A Grammar of Motives Summary
by Kenneth Burke

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A Grammar of Motives Summary

American philosopher, literary theorist, poet, and essayist Kenneth Burke provided a method to examine the discourse around everyday actions and motives. In his book A Grammar of Motives, he uses examples and references from literature, psychology, and philosophy, as well as sociology, politics, and economics to examine “what is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it.”

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Burke calls his method for understanding motives “dramatism.” The generating principles of this investigative method are five terms that form a “pentad”: act, or what took place; scene, or the situation in which it occurred; agent, or the person who performed the act; agency, or the means by which the act was carried out; and finally, purpose, or the reason why the act was done. In the short introduction, Burke explains how A Grammar of Motives came into being. Beginning by trying to formulate a theory of comedy and applying it to a treatise on human relations, Burke went on to consider all the ways in which people try to outwit and cajole one another as they defend their beliefs or try to convince their fellow humans. Burke identifies these matters as the arena of rhetoric.

On a different level, the arts offer modes of expression which can be understood in purely psychological or psychoanalytic terms. Burke designated this as the “symbolic” arena. It was at this stage of his investigation that he felt the need for a grammar underpinning both the rhetorical and symbolic forms of knowledge and discourse. As Burke describes it,

we found in the course of writing that our project needed a grounding in formal considerations logically prior to both the rhetorical and the psychological.

A Grammar of Motives appeared in 1945 as the first of a trilogy that was followed in 1950 by A Rhetoric of Motives and by a book of essays titled Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method in 1966.

A Grammar of Motives contains three parts, each of which is subdivided into chapters, and an appendix that applies dramatistic methods of analysis to the poetry of Keats and Marianne Moore. upholds Burke’s grammatical approach compared to other methods in literary criticism. The appendix then examines the four master tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony.

In describing the sweep and scope of the book, Burke notes in the introduction that

Theological, metaphysical, and juridical doctrines offer the best illustration of the concerns we place under the heading of Grammar; the forms and methods of art best illustrate the concerns of Symbolic; and the ideal material to reveal the nature of Rhetoric comprises observations on parliamentary and diplomatic devices, editorial bias, sales methods and incidents of social sparring.

These words take on greater significance as readers navigate the book and recognize that part 1 uses material that examines the relationship between humans and God, part II explores art, metaphysics, and psychology from the standpoint of various philosophers, and part III looks at ways in which the five terms unfold in society as editorials, parliamentary discourse, diplomacy, and other forms of persuasion and argument.

“Part 1: Ways of Placement” begins with “Container and Thing Contained.” Burke considers how the scene contains the act as well as the agent. Their ratio or relationship is examined through dramatic examples, from Elizabethan plays to the modern works of Eugene O’Neill. How scene influences act and agent is understood through these examples, as well as through the words of thinkers as diverse as Machiavelli and Marx. Burke points out that the range of such relationships between the five terms of the pentad is much larger and open to exploration.

“Antinomies of Definition” brings out the paradox at the heart of trying to define any phenomenon. Definition requires seeing a subject in context but also differentiating that subject from its context. Burke invokes Spinoza to illustrate...

(The entire section is 1,494 words.)