Kenneth Burke: Core Texts & Summaries

From Language as Symbolic Action

Terministic Screens

Burke’s Terministic Screens, a frequently referenced chapter of Language as Symbolic Action, stresses a distinction between “scientistic” and “dramatistic” approaches to language. Identifying the “scientistic” approach as “language as definition” and, likewise, the ‘dramatistic” approach as “language as act,” Burke argues the two approaches diverge considerably to encourage two very different kinds of observation. The dramatistic approach, manifest through “stories, plays, poems, the rhetoric of oratory and advertising, mythologies, theologies, and philosophies after the classic model,” inevitably results in what Burke calls suasive, or the act of influencing or persuading. Associating the dramatistic with “action,” and further “symbolic action,” Burke locates the terministic screen: “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (1341). To illustrate, Burke provides an example of three different photographs of the same objects, each taken with a different color filter. Each photograph provides the viewer with a different set of characteristics, yet they all represent the same object in focus. In other words, the color filters “reflect” and “deflect” attention into particular channels. To elaborate, Burke suggests a scenario in which one’s dream is interpreted by three different analysts (Freud, Jung, and Alder); one is “subjected to a different color filter, with corresponding differences in the nature of the event as perceived, recorded, and interpreted” (1341). Questioning observations of “reality,” Burke then sustains that our observations are ramifications of the terminology provided; in other words, our reality is filtered, masked, or screened by the lexicon at our disposal, and our notions of “reality” are thus implied. Drawing upon Jeremy Bentham, the idea that we must make sense of the world through borrowing terms from our physical world, Burke notes that our expression of concepts are in fact “fictions.” This world of fictions is ingrained with a system of symbols, and this system thus screens our experience; Burke continues to suggest that “reality” is thus inaccessible. In providing examples, Burke draws upon differences among terministic screens which suggest differences of degree and kind. Darwin, for example, views a difference of degree between man and animals (continuous with animals). Conversely, a theologian views a difference of kind (discontinuous with animals). This discussion, which initiates a philosophical perspective throughout the remainder of the piece, moves toward the “dramatistic screen.” Separate from “behaviorist” or the “application of special scientific terminologies,” the dramatistic screen helps illustrate the distinction “between the ‘actions’ of ‘persons’ and the sheer ‘motions’ of ‘things’ (1346). In the final paragraph, Burke identifies the stark reality of employing “drama” as a metaphor for human action.


Questions for Discussion

  1. What terms, concepts, or ideas mentioned in Terministic Screens were fascinating or profound? Did the piece leave you with a greater understanding of human behavior?
  1. Can you think of an example of a terministic screen? How does this screen filter your
  1. Burke notes that “We must use terministic screens, since we can’t say anything without the use of terms […]” (1344). To what extent do you agree or disagree? Why?
  1. In what way does Burke provide you with a terministic screen? Has the dramatistic approach, for example, filtered your view of human language and behavior? If so, can this be detrimental to Burke’s argument? Why or why not?


From A Grammar of Motives

“Introduction: The Five Key Terms of Dramatism”

In the “Introduction: The Five Key Terms of Dramatism,” Burke identifies a systematic method for understanding human thoughts and motives. Five terms guide the piece, noted as “generating principles of our investigation” (1298). Act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose comprise such guiding principles. Some word must name the act, which refers to what took place; another must name the scene, which locates the stage of the act; an agent must be identified, one who performed the act; how the agent performed the act (agency) and the mechanisms the agent employed; and lastly, the purpose. Burke notes a designation between grammatical resources (principles) and the application of such principles to “temporal situations” (casuistries). The application of a grammatical principle is exemplified by simply applying a blanket term, such as scene, to stand for a background or setting in general. This blanket term can thus be applied to any situation; Burke argues this process is “grammatical” in nature. Grammar, forecasted by Burke, enables the work to illustrate both the “Symbolic” (psychological) and “Rhetoric.” Recognizing the potential for ambiguities in the work, Burke identifies that transformation occurs within the areas of ambiguity. Further into the piece, Burke demonstrates the potential for subdivision of general headings. An agent, for example, may be acting in a modified fashion based on co-agents or counteragents. It is noted as a matter of perception where the source of an agency should be traced. Indeed, reducing the terms to merely one will have its necessary complications. Centered on “dramatism,” Burke identifies the reasoning behind this approach, which “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” (1302). To close, Burke notes the expansive task of a motivational theory. Burke is optimistic, however, that through the methodical operation of the terms, various classes of motivational theory may be generated and anticipated.


Questions for Discussion

  1. Burke notes the simplicity of applying the pentad while “pondering matters of human motivation […]” (1298). Do you also see this simplicity?
  1. Ambiguity is identified as an area within which transformations occur (1300). Do you view this as a forecast for progression, or simply a safeguard from potential criticism?


From A Rhetoric of Motives


In the Introduction to A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke identifies the place of rhetoric in literature. An imagery of killing, for example, may represent “a process of change” (1324). Further, rhetorical motives are present where they usually lie unrecognized. Discovering these motives is as simple as applying a general focus on identification. Early in the Introduction, Burke notes that rhetoric had fallen into disuse, only to be surpassed by other, more specialized disciplines. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke strives to evaluate text with both identification and persuasion in mind. In essence, in order for one to persuade, identification with another is required. In Identification and “Consubstantiality,” Burke elaborates on the “ambiguities of substance.” B, for example, identifies himself with A, and is thus “substantially one” with a being other than himself. Concurrently, however, B holds “an individual locus of motives.” As such, B “is both joined and separate, at one a distinct substance and consubstantial with another” (1325). In turn inviting comparisons and eliciting divisions with one another, Burke clarifies that if men were not separated, the rhetorician would have no situation to unite (1326). While Identifying Nature of Property, Burke affirms that rhetoric functions between the tensions of identification and division. Motivation further drives the autonomy of rhetorical act, which is best served by identification in its broadest sense. On the discussion of science, Burke criticizes claims for science as autonomous. Comparing sites of scientific research and practice as “secular temples,” science is noted for its sinister purposes. On the Realistic Functions of Rhetoric, Burke identifies, “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 is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (1338).


Questions for Discussion

  1. Throughout the readings, Burke writes in the “first person plural.” Why has he chosen to do so? Does this technique add a sense of collective agency?
  1. A Rhetoric of Motives is certainly expansive, but where does the piece have its strengths? Are there particular concepts or approaches that left an impression on you?
  1. As a theme, Burke seems to highlight the sinister nature of society. Why does he choose to do so? What direction can we now take from this week’s readings?