Notes: Kenneth Burke on Rhetoric, pt. 2

Student study materials from the chapter on Burke in Foss, Foss and Trapp


Kenneth Burke Learning Objectives

1. To understand Burke's nature, scope and functions of rhetoric.

2. To understand the three major rhetorical forms.

3. To understand the differences between Burke's dramatism and logology.

4. To understand Burke's Pollution-Purification-Redemption cycle.

5. To understand Burke's definition of the human being.

6. To understand and be able to list Burke's three conditions required for human action.

7. To understand the function of the pentad and how it relates to dramatism.

8. To be able to list and recognize some of Burke's criticisms and some of his contributions.

Definition of Key Terms and Concepts


(173)-- Burkean rhetoric is defined as "the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to introduce in other human agents." Rhetoric is "rooted in an essential function of language itself,...the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols." Includes spoken and written discourse.


(174)-- We form selves or identities through various properties or substances, including physical objects, occupations, friends, activities, beliefs and values. Occurs when two entities are united in substance through common ideas, attitudes, possessions or properties.


(174)-- Used synonymously with consubstantial. It is the key to persuasion. As we share substances, we come to identify with others. As we speak each other's language, we become consubstantial.


(175)-- Also called "alienation" or "dissociation", this is the notion that human beings are inevitably isolated and divided from each other as a result of their separate physical bodies.


(178)--"An arousing and fulfillment of desires" or "the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite."


(181)-- Burke uses this "critical metaphor" to explain human motivation through the analysis of drama. It is "a technique of analysis of language and of thought as basically modes of action rather than a means of conveying information."


(181)-- The biological aspect of the human being that corresponds to motion and is concerned with bodily processes.


(182)-- The neurological aspect of the human being that corresponds to action that is concerned more with mental processes.


(184)-- A tool or method of analysis used to discover the motivation in symbolic action. It is a critical instrument designed to reduce statements of motives to the most fundamental level. Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, Purpose (and later, attitude)


(186)-- The term used to describe the consubstantial relationships between the elements of the pentad. There are ten ratios.


(188)-- Burke's later effort to discover motivational systems and orientations through the examination of words about God/gods/religion. A second "critical metaphor" (after dramatism). The source of this study is theology.


(191)-- An Aristotelian concept where each being aims at the perfection natural to its kind, and things are seen according to the "perfection" or "finishedness" of which they are capable.

Occupational psychosis

(193)-- A term borrowed from John Dewey is a pronounced character of mind relating to one's occupation or "a certain way of thinking that went with a certain way of living."

Terministic screen

(193)-- The terms or vocabulary we use as a result of our occupations constitute a kind of screen that directs our attention to particular aspects of reality rather than others.

Trained incapacity

(194)-- A condition in which our abilities "function as blindnesses." People may misjudge situations due to training.


(194)-- Also called "guilt", this is Burke's term for the secular equivalent of the original sin, an offense that cannot be avoided or a condition that all people share (in logology).


(196)-- The cleansing needed to rid ourselves of the language-caused guilt in order to achieve redemption (in logology).


(197)-- A temporary rest or stasis of some kind that represents symbolic rebirth. At this stage, a change has taken place within the rhetor (in logology).

Human being


Outline of Chapter Material

I. Nature of Rhetoric

(173) A. Identification

1. Identity or consubstantiation is the quality of sharing attributes.

2. Identification is key to persuasion.

3. Identification has several functions.

a. Identification occurs through common goals/background.

b. Identification occurs through common enmity/challenge.

c. Identification occurs through unconscious association.

4. Division, or lack of identification, is the natural state of separate human beings.

a. The human experience is inherently individual, and thus divisive.

b. Rhetoric is intended to replace division with identification.

B. Unconscious motivation occurs when identification is made without awareness or willful intent.

C. Self as Audience

1. Rhetoric can be addressed to the self according to Burke's definition.

2. By "cultivating certain ideas and images" one can "be his[/her] own audience."

D. Scope of Rhetoric

1. Burke's rhetoric encompasses both traditional and non- traditional forms of discourse.

2. Rhetoric includes both the verbal and non-verbal.

3. Rhetoric is confined to that which is "designed to elicit a 'response' of some sort."

4. "Wherever there is persuasion there is rhetoric, wherever there is meaning there is persuasion."

E. Functions of Rhetoric

1. Rhetoric always "defines situations for individuals," helping to form attitudes.

2. Rhetoric deals with problems, encouraging acceptance of the unchangeable and justifying action about the changeable.

3. Rhetoric gives commands or instructions of some kind, helping to determine actions to be taken.

F. Rhetorical Form

1. There are three major types of form, or processes of producing effects.

a. Conventional form is the expected method(s) used to craft rhetoric.

b. Repetitive form is the use of redundancy to "embody a fixed character or identity."

c. Progressive form is that which guides the audience to "anticipate or desire certain developments."

(1). Syllogistic progression is the sequential articulation of a formally presumed argument.

(2). Qualitative progression is the sequential articulation of an unanticipated argument.

2. There are also several minor rhetorical forms, such as the metaphor, paradox, reversal, contraction, expansion, and series.

II. Dramatism (181)

A. Basic Tenets

1. The theory is designed to discover human motives for acts via inquiry into words.

2. This view claims that thoughts and ideas are never free from the language used to frame them.

3. Dramatism is to be taken literally and not metaphorically, for it provides a literal statement about reality.

B. Action versus motion

1. Human nature determines the nature of action.

a. Biological actions are derivative of human animality, acquiring characteristics from human physical processes (breathing, eating, et al.)

b. Neurological actions are derivative of human symbolicity, acquiring characteristics from human mental processes (education, commerce, religion, et al.)

2. Three conditions are required for human action.

a. Freedom is required for action, as involuntary motion is merely reaction.

(1). Freedom to choose requires adequate knowledge of the act's consequences.

(2). Complete freedom is never possible, because complete knowledge of the consequences of acts can never be truly known.

b. Will is also necessary for action, as an unwilled event does not involve choice.

c. Motion is the final requirement for action, as an unreal, symbolic event certainly cannot be deemed an action.

C. Pentad (184)

1. Function of the Pentad

a. It is used as a method of analysis to ascertain the motivation in symbolic action.

b. It is a critical statement designed to reduce motives to the most fundamental level.

2. Terms of the Pentad

a. Act describes what took place in thought and deed.

b. Agent describes entity who performed the act.

c. Agency describes the means or instruments the agent employs.

d. Scene describes the background for the act, the situation in which it occurred.

e. Purpose describes the exigence which drives the agent to perform the particular act.

f. Attitude, the term Burke added after the word "pentad" has become fixed and popular, describes the manner in which the agent performed.

3. Pentadic ratios

a. Pentadic ratios describe relationships between elements of the pentad.

b. Pentadic ratios can be used to determine the appropriateness of certain components of rhetoric.

(1). Ratios suggest a relationship of propriety, suitability, or requirement among the elements.

(2). An examination of all the ratios aids the critic in discovering which term in the pentad receives the greatest attention by the rhetor.

III. The Negative and Its Consequences (189)

A. Language as reality

1. Negatives are purely linguistic constructs, without real-world counterparts.

2. All language is unreal, insofar as, "the word is not the thing."

B. Hierarchy

1. Hierarchies are constructed on the basis of numerous negatives and commandments to the degree to which they are followed.

2. Though the hierarchic principle is inevitable, no particular hierarchy is inevitable.

3. Hierarchies serve as motives, as individuals struggle to rise or maintain position in socio-cultural hierarchies.

C. Perfection

1. Perfection, perceived to be at the top of each hierarchy, is based on Aristotle's concept of entelechy.

2. Perfection serves as a motive, driving entities toward, "the completeness" of perfection.

3. Burke claimed that humans are rotten or corrupted with perfection, as even language has a quality of perfection.

D. Mystery

1. Physical and experiential separation of individuals creates mystery in various ways.

a. Occupational psychosis results from adopting a particular way of thinking as a consequence of careers and other long-term pursuits.

b. Terministic screen is the acquisition of a specialized vocabulary which reflects a selective view of reality.

c. Trained incapacity is the development of a limited view of reality as a result of particular training and experiences.

2. Mystery has two important functions.

a. Mystery encourages maintenance and preservation of hierarchy because it encourages obedience.

b.Mystery is used as an instrument of governance, cohesion, and preservation of the particular nature of a hierarchy.

III. Logology

1. Logology is the study of theological terms for the insight they produce into language.

2. Logology is intended to discover the fundamental truths about nature and forms of language as a motive.

3. Logology is developed with six analogies between language and the supernatural.

4. Logology can be viewed as a theory and methodology about words at a higher level of generalization than that of dramatism.

5. Pollution-Purification-Redemption: The Rhetoric of Rebirth (194)

A. Pollution, or "guilt," is Burke's equivalent to the Christian concept of original sin, an offense that cannot be avoided or a condition which all people share.

1. Guilt arises from the nature of hierarchy because it is rooted in our language system.

2. Burke sees the Demonic Trinity as the representing the desire for purgation of pollution because he believes, "that all bodily processes must have their effect upon human imagery."

B. Purification

1. There are two primary means for relieving our guilt using symbolic action.

a. Victimage is the process in which guilt is transferred to vessel(s) outside of the rhetor.

b. Mortification is the process in which we make ourselves suffer for our guilt or sins.

2. Purification is the process which enables individuals to progress to redemption.

C. Redemption

1. Redemption involves a change of identity and the acceptance of a new outlook on life.

2. The cycle of pollution, purification, and redemption is a lifelong process, leading to continual human growth.

V. Definition of the human being (197)

A. Human beings possess the use of a symbol system separate form animals and are neurological as well as biological in nature.

B. Human beings are separated or alienated from our natural condition by instruments of our own making.

C. Human beings have foreknowledge of their own death.

VI. Responses to Burke (199)

A. Criticisms

1. Paradox

a. Burke criticizes the human obsession with perfection but himself goes to extremes to employ obscure, hyper-precise terms, thus impairing his ability to make himself understood.

b. Burke's work is unsuccessful at system-building, "which at length it craves."

2. Antithesis

a. Because Burke deals with such a diverse group of subjects the only conclusion he proves is that he is overeager to display his learning.

b. Burke frequently uses common words in new contexts, obscuring meanings which he endeavors to clarify.

B. Laudations

1. Burke goes beyond complaining about "old rhetoric" to come close to creating an entirely new system of his own.

2. Burke reaffirms the importance of rhetoric in the study of human life, especially with his immense contributions to the field of rhetorical criticism.

Annotated Readings

Brock, Bernard. "Epistemology and Ontology in Kenneth Burke's Dramatism". Communication Quarterly. Vol. 33. Spring 1985. p.94-104.

Brock writes of Burke's shift from establishing dramatism as a method for comprehending the societal uses of language to the adding of more philosophical leaning to his theories. An examination is made of Burke's major rhetorical contributions: his concept of reality, his definition of human being, identification, and the use of the pentad in dramatism. Brock states three shifts in Burke's work with dramatism: dramatism based on "act" not the tension between "action" and "motion", dramatism that employs language "literally" rather than exploiting its ambiguity, and a dramatism that is more "reality" oriented rather than the link that orders and relates "reality" to abstract values.

Burke, Kenneth. Collected Poems: 1915-1967. University of California Press. Los Angeles 1968.

A collection of Burke's poems in no particular order. Not surprisingly, his poetic style mirrors that of e.e. cummings. Burke calls this book his "book of moments" where each poem reflects a certain emotion. He states, "Only by a maximum of free ranging can poetry best help to keep us free".

Burke, Kenneth. The Complete White Oxen. University of California Press. Los Angeles 1968.

Burke's collected series of short fiction. He states in his preface that he hopes his style has a "rhetorical element" unlike some of his fellow writers. His style is, indeed, different.

"A dramatistic view of the origins of language: Part One," Kenneth Burke Quarterly Journal of Speech. Vol. 38. October 1952. p.251-264.

Burke analyzes the negative thoroughly in his development of the dramatistic theory. He fully discusses verbal realism and the negative, as well as the dramatistic starting point of problems from action and expectation. Also covered is the essence of the positive pre-negative in addition to the steps in the evolution of the negative. Burke explains the behavioristic pre-language as implied in the use of the negative as the ability to generalize and the ability to specify. The concepts of image, idea, reason, understanding, imagination and fancy are also discussed.

Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change. Hermes Publications. Los Altos, CA 1954.

Kenneth Burke wrote Permanence and Change during the early part of the Great Depression, when many people had a general feeling that our traditional ways were headed for a tremendous change, perhaps even a permanent collapse. This was a difficult and confusing time especially for Burke and authors like him. He discusses orientation, interpretation, and a term he calls "perspective by incongruity" looking for some way to bring them together and simplifying them again. In sum, he wrote on the how and why of motivation.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Prentice-Hall Inc. New York 1950.

Kenneth Burke is devoted to the study of words. In A Rhetoric of Motives, he looks at how words effect others as well as ourselves. It mentions that many points of psychology involve rhetorical factors, with one part of the mind as the "speaker" and the other part as the "spoken to". However, the main purpose of this work is for people who might be interested in contemplating this important field. It does this by briefly reviewing great works that have contributed the most to the analysis of rhetoric.

Frank, Armin Paul. Kenneth Burke. Twayne Publishers, Inc. New York 1969.

Frank tries to "describe, examine, and analyze Burke's...critical, speculative and philosophical writings" in order to discover principles common to all of his literary pursuits. This book is divided in halves. One half explores Burke's prose and poetry. The other focuses on his philosophy of rhetoric with a specific emphasis on dramatism.

Kirk, John W. "The Forum: Kenneth Burke and Identification." Quarterly Journal of Speech, 47 (December 1961), 414-15.

Commentary on Burke in the early 60s tended to draw a strong association between Burke and Aristotle. Kirk argues, that, though Burke certainly draws much from Aristotle and other classical thinkers, to praise Burke for his capacity to reiterate the work of traditional rhetorical scholars is to do Burke an injustice. Kirk argues that the main importance of Burke's writing is the new concepts he introduces. Kirk specifically focuses on the Burkean concept of identification and insists that it provides a basis for a great deal of additional rhetorical scholarship. Immediately following this piece is a letter responding to Kirk and claiming that "neither the term nor the concept of identification originate" with Burke, rather that Burke's treatment of identification is the thing worthy of much analysis.

Meadows, Paul. "The Semiotic of Kenneth Burke." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 18 (September 1957), 80-87.

This essay is divided into four sections, "Semiotic and Dramtistics," "Syntactics," "Pragmatics," and "Semantics." The essay's main focus is unification of Burke's dramtism with Burke's perspective on semiotics, a link Burke suggested in the work A Grammar of Motives. The first segment establish a direct link between semantics and human character, drawing on the work of psychologists and Burke's dramatism to explore motives. The second sections establishes what factors determine individual perspectives and predispositions, while the third explains how identification/consubstantiation is not a physical togetherness but rather a togetherness of action. The final section concludes that analysis of the language used by individuals is vital to an understanding of their motivations and relationships.

Rueckert, William H. ed. Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke 1924-1966. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1969.

Rhetoricians, critics, college professors and writers praise and criticize Burke's contributions to the worlds of rhetoric and literature. Burke's theories of identification, dramatism and "new" rhetoric are mainly the subjects discussed and examined

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