“The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.”

Kenneth Burke

As early as 1941, English American poet W.H. Auden calls Kenneth Burke “unquestionably the most brilliant and suggestive critic now writing.” 

In his 1945 book, A Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke channels that brilliance toward one end: Burke sets out to consider every angle of influence of any given rhetorical act and develops a method for identification that offers readers a new way to think about rhetoric. 

Kenneth Burke

To achieve this, Burke poses the following question: “What is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” Answering this question with careful consideration and even charity describes what the French Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant later calls the “generosity of perception.” While it might seem like a simple way to approach interpretation, humans are messy, complicated creatures.

One of the most profound aspects of Kenneth Burke’s influence has to do with what he offers readers. Renowned literary critic, Harold Bloom, includes Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement and Rhetoric of Motives in his Western Literary Canon.

Harold Bloom explains Kenneth Burke is responsible for teaching him how to consider the author’s purpose in writing. More specifically, Burke inspires Bloom to pose the following question of each work:

"What was the writer trying to do for herself or himself, as a person, by writing this poem, play, or story?" Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
Harold Bloom The Western Canon
What this offers readers is a slight shift in orientation. Instead of presuming the writer intends to persuade the reader of something specific, the reader is taught to consider the exigence of the particular writing occasion. In turn, this allows the reader to enter into a generosity of perception because the purpose of the text shifts from persuasion to identification. Richard Toye, author of Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction, believes Kenneth Burke’s most significant contribution to rhetorical theory has to do with identification. It was Kenneth Burke who helped rhetoric transition from the art of persuasion to identification. He did this without losing the importance of the symbolic structures that inform the rhetorical act.
"Burke’s concept of ‘identification’ was not, as he acknowledged, completely new: techniques for speakers to identify themselves with their audiences went back at least to Aristotle. He did, however, provide a compelling sociological-cum-psychological explanation for its importance."

Richard Toye, Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction

Richard Toye Rhetoric A Very Short Introduction

Throughout his writing, Kenneth Burke maintains an appreciation for our common social, psychological, biological, and linguistic experiences. It is through these common experiences that we share a language and through language that we communicate. 

When Kenneth Burke says rhetoric is concerned with Babel after the fall, it is to highlight the revolving process of division and identification that we experience when we use language. Finding common ground through identification becomes the primary goal of rhetoric because it is only when we share a common language that it is possible to communicate and it is only through communication that we might potentially move one another to act. 

“But my position is this: That if we try to discover what the poem is doing for the poet, we may discover a set of generalizations as to what poems do for everybody. With these in mind, we have cues for analyzing the sort of eventfulness that the poem contains. And in analyzing this eventfulness, we shall make basic discoveries about the structure of the work itself.”

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

Action, for Burke, is the reason we communicate. Literature is equipment for living, for moving, and for use. He likens the book to a musical score – it offers instructions on how to live. 

The difficult part for readers is the humbling recognition that every act of reading is entering into an infinite conversation. To illustrate this, Burke offers the metaphor of the parlor. 


“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

This is precisely where action comes from, after all, drama gets its material from this unending conversation. To be human is to communicate, and according to Kenneth Burke, to communicate well is to offer more and more opportunities for identification. 

Recommended Reading

Kenneth Burke on Reading for Identification