Kenneth Burke and Argument? an Introduction

By Parson, Donn W. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Kenneth Burke and Argument? an Introduction


Parson, Donn W., Argumentation and Advocacy


Kenneth Burke and argument? Surely it would be more appropriate to speak of Kenneth Burke OR argument, or at least to treat the phrase as an oxymoron. After all, Burke alludes to almost no modern writings in argumentation--although his survey of classical rhetoric might be construed as a survey of argumentation. And few, if any, argumentation and debate texts ever mention Kenneth Burke. Apparently the two traditions, Burke and argumentation, were meant to wander their separate ways in the twentieth century.

In 1991 a program was proposed for the Speech Communication Association Association convention on Burke and argument. I was asked to serve as program critic, and entitled my response, "Finding Argument under Burkean Stones." The title suggested my approach of doubting, debunking, casuistically stretching positions, and generally suggesting that if this new consubstantiality was pushed, Burke would probably sue. I think I reflected the same bifurcation that the initial essay by James Klumpp suggests: a mental separation of Burke and argument despite an interest in both. Klumpp's "Rapprochement between Dramatism and Argumentation" describes his intellectual journey and its attendant difficulties.

Perhaps Burke was right after all: the separation of these two traditions was the neat product of our "either/or" orientations and corresponding terministic screens. The idea of combining Burke and argument at least deserved some additional focus. Yet two conclusions seemed clear from the beginning: (1) Burke argues, often and interestingly; and (2) Burke offers no systematic and complete theory of argument.

That Burke argues is probably beyond dispute. Those who have responded to Burke's positions on political policy, such as Sidney Hook (Hook, Critical Responses), on behaviorism, on technology, on science, or on a variety of other positions respond to his arguments. Some find his arguments innovative, insightful and productive; others have characterized them as assertive, overgeneralized, and wrong. William Rueckert's volume, Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, is filled with comments on Burke's arguments, although not always clothed in the language of argument. Perhaps it is difficult if not impossible to engage in criticism without entering the domain of argument. It seems clear, however, that few Burke readers would doubt that he creates arguments, and at times seems to revel in those arguments.

All Burke arguments do not seem to be either of the same type or follow the same patterns, however. Sometimes Burke will set down specific criteria for establishing a conclusion, as when one is making a claim for the representativeness of an anecdote. Sometimes he is gliding over centuries as in his "dramatization" of historical acts in Attitudes Toward History, or compressing philosophic positions as he does in their pentadic placement in Grammar of Motives. When typical rules of argument and evidence use are applied, Burke often comes up short as the last essay by David Levasseur, "Edifying Arguments and Perspective by Incongruity: The Perplexing Argumentation Method of Kenneth Burke," illustrates. Perhaps the act of

describing how Burke argues even broadens our view of argument.

But Burke seems to offer no clear system for argument. Consequently "finding" a theory of argument, or positions that inform argument theory, will be an inferential process, and the work may be that of a detective. But where should one look?

One clue might appear early in the Grammar of Motives, when Burke observes that in choosing a vocabulary of action, humans necessarily select a part of reality and reason from that part. The act is inferential, as Burke suggests:

Men (sic) 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. …

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