Kenneth Burke Faked It Too: Trained incapacity and Institutional Psychosis

I am responsible for the internet dissemination of a few apocryphal sayings which make a lot of sense, to me at least, but whose provenance cannot be verified. Fortunately, I recently found out that Kenneth Burke, the highly-esteemed literary critic and philosopher, was guilty of the same crime, attributing concepts to John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen which cannot be found anywhere in their works.

Before I get to the fake texts, however, here’s a real one from a few decades ago which I think is worth seeing. I include it here, even though it is  genuine, because it is similar in intent to most of the other snippets:

Ignorance turned out to be a major result of specialization. Decision makers give up their knowledge of the whole as they seek full and complete knowledge of their particular piece of the whole.  But ignorance is not only a correlative of specialization. It is almost a condition for peaceful coexistence among specialists. Ignorance tends to be meaningfully distributed throughout the  heierarchies. There was more ignorance at the center than at the periphery…..This brings our particular concern into focus. Ignorance at the scale that we observed could not have occurred by chance alone. Ignorance at this scale involving scientists — that is, men dedicated to knowledge above all else — had to be deliberate.

Poliscide, Theodore Lowi et. al., Macmillan, 1976, p. 282.  

My own unattested and possibly fake citations are these:

People would argue about the multiplication table if there were enough money in it. — Leibniz

The tyranny of the professor
— Michel Foucault (supposedly critiquing Derrida)  

First you tell people what you’re going to say, and then you tell them what you’re not going to say, and then you say it, and then you tell people what you didn’t say, and then you tell people what you said.
…. At the end of my life I came to realize that during my whole academic career I had been writing as though my reader were a paranoid idiot. — Harry Stack Sullivan

I did find I did try to track down one of my citations. Foucault’s actual statement, which was was nice enough — but if you ask me,  not nearly as good as my forgery:

What can be seen here so visibly is a historically well-determined little pedagogy. A pedagogy that teaches the pupil that there is nothing outside the text….A pedagogy that gives  to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely.

— Michel Foucault, Essential Works, vol. 2, p. 416;  originally in “My Body, This Paper, This Fire”.

Anyway, here are Burke’s citations of Veblen and Dewey:

Veblen had a concept of “trained incapacity” which seems especially relevant to the question of right and wrong orientation. By trained incapacity he meant a state of affairs where one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses.

— Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 7 .

Again, we have such notions as John Dewey’s concept of “occupational psychosis”, his thesis that a society’s patterns of thought are shaped by the patterns of livelihood, that “spiritual” values get their authority because they reinforce the ways of thinking and feeling by which man equips himself to accomplish the tasks indigenous to his environment.

– Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism, p. 315 in The Philosophy of Literary Form; see also  “Occupational Psychosis” in Permanence and Change.

No one has ever been able to find either of these terms anywhere in Dewey or Veblen, and by now the consensus seems to be that — just like me — Burke coined these phrases himself and attributed them to the authors who had inspired him.  (Evidence here, here, and here).

The reader might note that all of the citations above, bogus or otherwise, share a tendency toward skepticism about the official discourse of truth — the import of Leibniz’s citation being slightly different than that of the others. I endorse them all unreservedly, without regard for questions of provenance, and if you have doubts about the origin of these citations, feel free to attribute them to me.



Paul Turpin has given these citations for the phrase “trained incapacity”. Apparently Burke had forgotten where he’d seen it, and the people trying to find it didn’t know where to look. But economic historians did know. The subject recently (April 2007) came up on a History of Economics Societies discussion ( The cita ion comes from Veblen’s The Instinct of Workmanship, and the State of the Industrial Arts, p. 347.

But Dewey’s “occupational psychosis” remains to be located.

See also:
Hall, Robert A., Jr. “Thorstein Veblen and Linguistic Theory.” American Speech 35.2 (1960): 124-30. (available through JSTOR)

Wais, Erin. “‘Trained Incapacity’: Thorstein Veblen and Kenneth Burke” K.B. Journal 2.1 (2005): NP. Available at