A Grammar of Motives

by Kenneth Burke

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

American philosopher, literary theorist, poet, and essayist Kenneth Burke provided a method to examine the discourse around everyday actions and motives. In his book A Grammar of Motives, he uses examples and references from literature, psychology, and philosophy, as well as sociology, politics, and economics to examine “what is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it.”

Burke calls his method for understanding motives “dramatism.” The generating principles of this investigative method are five terms that form a “pentad”: act, or what took place; scene, or the situation in which it occurred; agent, or the person who performed the act; agency, or the means by which the act was carried out; and finally, purpose, or the reason why the act was done. In the short introduction, Burke explains how A Grammar of Motives came into being. Beginning by trying to formulate a theory of comedy and applying it to a treatise on human relations, Burke went on to consider all the ways in which people try to outwit and cajole one another as they defend their beliefs or try to convince their fellow humans. Burke identifies these matters as the arena of rhetoric.

On a different level, the arts offer modes of expression which can be understood in purely psychological or psychoanalytic terms. Burke designated this as the “symbolic” arena. It was at this stage of his investigation that he felt the need for a grammar underpinning both the rhetorical and symbolic forms of knowledge and discourse. As Burke describes it,

we found in the course of writing that our project needed a grounding in formal considerations logically prior to both the rhetorical and the psychological.

A Grammar of Motives appeared in 1945 as the first of a trilogy that was followed in 1950 by A Rhetoric of Motives and by a book of essays titled Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method in 1966.

A Grammar of Motives contains three parts, each of which is subdivided into chapters, and an appendix that applies dramatistic methods of analysis to the poetry of Keats and Marianne Moore. upholds Burke’s grammatical approach compared to other methods in literary criticism. The appendix then examines the four master tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony.

In describing the sweep and scope of the book, Burke notes in the introduction that

Theological, metaphysical, and juridical doctrines offer the best illustration of the concerns we place under the heading of Grammar; the forms and methods of art best illustrate the concerns of Symbolic; and the ideal material to reveal the nature of Rhetoric comprises observations on parliamentary and diplomatic devices, editorial bias, sales methods and incidents of social sparring.

These words take on greater significance as readers navigate the book and recognize that part 1 uses material that examines the relationship between humans and God, part II explores art, metaphysics, and psychology from the standpoint of various philosophers, and part III looks at ways in which the five terms unfold in society as editorials, parliamentary discourse, diplomacy, and other forms of persuasion and argument.

“Part 1: Ways of Placement” begins with “Container and Thing Contained.” Burke considers how the scene contains the act as well as the agent. Their ratio or relationship is examined through dramatic examples, from Elizabethan plays to the modern works of Eugene O’Neill. How scene influences act and agent is understood through these examples, as well as through the words of thinkers as diverse as Machiavelli and Marx. Burke points out that the range of such relationships between the five...

(This entire section contains 1494 words.)

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terms of the pentad is much larger and open to exploration.

“Antinomies of Definition” brings out the paradox at the heart of trying to define any phenomenon. Definition requires seeing a subject in context but also differentiating that subject from its context. Burke invokes Spinoza to illustrate contextual definition, referring to the latter’s pantheistic concept of “God” or “nature” to represent the ultimate scene, as well as his assertion that all definition is negation. This means that we define something by seeing it in context and differentiating it by what it is not. Having begun with a consideration of how we view “substance,” he takes us to the paradox of purity wherein we hold ideas about God as the “pure” or “absolute” person and the “human person” as distinct from it. As he proceeds to examine “substance,” Burke introduces “Actus and Status,” referring to the act and the thing learned. Dialectics is an important element of his analysis, as he juxtaposes different points of view. He examines the “Intrinsic and Extrinsic” through the writings of Hegel and Marx, and in “The Centrality of Substance” concludes how language in fact confers a substantiality:

To call a man a friend or brother is to proclaim him consubstantial with oneself, one’s values or purposes.

“Scope and Reduction” looks at the construction of models or developing a terminology around a particular domain. It points out how measurements and metaphors, divisions and distinctions are all reductions. When such a terminology has been established, then a “scene” reflects elements that are a part of the reduction. Burke looks at the “Creation” as the ground or “scene” of human acts by examining a letter that American philosopher William James wrote to his father. Burke describes in dramatistic terms the pantheistic notion of God being the entire universe and the ontological concept of “being” as the “scene” and the “act,” respectively. In describing how after the industrial revolution, the notion of the environment was narrowed to focus on economic factors, and how “market law” has replaced “natural law,” Burke brings us face to face with how human freedom itself has begun to be seen through a “free market.” He points out the reduction by which “money is not a mere agency, in our civilization, but is a rationalizing ground of action.”

“Part II: The Philosophic Schools” examines the five terms of dramatism to look at their applications in various philosophies. Burke mentions in the introduction that relevant philosophies could be “any statements in which these grammatical resources are specifically utilized.” Consequently, part II focuses on materialism and how it features “scene,” idealism and how it features “agent,” pragmatism to look at “agency,” mysticism to look at “purpose” and realism for how it features “act.” Spinoza, Darwin, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Hegel, and Marx are some of the philosophers whose works yield insights. An example of one such insight is Hobbes’s “reduction of the will itself to terms of a scene mechanically determined.” Burke presents the dialectical shift from Hegel’s idealism to Marx and Engels’ materialism in simpler terms:

Idealism had decided that knowledge was possible because Nature is of the same substance as Thought, hence Thought is able to think of it. Dialectical materialism reverses the relation by saying that thought is of the same substance as nature, hence can be a reflection of nature.

In discussing the concept of purpose, Burke considers both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to look at elements of tragedy like plot, character, thought, melody, diction, and spectacle. This is also the portion of the book where he engages with the established criticism of well-known critic I. A. Richards, the work of social scientist George Herbert Mead, and the semanticist Alfred Korzybski in the analysis of poetry. It is from such analytical prose that Burke is considered the founder of New Criticism.

“Part III: On Dialectic” is the portion of the book that explores the theory of constitutions. This part is key for its validation of the methodology that Burke has taken pains to describe in part I and whose universal nature as an analytical tool has been shown in part II. Burke upholds the nature of dialectics as the discourse between two or more differing points of view in order to arrive at a transcendent unity. He considers a constitution in substance to be a set of motives that are deduced from the customs and values that have evolved from the way humans affect one other’s temperament or constitutions. When Burke presents the binary of “Merger-Division” and its transcendence creating a new unity, he is actually showing a model for how societies can achieve a resolution of different interests without resorting to the “scapegoat mechanism” of, for example, Germany during the Third Reich. Burke considers various elements of how this concept of constitution translates into life for Americans, looking at extra-constitutionality, judicial review, constitutional unity, and political diversity. He is able to make a case for debate leading to clear vision and good choices for action.

The appendix to A Grammar of Motives is in four parts. While the first three are concerned with poetry and its literary criticism, Appendix D looks at the “The Four Master Tropes.” Burke considers “metaphor” to be close to perspective, “metonymy” to be a form of reduction, “synecdoche” to be a device for representation, and “irony” to reflect the dialectic nature of discourse.