The Dialectical Theory of Art in Kenneth Burke's Essays and Book Reviews of the Early 1920s and its Combination of the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the Structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss

Thumbnail Image

Publication or External Link





I argue that a dialectical theory of art is developed by Kenneth Burke in the first half of the 1920s that brings together through its own terms and principles two opposing philosophies that would not come into existence in themselves until the 1940s and 1950s respectively: the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss. The development of this dialectical theory of art begins in 1920 with several of Burke's book reviews, including his first, "Axiomatics." It then continues with further book reviews and then essays, also including his first, through the middle of 1925, when it is completed by the twin essays "Psychology of Form" and "The Poetic Process." The dialectical theory of art that emerges from this series of works possesses four main parts. These are consciousness, intentionality, action, and true art. Each part, in turn, consists of two opposing subdivisions that are meant to be combined and transcended. They are, in line with the four parts above, creativity / form, originality / communication, art-emotion / artistry, and art's advancement / beauty. These divisions and subdivisions are highly integrated and function to explain Burke's major position on how true art is produced and why it possesses an absolute value for universal judgment. My goal in establishing this dialectical theory is fourfold: to provide a framework for better understanding the early essays and book reviews as a coherent and unified whole, to revalue the 1920s as Burke's first important theoretical period, to provide good reason for bringing existentialism and structuralism forward into studies about Burke, and to offer the dialectical theory itself as the foundation of Burke's later theoretical developments and, hence, as a theory and model that may be useful for acquiring a fuller understanding of his theories after the 1920s, which span over half-a-century and have become of interest to multiple fields of study.