A Grammar of Motives

by Kenneth Burke

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Burke reveals in the introduction of A Grammar of Motives that some degree of ambiguity is unavoidable with regards to his terminology:

We take it for granted that, insofar as men cannot themselves create the universe, there must remain something essentially enigmatic about the problem of motives, and that this underlying enigma will manifest itself in inevitable ambiguities and inconsistencies among the terms for motives. Accordingly, what we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly revealthe strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise.

Burke points out that writers sometimes criticize when a particular philosophical term is used to cover a variety of meanings. Such criticism may not have taken into account a cultural or political trend with which the term has become associated. In fact, prominent or “titular” terms that have become the mark of a philosophical school have also gathered even more ambiguity around them. Burke finds this ambiguity a fertile area for transformation to take place. He compares this to a central molten area throwing up distinctive peaks that form a crust upon themselves. When the crust breaks, the molten liquid returns to the core again, where it may form a new shape. The molten reshaping of meaning due to the emergence of new combinations, which in turn transform terms and their significance, is what makes ambiguity a valuable theme for Burke.

Burke describes the overlap between the five terms of dramatism—act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose—as an area of ambiguity and transformability. In “Part One: Ways of Placement,” Burke quotes a passage from Hamlet in which Horatio warns Hamlet against following the Ghost. In his warning, Horatio suggests that the “dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o’er his base into the sea,” might “deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness”. This example of the scene-act ratio, where it appears as if the natural surroundings may themselves be enough to provide a man with a motive, is what Burke cites as the stage-set or “scene” ambiguously containing the “action.” Such ambiguities give a larger scope to the five terms of dramatism as they open up areas for transformation.

The Dialectic

An abiding theme in A Grammar of Motives is the concept of the dialectic. Burke first discusses the dialectical approach in the context of “substance” in “Antinomies of Definition.” The dialectical approach is when a subject is seen or understood in terms of something else. Burke mentions “Being–Not Being” as the dialectically opposed pair in the writings of the neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. Since Plotinus saw all material existence as an estrangement from God, the “divine substance” was thus devoid of any attributes that one can be aware of in the material world. Examining the role of the dialectic in tragedy, Burke speaks of the tragic sequence as follows: the act, the circumstances that arise in opposition to this act, the suffering of the actor against these circumstances, and finally the learning that occurs as a result of the suffering.

The concept of the dialectic is considered in much greater detail in “Part Three: On Dialectic.” Burke looks at the unity–multeity, merger–division, mind–body, being–nothing and action–passion pairs in science, social sciences, and literature:

The mind-body, being-nothing and action-passion pairs generalize the first major steps usually taken towards the localizing of identity. That is, the principles of merger and division apply to all thought; the mind-body, being-nothing, and action-passion pairs, singly, or in combination, variously overlapping and variously manipulated, will be found to figure in any statement which embodies the principles of merger and division...

(This entire section contains 1245 words.)

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“Dialectical materialism” has long been recognized as the philosophy of Marx and Engels. Burke takes a close look at the Communist Manifesto, analyzing it both as a philosophical rejection of Hegelian idealism and in literary terms. He calls the third section of the Manifesto a “masterpiece within a masterpiece” for its rhetorically infused prose. While “dialectical materialism” was seen as a rejection of idealism, Burke shows that “precisely where Marxism is most often damned as materialistic, is precisely where it is most characteristically idealistic.”


A key theme in A Grammar of Motives is transcendence, which is first seen through the lens of Kant’s philosophy in “Part Two: The Philosophic Schools.” Here, Burke presents the contrast between things as one observes them in the world, or the “empirical realm,” and things as they are “in themselves.” It is this “transcendental realm” that gives things the nature or meaning they seem to have when observed in the “empirical realm.”

Burke considers the infinite possibilities that open up when one considers things as they are “in themselves.” Burke finds these possibilities liberating. Because when one’s knowledge is shaped only by what one can see in the material world in relation to some other thing, it is conditioned and determined. But the human mind is also capable of thinking about what cannot be determined. Burke points out that this ability of human thought opens the door to faith, to belief rooted in a morality that lies outside the scope of science:

Science compels us to admit that things-in-themselves can’t be known; but in putting them outside the area of scientific knowledge, by the same token we put them outside the area of scientific refutation or denial. The sources of morality thus lie beyond the reach of the terms proper to the physical sciences.


Action, or “act,” emerges as the most significant of the five terms of the “pentad” Burke introduces at the beginning of the book: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. When he considers the work of philosopher George Santayana, Burke talks about how taking on the material world—negotiating the appearances, opportunities, and hurdles it presents—is an act of faith. This faith that we carry about with us daily, is what drives our actions:

The objects of the material world are thus found to transcend our knowledge. All we can immediately know is that we see what we see. If we assume that there are real objects behind these appearances, and that intuition itself is a material process, we do so by reason of the faith that we have as natural organisms. And we regularly act on this faith, in taking measures to attain or to avoid the things we assume to exist outside us and independently of us.

In “Appendix A: Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats,” Burke looks at language as a mode of action and poetry as an “act.” As he uses the Grammar set out in his method of dramatism to analyze “Ode to a GrecianUrn” by John Keats, Burke looks at various aspects of the scene–agent and the scene–act ratio. He shows how the poem begins with an “ambiguous” fever which is then separated into a bodily fever and its spiritual counterpart. The bodily passion is the malign aspect of the fever and the mental or spiritual passion its benign aspect. As the poem develops, Burke shows how the malign aspect is “transcended” and the “intellectual exhilaration” takes over. Seeing the bodily fever at the beginning of the poem as the “scene” of the mental “act,” Burke speaks of the “transcendent act” requiring a different ground or “scene” at the end, one that is more suited to its quality. Thus this analysis of Keats’s poem brings the terms and themes of the book firmly into focus.