A Rhetoric of Motives, Take Two

All told, persuasion ranges from the bluntest quest of advantage, as in sales promotion or propaganda, through courtship, social etiquette, education, and the sermon, to a “pure” form that delights in the process of appeal for itself alone, without ulterior purpose. And identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, “I was a farm boy myself,” through the mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being. (xiv)

So I recently came across an article (William Benoit’s “A Note on Burke on ‘Motive’”—thanks, Kate!) that likely would have been useful prior to my first reading of A Rhetoric of Motives. Benoit clarifies what our ordinary conceptions of motives are and looks specifically at how Burke uses the term in an alternative way. First, Benoit offers a traditional definition of motive: “a mental construct, a cogniton that motivates, impels, or shapes human behavior, including symbolic action” (68). This definition focuses on motive as a(n internal) cognitive force that drives action. An alternative reading of motives, however, focuses on C. Wright Mills’s conception of motive as discourse oriented. That is, “Mills situates motives in words or linguistic behavior rather than the internal states of people” (69). Motives are not always internal forces that occur before or during an action. So Benoit offers an alternative definition:

utterances that usually occur after actions, intended to explain, justify, characterize, or interpret those actions. Thus, motives are not cognitive, private, or situational factors that prompt, impel, create, or cause action, but are accounts, linguistic devices that function to explain, justify, interpret, or rationalize actions. (70, emphasis added)

Here, there is a distinction between motives: motive(I) as the internal force that drive the action and motive(D) as that which occurs after to justify the action. Benoit thinks that Burke is less concerned with what forces prompt action as much as he’s interested in “how rhetors use discourse to describe the forces or factors that they claim are responsible for their actions” (76).

This concern comes through in Burke’s book project. Burke writes that we can extend the range of rhetoric “if one studies the persuasiveness of false or inadequate terms which may not be directly imposed upon us from without by some skillful speaker, but which we impose upon ourselves, in varying degrees of deliberateness and unawareness, through motives indeterminately self-protective and/or suicidal” (35). This emphasizes not simply the forces driving the rhetorical action (as chosen by the rhetor) but also values those things that we (as audience) attribute to that situation. This makes room for the way rhetoric is both used (through persuasive resources) and addressed (through identification with an audience).

This quotation also emphasizes the linguistic function of rhetoric, reinforcing Benoit’s claim that Burke’s use of motive is discursively focused. Burke writes, “[Rhetoric] is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). If the function of rhetoric is realistic, Burke argues that this is a realism of moral and persuasive acts (44)—again, tying to the rhetoric of motives(D) as the linguistic utterances we use to understand and justify rhetorical acts.

Identification, then, is integral to persuasion insofar as it manifests within stylistic (linguistic) choices that a rhetor makes in order to address and persuade an audience. Burke writes, “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). These are all symbolic substances and utterances that contribute to understanding action.

This is the point I was making recently at Computers and Writing in terms of how disabled people create identification (and then consubstantiality) with and across different audiences through memes—a textual genre tied to specific linguistic functions and stylistic conventions.

Thinking back to Royster, this is also a point that she makes. She claims that as writers, African American women represent themselves textually (through the essay) as “intelligent, well-informed, well-meaning people of good character who should speak, who should be heard, and to whom audiences should respond” (65). This, of course, is an issue of attempting to create identification through stylistic choices in order to create a space for productive rhetorical engagement.

Royster also uses identification to explain her positionality as a researcher within the community of women she researches. She relies on Burke’s acknowledgement that identity is constructed in order to acknowledge her own constructed methodology and identification with the women she researched, ultimately noting that the negotiations involved with identification must account for the “shifting conditions, values, and circumstances between human beings” (272).

Part of what Royster asks us to do is reconsider the rhetorical situation (context, ethos, rhetorical action). And with Burke’s focus on reviving and expanding the range of rhetoric as persuasion, it’s feasible to think of Burke as part of rhetorical situation discourse, too, as he positions rhetoric within a framework of action and identification (which is necessarily tied to ethos and the larger context of persuasion).



Benoit, William. “A Note on Burke on ‘Motive.’” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 26.2 (1996): 67-79. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.


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