Kenneth Burke

 Definitions of Rhetoric


"The most characteristic concern of rhetoric [is] the manipulation of men's beliefs for political ends....the basic function of rhetoric [is] the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents."



"Rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic and continually born anew: the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols."



"Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric, and wherever there is rhetoric, there is meaning."


(quotes from A. Lunsford)


Other Resources

Kenneth Burke 

 (May 5, 1897 - November 19, 1993) 

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Burkean Rhetoric


For Kenneth Burke, intelligence and rhetoric use are inseperable, and are the abilities which set humans apart from other animals.  Intelligence is defined as the property that causes a sentient being to generate and respond to symbol systems; rhetoric is the process an individual uses while intentionally generating symbols in order to elicit responses from other individuals. For Burke, "rhetoric is a rhetor's solution to perceived problems..." others might experience (194).


The three types of Identification


Intelligent beings have a symbolic understanding of themselves and of each other, and share knowledge through positively aligning their personal symbol-systems with the symbol-systems of others. Kenneth Burke calls the process  of creating agreement based on meaning consubstantiation.


Another way that individuals can identify with one another is through agreement of purpose, such as in the process of anti-thesis, or "...the creation of identification among opposing entities on the basis of a common enemy" (192).


A final type of identification involves the intentional but indirect application of sympathetic symbols in order to favorably predispose the audience to the rhetor, and thus to the otherwise unrelated symbols presented along with the sympathetic ones.


It is important to note that Burke believed intelligent creatures engage in identification to bridge the alienation, or inherent seperateness that exists between them.


The Function of Rhetoric

For Burke, the function of rhetoric is to name or define the nature of situations, so that the recipient of the rhetoric can respond appropriately. Rhetoric is used to characterize the special properties the rhetor has found in the object, principle or situation being discussed, pairing them with the meaning the rhetor ascribes to those properties. The purpose of this pairing of situation to meaning is so the audience gains understanding of and agreement with the rhetor's understanding of the situation and his or her suggested response to it (195).


The Function of Form


Burke spoke of the importance of pairing form to meaning, classifying all possible forms into three types: conventional, repetitive and progressive. 

  • Conventional form is a formal or traditional form, such as the structure of a Japanese haiku or a legal tort.
  • Repetitive form "...involves the ways in which a work embodies a fixed character or identity and manifests internal consistency" (196). Some examples of this are the thematic elements shared between several commercials within an advertising campaign, the sound of a locomotive whistle or the uniform of the waitresses working for the Hooters restaurant chain.
  • Progressive form can employ syllogism to create the anticipation of cause leading to effect (ie: B follows A), or it can be a qualitative progression related to degree, such as the relationship between the lifestyle of a flamboyant rock star and his unsurprising death by drug overdose.

Rhetoric as Action


Burke's rhetorical perspective emphasizes the action of rhetoric, and he examines that action by applying a model he called the dramatistic pentad. The Dramatistic Pentad was created in recognition of the animated nature of rhetors and of the symbolic nature of their actions, and deals with the symbolicity of that rhetoric.


Burke also recognized three preconditions that an act must meet to become rhetorical rather than an act motivated by animalistic nature or compulsion. A rhetorical act is one made when the rhetor is free to take alternate action rather than the chosen action, the action is the result of a deliberate (or purposeful) choice, and the act involves motion, or creates a result (199). To discover the motivation or determination that created the motion of a particular rhetorical act, Burke employs his dramatistic pentad.


The Dramatistic Pentad


 The dramatistic pentad has 5 components which can be represented as questions:

  • Act: What purposeful act has taken place?
  • Agent: Who took this action?
  • Agency: How or with what did they do it?
  • Scene: Where, when and in what context did the act take place?
  • Purpose: Why did they do it? What was their intent?

When applying this model to a situation, typically the purpose will be determined from an examination of the other four elements.


Once the pentad for a situation has been determined, analysis can be performed by analyzing the relationship between any two of the 5 components. The standard methodology is to establish a ratio (or pairing) between any of the ten possible pairings of act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. Reversing the order of the pairings creates another ten possibilities, for a total of twenty. 


Those 20 possible pairings are: 


Act-Agent Act-Agency Act-Scene Act-Purpose
Agent-Act Agent-Agency Agent-Scene Agent-Purpose
Agency-Act Agency-Agent Agency-Scene Agency-Purpose
Scene-Act Scene-Agent Scene-Agency Scene-Purpose
Purpose-Act Purpose-Agent Purpose-Agency Purpose-Scene


The rhetorical analysis is performed by examining the how the ratio functions within the artifact, and by demonstrating how the dominant (leftmost) member of the pair determines the non-dominant (rightmost) member's nature. The results of such an analysis may reveal contradictions between what is stated by the rhetor and what is supported with the rhetorical evidence he or she presents.



Logology literally means "words about words," and is a rhetorical field of study that is the other major work of Burke's career. Logology is Burke's attempt to describe the inter-relationship of motivational systems and human attitudes, and to study how words function in human discourse.


The model Burke uses to engage in this study borrows the metaphors and symbolic systems of Christianity. Burke sees the creation of hierarchies as a primary process of human thought and communication. He explains this reliance on hierarchy as the human reaction to the concept of "the negative."   


The negative, according to Burke, is a human concept of nothingness that is absolute, and has no counterpart in nature. Burke describes the negative as the absence of something that can exist. The negative is the basis of human construction of hierarchies of knowledge. We set up hierarchies to scrutinize the relationship between "the thing" and "not the thing" and in so doing, symbolize and taxonomize the natural universe and the artificial, symbolic, created universe that is our intellectual home.


Every member of a hierarchy is classified relative to both an unattainably perfect ideal and the conception of that perfect example's negative. The difference between separate items in the hierarchy and between an item and its ideal or negative form is seen as mystery. Mystery is the unknown or unknowable property of separateness that always exist between members of any hierarchy.


Creation of Mystery.


Burke offers three explanations of the things that create mystery: terministic screens, occupational psychosis, and trained incapacity. The distinct manner of each individual's life creates a unique perspective for that individual that Burke calls occupational psychosis. The unique occupational psychosis of each individual leads him or her to interpret the universe through a series of terministic screens related to the experiences he or she has had and the store of trusted knowledge that was a result of those experiences. Experiences that are suitable for the situations the individual has already experienced are not necessarily suitable for other experiences, i.e. flying in a jet doesn't prepare one for the experience of rollerskating. Our trained incapacity is the disability that results from our occupational psychosis and terministic screens.


These differences in perspective create unbridgeable gulfs between individuals which preclude perfect understanding of the ideas of others. One of the essential attributes of mystery, however, is that each of us has a natural awareness of it, and so we filter the confidence we have in the understanding that exists between ourselves and others through that awareness. This lack of certainty and lack of understanding is a primary cause of the alienation we feel from one another.


A result of operating within this hierarchical framework is that communication is socially constructed to provide us with a cycle of "pollution-purification-redemption," and that ideas are created and engaged to move us through this process, resulting in experiences that create knowledge the individual can internalize and build upon. The net result is that all human action can be viewed as a a cycle of striving toward perfection, realization that perfection has not been attained, and the incorporation of knowledge gained from failure that provides a new starting point for further trips through the cycle.



Works Cited


Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp.


      Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 3rd Ed.


      Waveland Press. Prospect Heights, IL: 2002.