Richard McKeon and Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Poetic

Robert Wess, Oregon State University


In 1970, Burke and McKeon held a debate at the University of Chicago, with the topic the difference between “Rhetoric” and Poetic.” This debate has never before been published, and James Beasley and I present this debate with the following notes. We begin with our own interest in the debate, follow this with a brief outline of the debate, and then we make some observations about the significance of this debate for rhetorical scholarship today.

The transcript of the debates is embedded in this article as two separate PDF files (see below).

Kenneth Burke and Richard McKeon appeared together with Wayne Booth at the University of Chicago on Friday, November 13, 1970. By 1970, Burke had been friends with McKeon for over fifty years, beginning with their time together as students at Columbia University and continuing for years when they saw one another regularly in the New York area. Later, when McKeon moved from Columbia to the University of Chicago, Burke added McKeon to his many correspondents, writing to him on 10/24/34 to begin their long correspondence. In a sense discussed below, their 1970 appearance together supplements their correspondence, supplements it “synecdochically,” to use one Burke’s favorite terms, so that this appearance combined with their correspondence gives us perhaps the best picture we are likely ever to have of their friendship.

As McKeon indicates, after Booth introduces him and Burke, he and Burke appeared together a few years before at Brockport, where Burke responded to his paper in the formal setting of an academic conference. McKeon quotes from Burke’s response a passage that appears on p. 417 in Burke’s “Poetics and Communication,” the paper Burke read at this conference. Burke indicates in a 4/28/68 letter to William H. Rueckert, who evidently accompanied Burke to the conference (see 5/16/68 letter to Rueckert), that he would respond to McKeon’s paper one day and give his own paper the next day. Perhaps the passage McKeon quotes also appears in Burke’s actual response to McKeon’s paper; Burke does return to this response to add to it on p. 415 of “Poetics and Communication.” In any case, in the sentence McKeon quotes, Burke takes offense at a sentence at pp. 320-21 in “Philosophy of Communications and the Arts,” McKeon’s paper at this conference, “Conclusions are, with a change in the mode of analysis, denouements, consummations, ends, fulfillments, climaxes, or achievements.” Burke construes this sentence as “riding smooth‑shod over” over his speculations on the relations of logical and temporal orderings. Burke also remarks on his response to McKeon in a 2/21/68 letter to Rueckert, quoting a long, dense sentence from p. 312 of McKeon’s paper, then quipping in his inimitable way, “As you can see, silly ole Kink Leer is going to have his hands full, since it would be equally hazardous to abdicate and not to abdicate. Jeez, my methodological polysyllables are baby‑talk, the billing and cooing of young love.”

Correspondence relating to this appearance at Brockport is extensive (McKeon to Burke 12/14/66, 1/17/67, 11/7/68; Burke to McKeon 1/12/67, 2/24/67, 11/30/67, 4/19/68, 9/26/68) compared to the little correspondence relating to their appearance at Chicago. The latter consists of a few letters discussing an initial plan for the appearance that is abandoned when an opportunity arises for McKeon to attend a conference in Italy and see his grandson (Burke to McKeon 12/16/68, 4/3/69; McKeon to Burke 1/10/69, 3/28/69), then an additional 11/20/70 letter after their appearance in which Burke devotes a brief paragraph to saying he thinks it went well, remarking, “And I’m proud of us both, for the way in which we both sparred, yet yielded on the platform. I think, bejeez, we were pretty civilized.”

Years later there are additional letters when McKeon discovers their appearance was recorded (McKeon to Burke 6/19/79, 6/28/79, 9/22/79, 12/28/79; Burke to McKeon 6/23/79, 9/27/79, 12/24/79). I know from personal experience that students commonly recorded McKeon’s classes, which was fine with McKeon, so it is not surprising that his appearance with Burke was recorded, but it is surprising that McKeon did not know it at the time. In any case, when he learns of the recording, McKeon has a transcript made, which is what survives as a far from perfect record of the event. McKeon discusses publishing the transcript with Burke. They submitted it to Critical Inquiry, where it met a rejection. Evidently it was not submitted anywhere else.

It is possible that the recording still exists. In an effort to find out who may have recorded it, I got one response from William G. Swenson, who attended the event as a student and went on to co‑edit with Zahara K. McKeon the first two volumes of Selected Writings of Richard McKeon (1998, 2005). Swenson speculates it may have been Eliot Krick, a lecturer in the University Extension Division, who taped and transcribed many classes by McKeon and other star faculty at Chicago. Krick, however, has not been located. In his email to me, Swenson also recollects some details of the event:  

The room where it was originally scheduled was too small to hold the very large number of listeners who showed up.  It was decided to move to a larger room in Ida Noyes Hall, and I believe that this entailed a march across campus with Burke and McKeon leading the way and a large crowd streaming along behind them. Even the Ida Noyes space (a lounge area on the west side of the building) was too small, and I remember standing under an archway unable to hear most of what was said. There were hundreds of people crowded in, I would estimate. It was a real occasion.  

They may have made this spontaneous change in location without knowledge of an event scheduled at Ida Noyes that became disturbingly noisy during the Q&A period.

Burke’s correspondence, it deserves mention, probably has an important place in the history of letter writing, something that would be recognized if some publisher saw the wisdom of publishing the complete correspondence, obviously an effort that would be the work of many hands over many years but in the end would, I believe, result in an enduring work. Because Burke corresponded with so many important figures of his time, his complete correspondence might exhibit him related to the intellectual life of twentieth‑century America in a manner akin to the way Samuel Johnson is related to eighteenth‑century English culture. It is likely that the heyday of letter‑writing occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Possibly the great popularity of epistolary fiction in the eighteenth century is a sign that letter‑writing was becoming increasingly widespread and having a marked effect in the culture, perhaps comparable to the effect of social media on the internet that we are experiencing today. It is plausible that the telephone in the twentieth century dealt a blow to letter writing that initiated a decline from which it will never recover completely. Burke's correspondence with Booth, for example, evidences instances when Booth telephoned Burke instead of writing him a letter. The telephone’s disincentive to letter writing makes Burke’s extraordinary correspondence despite this disincentive all the more extraordinary. Burke may be among the last great letter writers. Today, letter writing of the sort Burke practiced may be dying for good, replaced forever by the cell phone and email. Email may foster a renaissance of letter writing in terms of quantity, but qualitatively it is letter writing of a different kind.

When Burke wrote McKeon in late 1934, he wanted McKeon’s reaction to the manuscript that would become Permanence and Change. A few letters follow leading to scheduling a meeting in December when McKeon returns to New York. In these follow-up letters there are a few remarks about this manuscript but it is clear that the real discussion about it occurs when they meet, not in the correspondence. From the standpoint of Burke’s “temporizing of essence” in A Grammar of Motives, one might see this beginning as the essence of their correspondence. For this correspondence is face‑to‑face centered in the sense that a common feature of it is discussion of the possibility of face‑to‑face time together. The most common pattern is for a McKeon trip to New York to prompt exploration of the possibility of meeting in New York or Andover. Sometimes the possibility is realized, sometimes not. Some letters are a follow‑up to a meeting for which there are no letters leading up to it; in these cases, it is not always clear where or how these meetings occurred. Another variant of this pattern are letters involving McKeon’s recruitment of Burke to teach at Chicago. All of these, in their varying ways, lead to time together, face-to-face.

When all of these examples are taken into account, the letters involved constitute about two‑thirds of the total correspondence. In this context, their appearance at Chicago takes on added importance as evidence of what their exchanges were like when they finally would get together face‑to‑face. This appearance might thus be viewed as the synecdochic part that stands for all the absent face‑to‑face parts of the episodes in their relationship that begin in correspondence and end in meetings that leave no record.

In an age of email, Burke’s correspondence with McKeon might have been very different. Email makes it much easier to communicate with brief messages. If one wants to take up the possibility of meeting, one need not go beyond the relevant details. In the days of letter writing, by contrast, when faced with a blank page, one more or less felt obligated to cover it with words, or at least come close.

Covering their pages, Burke and McKeon engage in bantering wit that ranges from needling the other to simply amusing the other to laughing at oneself. This is an essential lens through which to view their exchanges at Chicago: if any line can be read as bantering, it is probably best to read it that way. If one wanted to classify rhetorical strategies of wit, one would find abundant material for analysis in their letters. It would be interesting to see if McKeon’s bantering wit appears in his correspondence with others or is unique to his correspondence with Burke. Burke’s letters are truly sui generis. Imagine getting a letter from Burke. You would no doubt feel that if you reply in a conventional way, you will appear to be a boring flunky. McKeon steps to the plate to try match Burke. He never ventures into Burke’s recklessly imaginative inventiveness with spelling, but he makes a valiant effort to match Burke’s wit.

Their exchanges at Chicago are probably representative in the sense that the focus is on Burke’s ideas, Burke defending them passionately, and McKeon playing the role of the Socratic interlocutor, occasionally giving Burke the satisfaction of agreement, but usually disagreeing or at least offering an alternative view. McKeon was comfortable in this role because he defended a pluralist philosophizing. For him, no word was the final word. Burke responding to McKeon at Brockport may have been something of a role reversal. 

Notably, Burke casts McKeon in this role of interlocutor in a late letter written in October 1981 (whether Burke sent it is not clear; he sometimes wrote unsent letters). Burke is putting together a kind of bucket list as he envisions how he would like to spend the time he has left. Half the time, he would indulge in just “being moody in all sorta of ways.” In the other half, he would be “haggling” with McKeon “in line with my notion that, whatever Occam was the end of, Logology is the end of the Next Phase.” Burke goes on,

And you would be the guy who could both come close to going along with me in my woefully non‑erudite medieval tinkerings, and could and would belabor me with erudite Howevers, and thereby help me to try again in hopes of saying it better (sentence for sentence).

Burke repeatedly depicted himself divided between a literary side represented by Malcolm Cowley or William Carlos Williams and a philosophical side represented by McKeon (Wess 50). McKeon’s great command of the history of philosophy provided Burke “Howevers” valued as tests of his ideas.

Ideas prominent among those Burke defends at Chicago appear in “Rhetoric and Poetics,” reprinted in Language as Symbolic Action (1966), and “Othello: Essay to Illustrate a Method,” reprinted in Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives: 1950‑55, ed. William H. Rueckert (2007). Other notable ideas come from Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, ed. Scott L. Newstok (2007) (analysis of Midsummer Night’s Dream); and “Psychology and Form” in Counter‑Statement (1931) (analysis of scene from Hamlet). One idea meriting special attention appears about a third of the way in, during the discussion of the pentad, when Burke interjects “a totally different point of view,” explaining himself first with his distinction between motion and action, then going on, “Now, if then I take action as a primary term, then the whole idea is, what is implicit in this term?” Burke answers by elaborating on how other terms in the pentad are implicit in act. A statement in Dramatism and Development suggests that this “different point of view” arises from his interest, developed in The Rhetoric of Religion, in tautological cycles of terms:

[I]f I were to rewrite the book [A Grammar of Motives] in the light of later developments, I would now present it as a “Cycle of Terms Implicit in the idea of an `Act,’” based upon my anti‑Behaviorist equation, “Things move, persons act.” Somewhat shamefacedly, when I first began working with my Dramatistic pentad (act, scene, agent, agency, purpose), I thought of them as but related by “and” (this term and that term and the other, etc.) But later, on peering more closely into them, I realized their analytic familyhood. (21‑22)

Burke introduces this “totally different point of view” to take issue with McKeon’s treatment of the pentadic terms, particularly in the form of two‑term ratios (scene:act, agent:act, etc.), as a modern variant of medieval commonplaces used for rhetorical invention. McKeon’s treatment appears in composition textbooks such as William F. Irmscher’s The Holt Guide to English: A Contemporary Handbook of Rhetoric, Language, and Literature (1972). Burke considers such textbooks in “Questions and Answers about the Pentad,” clarifying,

Maybe I can now make clear my particular relation to the dramatistic pentad, involving a process not quite the same as either Aristotle’s or Irmscher’s. My job was not to help a writer decide what he might say to produce a text. It was to help a critic perceive what was going on in a text that was already written. (332)

Put differently, one could say that Burke here says that for him the pentad was not a rhetoric of invention but a grammar of interpretation. The “different point of view” fleshed out in Dramatism and Development suggests that Burke changed his view of the basis of this grammar.
As Burke’s interlocutor at Chicago, McKeon plays two roles, both of which derive from his pluralism. He brings these two together during the Q&A period, in a moment that Burke may have seen as the one when McKeon “yielded.”

McKeon’s pluralism develops considerably over the decades but his principal antagonist always remains the same. Many may also oppose this antagonist and thus be a bit of a pluralist in their thinking without realizing it. This antagonist appears, as McKeon puts it at the end of the introductory section in his 1942 essay “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages,” in “the conception of intellectual history as the simple record of the development of a body of knowledge by more or less adequate investigations of a constant subject matter” (263). Rejection of this conception has become widespread in the wake of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which contends that this conception does not hold true even in science, the one discipline that would seem to conform to it more firmly than any other. Kuhn characterizes this conception as “development-by-accumulation” (2), dismissing it in favor of a view of science as a history of revolutions necessitating the scientific “community’s rejection of one time‑honoured scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it” (6). Different theories conceptualize the subject matter of science in different ways (4‑5). “Paradigm,” Kuhn’s term for a reigning theory (10), has gained widespread currency.

By 1970, McKeon’s pluralistic philosophy had attained its mature form, combining (1) a historical semantics distinguishing major shifts in the subject matter of philosophy from historical period to historical period and (2) a philosophical semantics distinguishing principles, methods, interpretations, and selections that explain how philosophers sharing a subject matter in a historical period analyze it in ways that place them in oppositions that should be understood ultimately as complementary rather than contradictory. One can see both sides of this mature pluralism in “Imitation and Poetry,” a long essay included in McKeon’s Thought, Passion, and Action (1954).

Probably because of the complexity of this mature pluralism, the pluralism informing McKeon’s activity as Burke’s interlocutor at Chicago is the earlier and simpler pluralism that appears in “Literary Criticism and the Concept of Imitation in Antiquity,” a 1936 essay that McKeon wrote for the faculty group that, with the exception of Mortimer Adler, all later appeared in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (McKeon, “Criticism” 4, 17), the major work the Chicago school of criticism produced. This group drew on McKeon’s 1936 essay (1) for a model for literary criticism in Aristotle’s Poetics and (2) for a framework for critical pluralism. The pluralism sketched in this essay is developed fully in R. S. Crane’s The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (1953). It is the pluralism I learned in the University of Chicago’s English department in the 1960s before venturing into McKeon classes in the Philosophy department and encountering his very different mature pluralism.

The two roles McKeon plays as Burke’s interlocutor can be defined with language from McKeon’s summary, in the final paragraph of his 1936 essay, of the critical approaches analyzed in the essay:

It seems apparent that each of these approaches and each of their variants is distinct from the others. If its full intention is stated clearly, it is difficult to understand how one of them could be constituted the contradiction of the other, except in the sense that a given critic might prefer one to all the rest. Much that passes for differences of taste in literature consists in reality of differences of taste in criticism, of differences in the preferred approach to literature. (174–75)

In one role, McKeon distinguishes approaches to see not how one contradicts the other but how each illuminates in a distinctive way. In the other role, McKeon defends his preferred approach, appearing in doing so as someone who sees only one correct view of a literary text. He relates the two in the “yielded” moment that Burke discerns.

Good examples of McKeon distinguishing approaches appear around the midpoint when he distinguishes Horatian and Aristotelian approaches, affirming that they are equally good, then adding a page later that Booth offers still a third approach in his The Rhetoric of Fiction, though this is not fleshed out. A few pages later, McKeon adds that there may be fourth and fifth approaches as well, though these are not delineated in any way. The possibility of multiple approaches is clearly entertained, but remains mainly speculative insofar as little to nothing is done to work them out in detail.

McKeon sketches near the beginning how one might pluralistically work out such details. First, Burke gives his view of the relation of rhetoric to poetics. Then, McKeon contrasts it to the Chicago school’s view based on Aristotle. The pluralistic step appears when McKeon underlines how the two approaches both instantiate the commonplace distinction between the universal and the particular but in opposite ways. In Burke, rhetoric is to poetic as particular is to universal; in Aristotle, rhetoric is to poetic as universal is to particular. 

By contrast to the distinguishing of approaches, much more space is taken up by McKeon debating Burke from the standpoint of his preferred approach. Here, he and Burke debate within the familiar opposition between intrinsic and extrinsic criticism, with poetic aligned with intrinsic and rhetoric aligned with extrinsic. In this debating, they do precisely what McKeon in the second paragraph of his opening statement said they wanted to avoid. In doing so, they may simply be lapsing into a familiar groove from years of debating issues posed in Aristotelian terms. Aristotle even got the nickname “Howard” in their correspondence.

Aristotle’s definition of beginning, middle, and end in Poetics, chapter 7, appears to inform some of the things McKeon says about formal structure. About that definition, Burke remarks, “There are few statements that are more platitudinous, and even fewer that are more fertile” (“Poetics” 415), finding in it a basis for his broadening of temporal sequence to include logical sequence as well (416). McKeon’s strong interest in form also goes beyond strictly narrative form in the Q&A, during the exchanges with Questioner #3, when McKeon remembers a passage in “one of Burke’s books” about a man who was a genius with numbers. The question put to the man was whether some numbers gave him a formal pleasure. McKeon is misremembering insofar as this passage appears not in a book but in a footnote on p. 418 in Burke’s “Poetics and Communication.” But McKeon does remember the main point. The man did experience pleasure in the form of some numbers. An example is 712491, which produces the number 8 three times: multiply the middle two numbers (2 x 4), add the first and the last (7 + 1), and subtract the second number from the second to last number (9-1).

The form in Aristotle’s Poetics that McKeon defends is a proximate cause. Poetics treats an artificial object, the characteristic of which for Aristotle is that it consists of materials that would not become the object without the intervention of an external cause, a human maker, by contrast to natural objects that come to be by internal causes. A human being is part of the causal chain leading to the existence of an artificial object but not the proximate cause. A human makes a wheel, but the proximate cause of the wheel is the form it must have to be a wheel. Form is a proximate cause. As McKeon puts it in one of his essays, “When terms are defined literally, the principles of the discussion are to be found in the causes by which an object is to be isolated in its essential nature” (“Philosophic Bases” 472). A proximate cause is a cause of the object found nowhere except in the object. McKeon’s Aristotelian objections to Burke center on Burke’s reliance on causes external to a work.
McKeon brings together the two roles he plays in responding to Questioner #3 when he first sketches the “[t]wo totally different analyses” of Othello in his and Burke’s differing approaches, here stressing pluralist interest in distinguishing approaches, then adds that when defending one approach one faults the other, as McKeon faults Burke for bringing into his analysis “a basic psychosis of a monogamistic” society and as Burke faults McKeon for missing the point of the play by ignoring this psychosis. In debate, each defends their preferred approach and the two approaches appear to contradict one another. Viewed pluralistically, what appears to be a contradictory relationship is revealed to be a complementary one.

Exchanges with Questioner #3 continue for an unusually long time. In the process, McKeon becomes abrasive in some of his responses. These responses reminded me of some experiences in his classes, which were in some ways like an intellectual boot camp insofar as there was no chance that any student would leave class with a false sense of self‑esteem. Susan Sontag probably speaks for many students when she says, “I revered McKeon. But he also made me, and I think not only me, cringe. He might put a question to the class, a student would dare to say something, and if it were less than brilliant, McKeon often replied, `That is a very stupid answer’” (275). Such anecdotes make it easy to see why students would “cringe,” but their occurrences were the exception rather than the rule. By contrast, it is not possible to illustrate by simple anecdotes why Sontag nonetheless “revered” McKeon. In the blurb she wrote for the dust cover of Selected Writings of Richard McKeon, Volume 2, she said, “Richard McKeon was a teacher and a thinker of incomparable authority and importance. I had the good fortune to be one of his students and the skills I learned from him have remained central to the way I think.” Better evidence than such testimonials consists of the recordings of his classes that were turned into books: On Knowing: The Natural Sciences (1994), On Knowing: The Social Sciences (2016). Other recordings and transcriptions exist and may yet eventually be published, though it is difficult to turn old reel‑to‑reel recordings into publishable books. A McKeon class was like a book that could profitably be read and reread.

At the beginning, after McKeon describes what they will not do but in fact end up doing, he makes a promise that goes unfulfilled when he suggests that the world is just catching up to where he and Burke have been for a long time and that they hope to get into the significance of this development. These remarks would appear to apply most clearly to the historical revival of interest in rhetoric that was underway in 1970 and continues to this day. Contrary to McKeon, though, it would be more accurate to say that in this interest in rhetoric Burke was there before McKeon. When Burke defined form in his 1925 essay “Psychology and Form” essay, he defined it in terms of a relation to the audience. He did this in the heyday of modernism when the reigning orthodoxy was “True Art Ignores the Audience,” as Booth puts it in his title for chapter four in The Rhetoric of Fiction. McKeon’s turn to rhetoric comes later, when the development of his historical semantics leads him to see the turn to language in the twentieth century as a turn to a new subject matter that needs rhetoric to complete itself for reasons he introduces in “The Methods of Rhetoric and Philosophy: Invention and Judgment,” included in volume two of Selected Writings of Richard McKeon. In any case, by 1970 they were together in this revival, on their way to becoming, as Richard Lanham would later put it, “out two greatest rhetoricians” (165).

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Dramatism and Development. Clark UP, 1972. PHeinz Werner Lecture Series 6.

—. Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert, 1959‑1987, edited by William H. Rueckert. Parlor P, 2003.

—. “Poetics and Communication.” Perspectives in Education, Religion, and the Arts, edtied by Howard E. Kiefer and Milton K. Munitz, SUNY P, 1970, pp. 401‑18.

—. “Questions and Answers about the Pentad.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 19, no. 4, 1978, pp. 330–35.

Crane, R. S., ed. Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern. U of Chicago P, 1952.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. U of Chicago P, 1970.

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word. U of Chicago P, 1993.

McKeon, Richard. “Criticism and the Liberal Arts: The Chicago School of Criticism.” Profession vol. 82, pp. 1-18.

—. “Literary Criticism and the Concept of Imitation in Antiquity.” Crane,pp. 147–75. Originally published in Modern Philology, vol. 34, 1936, pp. 1–35.

—. “The Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism.” Crane,pp. 463‑545.

—. “Philosophy of Communications and the Arts.” Selected Writings of Richard McKeon. Vol. 2, edited by  Zahava K. McKeon and William G. Swenson, U of Chicago P, 2005, pp. 307–25.

—. “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages.” Crane, pp. 260‑96.

Sontag, Susan. Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland Poague, UP of Mississippi, 1995.

Wess, Robert. “Burke’s McKeon Side: Burke’s Pentad and McKeon’s Quartet.” Kenneth Burke and His Circles., edited by Jack Selzer and Robert Wess, Parlor P, 2008, pp. 49‑67.

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