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A Grammar of Motives (1945) was conceived by Kenneth Burke as the first volume in a trilogy. The successive volumes were supposed to be A Rhetoric of Motives and A Symbolic of Motives. A Rhetoric of Motives saw light in 1950, while A Symbolic of Motives was never published. Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950–1955 (published in 2006) contains the material that Burke planned to include in the third volume of his trilogy.

A Grammar of Motives was seen by the author as laying the foundation for his theory. The notion of the “dramatistic pentad” was introduced in it, and various possibilities of its application were presented.

In Burke’s philosophy, social interaction and communication are to be understood within the framework of the following five (pentad) elements: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. He writes:

In a rounded statement about motives, you must have some word that names the act (names what took place, in thought or deed), and another that names the scene (the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred); also, you must indicate what person or kind of person (agent) performed the act, what means or instruments he used (agency), and the purpose.

According to Burke, most cases of social interaction and communication are to be treated as a form of drama, the outcomes of which are determined by the relationships between these five elements. The pentad is concretized in “dramatism,” which is Burke’s method by which a relationship between life and theater is understood literally rather than metaphorically:

The titular word for 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.

For Burke, the world is a scene. He does not do literary criticism as something formal but rather as something that has an important sociological influence. Elsewhere, Burke referred to literature as “equipment for living,” offering people commonsense wisdom and thus defining their ways of life.

Burke notes that the pentad is not original, because a parallel can be found in Aristotle’s teachings about the four causes of being. A similar correlation can be established between the pentad and the Five W’s of journalism.

A Grammar of Motives establishes general formal parameters for further rhetorical and symbolic analysis. It is important to note that Burke’s understanding of the word “motive” is broader than its normal interpretation in psychology, economics, and sociology.

The book is subdivided into three parts. The first part (“Ways of Placement”) introduces the pentad, considers the relations between the terms that form the pentad, and demonstrates various localizations of motives in these terms, as well as the ways some of such localizations are transformed.

In the second part (“The Philosophical Schools”), Burke employs his pentad to analyze various philosophies. He considers Hobbes, Spinoza, Darwin, Marx, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, Leibniz, Kart, Hegel, Berkeley, Hume, Santayana, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the American pragmatists.

The third part (“On Dialectic”) is dedicated to dialectic, especially that of the constitutions. Its unusual content is illustrated by some of its paragraph titles: “Terminal as Anecdote,” “Representativeness of Total War,” “The Generalizing of Wishes,” “Money as ‘God-term,’” “Political Rhetoric as Secular Prayer,” “Dialectic of the Scapegoat,” and so on.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

Kenneth Burke presents the theory of dramatism, which drives the approximately five hundred pages of A Grammar of Motives, in a brief introduction. He begins with a question: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” Burke observes that any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer to the questions “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).” Burke states at the outset that he is seeking “not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise.”

The book proper, divided into three parts, begins with 125 pages on the problem of placement or potential strategies of emphasis among the five terms, which are implicit in any account of motives. The “paradox of substance,” discussed in this section, is at the heart of part 1 and of the book as a whole. Burke observes that the word “substance,” which denotes intrinsic being or essence, etymologically connotes the substance which stands beneath or supports that essence. Burke’s pursuit of motivational ambiguities by means of such etymological figures or “puns” is typical, and he often employs etymological philology to trace transformations or transubstantiations of grammatical relations over time. The paradox of substance is an important source for the kind of transformations which Burke seeks to analyze insofar as it presents a perennial point of ambiguity: The source or motivation of an act can be traced either intrinsically to a substantive source, or it can be grounded primarily in the substantive scene.

Having indicated an entire series of typical strategies of placement, Burke rewrites in part 2, in a kind of dramatistic shorthand, “The Philosophical Schools” of the Western tradition, exposing their respective distributions of emphasis, or basis in an ancestral term, from among the five terms. Thus, the materialists (including Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, Charles Darwin, the Stoics, and the Epicureans) distinguish themselves by their featuring of scene, the Idealists (George Berkeley, David Hume, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, the Marxists, G.W.F. Hegel, and George Santayana) by their focus on agent, the pragmatists (John Dewey, William James) by their stress on agency, and the mystics by theirs on purpose, while the realists Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas emphasize act.

Part 3, “On Dialectic,” presents a test case, what Burke calls the work’s representative anecdote, selected to illustrate the variety of dialectical possibilities produced by his system. As with his inquiries into etymological figures, the illustrative anecdote is characteristic of Burke’s analysis: A historical or textual excerpt is adopted as the point of departure for a deconstructive analysis. Burke does not employ the anecdote in order to deduce a set of abstract principles; rather, the anecdote serves to illustrate an interpretive method. The author’s intention is to train and educate one’s linguistic skepticism with regard to any account of motives. One begins to see that Burke’s theory presents a humanistic resistance to theory and constitutes not so much a speculative construction as an open-ended interpretive method, or praxis. In part 3, the author’s concern with questions of substance translates into a concern with the problems of constitutionality generally and with the motivational grammar which informs the American Constitution in particular. The result is what the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson has termed for “the time a shrewd diagnosis of the cultural and ideological conflicts of the capitalist public sphere and an often damaging critique of the latter’s strategies of legitimation.” The work concludes with four appendices, representing technical and literary illustrations of Burke’s method: They include an important reading of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as well as a dramatistic perspective on the four master tropes, or metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony.

The book bears the motto Ad bellum purificandum, that is, “toward the purification of war.” Once people become sufficiently self-conscious and skeptical about language, once they master the “grammar of motives,” they will cease to persecute one another by “demonic” ambitions which have “their source in faulty terminologies.” According to Burke, writing during World War II, human thought needs to be directed toward the “purification of war” so that motivations of combat can be refined to the point where war “would be much more peaceful than the conditions we would now call peace.” Moreover, Burke urges a turn “in the direction of a neo-Stoic cosmopolitanism, with ideals of tolerance and resignation to bureaucratic requirements implicit in the structure of modern industry and commerce.” Burke’s ideal is what he calls “neoliberal,” that is, an attitude of neo-Stoicism and linguistic skepticism realized in the dramatistic method of analysis. “Surely,” he writes, “all works of goodwill written in the next decades must aim somehow to avoid these two extremes [parochialism and imperialism], seeking a neoliberal, speculative attitude.” Burke aims for a speculative and skeptically ironic distance between the observer and language and history; his method is informed by what Frank Lentricchia has termed the wisdom of a comic sense of history.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79

Burke, Kenneth. “Methodological Repression and/or Strategies of Containment,” in Critical Inquiry. V (Winter, 1978), pp. 401-416.

Frank, Armin Paul. Kenneth Burke, 1969.

Jameson, Fredric. “Ideology and Symbolic Action,” in Critical Inquiry. V (Winter, 1978), pp. 417-422.

Kahn, Victoria. “Humanism and the Resistance to Theory,” in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, 1986. Edited by Patricia Parker and David Quint.

Rueckert, William H., ed. Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, 1924-1966, 1969.

White, Hayden, and Margaret Brose, eds. Representing Kenneth Burke: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1983.