Sociality in the Rhetorics of Kenneth Burke and Chaim Perelman: Toward a Convergence of Their Theories

Jim Hanson

Presented at the National Communication Association Conference
Chicago, November 1997

Kenneth Burke and Chaim Perelman are two of this century's greatest thinkers on rhetorical theory. Wayne Brockriede, for instance, has observed that they are the "two writers whom historians of twentieth-century rhetorical theory are sure to feature."1 Already, their theories of rhetoric have greatly influenced the work of scholars in communication,2 philosophy,3 literature,4 and the law.5

One essay inspired by their work, written by Walter Fisher and Brockriede, argues that Burke's dramatism and logology are philosophical variants of realism that may be called "linguistic realism."6 Fisher and Brockriede compare the philosophies of Burke and Perelman and conclude that they both create "social" rhetorics that are different in two important ways. First, they argue that Perelman rejects Burke's "linguistic realism" and instead holds that "language is an instrument rhetors use in their attempts to gain adherence."7 Second, they note that Perelman's theory focuses upon argumentation whereas Burke's theory "does not feature logic."8 I advance a third distinction in this essay. Burke and Perelman utilize different senses of "social" rhetoric in that: Perelman's theory of rhetoric is social as a transference of ideas, whereas Burke's theory is social as a transformation of identity. This distinction is important for appreciating the contribution that their works have for the study of rhetoric. In this essay, I examine four aspects of the rhetorical theories of Burke and Perelman. First, I review their definitions of rhetoric. Second, I illuminate their sociological assumptions about the nature of human beings and interaction. Third, I examine their view of the process of rhetoric. Fourth, I discuss their conceptions of an ultimate rhetoric. From this examination, I draw implications for their theories, for rhetorical theory in general, and for the fusion of their theories.

Their Definitions of Rhetoric

The rhetorics of Perelman and Burke reveal their theories of "socialness." Perelman's thesis is that "all argumentation aims at gaining the adherence of minds, and by this very fact, assumes the existence of an intellectual contact"9 and that this contact of minds creates a "community of minds."10

Burke goes beyond a community of minds engaged in intellectual contact. Rhetoric, for him, is "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols."11 Rhetoric’s concern is "the state of Babel after the Fall."12 Rhetoric is the ambiguous combination of identification and division that leads us beyond intellectual contact "through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure, the Logomachy, the onus of ownership, the Wars of Nerves, the War."13 In a nutshell, Burke focuses on the entire human condition whereas Perelman is interested in the intellectual judgment a community uses.

Their Theories of Being Social

Perelman and Burke's definitions of rhetoric exhibit their unique conception of what it means to be "social." Fisher and Brockriede have called Perelman's rhetoric "'social,' as evidenced by his emphasis on audiences."14 Specifically, Perelman views socialness as constituted in the interaction of arguers and audience members.

Perelman was influenced strongly by the teachings of his professor, Eugene Dupreel, who argued that social relationships exist "between two individuals when the existence or activity of the one of them influences the acts or psychological condition of the other."15 From his view, individuals are conceived as part of groups which "sometimes cooperate and at other times oppose each other."16

From this tenet of Dupreel's theory, comes Perelman's view of social. For him, rhetoric is a necessary social force to ameliorate tension between or among groups. Rhetoric provides a dialogue for "reasonable compromises" on conflicting views.17 Such compromises are necessary to achieve philosophical pluralism. Philosophical pluralism sees human beings as belonging to many social groups. It refrains from giving any group of people absolute power. And, it searches "for moderate, and thus well balanced, solutions to all conflicts."18

Perelman's view of being social is worked out in The New Rhetoric essentially as the "study of audiences."19 A rhetor must consider the culture, social functions, and differing characteristics of people.20 The rhetor is "justified in visualizing each one of his listeners as simultaneously belonging to a number of disparate groups."21 Hence, rhetors comes to understand themselves, their relationship to the audience's multiple groups, and their ability to gain the audience's adherence to their thesis.

Kenneth Burke's rhetoric has also been called "social."22 Burke's "social" is distinct from Perelman's for Burke's theory goes beyond the assessment of and adjustment to audience. Burke conceives of socialness as the rhetorical interconnection of the very substance of human beings. Daniel Fogarty has argued that Burke's rhetoric is "man’s" device "for survival by social balance with his inner self and with his world."23 Burke believes rhetoric reconstitutes who people are as well as what they believe.24 Burke exhibits this approach toward sociality in two ways.

First, Burke views humans as the symbol using animal. As the symbol using animal, Burke, "derives the human subject from language and language from an environmentally grounded human organism."25 In this, Burke argues that life is a drama, humans may be explained by the paradox of substance,26 and that human action can be explained by the pentad.27

Second, these conclusions about the nature of humans inevitably lead to the reorienting nature of rhetoric. Burke's emphasis upon the importance that symbols play in reconstituting who people are fits "squarely in a tradition that exists in the social sciences that includes Dilthey and Weber, George Herbert Mead and the Symbolic Interactionists, and the more recent influences of Alfred Schutz, the ethnomethodologists, and the renaissance of the Idealist view of how knowledge is achieved or constructed."28

Their Processes of Rhetoric

Given their views of sociality, it is not surprising that the processes of rhetoric for Burke and Perelman differ. Burke views the rhetorical process as the conjoining and separating of selves. Perelman views the rhetorical process as the use of argument to allow "communion" among peoples.

Burke's rhetorical process revolves around the dialectic between identification and division. Division, the separateness of people, gives rise to identification, which conjoins interests among people so as to unite what was separated. The conjoining makes people "both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another."29 In being consubstantial, humans act together and separate from other humans. Hence, consubstantiation begets new division. The process can be viewed as division, therefore identification leading to consubstation, therefore new divisions. In this process, rhetoric becomes a social entity. As Burke put it: "Since identification implies division, we found rhetoric involving us in matters of socialization and faction."30

Burke identifies three different conceptions of identification. First, there is accidental, mechanical associations. These are the "mysterious," innate senses of what the world is as in "the child gets a 'mysterious' sense of class distinction . . . long before understanding their occupational logic."31 Second, there are analogizing associations. Here "terms are transferred from one order to another,"32 as in a business conceives of it's "'value' as an estheticized equivalent of 'price.'"33 Third, there are specialized expressions. These require no transference because the terms embody the generalized principle from which they are derived. Here, Burke brings identification to the ideological and theological, where a unitary principle, like the "bourgeois-Bohemian antithesis" generates conflicting terminologies that permeates their cultures.34

Perelman, on the other hand, views the rhetorical process as involving the use of argument as a means to achieve a just society, not as a means of reconstituting the very members of that society. Indeed, in assessing Burke's concept of identification, Perelman makes this sparse assessment:

(what) . . . Kenneth Burke terms identifications are, in our view, simply connections and rejections of connections, for the associated and dissociated concepts appear, after the operation, to remain as they were in their original state, like bricks saved intact from a building that has been pulled down.35

Here Perelman exhibits his emphasis upon the argumentative nature of even Burke's work.

This emphasis is epitomized by The New Rhetoric's concern with the topoi and structure of argumentation. In the book, Perelman outlines his view of the rhetorical process. He sees initial starting points of argument as facts, data with which "we can postulate uncontroverted, universal agreement,"36 truths, "more complex systems relating to connections between facts,"37 and presumptions, statements or expectations of "what is normal and likely."38 From these universally agreed upon constructs, values, the ideals contained within argument,39 hierarchies, which rank in superiority values,40 and loci, "which affirm that one thing is better than another"41 can be used as tools for a rhetor to gain the audience's adherence to his or her thesis.

For Perelman, the social community which this rhetorical process creates is embodied in the "communion" among peoples. Communion has to do with the linguistic style of a culture.42 Values can constitute the ideals bonding a community. As Perelman argues: "The existence of values, as objects of agreement that make possible a communion with regard to particular ways of acting, is connected with the idea of multiplicity of groups."43 In addition, language that appeals to values can bond. He notes that "The terms 'right,' 'liberty,' 'democracy' can bring about communion in the same way as the unfurling of the flag."44The linguistic connection is made up of adherence to these terms of value. Yet, unlike Burke, it is not the language in and of itself that constitutes the communion. Rather, it "is the needs of argument which explain the tendency to form into a group and so band together all those who are seen to share the same attitudes, the supporters and opponents of a certain viewpoint, a certain person, or a certain way of acting."45

Their View of the Ultimate Rhetoric

Burke and Perelman's differing conceptions of the process of rhetoric lead them to different conceptions of "the ultimate" rhetoric and to different evaluations of their ultimate rhetorics. By ultimate, I mean, their conception of the apex of their vision of rhetoric. Ultimately, Perelman is concerned with the making of the best arguments with the finest contact of minds as embodied in the universal audience.46 Burke, on the other hand, regards the ultimate exemplar of rhetoric with concern. He is troubled by the social implications of complete identification, what he calls "pure persuasion."47

For Perelman, the ultimate criterion of rhetoric is embodied in the Universal Audience. Fisher has said, "Perelman's avowed ultimate criterion of quality in argumentation was a 'historically grounded conception of the universal audience.'"48 The universal audience is a construct in the rhetor's mind that embodies the most rational and reasonable persons or groups.49 Arguments addressed to the universal audience, are "of a compelling character, . . . they are self-evident, and possess an absolute and timeless validity, independent of local or historical contingencies."50 This does not, however, mean that these arguments meet such standards, for again, the universal audience is constructed by each rhetor. As Perelman argues:

Instead of believing in a universal audience, analogous to the divine mind which can assent only to the 'truth,' we might, with greater justification, characterize each speaker by the image he himself holds of the universal audience that he is trying to win over to his view."51

Hence, a rhetor's arguments are as good as the universal audience which he or she can conceive. Still, the universal audience encourages the contact of minds to go beyond the pure sophistry of the appeal to the particular audience. The rhetor attempts to present arguments which "they think that all who understand the reasons they give will have to accept their conclusions."52

Burke's conception of the ultimate identification, "pure persuasion," is different. Pure persuasion is, he says, "the farthest one can go, in matters of rhetoric . . ."53 Here, like in "sexual ultimateness," rhetors are pure in their purpose, do not seek an advantage over others, and check their carnal desires.54 As Burke argues, "the indication of pure persuasion in any activity is in an element of 'standoffishness,' or perhaps, better, self-interference, as judged by the tests of acquisition."55 The self-interference can lead to "freedom," yet it also restricts action that serves the self. Pure persuasion "comes quite close to the origins of the Human Comedy" and it reflects "the 'rationality' of homo dialecticus, of man as a symbol-using animal whose symbols simultaneously reflect and transcend the 'reality' of the nonsymbolic."56

This ultimate identification, however, is not something that Burke advocates. Pure persuasion can overly restrict the self and may become the vehicle of "private ambitions, guilts, and vengeances."57 As he says:

We are not saying that there 'should be' pure persuasion, or more of it. Or that 'human frailty' is forever making persuasion 'impure.' We are saying that, as the ultimate of all persuasion, its form or archetype, there is pure persuasion. If you want, we are even willing, for the sake of the argument, to take the opposite moralistic position, and say that there 'should not be' pure persuasion, or that there 'should be less of it.'58

His conclusion is based upon the inherent biological nature of humans "to desire" and to be "sated."59 Hence, transcendental conceptions like pure persuasion ignore the self and become "so universalized as to have no assignable physical object."60


My discussion, hopefully, has revealed that Burke and Perelman conceive of rhetoric in different ways. For Perelman, rhetoric is a way of gaining an audience's adherence. Its socialness is derived from an understanding of the relationship between speaker, audience, groups within the audience, and the thesis for which the speaker seeks adherence. For Burke, rhetoric is the reconstituting of speaker and audience. With each new rhetorical act, "speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea" are made consubstantial among people.61

I believe my discussion of the rhetorical theories of Burke and Perelman to be important in three ways. First, the discussion makes it clear that Perelman's rhetoric does entail a social logic, not just techniques of argument.62 Above all, while Perelman views the techniques of argument that he and Lucy Olbrechts-Tyteca carefully outlined as important; they are subordinate to their social workings as means with which rhetors may gain an audience's adherence. The ultimate usefulness of rhetoric is realized in the quality of audience that adheres to the argument and in the contact of minds of those engaged in argument.63

Second, this essay reinforces the important social contribution that Burke can make to rhetoric. For Burke, symbolic inducement is grounded upon the desire of human beings to overcome division, as well as to create division. It is in this almost paradoxical nature of rhetoric that both resolution and revolution are bred. For, if we understand that identification, even at its apex as "pure persuasion," can sow the seeds of peace as well as hate and war, we can be more wary of the hope and dangers of the division that identification implies.

Third, this discussion reveals the beginnings of a way to integrate the theories of Burke and Perelman. Perelman's theory can add to Burke's theory of persuasion by offering a practical way of social reasoning. Perelman's focus on the contact between minds via techniques of argument and the attempt to gain the adherence of the universal audience offers ways for sociality to be both a rational and reasonable affair. From the rhetorical contact of minds, communities dedicated to justice can be realized.

I believe Burke's theory can add to Perelman by giving a global perspective which points to the social implications and limits of the process of social reasoning. For Burke, when minds meet, so do motives and desires. As a result, the conjoining of minds enhances community only insofar as it reflects two concerns. First, it needs to reflect the fallibility of humans. Here, I am thinking of Burke's desire for the comic corrective and that humans transcend themselves by noting their own foibles.64 And, second, it needs to reflect that identification implies division. Here, the conjoining of minds can exclude, create animosity, and war.

My thoughts are obviously only a rough beginning. But they do reflect the sociality of the rhetorics of Burke and Perelman and that the two can be joined together usefully. The specific workings of this mixture, as Fisher and Brockriede have argued, awaits "a mind that can wed their theories."65 That mind, no doubt, will be one of the rhetoricians whom scholars remember as one of the greats of the twenty first century.


1. Wayne Brockriede, rev. of The New Rhetoric and the Humanities: Essays on Rhetoric and Its Applications, by Chaim Perelman, Philosophy and Rhetoric 15 (Winter, 1982): 76.

2. See, for example, Walter Fisher, Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1987); Marie Hochmuth NIchols, "Kenneth Burke and the 'New Rhetoric,'" Quarterly Journal of Speech 38 (April, 1952): 133-144; and Karl Wallace, "Topoi and the Problem of Invention," Quarterly Journal of Speech 58 (1972): 387-395.

3. See, for example, Henry W. Johnstone, Jr., Validity and Rhetoric in Philosophical Argument (University Park PA: The Dialogue Press of Man & World, 1978): 86-92; N. Rotenstreich, "Argumentation and Philosophical Clarification," Philosophy and Rhetoric 5 (1972): 12-23; Don Abbott, "Marxist Influences on the Rhetorical Theory of Kenneth Burke," Philosophy and Rhetoric 7 (Fall 1974): 217-233; and David Cratis Williams, "Under the Sign of (An)nihilation: Burke in the Age of Nuclear Destruction and Critical Deconstruction," in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, eds. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989): 196-223.

4. Rene Wellek, "Kenneth Burke and Literary Criticism, " Sewanee Review 79 (Spring 1971): 171-188 and Louis Fraiberg, Psychoanalysis and American Literary Criticism (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1960): 183-190, 199-201.

5. Eugene Kamenka and Alice E.-S. Tay, "The Traditions of Justice," Law and Philosophy 5 (1986): 281-313; George C. Christie, "The Universal Audience and Predictive Theories of Law," Law and Philosophy 5 (1986): 343-350.

6. Walter Fisher and Wayne Brockriede, "Kenneth Burke's Realism," Central States Speech Journal 35 (Spring 1984): 35-42.

7. Fisher and Brockriede "Kenneth" 42.

8. Fisher and Brockriede "Kenneth" 42.

9. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 14.

10. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 14.

11. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkley, California: University of California Press, 1969): 43.

12. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 23.

13. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 23.

14. Fisher and Brockriede "Kenneth" 42.

15. Chaim Perelman, "The Dialectical Method and the Part Played by the Interlocutor in Dialogue," in the Idea of Justice and the Problem of Argument (London, 1963): 161-167.

16. Chaim Perelman, The New Rhetoric and the Humanities: Essays on Rhetoric and Its Applications (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company): 65; Hereafter referred to as The New Rhetoric and the Humanities.

17. Chaim Perelman The New Rhetoric and the Humanities 67.

18. Chaim Perelman The New Rhetoric and the Humanities 71.

19. Chaim Perelman and Lucy Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1969): 20; Hereafter referred to as The New Rhetoric: A Treatise.

20. Chaim Perelman The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 21.

21. Chaim Perelman The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 22.

22. Douglas Ehninger, "On Systems of Rhetoric," Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (Summer, 1968)): 131-144.

23. Daniel Fogarty, Roots for a New Rhetoric (New York, New York: Teachers College Press, 1959): 56-72.

24. For a full description of this "magical" process, see: Jane Blankenship, "'Magic' and 'Mystery' in The Works of Kenneth Burke," in The Legacy 128-151.

25. Christine Oravec, "Kenneth Burke's Concept of Association and The Complexity of Identity," in The Legacy 182.

26. See Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkley, California: University of California Press, 1969): 21-58.

27. See the entirety of A Grammar.

28. Joseph R. Gusfield, "The Bridge over Separated Lands: Kenneth Burke's Significance for the Study of Social Action," in The Legacy 31.

29. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 21.

30. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 45

31. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 134.

32. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 134.

33. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 134-135.

34. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 135.

35. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 413.

36. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 67.

37. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 69.

38. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 71.

39. See Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 74-79.

40. See Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 80-85.

41. See Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 85-99.

42. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 163-164.

43. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 74.

44. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 165.

45. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 323.

46. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 31-35.

47. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 267.

48. Fisher Human Communication 126, the interior quotation comes from Perelman The New Rhetoric and the Humanities 14

49. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 31.

50. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 32.

51. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 33.

52. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca The New Rhetoric: A Treatise 31.

53. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 267.

54. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 270.

55. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 269.

56. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 275.

57. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 270-271.

58. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 273.

59. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 275.

60. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 275.

61. Burke A Rhetoric of Motives 55.

62. For a "technical" view of Perelman, see F. H. van Eemeren, R. Grootendorst, and T. Kruiger, The Study of Argumentation (New York, New York: Irvington, 1984): 208-259.

63. Walter Fisher, "Judging the Quality of Audiences and Narrative Rationality," in J.L. Golden and J.J. Pilotta (eds.), Practical Reasoning in Human Affairs, D. Reidel Publisher, 1986, pp. 85-103.

64. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1959) 171.

65. Fisher and Brockriede "Kenneth Burke's Realism" 42.