A Note on the Writing of A Rhetoric of Motives

Michael Feehan


In a letter of April, 1989, Kenneth Burke suggested that the process of writing A Grammar of Motives contributed significantly to the choice of identification as key term for A Rhetoric of Motives. Burke proposed two representative anecdotes for the study of the composing process of the Rhetoric: The story of the shepherd that appears in the Rhetoric and the story of some children who are born without the capacity to feel pain from the external world. If we follow out these leads, using the methodology of the Grammar to look at the work of writing the Rhetoric, Burke says that we will see how identification emerged as a “positive negative,” a program for negative thinking. We might also learn more about connections between the Grammar and the Rhetoric.

IN A LETTER OF APRIL, 1989, KENNETH BURKE SUGGESTED that the methodology developed in A Grammar of Motives opened the way to the choice of identification as the key term for A Rhetoric of Motives:

First, note the basic difference between the topics in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and my five terms (later hexed), with their ratios and circumferences. His topics  are telling you what to say in what you intend to write. My terms were telling you  what to ask about the form and structure of a work that was already written. You could do some real work in showing how I thus ran into the kind of  questions introduced in terms of “identification.”

Burke repeats the argument he presented in the 1978 article “Questions and Answers about the Pentad” to the effect that the methodology of the Grammar looks to completed discourses, in which the “structure had already implicitly supplied the answers,” allowing the critic to prophesy after the event (332). The methodology of the Grammar was not designed for finding content to fill the blank page, but to dig into the inscribed page, to work backwards to the issues that have already emerged through the composing process.

However we may wince at this argument, we get a glimpse here into Burke’s conception of a comprehensive dramatistic methodology for the study of the imputation of motives. We can only study the imputation of motives if some motive has already been imputed. Were we, on the other hand, to create a metaphysics of motives, we might study motives “in themselves”; indeed, we might even presume, for the sake of argument, that no motives actually exist. However, for a study of the imputation of a motive, we must look at an act of some actual person in some actual place and time through some actual medium for some actual purpose. As Robert Wess says, “In GM itself, circumference is deployed as a grammatical principle to insure that discourses are legitimated as grammatical only if they, in their varying ways, legitimate action” (181). In the methodology of the Grammar—circumference, the (hexed) Pentad, and ratios—Burke intends to analyze actions, what’s already happened.

In his letter, Burke asks us to look at the writing of the Rhetoric as a development out of and through the writing of the Grammar. This suggestion is especially ironic given Burke’s oft repeated narrative of the genesis and development of the Grammar: Burke tells us that the Grammar emerged unexpectedly through his attempts to write a book “On Human Relations.” As he began work on that book, he discovered that he would need two books: A rhetoric for the study of humans in interaction and a symbolic for the study individual humans. As Burke started work on the Rhetoric and the Symbolic, he realized that he needed to introduce the whole project with a representative anecdote (the U.S. Constitution) and that realization led him to the further realization that he needed a pre-pre-introduction to lay out a rock bottom logic of analysis on which the entire project could be built. Thus, A Grammar of Motives (GM 317, 340, CS 217–218, Jay 292).

Now we are to a study how the methodology constructed in the Grammar led Burke toward the key term of the Rhetoric, “identification.” Although the Grammar emerged as an unintended by-product of planning the Rhetoric and Symbolic, once Burke had written the Grammar, that very work of writing gave shape to the focal concern of the Rhetoric.

If we look at Burke’s letters from around the time he was writing the Rhetoric, we see Burke on an emotional merry-go-round. In a letter of October 13, 1945, to Malcolm Cowley, Burke wrote: “The Rhetoric should be the easiest volume of the three to write” (Jay 270). Four days later, Burke wrote to William Carlos Williams that “at the moment I’m lying sluggish sans breeze, not yet having got the new direction going for the next book” (East 82). Burke had outlined a general sense of his new direction in the October 13 letter to Cowley: “to keep the book from disintegrating into particular cases . . . I want it to be a rather philosophizing on rhetoric” (Jay 270). During the writing of the book, Burke told Malcolm Cowley that he was writing the book “from the middle out” (Jay 274). And, as David Blakesley points out, Burke suggested a primary writing problem to Hugh Dalzeil Duncan, the monumental status of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “‘There goes Aristotle, stealing my thunder again,’ he [Burke] would say. ‘That guy makes me tired’“(Blakesley 2). To philosophize about rhetoric, Burke would have to go beyond, or around, Aristotle.

To allow us to follow the methodology of the Grammar toward the Rhetoric, Burke proposes two representative anecdotes for studying the writing of the Rhetoric, both, though in quite different ways, concerned with questions of property and identification:

On p. 27 in my RM, for instance, note how the principle of identification  serves implicitly as a negative, in identifying the shepherds as guardian of his  sheep, yet while he is also identified with an employer who intends to sell them in  the market for mutton. And as for Mary Baker G. Eddy’s “scientific”  identification of pain with error, recall the anecdote of some children who are  born without the normal sensitivity to pain from external contacts, and who as a  result never learn how to move without calamities. Nothing is more real than the  admonishments of pain.

And, all told, I have ended up with a “positive negative,” with an  appropriate “rationale,” in my summings-up.

Burke’s suggestion that we study anecdotes takes us to the “dramatistic approach to dramatism”: “The informative anecdote, we could say, contains in nuce the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it. Such a terminology is a ‘conclusion’ that follows from the selection of given anecdote. Thus the anecdote is in a sense a summation, containing implicitly what the system that is developed from it contains explicitly” (GM 60). In his letter, Burke asks us to use anecdotes as clues to the process that led Burke from the methodology created in the Grammar to the choice of identification as key term for the Rhetoric.
For his first anecdote, Burke directs us to the discussion of the shepherd that appears in the section of A Rhetoric of Motives headed “Identification and the Autonomous.” We should note for future reference that the section on autonomy immediately follows the section headed “The Identifying Nature of Property.”

The shepherd appears to be autonomous, literally alone in the fields with her sheep, yet the shepherd is also connected to the merchant who will sheer and slaughter the shepherd’s sheep—for thirty pieces of silver. Our “view” depends on circumference, the scope of our use of the term “shepherd.” The appearance of autonomy arises from a strategic narrowing of circumference.

“Identification” is a word for the autonomous activity’s place in this wider  context, a place with which the agent may be unconcerned. The shepherd, qua  shepherd, acts for the good of the sheep, to protect them from discomfiture and  harm. But he may be “identified” with a project that is raising the sheep for  market. (RM 27)

Cut the merchant out of the discussion and we see the shepherd as exclusively devoted to the health and wellbeing of the flock. Step back from our focus on the open fields and we see the shepherd as a cog in the wheels of commerce—a mere lackey of the capitalist system. The role of the shepherd in the drama of sheepherding changes as her relation to the overall drama changes. Thus the shepherd may be The Good Shepherd or Judas, depending on the scope or reduction of our perspective.

With the story of the shepherd, we find just the kind of sliding back and forth among categories that Burke intends as the hallmark of his Grammar: The shepherd is Agent to his sheep who are the instruments (Agency) of his goals (Purposes) of care and nurture. Widen the circumference and the shepherd becomes one of the merchant’s instruments (Agency), one functionary in a triad of shepherd-sheering-slaughter for the Purposes of marketing and profit, the sheep merging into Scene as aspects of the world of production and consumption that makes the merchant’s work possible. Ratios change with changes of circumference; values and valuations change with changes of circumference.

For the present discussion, Burke wants us to see how these considerations might lead to the questions implicit in the concept of identification, how ambiguities of circumference and ratio might lead to thoughts about the process of creating consubstantiality. The connection perhaps becomes more clear if we look at the section of the Rhetoric immediately preceding the discussion of the shepherd, “The Identifying Nature of Property,” looking at the linkage of property, shepherd, and identification. The story of the shepherd tells us that considerations of property, when viewed from various circumferences, shows us how the roles we play change depending on scope and reduction, show us how persons can become instruments.

In the surrounding of himself with properties that name his number or establish  his identity, man is ethical . . . But however ethical such an array of identifications  may be when considered in itself, its relation to other entities that are likewise  forming their identify in terms of property can lead to turmoil and discord. Here  is par excellence a topic to be considered in a rhetoric having “identification” as  its key term (RM 24).

Again, circumference comes into play: A person working alone to create a self through connections with various properties—material, emotional, metaphysical—may be seen as ethical, may be treated in isolation, under the sign of symbolic. Yet, place that same person in a shared barnyard with other persons pursuing the same or similar patterns of self-creation and battles over ownership of properties inevitably erupt. At some moment even the most sophisticated of us will cry, “Mine.”

David Blakesley (3) again hits the right note in looking at a letter from Burke to William Carlos Williams, dated February 1, 1947, in which Burke focuses his discussion of rhetoric on the individual’s identifications with property: “My own notion, reduced to its simplest form, would run like this: The individual, to be moral, social, communicative, etc., identifies himself with ‘property.’ Property may be of many sorts. Capitalist property, property in methods of working, property in wife and children, property in convictions, property in one’s job, etc. Such properties lead to conflict, (as one man’s area of integration encroach upon another’s). . . . The Rhetoric, if it turns out as planned, should show the many ramifications of property” (East 111). When the Rhetoric finally emerged, property had been demoted, had become one among the many factors involved in the question of identification.

Questions surrounding property in all its guises allow to us to see what would otherwise be invisible, the process of identity formation through contact with the world. Problematically, a narrow focus on a single individual struggling with naming her number may prevent us from seeing how other people’s motives influence that individual’s developing sense of self. Questions surrounding identification stand at the crossroads between the symbolic and the rhetoric. “In pure identification there would be no strife. . . . But put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (RM 25). By turning from the individual in isolation to a consideration of the variety of individuals in collaboration with that individual, expanding the scope of circumference, we move toward a comprehensive understanding of the range of that individual’s properties. “When two men collaborate in an enterprise to which they contribute different kinds of services and from which they derive different amounts and kinds of profit, who is to say, once and for all, just where ‘cooperation’ ends and one partner’s ‘exploitation’ of the other begins?” (RM 25). No one may say, once and for all, what is the right name for the relationships operating in a given collaborative event, whether cooperation or exploitation or some combination of the two. The issue of naming properties is irreducibly arguable, inherently rhetorical. We will never all always agree on the right name for our properties.

And so, we study the shepherd and the merchant, two actors in complex, ambiguous collaboration regarding a common property. A narrow circumference creates the appearance of autonomy and allows the participants to deny any inherent discord, but put the two together and who’s to say which is the Real Shepherd? The assignment of (hexed) Pentadic terms, a survey of the ratios and an analysis of the functions of Circumference focus our attention on two connected, but often conflicting kinds of identification implicit in the concept of a shepherd.

For his second anecdote, Burke directs us to the story of the child who does not feel pain from external contacts. From Burke’s perspective, “Nothing is more real than the admonishments of pain.” In the Grammar, Burke situates the body as the starting point of dramatistic analysis: “This is contained in our formula: the basic unit of action is the human body in purposive motion. We have here a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ of action, a minimal requirement that should appear in every act, however many more and greater are the attributes of a complex act” (61).

For Mary Baker G. Eddy, “Matter cannot be sick, and Mind is immortal. The mortal body is only an erroneous mortal belief of mind in matter” (372). Eddy’s rejection of pain is literal and unequivocal: “The effect of mortal mind on health and happiness is seen in this: If one turns away from the body with such absorbed interest as to forget it, the body experiences no pain” (261). We see here the first phase of Eddy’s dialectical process for transcending the realm of the body. By our nature as fallen creatures, we appear to be trapped in mortal bodies with mortal minds. If we can learn to focus our attention in just the right way, even our limited mortal mind can escape the limitations of the body. This first step, achievable by an initial understanding of the interpretive scheme constructed by Eddy in Science and Health, can lead to an entry into Immortal Mind and eventually to an escape from mortality itself.

The dramatistic perspective begins from a stance diametrically opposed to Christian Science. Burke insists on the body as the irreducible sine qua non for both motion and action. Eddy denies the body any legitimacy at all; any bodily claim is error. When we set these two positions side by side, Burke asks us to see the “positive negative.”

The best available discussion of the concept of “positive negative” appears in Richard Coe’s article, “Defining Rhetoric—and Us.” Coe is here discussing the second clause of Burke’s “Definition of Man”: “inventor of the negative”(LSA 9–13).

Still, Burke is right to add this second clause, for many crucial features of  language, culture and humanness fall under the heading of “the power of negative  thinking,” which Burke calls “my positive negative." We are for the  most part logical positivists . . . we believe in the positive  facts of practical realism and can grasp the virtues of negativity only with  difficulty (often only with the aid of Asian spiritualism or Hegelian philosophy).

Burke thinks of the “positive negative” in terms of Greek drama,  especially Oedipus and the Orestia, juxtaposing Aristotle’s Poetics with his  Rhetoric. Antigone is Hegelian, he says. Pain is a “positive negative” as in  catharsis “a message, not an error,” as when it tells us to remove our fingers from  a hot stove (personal communication, 31 August, 1989) (42).

Negative thinking allows us to see the limitations of claims about facts, allows us to see facts from varieties of perspectives, to break out of our occupational psychoses to recognize the values implicit in all claims about facts. (For a connection to Korzybski see Nicotra 345).

Negative thinking creates a positive result, a result which is inherently dialectical: We go to the theater of tragedy knowing that we will be drawn into unwanted, even painful experiences, but we go with an expectation of release (and perhaps enlightenment) that can arise through the pain. Just as physical pain sends messages to the body, symbolically induced pain sends messages to the psyche. In the language of the Grammar: “One of the most common fallacies in the attempt to determine the intrinsic is the equating of the intrinsic with the unique. . . . We cannot define by differentia alone; the differentiated also has significant attributes as members of its class” (48). We must carry dialectical thinking with us as an active tool in everyday life.

Then Burke says in the April, 1989, letter, that “all told, I have ended up with a ‘positive negative,’ with an appropriate ‘rationale,’ in my summings-up.” The concept of identification exhibits the characteristics of a positive negative: First, note the inherent dialectical character in any given identification, then look for ways to use that dialectical term positively in action.

Burke’s identification differs from some psychological theories of identification in rejecting the idea that identification involves a merger so complete that the separate identities dissolve into one. Burke’s identification reaches toward consubstantiality not transubstantiality. “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so” (RM 20). Burke here shows the pervasive power of “insofar” throughout the Boikwoiks, and centrally for the Rhetoric: “insofar as their interests are joined.” Each participant remains doubly distinct: (1) Bodies never merge; my toothache is always only mine and quintessentially real; (2) Identification among participants occurs only for those motives at risk in the given rhetorical situation. We join in celebrating The Good Shepherd because we focus only on the guardian aspect of the shepherd, ignoring the market. We may all join in opposing the latest war, but we will adjourn to quite different venues after the rally.

Burke’s “positive negative” choice to set identification as key term for the Rhetoric arose through the program for systematic negative thinking he had constructed in the Grammar. Circumferential thinking helped him to see the role of transcendence in judgments about relations between individuals and society. Circumference advances on earlier terms for perspective by incongruity, because circumference is recursive, directing us to see changes in value emerging through a variety of changes in scope. We may learn more about the recursive nature of circumference along lines Robert Wess suggests. “While it is perhaps easiest to think of circumference from the standpoint of scene, as in the range of scenes in which Stephen Dedalus places himself, circumference is not limited to scene. In the chapter on idealist terminologies [see GM 181] for example, Burke marks the shift from Berkeley’s agent to Hume’s as a ‘narrowing of circumference’“ (151). Burke reminds us (GM 316, RM 111) that forgotten aspects of a dialectical process may reappear in cognate terminologies at higher levels of transcendence—treating circumference through the rhetorical concern for hierarchy.

The terms of the (hexed) Pentad and its ratios helped Burke to see how shifting perspectives can change our thinking about people’s roles, even to the point of seeing people as agents from one perspective while from another perspective seeing those same people as agencies. The (hexed) Pentad, adapting Aristotle’s terminology for drama, provides a comprehensive taxonomy (when mood, quo modo, is included—hexed) of dramatistic roles. Ratios among the terms allow us to see the dialectical interchanges among the roles.

From the evidence that Burke was, during the early phases of writing the Rhetoric, thinking of human interaction in terms of property, we may infer that property was insufficiently “positive negative.” Given a society steeped in positivism, nothing is more heavily weighted toward the positive than property. Although Burke speaks a good deal about property as both a term for material possession and for internal aspects of persons, the physicality of properties tends to overwhelm their metaphorical value. Identification starts a step back from the physical, resisting efforts to make identification an exclusively positive tool in rhetorical action.

And, of course, identification resists the purported rationality of property ownership and exchange, reaching into the realm of the nonrational. Although Burke rather disingenuously says in the “Introduction” to the Rhetoric that identification is “but an accessory to the standard lore” (xiv), he argues that identification provides a significant new line of investigation quite different from the traditional concern for rational deliberation, “an intermediate area of expression that is not wholly deliberate, yet not wholly unconscious” (xiii). The term “identification” will allow us to set beside Aristotle’s focus on persuasion, Burke’s own amalgam-on-a-bias of Freud and Marx, the family drama and symbols of authority (PLF 305–313).

No doubt these speculations will be superseded by further revelations from the Burke archives as scholars find more unpublished information about the writing of A Rhetoric of Motives, as Blakesley has already done with Burke’s letters, Zappen with unpublished ancillary documents and Crable with manuscripts. We might set Burke’s “positive negative” beside Crable’s and Zappen’s recent studies of the function of dialectical symmetry in the overall design of the Rhetoric.

We might look closer at the intertwining of concepts between the Rhetoric and the Grammar along lines that Robert Wess suggests: “‘Ultimate’ [as used in the Rhetoric] corresponds to ‘circumference’ and ‘substance’ [as used in the Grammar]” (205). Extension should be possible along the lines of Elizabeth Weiser’s study of the composition of A Grammar of Motives, expanding the circumference of the issues raised in this note from the intertextual impact of the Grammar on the Rhetoric to a view of Burke’s interactions with his friends, the nation, J. Edgar Hoover, et al., as WWII ended and the Atomic Age began. Burke devoted several passages of the Rhetoric to the Cold War (see Wess 195). In his letters to William Carlos Williams, Burke said, that the Rhetoric would “mitigate the imperialist itch [of the United States]” (East 111)

Burke returned to his concern with properties and persons in his last sequence of published work, the Afterwords to Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History and the article “In Haste.” There, Burke proposed a dialectical program pairing the personalistic principle with the instrumentalist principle, asking us to look at the ways in which those two principles interact and even interchange. His principle anecdote, analyzed in “In Haste,” is the medieval process of vassalage through which people voluntarily became instruments of the local warlord for purposes of periodic maintenance and improvement of roads (Agents choosing to become Agencies).

Works Cited

Blakesley, David. “William Carlos Williams’s Influence on Kenneth Burke.”  KB Journal. Conference Paper Repository. 1997. Web. 4 April 2012. http://kbjournal.org/blakesley_williams_burke

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3rd rev. ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

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—. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley:  U of California P, 1966. Print.

—. Letter, 13 April 1989.

—. “On Persuasion, Identification, and Dialectical Symmetry.” Ed. James Zappen.  Philosophy and Rhetoric. 39.4 (2006): 333–39. Print.

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—. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P,  1969. Print.

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Crable, Bryan. “Distance as Ultimate Motive: A Dialectical Interpretation of A Rhetoric  of Motives.Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39 (2009): 213–39. Print.

East, James, H. The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos  Williams and Kenneth Burke. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2003. Print.

Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health: with Key to the Scriptures. Boston: Christian  Science P. Soc., 1875, 1906. Print.

Jay, Paul. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915- 1981. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990. Print.

Nicotra, Jodie. “Dancing Attitudes in Wartime: Kenneth Burke and General Semantics.”  Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39.4 (2009) 331–52. Print.

Weiser, Elizabeth M. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Dramatism. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2008. Print.

Robert Wess. Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, subjectivity, postmodernism. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Zappen, James P. “Kenneth Burke on Dialectical-Rhetorical Transcendence.”  Philosophy and Rhetoric 24.3 (2009): 279–301. Print.

* Michael Feehan is Staff Attorney for the Bureau of Legislative Research in Arkansas. He can be reached at Michael@blr.arkansas.gov

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