Burke, _A Rhetoric of Motives_

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952 (Parts 1 and 2)(183 pages)

The Range of Rhetoric

Using his discussion of the “Stance family” cited in Grammar—specifically substance and consubstantiation—Burke begins to define an understanding of Rhetoric that holds identification as a qualifying aspect of persuasion. In defining identification, Burke opens, “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their intersts are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so” (20). Burke is careful to point out the ambiguities between being wholly consubstantial (i.e. identical) and being wholly divided: “put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other beings, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25). In other words, identification implies division—in establishing categories, there are necessarily going to be some left out and in. As Burke writes, “Rhetoric deals with the possibilities of classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another” (22).

Burke further points out we must not think of rhetoric “in terms of some one particular address, but as a general body of identification” (26). This idea becomes important to note that “’Identification’ is a word for the autonomous activity’s place in this wider context, a place with which the agent may be concerned” (27). He points to a couple examples to make this more tangible: two students sitting side-by-side, learning the same specialized material also identify with that same material differently, depending on what they identify with on a wider context. In other words, “’Belonging’ in this sense is rhetorical” (28) because what we belong to induces how we act. Burke further considers how the division of labor, and the emergence of specialists and professionals (see Clarke and Halloran) is an affront to identification. As Burke writes, identification posits that “the principles of a specialty cannot be taken on their face, simply as the motives proper to that specialty” (31). In other words, specialty, division of labor, obscures how autonomy functions within wider systems. Science, for example, can be used for sinister deeds: “the demand that scientific advance per se be guided by military considerations changes the proportions of such motivation tremendously. Scientists of good will must then become uneasy, in that the morality of their specialty is no longer enough. The liberal ideal of autonomy is denied them, except insofar as they can contrive to conceal from themselves the true implications of their role” (35). Put simply, science is rhetorical despite its perceived autonomy from the sways of wider cultural and political contexts.

In this sense, rhetoric, in its concern with how knowledge is made and used, is considered inter-discplinary or meta-disciplinary: “For rhetoric as such is not rooted in any past condition of human society. It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and it continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). So, in other words, thinking about how knowledge is made among people—in disciplines and society—knowledge is accordingly always addressed to someone in order to persuade them of consubstantiality. Burke sums succinctly, “a speaker persuades an audience by the use of stylistic identifications; his act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify itself with the speaker’s interests; and the speaker draws on identification of interests to establish rapport between himself and his audience. So, there is no chance of our keeping apart the meanings of persuasion, identification (‘consubstantiality’) and communication (the nature of rhetoric as ‘addressed’)” (46).


Traditional Principles of Rhetoric

From here, Burke begins to unpack preconceived, historical notions of Rhetoric, rooted namely in persuasion. Pointing to a few historical definitons, he notes the intimate relationship between persuasion and rhetoric—persuasion also often involves the ability to speak well in terms of use and virtue (Quintilian). Through these definitions, Burke unpacks persuasion as a concept. He notes that persuasion involves choice: “it is directed to a man only insofar as he is free. …insofar as a choice of action is restricted, rhetoric seeks rather to have a formative effect upon attitude” (50). However, and to his overall point, key aspect of rhetoric is identification: “you persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (55).

Burke also takes up the idea of imagination and image. Imagination, in rhetoric, is often employed “to convince the audience of the ‘reality and truth’ of a speaker’s assertions,” he continues, “it presumably serves to make the real seem doubly real rather than to make us, within the conditions of a fiction, believe in the ‘reality’ of things which we may not otherwise believe at all” (79). As Burke theorizes, imagination in rhetoric is key to move man to action because action is motivated by “real or apparent good” which can often be accessed through perception.


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