Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 entire section is 850 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.