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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Aug 7, 2015

Kenneth Burke




Welcome to Mere rhetoric a  podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world. I’m mary h and today we’re talking about KB




Burkey was a major rhetorican who lived May 5, 1897 – November 19, 1993. Also, his middle name was Duva and his grandson wrote this song. [Cat’s in the Cradle]




But Burke didn’t always want to be a rhetorican. In fact, rhetoric was kind of out of favor as an academic discipline when Burke was coming of intellectual age: he wanted to be a poet, live in Greenwich Village and be part of the Marxist bohemians. But events conspired to develop Burke as rhetorican. For one thing, he got the Marxists mad at him when he suggested the word “people” as a replacement for “worker.” Also, his poetry wasn’t taking off. That made him begin to move away from politics and production of poetry and start thinking more about criticism.




His first critical work counter-statement is still powerful today as a response to new criticism and the artforart’ssake crowd. Here he demonstrates the power of art on an audience, the rhetoricality of art. In Gregory Clark’s words, here he is “less concerned with seeing the arts thrive than helping the people on the other end of the arts” as form is received by the reader. He developed his aesthetic-rhetorical connections when he wrote extensive on how literature is a sort of "equipment for living," giving people the models of action, wisdom and expectation that help them deal with reality.




From this auspicious start, Burke’s importance to rhetorical studies only took off more. His re-definition of rhetoric as “a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” broke rhetoric out of the aristotlian understanding of rhetoric that had dominated for millennia.




Burke’s A Grammar of Motives  has as its epigraph, ad bellum purificandum -- toward the purification of war. He supposedly handwrote this saying mounted over his windowframe where he worked in an obscure New Jersey farmhouse, far from the typical academic hubbub. It’s possible that what he meant by a purification of war is that according to burke scholars James P. Zappen, S. Michael Halloran, and Scott A. Wible’s gloss of A Grammar of Motives “studying "the competitive use of the coöperative," helps us to "take delight in the Human Barnyard," on the one hand, and to "transcend it by appreciation," on the other.” Transending binaries was a big deal for Burke.




One of his biggest ideas is the “burkian third term.” Let’s imagine a war. A sandwich war. Say you really, really want tuna fish sandwiches for lunch, and I think tuna is gross (I don’t, but that’s just what makes it hypothetical). I want peanut butter and marshmellow sandwiches for lunch, but you think they’re too high in calories. We can argue all day, through lunch, and on empty stomachs about which sandwich is better, but Burke would remind us that there is a “third term” which unites us: sandwiches. We can both see eye-to eye about sandwiches. The ablity for people to connect ad divide over similarities and differences was fascinating to Burke.




In fact, that leads us nicely to another of his main ideas: identification. In A Rhetoric of Motives (not to be confused with the Grammar of Motives or the never-published Symbolic of Motives), Burke describes how symbols don’t just persuade people to do things—they also persuade people to an attitude (50). When I tell you, “well, at least we both agree on sandwiches for lunch,” we haven’t changed anything about our inablitity to choose a sandwich, but maybe I’ve changed your attitude—to me, to our lunch, to arguments in general. If I’m able to “talk your language by speech, gesture, tonality, order image, attitude idea” I’m doing what Burke calls “identifiying [my] ways with yours.” In that moment, we become consubstantial: part of me is you, and part of you is me as we engage in this identification. We are “both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial” (21).  




Another big idea is Burke’s pentad. This way to interpret motives and intention is described in depth in the grammar of motives. Then pentad is this: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Later, Burke would say that he wished he could had added “attitude” as a sixth-ad. The eample burke gives is this: say a guy trips you with his legs on the bus: do you get angry? You might But if the guy had a broken leg, that changes the agent and the agency—maybe he couldn’t help it. And if the purpose was not to humiliate you, but an accident, you might not think it an insult. The pentad can impact this human action’s communication: was getting tripped a deliberate rhetorical insult or wasn’t it?




The last big idea of Burke’s is the terministic screen. The way we use language, especially poetic language, determines how we see the reality against us. If we’re used to seeing the world through certain terms: war, sandwich, bus, we’ll only see those terms. The terms, to use a catch phrase, both reflect and deflect the reality around us.




This is only a brief introduction to Kenneth Burke, and there’s lots more to say about him and his influence on Rhetoric. I recommend checking out, a free resource of Kenneth burke scholarship for more information. You also might check out of the work of some of the biggest Burke scholars: Jack Selzer at Penn State, Ann George at Texas Christian University, Gregory Clark at Brigham Young University, Elizabeth Weiser at Ohio State.




If you have experiences with Kenny B (as I think we can now call him) or if you would like to have another podcast about one of Burke’s theories, please email me at




Until next time, remember even if you become a big-time rhetorician, you should still  take time play ball with your boy in the backyard.