A Grammar of Motives

by Kenneth Burke

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

With characteristically elegant concision, Kenneth Burke begins the introduction to his book, A Grammar of Motives, by posing the following question:

What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?

Having posed this rhetorical question, Burke proceeds directly to explain what it at stake in the answer to the question he has just posed:

An answer to that question is the subject of this book.

He expands upon the subject in question, and in doing so, implicitly indicates why his answer must take up the length of a book. Such is the scope and depth of his intended inquiry, that there is no way that it could be answered in one sentence, or even a few:

The book is concerned with the basic forms of thought which, in accordance with the nature of the world as all men necessarily experience it, are exemplified in the attributing of motives.

Notably, Burke is working at the level of “the world as all men necessarily experience it,” which means that he is purposefully inattentive to differences of gender, ethnicity, and the like in pursuing his highly general inquiry.

Simply put, Burke aims to explore the modes of thinking and rhetoric that all human beings (regardless of cross-cultural or other differences) employ in attempting to figure out why it is that people do what they do in a given instance—thence, their motive, or what moves them to action. The grammar of motives, however, can also be used not only for the purpose of disinterested understanding of one’s own motives or those of another but also to create an impression that one motive was operative in a given instance (for example, benevolence) when, in fact, another, hidden motive (malice) was at play.

Burke provides a rubric for assessing statements about motives: "any complete statement about motives,” he suggests” will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).

An example of the subtlety and skill with which Burke employs his grammatical rubric may be seen in the following passage, which it is typical of his dramatic style:

The occasion: a committee meeting. The setting: a group of committee members bunched about a desk in an office, after hours. Not far from the desk was a railing; but despite the crowding, all the members were bunched about the chairman at the desk, inside the railing. However, they had piled their hats and coats on chairs and tables outside the pale. General engrossment in the discussion. But as the discussion continued, one member quietly arose, and opened the gate in the railing. As unnoticeably as possible, she stepped outside and closed the gate. She picked up her coat, laid it across her arm, and stood waiting. A few moments later, when there was a pause in the discussion, she asked for the floor. After being recognized by the chairman, she very haltingly, in embarrassment, announced with regret that she would have to resign from the committee.

Here, we see the extent to which Burke’s grammar is grounded in his theory of dramatic action. Note how he recreates the scene for his readers, with almost no adjectives. His focus is on calling attention to the social and special context and the placement of the human beings within it. There is no description of mood or emotion; his rhetoric is economical and sparing with respect to the literary features of a text that allow for engagement. Yet the scene...

(This entire section contains 749 words.)

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is quite evocative, for all of Burke’s economy. We can envision the group of men huddled around the desk, and the woman quietly separating herself from the herd and setting herself apart spatially (but it would seem, conceptually, as well) from the others. Then there is the moment of drama. Here, some emotion comes in. With regret, the woman announces that she is resigning from the group altogether. Her initial separation from the group was, in effect, a dramatic representation in miniature of her permanent departure.

The elegance of Burke’s scheme is that it allows readers to see how scene and act combine in the perception of readers (as fictive “viewers” of the scene) to project some unknown purpose (we know that she wants to separate herself from the committee but not why) as we make inferences, extrapolate from them, and conjure up motive.




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