Kenneth Burke

A Rhetoric of Motives by Kenneth Burke


For Kenneth Burke, intelligence and rhetoric use are inseparable, and are the abilities which set humans apart from other animals. 

Intelligence-as the property that causes a sentient being to generate and respond to symbol systems;

Rhetoric– the process an individual uses while intentionally generating symbols in order to elicit responses from other individuals.

For Burke, “rhetoric is a rhetor’s solution to perceived problems…” others might experience (194).

The three types of Identification

Intelligent beings have a symbolic understanding of themselves and of each other, and share knowledge through positively aligning their personal symbol-systems with the symbol-systems of others.

Kenneth Burke calls the process of creating agreement based on meaning consubstantiation.

Another way that individuals can identify with one another is through agreement of purpose, such as in the process of anti-thesis, or “…the creation of identification among opposing entities on the basis of a common enemy” (192).

A final type of identification involves the intentional but indirect application of sympathetic symbols in order to favorably predispose the audience to the rhetor, and thus to the otherwise unrelated symbols presented along with the sympathetic ones.

It is important to note that Burke believed intelligent creatures engage in identification to bridge the alienation, or inherent seperateness that exists between them.

The Function of Rhetoric

For Burke, the function of rhetoric is to name or define the nature of situations, so that the recipient of the rhetoric can respond appropriately.

Rhetoric is used to characterize the special properties the rhetor has found in the object, principle or situation being discussed, pairing them with the meaning the rhetor ascribes to those properties.

The purpose of this pairing of situation to meaning is so the audience gains understanding of and agreement with the rhetor’s understanding of the situation and his or her suggested response to it (195).

The Function of Form


Burke spoke of the importance of pairing form to meaning, classifying all possible forms into three types: conventional, repetitive and progressive. 

  • Conventional form is a formal or traditional form, such as the structure of a Japanese haiku or a legal tort.
  • Repetitive form “…involves the ways in which a work embodies a fixed character or identity and manifests internal consistency” (196). Some examples of this are the thematic elements shared between several commercials within an advertising campaign, the sound of a locomotive whistle or the uniform of the waitresses working for the Hooters restaurant chain.
  • Progressive form can employ syllogism to create the anticipation of cause leading to effect (ie: B follows A), or it can be a qualitative progression related to degree, such as the relationship between the lifestyle of a flamboyant rock star and his unsurprising death by drug overdose.

Rhetoric as Action

Burke’s rhetorical perspective emphasizes the action of rhetoric, and he examines that action by applying a model he called the dramatistic pentad. The Dramatistic Pentad was created in recognition of the animated nature of rhetors and of the symbolic nature of their actions, and deals with the symbolicity of that rhetoric.

Burke also recognized three preconditions that an act must meet to become rhetorical rather than an act motivated by animalistic nature or compulsion. A rhetorical act is one made when the rhetor is free to take alternate action rather than the chosen action, the action is the result of a deliberate (or purposeful) choice, and the act involves motion, or creates a result (199). To discover the motivation or determination that created the motion of a particular rhetorical act, Burke employs his dramatistic pentad.

The Dramatistic Pentad


 The dramatistic pentad has 5 components which can be represented as questions:

  • Act: What purposeful act has taken place?
  • Agent: Who took this action?
  • Agency: How or with what did they do it?
  • Scene: Where, when and in what context did the act take place?
  • Purpose: Why did they do it? What was their intent?

When applying this model to a situation, typically the purpose will be determined from an examination of the other four elements.

Once the pentad for a situation has been determined, analysis can be performed by analyzing the relationship between any two of the 5 components. The standard methodology is to establish a ratio (or pairing) between any of the ten possible pairings of act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. Reversing the order of the pairings creates another ten possibilities, for a total of twenty. 

Those 20 possible pairings are: 

Act-Agent Act-Agency Act-Scene Act-Purpose
Agent-Act Agent-Agency Agent-Scene Agent-Purpose
Agency-Act Agency-Agent Agency-Scene Agency-Purpose
Scene-Act Scene-Agent Scene-Agency Scene-Purpose
Purpose-Act Purpose-Agent Purpose-Agency Purpose-Scene


The rhetorical analysis is performed by examining the how the ratio functions within the artifact, and by demonstrating how the dominant (leftmost) member of the pair determines the non-dominant (rightmost) member’s nature. The results of such an analysis may reveal contradictions between what is stated by the rhetor and what is supported with the rhetorical evidence he or she presents.

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