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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.1 (2002) 22-49

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Kenneth Burke:
A Dialogue of Motives

Jeffrey W. Murray



In "Four Master Tropes," Appendix D of A Grammar of Motives (1969a), Kenneth Burke investigates the tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. His "primary concern with them . . . [is] not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of 'the truth'" (1969a, 503). Burke's placement of "the truth" in quotation marks reflects his rejection of any simplistically objectivist notion of truth. He is not interested in how these rhetorical figures ornament truth, as if truth existed prior to the entrance of rhetoric. Rather, the relationship between these four master tropes and truth is more complicated. Truth is, for Burke, a rhetorical product as much as a rhetorical precursor. Hence, the tropes function not only epistemologically in the discovery of truth, but also ontologically in the very constitution of truth. 1 Burke's subsequent discussion of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony illustrates how each trope functions dramatistically to make, and to make known, the world.

When Burke discusses the trope of irony, the relationship between rhetoric and truth is further complicated. Irony is dialogical. 2 Whereas metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche offer particular perspectives for viewing and knowing the world, irony offers a "perspective of perspectives" (1969a, 512). Ultimately, irony depends upon the perspectives of Others—of other symbol users—and is thus an explicitly dialogical rather than rhetorical trope. Moreover, this inclusion of the voices of Others in the construction of "truth" distinguishes irony as ethical. Irony may, in fact, offer the clearest view of Burke's own incipient theory of ethics. Over against his few explicit discussions of ethics, which reflect either an Aristotelian or Kantian approach to ethics, 3 Burke's development of the master trope of irony as a dialogical vehicle for the construction of intersubjective [End Page 22] truth reveals his maturing approach to ethics and a tacit synthesis of his dramatistic accounts of epistemology, ontology, and ethics.

Yet another concept is even more foundational for Burke's incipient theory of ethics within a dramatistic framework. Recalcitrance precedes irony as an account of the presencing of otherness in and through language. Prior to the experience of irony as a clash of perspectives, recalcitrance is the very crashing in of the second perspective. It is the resistance that is met by any particular symbolic framing of the world. Together, recalcitrance and irony form the core of Burke's (underdeveloped) dramatistic theory of ethics and constitute the groundwork for his proposed final installment of his trilogy, which might instead be appropriately "A Dialogue of Motives."

Using Emmanuel Levinas's phenomenology of the Other and reconception of ethics as the call to responsibility, 4 this article will demonstrate that Burke's notions of recalcitrance and irony are the groundwork for a full dramatistic description of the phenomenological encounter with the Other and of the nature of the ethical encounter. Moreover, this discussion of recalcitrance and irony will be placed in the context of Burke's two major works, A Grammar of Motives (1969a) and A Rhetoric of Motives (1969b), in an attempt to indicate the implicit trajectory of these works toward the third volume of the trilogy, referred to here as "A Dialogue of Motives." 5 The addition of "A Dialogue of Motives" will rectify Burke's lack of emphasis on ethics and upon the Other, and together, Burke's A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives, and "A Dialogue of Motives"will recast traditional philosophy's main branches of ontology, epistemology, and ethics into dramatistic—i.e., grammatical, rhetorical, and dialogical—terms.

In addition, this proposed completion of Burke's trilogy provides a unique conception of dialogue that promises to expand and enrich existing conceptions of dialogue within the field of communication studies. Specifically, a dramatistic notion of dialogue bifurcates traditional notions of two-way, dialogical communication into a "rhetoric" of motives that seeks identification and a "dialogue" of motives that maintains difference. To that end, Burke's notion of dialectic will be discussed in order to...