “scientistic” level, Burke concedes that this “may be viewed as derivative,” particularly if the focus here is on naming/defining in relation to the attitudinal or hortative values given to terms. Though there is a derivative aspect to the “scientistic” level—the idea that, if we are concluding that an object of understanding is epistemological, by the extent to which we can say something has is-ness or not-ness. When screening at the “scientistic” level, when considering is-ness or not-ness of an object of understanding as the measuring stick by which we name and define, is Burke suggesting that naming/defining is a way in which we develop an “episteme” (επιστήμη) about what has been named/defined in a world-perceived? Essentially, does Burke’s “scientistic” screen recognize an epistemological problem noted by Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus that can only be answered rhetorically?

This problem, in the aforementioned Platonic dialogue, begins with the guiding question: what is knowledge? Is this question also at play in Burke’s description of “scientistic” screen? Can we view the what is knowledge question as not just a question about “knowledge itself”—if we can say that naming and defining as is-ness and not-ness does not mean we actually “know” an object of understanding—but about what knowledge does?

In my view, the last question is the most important, and critical to what Burke intends to accomplish with “scientistic” screens, in particular, and “terministic screens” more broadly. It is a question that takes us into the heart of the Socrates’ epistemological problem, and how we must go about “directing the attention,” as Burke calls it, towards what knowledge does. How does Burke’s “terministic screens” serve in “directing the attention” away from knowledge itself and towards what knowledge does? Allow me to answer this question by discussing, in brief, Plato’s Theaetetus. In this dialogue, with the guiding what is knowledge question, Socrates guides Theaetetus through what could be called “scientistic” screens—that is to say, Socrates’ “method” involves illustrating the limitations of naming and defining, and the extent to which neither can be called “knowledge.” To this end, knowledge itself is, as Socrates argues, “So neither perception, Theaetetus, nor true opinion, nor reason or explanation combined with true opinion could be knowledge.” To be sure, knowledge of an object of understanding—either through “perception” (“αιθησις”), “true opinion” (“δόξα αληθής”), or as “reason or explanation combined with true opinion” (“μετ’ αληθους δόξης λόγος προσγιγνόμενος”)—does not equate to knowing that object, since all three involve naming and defining. This is partly because, as Burke seems to propose, a “scientistic” screen that employs the naming/defining of an object of understanding only goes so far epistemologically—what we can say we know about an object must go further than just naming and defining. But, more importantly, though naming and defining help us ascertain fundamental is-ness and not-ness as knowledge itself of an object of understanding, a “scientistic” screening must take another step in the direction of “ought-ness.”

If we follow Socrates, allow Burke to guide us, and conclude that our knowledge of an object of understanding—the ability to say I know something—is “neither perception… nor true opinion, nor reason or explanation combined with true opinion could be knowledge,” our “scientistic” screening of that object has not advanced beyond the terms we apply to that object against the epistemological screens of “perception,” “true opinion,” and “reason or explanation combined with true opinion.” What this means, then, is that an object of understanding is more than just its is-ness or not-ness, but is comprised of an “ought-ness”—it solicits a course of action from us, by way of what knowledge does.

In this regard, action orients us—it “directs our attention”—towards/away from a specific interpretation of the meaning of an object of understanding. This next step, as Burke explains, does not mean that our first and two steps are “mutually exclusive.” (44). Rather, according to Burke, both steps “have their proper uses,” and any distinction made between the two is meant to “direct our attention to quite different kinds of observations” (44). For Burke, this first step “builds the edifice of language with the primary stress upon…[is-ness and not-ness]” (44). Beyond this, the ought-ness of an object of understanding must be dramatized, if I may appropriate Burke here—we must consider what action that object asks of us, especially as a motive-driven prerequisite for objectification and understanding. When taking this next step, Burke offers a “dramatistic” screen, which involves “stressing language as an aspect of ‘action,’ that is, as ‘symbolic action.’”(44). Not only does this next step move beyond Socrates’ sentiment in Theaetetus that knowledge cannot be “perception,” “true opinion,” nor “reason or explanation combined with true opinion,” but, when considering “language as action,” as Burke does, an object of understanding becomes objectified and understood by another epistemological means. This “means” allows language to ek-sist through performativity. That is, whether we say that an object of understanding has is-ness or not-ness, we must, accordingly, let the language necessary to express it do more than just name or define it—we must commit a “symbolic act” of interpretation and meaning-making by letting an underlying ought-ness in language move us.



Burke, Kenneth. “Terministic Screens.” 1965. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966, 44-62.


Plato. Theaetetus. Translated by Harold N. Fowler. Plato in Twelve Volumes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921.


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