A Grammar of Motives

What is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it? An answer to that question is the subject of this book. The book is concerned with the basic forms of thought which, in accordance with the nature of the world as all men necessarily experience it, are exemplified in the attributing of motive. (xv)

It’s been really difficult for me to write this post. I read A Rhetoric of Motives first and was anxious because of all the Burke hype. Turns out, I really enjoyed that book and find a lot of the points/concepts in it compelling. Reading this one, though, was a much different experience, and I’ve drafted this post a number of times just trying to figure out what I could possibly say that isn’t simply regurgitation.

Just like when I read Rhetoric, there was this “aha!” moment when I encountered some of the Burkean words that I hear thrown around in conversations. Instead of the chapter breakdowns I have been doing, it seems useful to parse out some of these terms and concepts as they relate to the pentad (which is the major takeaway for me). So this is, by no means, a complete look at Grammar.

First is the pentad itself—act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose.

  • act: “names what took place, in thought or in deed”
  • scene: “the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred”
  • agent: “what person or kind of person performed the act”
  • agency: “what means or instruments he used”
  • purpose: though not formally defined like the others, I imagine this is the motive.

Burke’s approach for this book is to analyze how individuals’ thoughts and contexts intersect to create motives through these terms. He argues that any sort of complete statement about motives should attend to the five W’s (and one H): what (act), when/where (scene), who (agent), how (agency), and why (purpose).

The pentad is integral for understanding the purpose of the book:

We want to inquire into the purely internal relationships which the five terms bear to one another, considering their possibilities of transformation, their range of permutations and combinations—and then to see how these various resources figure in actual statements about human motives. Strictly speaking, we mean by a Grammar of motives a concern with the terms alone, without reference to the ways in which their potentialities have been or can be utilized in actual statements about motives. (xvi)

The terms become principles for understanding ambiguity within rhetorical situations. Coming out of the post-WWII era, this seems particularly relevant for considering human motive. The task of such principles, then, is “to study and clarify the resources of ambiguity” (xix) rather than to ignore them, and so these grammatical principles are tools for understanding where ambiguity arises within complex situations.

These five terms/principles fit within Burke’s larger methodological framework: dramatism. He uses dramatism because “it invites one to consider the matter of motives in a perspective that, being developed from the analysis of drama, treats language and thought primarily as modes of action” (xxii). So it becomes a (philosophical) method for understanding human behavior.

So what?

I’m interested in the way Burke talks about agency here. He writes, “It is a principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene” (3), wherein the scene is the container and the act is the thing contained. With regard to the scene-act and scene-agent ratios, he argues that “[b]oth act and agent require scenes that ‘contain’ them” (15). So there’s an underlying narrative here about socialization. Burke argues that the agent doesn’t contain the act, although the actions can pre-exist within the agent. To go a step further, then, the act (and different ways of acting) can affect the agent. So there’s a dynamic wherein “[t]he agent is an author of his acts, which are descended from him” (16). I find this both interesting and a little disconcerting because it seems like an argument about how where we come from (the scene/s we’re contained within) influences who we are (as agents) and what we do (through acts).

The thing that concerns me about this is the limitations it places on the agent who is seemingly constrained within the scene. Burke offers so many detailed examples, but they never make any sense to me because I don’t understand their referents. So part of my struggle was trying to think of a practical example that could help me understand this. And actually what this makes me think of are overcoming narratives—people triumphing over their limitations, their backgrounds, those things that “contain” them. The whole idea of overcoming rhetoric is that people should be able to transcend those (frequently bodily) limitations.

Attitude may play into this. Burke writes that “one may deflect attention from scenic matters by situating the motives of an act in the agent … or conversely, one may deflect attention from the criticism of personal motives by deriving an act or attitude not from traits of the agent but from the nature of the situation” (17). Attitude is part of the agent because it is a preparation for the act (so it can’t be an act) and is a state of mind (20).

This is where Burke opens space for the circular possibility of these ratios:

If an agent acts in keeping with his nature as an agent (act-agent ratio), he may change the nature of the scene accordingly (scene-act ratio), and thereby establish a state of unity between himself and his world (scene-agent ratio). Or the scene may call for a certain kind of act, which makes for a corresponding kind of agent, thereby likening agent to scene. Or our act may change us and our scene, producing a mutual conformity. (19)

I feel like this is particularly useful for thinking more concretely about his project of using the pentad as principles for understanding ambiguity within situations. It’s also an interesting example for thinking about the rhetorical situations debates and the dynamic between exigence/rhetor (is it an issue of exigence-rhetor or rhetor-exigence?).

Importantly, here, Burke argues that “we are capable of but partial acts, acts that but partially represent us and that produce but partial transformations” (19). This is again useful for thinking about overcoming.

So one of Burke’s basic examples of how the grammatical principles of the pentad manifest within a situation is this: “The hero (agent) with the help of a friend (co-agent) outwits the villain (counter-agent) by using a file (agency) that enables him to break his bonds (act) in order to escape (purpose) from the room where he has been confined (scene)” (xx). In line with his argument about ambiguity, though, there are multiple ways of analyzing and understanding this situation.

This makes me think of a conversation my students and I have been having all semester and that manifested in a video (“The Aesthetics of Prosthetics”) someone showed in our last class this morning.

This video touches on a number of themes we’ve been discussing: representations of disability, the role of technology, disability design/aesthetic, how bodies are normalized, and…overcoming. So with Burke, a typical overcoming narrative might play out the following way: The disabled person (agent), likely with the help of a friend/family member/point of authority (co-agent), uses some sort of support system/advanced technology (agency) that allows her to overcome her disability (act) in order to better assimilate/normalize herself into a predominantly able-bodied society (scene).

The video changes up these players. Kevin Connolly is the agent who acts against the constraints of the scene in order to overcome not his disability but adversity itself (which Linton tells us is all overcoming can really be—a partial act, partial transformation).

I feel like disability studies constantly questions these motives for overcoming: Is it the scene that impacts the agent and thus the agency? Is the agent constrained by the scene, or can the agent transform the scene? Is the agent motivated by the scene or a larger purpose? What tools are available for the agent? How do those tools both work to allow the agent to fit in with and disrupt the scene? I can certainly see how the grammatical principles could be useful here for parsing out these different ambiguities.

This is also interesting for thinking about the antinomies of definition he outlines (which made me think of Saussure…). Burke focuses on substance and the evolution of definitions in order to show how the etymological meaning (substance) of words is lost over time, and we attach symbolic meanings to those words (23). I frequently have this conversation with my students about the origin of the term “disability” and its various, negative counterparts. They frequently want to use terms like “handicapped” and “challenged” because they think of disability as a really bad word; that is, they frequently attach social stigma to the word, which erases its material meaning.

And since I already brought it up, it just seems useful to define contextual and familial definition. Burke writes, “To tell what a thing is, you place it in terms of something else…to define, or determine a thing, is to mark its boundaries, hence to use terms that possess, implicitly at least, contextual reference” (24). This is, obviously, contextual definition. This is useful for thinking about how we label disability itself, marking its boundaries in relation to how we normalize bodies through IQ and a number of physical/mental functions. Familial definition, then, is related because context is “derived from the substance of the parents or family” (26), but it is derived rather than placed.

I could see these being interesting for thinking about how we assign disability identity—how disability is both material and biological, how it is medically diagnosed and assigned meaning, how it is socially constructed, and even how folks place themselves into different disability identity categories (and how they choose to identify with others in various contexts).

The final thing that seems really relevant for me here is Burke’s exploration of the representative anecdote as a justification for why he chose dramatism as his framework. I’m not interested in the term itself as much as his explanation of the process of choosing a method/calculus. He writes:

Men seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality. Insofar as the vocabulary meets the needs of reflection, we can say that it has the necessary scope. In its selectivity, it is a reduction. Its scope and reduction become a deflection when the given terminology, or calculus, is not suited to the subject matter which it is designed to calculate. (59)

This is a nice follow-up to the discussion of definition because we name things with the hope of reflecting what they are, even though it’s only a selection (and deflection) of reality. When we name things, we inevitably reduce them, so everything becomes a representative anecdote. This also plays in to the ambiguity of the pentad because the way we name different principles within rhetorical situations is inevitably a reduction of what occurred within particular situations, which is why the ratios are interesting because they constantly flip the meaning and our understanding of motives depending on what information is foregrounded.



Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1945. Print.

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