Attitudes as Equipment for Living

Waldemar Petermann, Lund University, Sweden


This article explores Burke’s concept of attitude through an overview of its use in his writings, connecting it to the concept of literature as equipment for living, using the comic frame and research into the practical impact of attitudes in rhetorical situations, in order to better understand both concepts.

Attitudes as Equipment for Living

In his article “Literature as Equipment for Living,” found in The Philosophy of Literary Form, Kenneth Burke proposed that literature can be used as what he calls “equipment for living,” as tools for dealing with encountered situations (Philosophy 293-304). Here he used proverbs as models for equipment for living and described them as “strategies for dealing with situations” (Philosophy 296). He also suggested that these strategies can be seen as attitudes. In the discussion of which term to use, Burke made clear that the process of using literature as equipment for living should neither be seen as completely conscious, nor as especially methodical (Philosophy 297). If literature is equipment for living and functions like proverbs, proverbs that are strategies for dealing with situations, and strategies are attitudes, then clearly attitudes are equipment for living. While attitude features a lot in Burke’s writing and often in a very central place in his theory of symbolic action, it is hard to get a clear picture of the concept as it is treated rather differently in different works. And since attitude is poorly understood, so is the meaning and implication of attitudes as equipment for living. The connection between attitude and equipment for living can, however, be of help when exploring the attitude. Equipment for living can serve as a focus when reconciling or synthesizing the different descriptions of attitude provided by Burke’s works and different readings of them.

Scholars have proposed rather dissimilar explanations for what attitude is supposed to be in Burke’s writings: Sarah E. Mahan Hays & Roger C. Aden see attitude as something almost wholly cognitive in nature (35), Debra Hawhee, in her Moving Bodies, criticizes them for over-emphasizing A Grammar of Motives and views attitude as something very much grounded in the body (108), while Stephen Bygrave, in his reading of Burke’s 1978 article “(Nonsymbolic) Motion / (Symbolic) Action” finds the meaning of attitude “so extended as to designate any kind of response to a stimulus” leading to an attitude that loses its “distinctiveness.” (87). Depending on scholar attitude can evidently be of the mind, of the body or occupy some sort of amorphous, indistinctive middle ground.

It his perhaps tempting to view these differences as a result of scholars reading different works of Burke’s substantial production, however it does seem to be a bit more complicated. While, as mentioned, Hawhee does criticize Mahan-Hays & Aden for over-emphasizing A Grammar of Motives when constructing their version of a Burkean attitude, it is indeed a question of emphasis since Mahan-Hays & Aden do delve into the earlier works – e.g. The Philosophy of Literary Form (34-36). And when Bygrave charges attitude with indistinctiveness, he does so in a chapter spanning about half a century of Burke’s works (77-106).

Taking a closer look at Burke’s use of the term attitude, it turns out that its meaning and place in his theory of symbolic action can be dealt into three periods: the early period containing Permanence and Change, Attitudes toward History and The Philosophy of Literary Form, the intermediate centering around A Grammar of Motives and the late period containing the developments after Grammar, including an addition to a 1962 edition of the same work, later articles and forewords to earlier volumes as well as some of his letters.

In the early period, and more specifically in the two companion volumes Permanence and Change and Attitudes toward History, Burke often used attitude as a word meaning “mood” or “state of mind” , as Ann George & Jack Selzer notes (257). Burke did, however, make clear in Attitudes toward History that there is a difference between attitude and mood. While moods can be changed without any trouble at all, attitudes, especially if they have become “rationalized,” demand conflict in order to be changed (Attitudes 184). In terms of attitudes as equipment for living, this is interesting. It suggests that considered as a tool, an attitude should be chosen with care as it cannot necessary always be discarded with ease. As evidenced by “Literature as equipment for living,” cultural texts can be seen as strategies for dealing with situations – keeping in mind that attitude is another term for strategy. As Michael Denning notes in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century,the center of Burke’s theory of symbolic action in early works, is a quite flexible view on strategy—attitude—and situation (438-439).

Attitude is, however, not quite as unambiguously just a state of mind or an abstract strategy for handling a class of situations. From time to time a more basic physical connection emerges in Burke’s early works. In the conclusion of Attitudes toward History, attitude and bodily action are described as counterparts, which makes an interpretation of bodily act as manifested attitude possible. However, the order of Burke’s description goes in the other direction: acts of grasping are counterparts to attitudes of grasping, but the “predacious” body, “the original economic plant,” may require acts of grasping. Were attitudes purely mental things, and acts just physical manifestations of these, the body would not require anything in relation to attitude, but instead just act in accord with the dictates of attitude. Evidently, there is the possibility of an important bodily dimension of attitude. A specific bodily act is tightly tied to a specific attitude. Burke here used the metaphor of dancing to describe the expression of an attitude—you dance the act to a corresponding attitude (Attitudes 339).

Burke makes heavy use of Paget and his discussion of words as physical acts in Attitudes toward History, and as Hawhee notes, Burke went quite far in his interpretation of Paget (115). To further reinforce the bodily connection of attitude, Burke criticized Richards in The Philosophy of Literary Form as being “too sparse in realistic content” (Philosophy 9). Richards’ view on attitude, which can be found in his Principles of Literary Criticism from 1924, differs from Burke’s in that it is completely abstract and entirely of the mind (98-103). With the physical—behavioristic—side of the attitude, Burke also introduced the possibility of multiple conflicting manifestations of attitude in the same subject, at the same time. In The Philosophy of Literary Form, he told the story of a man, who during a visit to the dentist tries to dance a calm attitude – and does so – but is betrayed by the attitude his body dances in form of thickening saliva. His calm is a “social façade” and his sticky saliva the dancing of his “true” attitude, but nevertheless, both are danced (Philosophy 11). The body performing to the tune of the mind. Of course, here, the body has its own idea and performs a second dance to a second tune. This plurality of attitudes opens up for Burke’s later concept of identification and it may therefore not be surprising that he, as Hawhee observes, wrote about identification for the first time when discussing Paget’s ideas of words as physical acts. At least in this early version, identification is as much a bodily construct as it is a part of the psychological and social realm (116-117).

All taken together, the early Burkean concept of attitude and its relation to symbolic analysis is rather complex. Attitude clearly has a both mental and bodily dimensions. On the one hand, attitude is central in symbolic analysis as one member in the attitude-situation pair. On the other hand, the body-oriented attitude with its behavioristic touch paves the way for persuasion in the form of identification. As part of the attitude-situation pair, the concept of attitude as equipment for living seems straight forward and well in line with the description in “Literature as Equipment for Living,” but the bodily dimension is not as easy to reconcile with it. The nature of the connection between the physiological and mental part of attitude is not quite clear and especially the idea of the primacy of the body makes it unclear how that part of attitude can work as equipment for living.

During the early 1940s something happens to Burke’s view on attitude and its relation to symbolic analysis. If his earlier works sometimes showed a lack of properly worked out and presented methodology—something which rendered him a bit of critique according to George & Selzer (158-161)—he set out to change that radically in A Grammar of Motives. Here  he chose to motivate his choice of terms, the pentad, by demonstrating that they led to a working methodology (Grammar 92). The place of the earlier pervasive attitude in the new pentadic model is explained in the first chapter, where it is declared a part of the agent (Grammar 20). Attitude has been subsumed by the pentad.
A Grammar of Motives deals with attitude here and there, but attitude is here described as an incipient, or delayed, act. This view of attitude is heavily influenced by I A Richards’ thoughts on the matter in his Principles of Literary Criticism, that is referenced, but in contrast to Burke’s marking of distance to Richards’ very abstract view in The Philosophy of Literary Form, such is not forthcoming, here. Burke points out that there is an inherent ambiguity to attitude as an incipient act, in that it may be either the substitute for an act or the first step towards an act (Grammar 235-236). This view puts attitude in an interesting position between action and non-action. Furthermore attitude as delayed action has an interesting connection to motion and the body, as Burke thinks that the delayed action, the mental attitude, must have a bodily posture and so be supported by motions (Grammar 242). While this is interesting, the bodily connection of attitude is not especially prevalent and Paget, a strong influence for the earlier Burke, is entirely absent. Attitude is here something more of the mind than the body.

The lack of Pagetan influence in the section on attitude in A Grammar of Motives does, however, not mean that it lacks information on the role attitude plays in Dramatism as a whole. From George Herbert Meade, Burke takes the notion of distinction between action and motion and then places attitude in the middle. Motion is an act of the body, action an act of the mind and attitude connects the two. The action is a motion with a will or intent and what separates an act from another might be nothing more than the attitude toward that motion. (Grammar 237) As Burke explains later in the Grammar: “Two men, performing the same motions side by side, might be said to be performing different acts, in proportion as they differed in their attitudes toward their work” (Grammar 276). This relation of motion and action is, as Hawhee observes, of utmost importance to the ambiguous and changeable relations between the terms of the pentad (123).

As it turns out, attitude also performs an important function for rhetoric and persuasion in Burke’s intermediate period. In A Grammar of Motives, when discussing the ambiguity of attitude as incipient act, he claimed that rhetoric can induce action by making listeners adopt appropriate attitudes—advertising being one of his examples (Grammar 236). Burke returned to the concept in A Rhetoric of Motives, where he wrote that “rhetorical language is inducement to action (or attitude, attitude being an incipient act)” (Rhetoric 42) and “often we could with more accuracy speak of persuasion ‘to attitude,’ rather than persuasion to out-and-out action” (Rhetoric 50). Attitude is evidently an important target for persuasion.

Taken together, then, the attitude of the intermediate period has been subsumed into the pentad and lies in the realm of the mind too a much higher degree than in the earlier period. Attitude does, however, perform a central function as a connective between action and motion and is an important target for persuasion. That attitude fulfils an important function for rhetoric by being a target for persuasion, is interesting and speaks to the relevance of considering it as an equipment for living. Furthermore, while Burke made the attitude more mental in nature, the conception of it as connective between action and motion opens up possibilities for explaining how the earlier more physiological parts of the attitude fits with the concept of equipment for living. As a connective of action and motion, the intentional and non-intentional, the attitude can potentially form a bridge between its earlier parts of mental strategy and bodily manifestation. Since the attitude—especially the bodily dimension—is so diminished here, however, it is just a potentiality.

The new nature of the attitude as a thing almost wholly of the mind that was established in A Grammar of Motives and upheld in A Rhetoric of Motives would, as it turns out, not last long. In a 1952 article in Quarterly Journal of Speech, ”A Dramatistic View of the Origin of Language,” just two years after the publishing of the latter volume, Burke wrote that “Dramatistically, we watch always for ways in which bodily attitudes can affect the development of linguistic expression.” and then adds a parenthetical comment on Paget (“A Dramatistic View” 254).

The bodily aspect of the attitude is back and so is Paget. It may be a small comment, but as Hawhee remarks, Burke’s interest in the Pagetan side of the attitude would persist for a long time, even if it not always obviously so (124).

The subsumption of the attitude into the pentad would not last either. In the 1962 Meridian paperback version of A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke added a comment where he declared that he “sometimes” added attitude to the other terms of the pentad (Grammar 443). While the comment is short, there is evidence that Burke put quite some thought into it. As evidenced by letters to from the editor of the volume, Aaron Asher, Burke had intended to include a lengthy postscript, but due to printing technicalities, the editor was not keen on adding any pages. Burke then instead decided to add comments that could be inserted in the volume without requiring any additional pages (Letters to and from Aaron Asher). Regardless, with the comment, attitude is brought up on the same level as the other pentad terms.
In the 1983 afterword, “In Retrospective Prospect,” to a new edition of Attitudes toward History, Burke had the opportunity to comment his earlier pervasive attitude. Far from reducing the importance of attitude, he instead choose to explain important features of the volume in terms of attitude. He emphasized the importance of the bureaucratization of the imaginative, a perspective by incongruity carrying the meaning that the institutionalization of an idea turns it into something else, effectively destroying it, and equates it with history of the attitude (Attitudes 413).

In comparison with the early and intermediate periods, the late attitude forms something of a synthesis: the attitude is elevated to the pentad, forming an hexad with all its practical implication, it is an important connective between action and motion, it is clearly of both body and mind and is an important target for persuasion. This synthesis also allows for attitude to be that bridge between mental strategy and bodily manifestation that had to remain a potentiality in the intermediate period. As a connective between action and motion, attitude takes a central place in the theory of Dramatism and as a part of the hexed pentad, it is an important part of its methodology. Together, this makes attitude a potentially very useful equipment for living.

Considering the above review of attitude in Burke’s works, the theoretical use of attitude within his theoretical framework should not be considered strange. The range of possible uses is impressive. Attitude has been used successfully in such a fashion in rhetorical analysis, e.g. Clarke Rountree’s analysis of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s rhetoric (33-48). Attitude as a part of regular hexadic analysis, interesting as it is, however, is not the end of it. The nature of attitude as a connective between action and motion, the conscious and the below-conscious, suggests a usefulness beyond that. Judging by its place in the dramatistic theory, attitude seems to be well suited to analyse fully and partly unconscious expressions. The interaction of attitude and persuasion is bidirectional. You can persuade toward an attitude but attitude also forms a basis for the possibility of persuasion. Expressing an attitude may help persuade by way of identification, but adopting that attitude also opens up for new persuasion of the adopter. This is analogous to the problematization of text and context that exploded in the 20th century history of ideas, where Derrida can serve as an example. Seen from this perspective, attitude has possible connections to concepts such as Pierre Bourdieu's habitus, habitual structures that governs and are governed by our actions, and Judith Butler's ideas on the performativity of identity. Indeed, Dana Anderson, in his article ”Questioning the Motives of Habituated Action: Burke and Bourdieu on Practice,” connects a Burke to Bourdieu, influenced by Butler's reading of the latter, and argues that practice can be interpreted as a sort of attitude-act ratio in order to better capture the nature of practice that according to him is both physiological and symbolic (255-274). This opens up for attitude to be used as an immediate analytical tool when examining situations that contain instances of practice, but also for the individual to better be able to influence the own behaviour in such situations by way of considering and adapting attitudes. Together with the earlier mentioned observation that the change of attitudes may require conflict, this can also provide an explanation for the difficulty of breaking a pattern of conflict.

However, attitude can be used to a more immediately practical gain. In Brigitte Mral’s “Attitude matters' – Attitydyttringar som retoriska medel,” she performs an analysis of manifestations of attitude in discussions on nuclear waste disposal. Mral draws from Michael Billig's take on latitudes of attitude as well as Burke’s concept of attitude and makes an important distinction between attitude and its expressions. Here it becomes clear that displayed attitude (of the wrong kind) can actively hinder identification (28-29). Reconnecting this to the concept of literature—or attitudes—as equipment for living potentially results in a useful rhetorical tool. From an analytical point of view, the article shows that attitude can successfully be used as the focus of rhetorical analysis when trying to understand and explain the outcome of a discussion. In terms of attitudes as equipment for living it also indicates that by choosing an appropriate attitude, you adopt a strategy suitable to the situation.

Attitudes in Burke’s writing clearly possess an impressive range. Attitude can be a strategy for dealing with a particular situation. When Burke describes attitude as connected to “quo modo,” manner, in the 1962 addition to A Grammar of Motives, this is precisely what he is describing (Grammar 443). The manner in which you perform something is in a sense a strategy for dealing with the particular situation at hand. In “Literature as Equipment for Living,” proverbs are manifestations of attitudes generalized to a category of situations. In congruence with Burke’s earlier mentioned equating of bureaucratization of the imaginative with a history of attitudes, “The Curve of History” in Attitudes toward History (Attitudes111-175) can be seen as a history of such generalized attitudes—albeit on a larger scale. At the end of that part of the volume, in “Comic Correctives” (166-175), attitudes are in a way considered on a meta-level, as attitudes toward attitude. As Ross Wolin points out in his The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke, Burke wanted to create a perspective on perspective taking (95), and the comic frame—the comic corrective—is precisely such a perspective on perspectives, or an attitude of attitudes, which is what Burke names it in his 1955 introduction to Attitudes toward History (3rd page of “Introduction”). The comic frame is, as George & Selzer point out, the guiding principle of Burke’s (early) symbolic analysis. It is the embodiment of a synthesizing attitude – a comic attitude (161). In bringing together two ideas, two perspectives, the comic frame proscribes an accepting synthesis between the two and thereby creates an idea on top of the others, a perspective containing both of the starting ideas. While this attitude of attitudes can form a perspective by incongruity, it is also a guideline for what to do with a perspective by incongruity. It is in that sense definitely an equipment for living. Through this attitude of attitudes Burke provides a strategy for dealing with situations where ideas clash.

Altogether the attitude displays an impressive range of uses. It can be a strategy for dealing with a particular situation, a generalized strategy for dealing with a category of situations and it can be a strategy for dealing with strategies. Seen from a theoretical perspective, a benefit of considering attitudes as equipment for living is that it clearly connects the concept of equipment for living with Burke’s Dramatism in several ways due to its nature both as central to the theory and as part of the methodology. Seen in another way, thinking of attitudes as equipment for living may be helpful both for understanding the concept of attitude and the concept of equipment for living. On the one hand, attitudes as equipment for living suggests that attitudes are practically used as just that—keeping it from being just a necessary theoretical concept or a point of analysis. On the other hand it can help clarify the process of applying something as equipment for living. When discussing this process in The Philosophy of Literary Form,  Burke comments that his choice of the word “strategy” for the process is somewhat problematic as it suggests an “overly conscious procedure,” but that the alternative, “method,” is at least as problematic as it suggests an “overly methodical” one (Philosophy 297). The attitude fits this concept perfectly. As connective between action and motion, it lies partly—but not fully—in the realm of the conscious and as a part of the hexed pentad it is part of a method, but not a method in itself.

Attitude is an important and fascinating part of Burke’s theories, but as equipment for living it becomes directly usable in innumerable situations. Moreover, as well as being equipment for dealing with situations on different levels—be it hammering with diligence, generally meeting people with friendliness or striving for the synthesizing of meeting attitudes through the comic corrective—it also drives home the point that there are more benefits to an adopted strategy than what the adopter thinks of directly. By adopting a friendly attitude, for example, the adopter will in all probability exhibit a range of behaviours that it identifies with being friendly. And this without needing to plan or even consciously think of all these behaviours. Attitudes can so be seen as shortcuts to the (hopefully) successful handling of rhetorical situations. In this sense, attitudes as equipment for living become powerful tools for handling our everyday rhetorical lives.

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