Burke, _Grammar of Motives_

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1945 (Part 1) (126 pages)

The Grammar of Motives refers to the five principles (or grammars) of the pentad:

  1. Act—names what took place, in thought or deed;
  2. Scene—the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred;
  3. Agent—what person or kind of person performed the act;
  4. Agency—what means of instruments he/she used;
  5. Purpose

In any discussion of motives, Burke claims, these five principles and their ratios (or causitory) can analyze and uncover motives. As he writes, “any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where was it done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (xv). Grammar, as opposed to philosophy, refers to the terms and the interaction among the terms; once we ascribe the terms to equivalent motives and statements in actually, it would then become philosophies by understanding the casuistries “which apply these principles to temporal situations” (xvi).

Burke also notes the necessary ambiguity among these terms; ambiguity thus is a resource that is part of transformation: “So that A may become non-A. But not merely by leap from one state to the other. Rather, we must take A back into the ground of its existence, the logical substance that is its causal ancestor, and on to appoint where it is consubstantial with non-A; then we may return, this time emerging with non-A instead” (xix). In other words, Burke sees paradoxes among terms, meaning, and interpretations (a calling card of ambiguity) not as disruptive to meaning, but as a starting point to understand consubstantiation.

He also take as his method of applying the pentad as “dramatism”: “invites one to consider the matter of motives in perspective that, being developed from the analysis of drama, treats language and thought primarily as modes of action” (xxii; emphasis mine). The key in dramatism is the active-ness of language and thought within the pentad.


Container and Things Contained

Burke examines closely the Scene-Act Ratio and the Scene-Agent Ratio.

Scene-Act: For Burke, Scene is a container of the act, “expressing in fixed properties the same quality that the action expresses in terms of development” (3). As a container, the surroundings between the actor and agent “provide a man with a motive for an act.” And more specifically, “men’s behavior and development are explained in terms of environment” (5). The scene implicitly (ambiguously) reflects the quality of the action within it: “the stage-set contains the action ambiguously…—and in the course of the play’s development this ambiguity is converted into corresponding articulacy. The proportion would be: scene is to act as implicit is to explicit” (7). Scene-Agent: Likeise, there exists a “synechochic relation…between person and place” (7). As Burke writes, “here the nature of the inhabitants is translated into terms of their habitation” (9) by way of example, Burke writes that a brutalizing environment would, thus, contain brutalized characters.

Burke, however, also notes the reciprocity among these three principles (scene, act, agent). Just as the scene contains (and to some extent determines) the actions of the agent and act, the agent can act upon the environment in a way that designs the scene in their image; thus, designing their motives.: “She had strategically modified the arrangement of the scene in such a way that it implicitly (ambiguously) contained the quality of the act” (11). Burke also notes an important distinction between action and motion: when a scene makes the agent’s actions automated motions, then the drama breaks down. As Burke writes, “’Dramatistically,’ the basic unit of action would be defined as ‘human body in conscious and purposive motion’” (14).

Burke also outlines the two ways the ratios can be applied: deterministic usage (an act had to be enacted given the situation) or hortatory usage (an act should be adopted in conformity with the situation). Around this point, Burke becomes less clear: where he claims, “the ratios are principles of determiniation” (15), he later claims, in reference to act-agent ration, “in reality, we are capable of but partial acts, acts that but partially represent us and that produce but partial transformations” (19). In other words, acts may contribute but do not always determine the agent. This latter claim is a bit more aligned with later arguments where he discusses the difference between act and state: act refers to the actualization and state refers to potentiality (43).


Antinomies of Definition

Here, Burke both defines his key term of substance and offers a discussion of defining terms. Substance is part of a family of terms related to “stance” or “place or placement.” Inherent in the meaning of substance is a paradox: it both refers to an extrinsic value (referring to something you are literally standing upon or under thus positioned outside the body) and intrinsic (referring to what the thing is positioned within the thing itself). However, this is not an issue; in fact, through his embrace of ambiguity, Burke finds consubstantiation among these definitions: “single object in the universise is ‘defined’ (determined, limited, bounded) by the other things that surround it” (25). He continues, “we should consider each thing in terms of its total context, the universal scene as a whole. Only when considering the universe as a whole, and its parts in terms of the whole, would we be making an ‘intrinsic’ statement about substance, since there was but one substance, the universal totality” (25).

From here, Burke begins to discuss communion among people, pointing to an Aristotelian understanding of commonality placed in common motives (“does the tribe exist in its members?” 27). He points to Familial substance as an kind of consubstantiation among people due not only to biological heritage, but also shared beliefs and goals.

Moving more toward “verbal action” (or maybe discursive action), Burke looks to dialectical substance which refers to the relationships built “not only in nature” but “cultural accretions made possible by the language motive become a ‘second nature’ with them” (33). Dialectic substance, then, refers to human motives “in terms of verbal action” within (or as point of departure to) dramatism. Burke then refers to two twin kinds of departures (but refers to them in three ways): distinction is confused or conflated with contrast; or something is synecdochically related to a whole, it is seen in divisive relation to it; or a part is fashioned as a part (53-4). This argument, then, is a continuation of the idea of ambiguity as resource, seeing the Dialectic as a way to see the distinction between ideas yet seeing them consubstantial or of the same substance.

In closing this chapter, Burke offers a (round-about) definition of rhetoric: namely, the principles he describes as the grammar of motives “are not ‘illusions’, but citable realities,” he continues, “Nothing is more imperiously there for observation and study than the tactics people employ when they would injure or gratify one another—and one can readily demonstrate the role of substantiation in such tactics” (57). Put simply, rhetoric is not an abstract; the ways in which we use terminology to describe our world has impact on the reality o the world itself. Specifically, he describes words as “real words, involving real tactics, having real demonstrable relationships, and demonstrably affecting relationships” (57-8). His allusion to relationships is key: rhetoric places the study of the ways language defines our relationships (or anti-relationships) with each other. And ultimately equates the “nature of the world” with “the nature of statements” (58).


Scope and Reduction

At the start, Burke (without naming it explicitly) describes the power of terministic screens; he points to how we seek out vocabularies that “will be faithful reflections of reality” and thus are selections of reality. Any selection must deflect other aspects of reality. In other words, the vocabuliaries we employ define a scope within reality that necessarily functions as a reduction of reality “when the given terminology, or calculus is not suited to the subject matter it is designed to calculate” (59). In a way, he uses this discussion to understand the idea of the paradigm shift (though doesn’t call it as such). He defines paradigm alongside “prototype”: “That is, what would be the ‘pure’ act, an act so thoroughly an act that it could be considered the form or prototype of all acts? For if we could have a conception of consummate act, any less thorough acts could be seen as departure from it, as but partial exemplifications” (61). Put another way, paradigms point to a kind of ideal system of acts: when operating within a terministic screen, there are prototypical acts of which other acts are designed against. However, when certain aspects of reality are not represented in our terministic screen, we develop a language that does not conform to the “anecdote”, or prototype, or paradigm.

Burke (through an extended example of “the Creator” and “the Creation” that I don’t feel like expanding on) uses prototype to discuss a kind of assessment: “to study the nature of the term, act, one must select a prototype, or paradigm of action” (66). Here, he seems to implicitly allude to assessment of acts or simply the position of viewing or observing. From here, he discusses the idea of circumference: where a terministic screen—or language—can define the locus of observation: “when ‘defining by location,’ one may place the object of one’s definition in context of varying scope. …the choice of circumference for the scene in terms of which a given act is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself” (77). Circumference, then, seems like the process of cordoning off—or reflecting/deflecting/selecting—ways to see a scene by designing a terminology to make aspects represented in the terminology (or not represented). This has certain implications for the pentad. For example, he offers the scenario: “how could a man be ‘good’ in a ‘bad’ situation” given the scene-agent or scene-act ratio (83)? As he writes, “one has a great variety of circumferences to select as characterizations of a given agent’s scene” (84).

He offers the duel ideas of freedom and necessity as a way to understand the contingent nature of circumferences. “in confronting this wide range in the choice of a circumference for the location of an act, men confront what is distinctively the human freedom and the human necessity. This necessity is a freedom insofar as the choice of circumference leads to an adequate interpretation of motives: and it is an enslavement insofar as the interpretation is inadequate” (84). In other words, man is free to choose his circumferences, but every circumference is a product of some paradigm/prototype (necessity).

Burke also discusses the idea of the “god-term”, but I’ll leave it to Gallagher to define this: god-terms are vague but powerful words or phrases around which people organize their lives. One might think of “freedom” or “money,” perhaps—a term load-bearing enough “that we can treat the world in terms of it, seeing all as emanations, near and far, of its light” (Burke, 1969, p. 105).



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