Notes on Kenneth Burke’s “Psychology and Form” (1925)

Kenneth Burke, “Psychology and Form,” Counter-Statement, 3rd revised ed. (1931; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 29-44; originally published in The Dial 79 (1925): 34-46.


Bibliographical Notes

“Psychology and Form” has been Burke’s best known essay, having been republished in at least 10 anthologies of criticism, beginning with the seminal Literary Opinion in America, ed. Morton Dauwen Zabel (New York: Harper, 1937).

In Counter-Statement Burke places the essay second, following his inquiry into the critic’s sensibility in “Three Adepts of ‘Pure’ Literature.” This placement suggests that the critical approach of “Psychology and Form” advances beyond the shortcomings that Burke found in the theoretical and critical writings of Flaubert, Pater, and de Gourmont.

Biographical Notes

In a 01 Dec 1940 letter to Malcolm Cowley, Burke reflected on the writing of “Psychology and Form”:

that winter [1924] I stayed at Andover, I wrote two essays, “Psychology and Form” and “The Poetic Process”; it was my intention to round these off with third, “On the Sublime.” I began it, then ran into The Meaning of Meaning [by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, 1923], and was so knocked over that I was unable to write the third essay. And it was not until the “Philosophy of Literary Form” item, the monograph by that name in the forthcoming collection, that I was able to treat of the material for that third essay, though it is there in a much altered state, affected by all that has intervened. The germ of the “Psychology and Form” essay was, in turn, in a review I wrote on Murry, in The Dial, 1922, making a distinction between “the psychology of form and the psychology of the subject matter,” or “between the psychologism of Dostoevsky and the psychologism of, say, a Greek vase” . . . .

Burke, c. 1923

Text Notes

1. Note how Burke locates his aesthetic theory in opposition to what he regards as deleterious social consequences of science:

The seeming breach between form and subject-matter, between technique and psychology, which has taken place in the last century is the result, it seems to me, of scientific criteria being unconsciously introduced into matters of purely aesthetic judgment. The flourishing of science has been so vigorous that we have not yet had time to make a spiritual readjustment adequate to the changes in our resources of material and knowledge. There are disorders of the social system which are caused solely by our undigested wealth (the basic disorder being, perhaps, the phenomenon of overproduction: to remedy this, instead of having all workers employed on half time, we have half working full time and the other half idle, so that whereas overproduction could be the greatest reward of applied science, it has been , up to now, the most menacing condition our modern civilization has had to face). It would be absurd to suppose that such social disorders would not be paralleled by disorders of culture and taste, especially since science is so pronouncedly a spiritual factor. So that we are, owing to the sudden wealth science has thrown upon us, all nouveaux-riches in matters of culture, and most poignantly in that field where lack of native firmness is most readily exposed, in matters of aesthetic judgment. (31-32)

2. In the final section of the essay (42-44), Burke begins to explore the idea of “aesthetic truth” implied by a “psychology of form” and refers to the work of John Lyly (1554?-1606), a sixteenth-century English writer known for his development of the highly rhetorical “euphuistic” style (named after his Eupheus: The Anatomy of Wit [1578]) and for his court comedies, or masques. Recall that Burke wrote his own masque, “Prince Llan” during this period.

3. Burke’s discussion of “aesthetic truth” culminates in a reflection on a set of passages from the writings St. Ambrose (339-397), the Bishop of Milan whose sermons led Augustine to convert from teacher of rhetoric to Catholic theologian. I have identified the passages as coming from Book Five of the Hexameron (The Six Days of Creation); and the passage with which Burke concludes is the beginning of the final chapter of Book Five, or the conclusion to the fifth day of creation, which is of course the prelude to the final day of creation, the creation of man.