A Grammar of Motives Critical Essays

Kenneth Burke


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The extremely idiosyncratic style and the only apparently systematic character of Burke’s critical writing in general, and of A Grammar of Motives in particular, pose formidable obstacles for the reader. Burke’s legacy is nevertheless central and exemplary insofar as it encompasses the essential terms of the dialectic of perspectives which has characterized critical discourse in the twentieth century. Burke’s dramatism distinguished itself at the outset from New Criticism by extending the grammatical analysis of motives beyond the borders of the literary text. While Burke’s method represents an anticipation of structuralism, Lentricchia finds in his interpretive practice a mode of historical analysis which foreshadows the critique of structuralism which would be mounted in the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Indeed, Burke’s attention to grammatical systems is often grounded in considerations of historical contexts, and the anecdotal and etymological analyses of A Grammar of Motives are continually slipping, tending in the direction of history. Jameson agrees with Lentricchia on this point; Jameson likens Burke’s program to that of “the founders of philology when their program foresaw the analysis of literary texts and monuments as a unique means of access to the understanding of social relations.” One might add that Burke’s system is humanistic in the sense that it embodies two elements characteristic of that tradition identified by Victoria Kahn: its resistance to theory as an epistemological project and its explicitly humanistic, pedagogical goal of educating the critical faculty in preparation for determining what is grammatically and ethically appropriate to a given historical moment.

Jameson and Lentricchia differ, however, in their evaluations of A Grammar of Motives and the implications of Burke’s critical...

(The entire section is 778 words.)