A Kenneth Burke Primer

As stated in Bender and Wellbery’s “The Ends of Rhetoric,” Kenneth Burke’s theories are especially representative of a Modern philosophical perspective:

“Much of Burke’s vocabulary can be taken as the lexicon for a modernist rhetoric: terministic screen, entitlement, representative anecdote, strategies of motivation, master tropes, scene-act ratio, god-term, temporizing of essence. Moreover, Burke’s work illustrates many features we take to be characteristic of rhetorical inquiry under conditions of modernity. It is resolutely interdisciplinary, drawing on sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and poetics; it is recursive in structure, applying its categories to itself as a strategy of argument and inquiry; its range of objects (one might better say: occasions) crosses disciplinary boundaries and includes philosophical schools, political tracts, everyday life, ritual and religion, economic and foreign policy, literary works, and bodily practices.” (36-37)

In other words, there is very little that the theory of symbolic action does not encompass. As a theorist of rhetoric, Burke addresses rhetoric’s ontology insofar as he’s concerned with what it is moreso than how it might be analyzed. We’re turning to Kenneth Burke’s writings because he answers what rhetoric ‘is’ by using the framework of the symbol and drama. These rhetorical approaches are also famous for seeking to elevate rhetoric to the level of a general philosophy.

According to sociologist Joseph Gusfield, Kenneth Burke’s focus upon “how symbols are symbolized” was a revolution in the critical framework of many disciplines, offering a way to understand both culture and “how experience itself attains shape and content” through symbolic exchange. What situates Burke’s writings in the domain of ontology is its focus upon “symbols about symbols,” or what he terms logology.  What is rhetoric? It falls under the heading of the connective action of the symbol. If Burke’s theoretical contributions have most often fallen under the heading of “symbolic action,” then this means that symbols create a shared world, challenging the idea that culture or context is pre-given, fixed, or final. Symbolic action is frequently set apart from non-symbolic motion, which is traditionally defined in the following way

From Gusfield, p.9:

  • Motion is the animal side of human beings. Here human acts are determined. They are the summation of the forces and factors which impinge on people to produce behavior. The image of the human being is that of a passive actor to external conditions. They move but do not act.”  
  • Action implies assessments of situations and the people with whom the person interacts. It implies reflection upon one’s interests, sentiments, purpose,s and those of others. Human beings are animals and have biological natures, but they differ from other animals in the range and significance of their use of symbols, of language. They understand their world by depicting it in symbols and by placing meaning on events. Animals respond to stimuli directly, human beings interpret the events.”

Burke adds the following nuance to this distinction in “The Nature of Human Action”

  • (1) There can be no action without motion -- that is, even the ‘symbolic action’ of pure thought requires corresponding motions of the brain.
  • (2) There can be motion without action. For instance, the motion of the tides, of sunlight, of growth and decay.
  • (3) Action is not reducible to the terms of motion. For instance, the ‘essence’ or ‘meaning’ of a sentence is not reducible to its sheer physical existence as sounds in the air or marks on the page, although material motions of some sort are necessary for the production, transmission, and reception of the sentence.

He concludes that “man is defined literally as an animal characterized by his special aptitude for ‘symbolic action,’ which is itself a literal [i.e. NOT metaphorical] term. And from there on, drama is employed, not as a metaphor, but as a fixed form that helps us discover what the implications of the term ‘act’ and person’ really are. Once we choose a generalized term for what people do, it is certainly as literal to say that ‘people act’ as it is to say that they ‘move like mere things’.

Because the emphasis is typically placed on the logo-centric domain of symbolic action, emphasis is placed both on dramatism (the idea that all human action is theatrical according to pentadic ratios) as a method of understanding/reading symbols and upon motive, which is featured in the titles of two his books: A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives. Motives are not the simple cause of action, they “cannot be separated from the situations to which they are responses.” Instead, motives are justificatory “terms that make action understandable … not as a source of behavior but a concept used by people to make actions understandable to them and others.”  By distributing “motives” across the categories of “grammar” and “rhetoric”  Burke also inflects these terms with a specific meaning:

From Gusfield, p. 6

  • Grammar refers to the forms of language patterns through which the infinitude of events become selected, defined, and understood.”
  • Rhetoric refers to human behavior and communication seen as embodying strategies for affecting situations.”

The purpose of these categories is to point to the impoverishment of all totalizing accounts of language, holding instead that symbolic interaction is the mechanism by which a partial framework for understanding social reality (including symbolic action itself) comes to be perceived as a complete or full explanation of that environment. What is left out of every totalizing framework for social reality is motion, which precedes and exceeds capture by the symbol. For that reason, Burke might be considered is a proponent of what we would today call “flat ontology,” in which “all ideologies are described equally as systems of justification and persuasion. No one is ontologically superior.” (Gusfield, 20) Instead, the ‘flatness’ of different ontological accounts is exposed through the master trope of irony (or dialectic), a juxtaposition of terms that creates a transformation in the meaning of the transposed elements. As Burke writes in A Grammar of Motives:

History … would be a dialectic of characters in which, for instance, we should never expect to see ‘feudalism’ overthrown by ‘capitalism’ and ‘capitalism’ succeeded by some manner of national or international or non-national socialism -- but rather should note elements of all such positions (or ‘voices’) existing always, but attaining greater clarity of expression or imperiousness of proportion of one period than another. (A Grammar of Motives, 1945, 513)

As Gusfield writes, “Burke’s admonition to adopt a ‘perspective by incongruity’ is a logical conclusion from his dialectical perspective. … It is an exhortation to see the limited nature of any one cognitive framework” through “a perspective of perspectives.” (30) The dramatistic ‘method’ of criticism embraces this framework, moreover because “ritualization and stylization … provide the way in which the social order maintains and controls the hierarchies of …structure and language.” (30) In Burke’s words, irony or dialectic involves a kind of comparison of perspectives that denaturalizes the finality or determinative quality of all of the terms:

In equating ‘dramatic’ with ‘dialectic’ we automatically have our perspective for the analysis of history, which is a ‘dramatic’ process, involving dialectical opposition … we are reminded that every document bequeathed us by history must be treated as a strategy for encompassing a situation … as the answer or rejoinder to assertions current in the situation in which it arose. (Philosophy of Literary Form, 1957, 93)

The Definition of Man [sic]

Burke’s logology relies on the way that the different terms he introduces are nested atop one another: “If drama then conflict, if conflict then hierarchy, if hierarchy then guilt, if guilt then redemption, if redemption, then victimage, [if victimage then scapegoating]. The Christian drama is re-enacted again and again.” (Gusfield, 38) This nesting structure is especially pronounced in Burke’s “Definition of Man”

Man [sic] is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol mis-using) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his [sic] own making, goaded with the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection. (70)

Approached more systematically, we should understand the definition of man as follows:

Man [sic] is

(1) The symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol mis-using) animal

  • The whole overall ‘picture’ is but a construct of our symbol systems. … Although man is typically the symbol-using animal, he [sic] clings to a kind of naive verbal realism that refuses to realize the full extent  of the role played by symbolicity in his [sic] notion of reality. (58)
  • The misuse of symbols includes “demagogic tricks” and “psychogenic illness” and extends a Freudian vocabulary of condensation and displacement (typically associated with dream analysis) to encompass the whole of symbolic interaction in which substitution is an unavoidable feature of symbol-use. (60-1)

(2) Inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

  • Not only are there “no negatives in nature” (i.e. in the realm of motion) but is “peculiar to symbol systems.” (63) The negative takes the form of the “this-not-that” (propositional negative) but also the “thou-shalt-not” as a restriction upon conduct (hortatory negative).
  • “I personally would treat the negative as in principle prior [to the yes] for this reason: Yes and No imply each other, in their role as opposites, they limit each other; but limitation itself is the ‘negation of part of a divisible quantum’."
  • “Religions are so often built antithetically to other persuasions. (e.g. Christianity/paganism; Protestantism/Catholicism; Churchgoing/communism)."

(3) Separated from his natural condition by instruments of his [sic] own making

  • Rather than “the tool-using animal” language is an instrument associated with “a set of habits that become a kind of ‘second nature’ as a special set of expectations that comes to seem natural.” (67)
  • This is also the domain of ‘logology’ or ‘words about words’: “In choosing any definition at all, one implicitly represents man as the kind of animal that is capable of definition.” (68) This means that is not the human that precedes the invention of the symbol, but rather symbolicity that bequeaths us an understanding of human uniqueness and separateness from nature.

(4) Goaded with the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

  • This refers to the propensity to hierarchize rather than flatten ontology; to create distinctions and sequences on the basis of logical priority or organization. “The grotesque fictions of Franz Kafka are marvelous in this regard. The use of the word ‘Lord’ to designate sometimes the Deity and sometimes an aristocrat in itself indicates the shift between the two kinds of ‘worship’.” (70)

(5) And rotten with perfection.

  • Perfection, in this view, is not an ideal but rather a way that symbolization is interpenetrated with motive, leading, for instance, to sacrificial scapegoating or the privileging of singular human experience over collective sociality.
  • “If an astronomer discovered by his observations and computations a certain wandering body was likely to hit the earth and destroy us, he would nonetheless feel compelled to argue for the correctness of his computations, despite the ominousness of the outcome.” (74)

The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle

  • For Burke, rhetoric is rooted in the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols. (p.8) Key quotations from the article:
  • Here is the testament of a man who swung a great people into his wake. Let us watch it carefully; and let us watch it, not merely to discover some grounds for prophesying what political move is to follow Munich, and what move to follow that move; let us try also to discover what kind of “medicine” this medicine man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America. … Hitler found a panacea, a “cure for what ails you,” a “snakeoil,” that made such sinister unifying possible within his own nation. And we was helpful enough to put his cards face up on the table, that we might examine his hands. Let us, then, for God’s sake, examine them. This book is the well of Nazi magic, crude magic, but effective. A people trained in pragmatism should want to inspect this magic.
  • “Division of the attention of a people, and … concentrating it on a single enemy. The more uniformly the fighting will of a people is put into action, the greater will be the magnetic force of the movement and the more powerful the impetus of the blow.”
  • “Materialization of a religious pattern” in which “the international devil materialized, in the visible, point-to-able form of a people with a certain kind of “blood,” a burlesque of contemporary neo-positivism’s ideal of meaning, which insists upon a material reference.”
  • “The masses are ‘feminine.’ as such they desire to be led by a dominating male. This male, as orator, woos them -- and when he has won them, he commands them. The rival male, the villainous Jew, would on the contrary ‘seduce’ them.”

Hitler’s Unification Device, … had the following important features:

  • Inborn Dignity. A “natural born” dignity of man is stressed, and is elevated above all others by the innate endowment of his blood, while other races are innately inferior.
  • Projection Device. Handing over one’s ills to a scapegoat, thereby getting purification by dissociation. If one can hand over their infirmities to a vessel or a “cause” outside the self, one can battle an external enemy instead of an enemy within.
  • Symbolic Rebirth. Rebirth involved a symbolic change of lineage by voting oneself and the members of one’s group as a different “blood stream.”
  • Commercial use. Provided a macroeconomic interpretation of economic ills. By deflecting attention from the economic factors involved in modern conflict and attacking Jews on the basis of race, Hitler stimulated an enthusiastic movement that left White Supremacist financers in control.

Burke’s Master Tropes  (A Grammar of Motives)

What is trope? An artful deviation from the ordinary or principal signification of a word. One of two general categories for figures of speech, along with scheme. Literally "turn" in Greek (e.g. heliotrope), trope signifies when one turns a word or phrase from its conventional use to a novel one for rhetorical effect. Trope also signifies ‘turn’ in the sense of a change of direction in space or a change of fortune in the course of events. Each turn traces a figure – of speech (or conception), of experience (or perception), of inquiry (or question), even of conduct (or action). (John Nelson, Tropes of Politics)

The Four Master Tropes I refer to metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. And my primary concern with them here will be not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of “the truth.” It is an evanescent moment that we shall deal with – for not only does the dividing line between the figurative and literal usages shift, but also the four tropes shade into one another. Give a man but one of them, tell him to exploit its possibilities, and if he is thorough in doing so, he will come upon the other three. The ‘literal’ or ‘realistic’ applications of the four tropes usually go by a different set of names. Thus:

  • For metaphor we could substitute perspective;
  • For metonymy we could substitute reduction;
  • For synecdoche we could substitute representation;
  • For irony we could substitute dialectic;

Metaphor (Perspective)

“Metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this. If we employ the word “character” as a general term for whatever can be thought of as distinct (any thing, pattern, situation, structure, nature, person, object, act, role, process, event, etc.) then we could say that metaphor tells us something about one character as considered from the point of view of another character. And to consider A from the point of view of B is, of course, to use B as a perspective upon A.”

Metonymy (Reduction)

The basic “strategy” in metonymy is this: to convey some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangible. E.g. to speak of “the heart” rather than “the emotions.” If you trail language back far enough, of course, you will find that all our terms ofr “spiritual” states were metonymic in origin. We think of “the emotions,” for instance, as applying solely to the realm of consciousness, yet obviously the word is rooted in the most “materialist” term of all, “motion” (a key strategy in Western materialism has been the reduction of “consciousness to “motion”). In his Principles of Literary Criticism, Richards is being quite “metonymic” in proposing that we speak not of the “emotions” aroused in the reader by the work of art, but the “commotions.”

Synecdoche (Representation)

Now, note that a reduction is a representation. If I reduce the contours of the United States, for instance, to the terms of a relief map, I have within these limits “represented” the United States. As a mental state is the “representation” of certain material conditions, so we could – reversing the process – say that the material conditions are “representative” of the mental state. That is, if there is some kind of correspondence between what we call the act of perception and what we call the thing perceived, then either of these equivalents can be taken as “representative” of the other. Thus as a reduction (metonymy) overlaps upon metaphor (perspective) so likewise it overlaps upon synechdoche (representation). … For this purpose we consider synechdoche in the usual range of dictionary sense, with such meanings as: part for the whole, whole for the part, container for the contained, sign for the thing signified, material for the thing made (which brings us nearer to metonymy), cause for effect, effect for cause, genus for species, species for genus, etc. All such conversions imply an integral relationship, a relationship of convertibility between the two terms.

Irony (Dialectic)

Irony arises when one tries, by the interaction of terms upon one another, to produce a development which uses all the terms. Hence from the standpoint of this total form (this “perspective of perspectives”), not of the participating “sub-perspectives” can be treated as either precisely right or precisely wrong. They are all voices, or personalities, or positions, integrally affecting one another. When the dialectic is properly formed, they are the number of characters needed to produce the total development. Hence, reverting to our suggesting that we might extend the synecdochic pattern to include such reversible pairs as disease-cure, hero-villain, active-passive, we should “ironically” note the function of the disease in “perfecting” the cure, or the function of the cure in “perpetuating” the influences of the disease. Or we should note that only through an internal external experiencing of folly could we possess (in our intelligence or imagination) sufficient ‘”characters” for some measure of development beyond folly.

The Comic and Tragic Frames (Attitudes Toward History)

Burke argues that the comic and tragic frames are “equipments for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes." (1941, 304) The comic and tragic frames are parallel ritual ways the world’s mortifying effects upon man are placed in terms of a greater narrative arc.

  • Tragedy. The Tragic Frame is a viewpoint that would have you see others as vicious and evil rather than as mistaken. According to Burke, the tragic frame is characterized by themes of legal and forensic judgment, justifiable vengeance, fatalism (in which human destiny is predestined by forces beyond the subject’s control), and a forced acceptance of mortal limitations (38-9).
  • Comedy. The Comic Frame is a viewpoint that would have you see others as mistaken rather than as evil. The frame of comedy “warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity,” in which people are not fundamentally or knowingly vicious (as in tragedy), but rather partake in acts that are fundamentally foolish or mistaken (41).

Comparing the two, Burke explains that tragedy on the one hand employs an “always lurking” deus ex machina, in which nature intervenes and sides either with or against man “to give events a fatalistic turn.” (42) When ‘in’ the tragic frame one cannot see the humor of their situation, which if recognized would direct their action otherwise. Similarly, when ‘in’ the comic frame one may not recognize the full gravity of their actions, resulting in a dark or fateful turn. Comedy, on the other hand, portrays human limits as a progression of events that culminate in dramatic irony (i.e. the hero comes to know what the audience has known all along). In comedy it is not nature that intervenes, but human blindness in earnest. Burke thus imagines not only specific frames but also the contact zones between them, which are quite independent of an audience as traditionally understood.


The Conflation of Dramatism and Dramaturgy. Both Burkean dramatism and Goffman’s dramaturgy use theatrical performance as a metaphor for developing their theories of communicative performance. As a result, Goffman and Burke share an emphasis on social actors symbolic action, and dramatic staging, although they theorize these terms differently. Due to the common metaphor, the two theories are often conflated:

"Goffman's (1974) most ambitiously comprehensive portrait of his theoretical perspective ... the dramaturgical (or in Kenneth Burke's term, dramatistic) perspective on the self and society ... " (Brown 78).

"With others, Goffman and Burke provided a compelling and coherent case for understanding human action as the natural outcome of the need to 'sustain' and 'manage impressions"' (Woodward 4).

Overview of Burkean Dramatism

Burke draws on the metaphor of theatrical drama in order to emphasize the role of action: "The titular word of our own method is “dramatism, since it invites one to consider the matter of motives in a perspective that, being developed from the analysis of drama, treats language and thought primarily as modes of action" (xxiii). In his introduction to A Grammar of Motives, Burke outlines the pentad the five key terms of dramatism (xv):

  • Act: "names what took place in thought or deed"
  • Scene: "the background of the act, the situation, in which it occurred"
  • Agent: "what person or what kind of person performed the act"
  • Agency: "what means or instruments he (sic) used"
  • Purpose: 'why ' the agent performed the act

Burke emphasizes that it is important not only to consider these five terms but also their relation to one another, or ratios which he describes as 'principles of selectivity' (18) that are "essentially analogies' (444). Burke's dramatistic pentad is an interpretive tool for assigning or attributing motives, both in scholarly criticism and everyday life.

Overview of Goffman’s Dramaturgy

Goffman also emphasizes action with the metaphor of theatrical drama. Specifically, Goffman formulates performance as interaction: "I shall be concerned only with the participants dramaturgical problems of presenting activity before others. The issues dealt with by stagecraft and stage management ... seem to occur everywhere in social life ' ( 15). For Goffman as for Burke, the theatrical is a useful analogy or metaphor for understanding all political communication: "The metaphors of theater, stage, acting, and audience offer political communication theorists a useful way of assessing the behavior of political candidates … Dramaturgically, communication is largely purposive and strategic, requiring competency in 'impression management' in 'successfully staging a character"' (Brown 79). In effect, dramaturgical studies appropriate the artificial character of theater to highlight the artificial nature of all communicative practices. Goffman lays out key terms for dramaturgical analysis different from Burke’s: "Within the walls of a social establishment we find a team of performers who cooperate to present an audience with a given definition of the situation" (238):

  • Social establishment: "place surrounded by fix\ed barriers to perception in which a particular kind of activity regularly takes place (238)
  • Performance team: "set of individuals who cooperate in staging a single routine" (79)
  • Audience: "the remaining participants, in their several performances of response to the teamshow put on before them, will themselves constitute a team" (91)
  • Definition of the situation: "to give [ an audience] the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with (the team's] own plan' (4).

Differences between Dramatism and Dramaturgy.

The overarching difference between Goffman and Burke's drama-based theories is the relationship they assert between reality and appearance. Goffman suggests that performances require mystifications that mask intentions or actions that might discredit them. He thinks of performance as "a kind of information game- a potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery" (8). Burke argues for a different conception of mystification: 'There is always the possibility of 'mystification,' in the sense that language can be used to deceive ... there may be a profounder type of mystification as well, implicit in the very act of persuasion itself' (178). While Goffman asserts that actions interestedly cover something up, Burke instead asserts that actions necessarily leave something out: "Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must also function as a deflection of reality" (115).

Dramatistic/Dramaturgical Action

Dramaturgical Expressions and Impressions: Goffman distinguishes intentional expressions, the signs an individual gives, and other's impression of the individual, or the signs that the individual gives off Goffman conceives of communicative action as primarily a matter of impression management: "to control the conduct of others, especially their responsive treatment of him (sic)" (3). For Goffman, performance is a matter of strategic influence: "a 'performance' may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants" (15).

Dramatistic Act: Interested in motivation, Burke defines action as distinct from "mere" motion: "Dramatistically, motion involves action, but action is more than motion" (76). He explains that action is based on personal intention, not externally exerted force: "Action is a personal principle while motion is an impersonal principle, ... which reduces personalistic concepts to depersonalized terms" (77). In other words, Burke explains that action entails an agent with purpose: "the basic unit of action would be defined as 'the human body in conscious or purposive motion"' (14).

Dramatistic/Dramaturgical Act

Dramaturgical Role: Goffman conceives of the social actor primarily in terms of role enactment; a social role is "the enactment of rights and duties attached to a given status" (16). In an utterance, there are three types of footing, role personae an actor might inhabit: the animator, who delivers the utterance, the author, who composes the utterance, and the sponsor, who motivates the utterance. Actors' genuine, interior selves may be more or less aligned with their role performance, this is called role distance: "'effectively expressed' pointed separateness between the individual and his putative role" (103).

Dramatistic Agent: The Burkean agent is a locus of action: "The agent does not contain the act, though its results might be said to pre-exist virtually within him (sic)" (16 . For this reason, the category of agents encompasses more than just individuals: "The term agent embraces not only all words general or specific for person, character, actor ... but also any words for the motivational properties or agents ... We may also have collective words for agents" (20).

Dramatistic/Dramaturgical Staging

Dramaturgical Regions: Goffman defines regions as "any place that is bounded to some degree by barriers to perception" (107). He distinguishes a back region-"where the performance of a routine is prepared"-from a front region-"where the performance is presented" (238). Access to the back region is controlled so audiences do not encounter potentially discrediting information.

Dramatistic Scene: The Burkean scene is determined by its circumference. Agents "are continually making judgments as to the scope of the context which they implicitly or explicitly "impute in their interpretations of motives. To select a set of terms is, by the same token, to select a circumference" (90). Importantly, delimiting a circumference is a matter of selection: "Most circumferences are felt to be, not so much wider or narrower than one another, as merely different. We might say that they mark out a circumference by spotlight, while the rest of the stage is left dark" (87).

From the Performance of Politics to the Politics of Performance