Dramatism and Development

Kenneth Burke


Burke, K. (1972). Dramatism and Development. Barre, MA: Clark University Press. 


Dramatism and Development consists of a two-part lecture given by Kenneth Burke at the 1971 Heinz Weiner Lecture Series.  The introduction provided by Bernard Kaplan and Seymour Wapner explains, “The series is designed to provide a forum for outstanding scholars who are known for their contributions to and developmental analysis of biological, psychological and/or socio-cultural phenomena” (p. 9).  


“Biology, Psychology, Words”


This first lecture serves to establish the developmental process of Burke’s “Dramatistic” perspective in order to prepare the audience for the second lecture which focuses on “entelechy,” or the search for perfection. It begins with Burke discussing the process of drafting the lecture itself. 


1.     He introduces Aristotle’s concept of catharsis, which he equates with the “purgation of symbolic victimage” (p. 12), and suggests his position on Aristotle engages him in controversies of literary criticism.

2.     He then describes a turn to post-Aristotelian ideas, introducing the influence of Nietzsche, Freud, and George Thomson and discusses how their respective theories have contributed to his view of catharsis


In explaining the title of the lecture Burke writes, “I had in mind the particular aptitude that the human biological organism has for the learning of conventional symbol-systems (such as tribal language), our corresponding dependence upon this aptitude, and the important role it plays in the shaping of our experience” (p. 15).  The titles serves as what he refers to as a “summarizing statement,” and “could be made less general by the addition of a subtitle: ‘A Retrospective Exhibit’” (p. 15).   This subtitle allows Burke to focus this lecture on tracing the development of his “Dramatistic” perspective.  He does this by moving through the various books he had published at the point of this address.


1.     Counter-Statement

a.      This section explains that the focus of the book was on “expectation.”  Burke states, “Though the concern in Counter-Statement was with expectations as experienced by an audience or reader in connection with an artistic performance, a work such as David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding makes it apparent how important the role of expectation is in our ideas of all reality.  It is on the basis of expectations, be they true of false that we seek to shape the future in either progressive or conservative directions” (p. 16)

b.     He also comments upon the “strongly ‘negativistic’ slant” the book had toward society’s politics and economy (p. 17)

2.     Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose

a.      The focus of this book, according to Burke, was a more general discussion of human relations and the role of cooperation in communication. 

b.     He also defines “perspective by incongruity” stating that it “embodies the assumption that certain clusters of terms spontaneously exclude certain other clusters of terms; and these clusters tend to be kept apart, as though in different bins, unless a thinker who is in some respect ‘perverse’ suddenly bridges the gap” (p. 18)

3.     Attitudes Toward History: In this book Burke “tried to develop a comic theory of human relations” (p. 18).

4.     Philosophy and Literary Form

a.      Burke discusses his method/procedure of critique.  He writes, “Any work is a set of interrelated terms, with corresponding ‘equations,’ sometime explicit, but more often implicit” (p. 20)  He continues, “A book is the replica of the human mind which also has a vast assortment of such ‘equations,’ both explicit and implicit” (ibid.)

b.     There is a brief discussion on recommendations of which he claims there are two ways to recommend something: (1) pragmatic or utilitarian, in which you discuss the gains that will be made by a certain action, and (2) the tragic or sacrificial, where you discuss individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause (p. 21). 


There is a brief interlude in which Burke again clarifies his goals of the lecture.  He writes, “I am trying to present some interrelated principles of method, developed in the ‘Dramatistic’ step from specific literary analysis to the consideration of human motivation in general” (p. 21)


5.     A Grammar of Motives

a.      This book is where Burke provides “Dramatism” with a name, which he now would present as a “Cycle of Terms Implicit in the idea of an ‘Act’,” because of his “anti-Behaviorist” position that “Things move, persons act” (p. 21).

b.     In this book Burke also introduced the pentad, which he now views as an “analytic familyhood.”  He explains, “the idea of an act implied the idea of an agent; the idea of an agent acting implied the idea of a scene in which the act takes place; there can be no act without recourse to some means, or agency; and there can’t be such a thing as an act without a purpose…” (p. 22).

c.      He argues that the Dramatistic mode is a heuristic tool that creates a “panoramic” view of the term “act,” allowing one to see the details and implications of the term, as opposed to a deductive study that threatens to over-simplify it (p. 23).

d.     He comments that he wishes the pentad had been a hexad, with attitude as the sixth element.

e.      He addresses criticisms that the book received by elaborating on his scene-act and agent-act ratios. Using the example of the changing scene of the Constitution, Burke discusses the possibility of a transformation of the scene.  He concludes by stating: “If there really is such a terministic function as a scene-act ratio, then our ultimate statements about human motivation must be either theological or philosophical.  They cannot be scientific in our sense of the sciences as specialized disciplines […] And in any case the logic of the scene-act ratio would suggest that one cannot make statements about scene without implying loosely, interpretations about the motives of action” (p. 26-27).

6.     A Rhetoric of Motives

a.      The first point Burke addresses from this book is that the naturalistic attempt to explain the supernatural has blocked us from seeing the mystery of human relations.

b.     The second point he discusses is the need to include the term identification along with Aristotle’s focus on persuasion.  Burke contends, “But even without being subjected to such deliberate persuasion, we spontaneously identify ourselves with some groups or other, some trends or other – and we need a term for this kind of persuasion in which (you might say) we spontaneously, act upon ourselves” (p. 27-28). 

c.      Burke claims there are three ways in which to apply the term “Identification.”

                                                              i.     The first occurs in such situations as when “a politician who, though rich, tells humble constituents of his humble origins” (p. 28)

                                                            ii.     The second occurs when parties usually in conflict align against a common enemy.

                                                          iii.     The final, and most significant for Burke, are those that go unnoticed, such as in the use of the term “we.”

7.     The Rhetoric of Religion

a.      The concept of Order convinced Burke of the “pressures toward a sacrificial motive.”  He explains, “Trying to be as cheerful as possible, one might say that victimage is not inevitable.  But the temptation to victimage is ever born anew” (p. 29)


Burke begins to conclude the lecture by once again attempting to explain his purpose.  He provides the following explanations:


1.     “These various references to method, along with corresponding methodological admonitions, were attempts to survey what I take to be basic ways (or at least my basic ways) of confronting a text” (p. 30).

2.     “But primarily, in choosing that topic for my first talk, I had in mind considerations of this sort, as regards the relations between man’s ‘symbolicity’ and his sheer animality” (p. 30). 


The conclusion of this lecture centers on the Dramatistic concept of “freedom,” which Burke argues can only “be grounded in the realm of symbolic action” (p. 32). 


“Archetype and Entelechy”


The second lecture begins with Burke recapping the previous talk.  He states, “The logic (or logologic) underlying the first talk was this: Nomenclatures are formative, or creative, in the sense that they affect the nature of our observations, by turning our attention in this direction rather than that, and by having implicit in them ways of dividing up a field of inquiry” (p. 33).


Burke then reintroduces Aristotle’s nomenclature as having a “Dramatistic” essence.  His understanding and elaboration on Aristotle’s nomenclature, especially the term “catharsis” has been influenced by Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and George Thompson.


Next Burke addresses the issue of interdisciplinary study.  In reference to anthropology, psychology, and sociology He asks, “On what methodological grounds can someone outside any such particular field justify his choice among rival experts within the field” (p. 35)?


1.     The Dramatistic perspective provides only one method for interdisciplinary study. 

2.     Burke states, “One thing common to all the specialized sciences is the fact that each specialist uses some kind of terminology.  If, then, you specifically subscribe to some one over-all nomenclature, or theory of terminology in general, any choice you make from among competing specialists outside of your field can be methodologically justified in terms of your particular over-all terministic perspective” (p. 35-36).   


The discussion of interdisciplinary combination leads into Burke’s notion of “prophesying after the event” (p. 36).  He explains this as the critic’s process of “generating” a text, providing as an example his analysis, “The First Three Chapters of Genesis,” in which he “[derived] the text Dramatistically from a ‘Cycle of Terms Implicit in the Idea of ‘Order’’ (ibid.). 


At this point Burke shifts his focus to the subject of this lecture: Archetype and Entelechy. He begins by exploring the relationship between “entelechy” and “archetype” or “prototype” of the “primal crime.”   Drawing from Freud’s Oedipus Complex as the “primal crime” Burke enters into a discussion of Aristotle’s notion of tragedy. 


1.     Burke compares the Oedipus myth with the story of Abraham sacrificing his son in the Old Testament and the sacrificing of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.  In so doing, Burke concludes, “To this extent, whereas the basic lines of Western thought come to focus in variations on the theme of son rather than father as prime sacrificial figure” (p. 38)

2.     Drawing from The Rhetoric of Religion, in which Burke argues that the sacrificial principle is essential to social order, he translates Aristotle’s question of “what would be the perfect kinds of character for tragedy” to “What would be the ‘perfect imitated victim’” (ibid.)?

3.     Burke defines entelechy.  He explains, “I refer to such use of symbolic resources that potentialities can be said to attain their perfect fulfillment” (p. 39).


Burke turns from Aristotle’s search for perfection in fulfilling the tragic telos and returns to Freud, introducing his concept of “repetition compulsion” or “destiny compulsion.”


1.     Burke wishes to expand both Aristotle’s notion of entelechy and Freud’s concepts, which argue that persons strive to relive experiences so that they play out closer to a “perfect” situation.  Burke explains, “We could view such a compulsion as an ‘entelechial’ or ‘perfectionist’ motive if we but ‘widen the concept of perfection to the point where we can also use the term ironically, as when we speak of a ‘perfect fool’ of a ‘perfect villain’” (p. 40).

2.     He continues with an explanation of how this notion of perfection maps upon Freud’s “repetition compulsion”

a.      Specifically Burke argues that traumatic events establish for individuals a nomenclature with which they frame their attitudes.  People would come to view later situations with the nomenclature established by the past situation, trying to make the new situation map onto the old.  Burek explains, “The same process would be ‘entelechial’ or ‘perfectionist’ in the sense of the term, insofar as the sufferer was in effect striving to impose a ‘perfect’ form by using the key terms of his formative wound as a paradigm” (p. 42).

b.     Burke returns to the concept of the “primal crime.”  In which he explains that the notions of “archetype” and “prototype,” while not always depicting the actualities of the past, “can be mythic ways of formulating entelechial implications (or possible summings-up in principle) by translating them into terms of vaguely hypothetical past” (p. 43-44).  Burke provides two examples from his own writing to illustrate this point.

                                                              i.     He mentions the “temporizing of essence” from Grammar of Motives.

                                                            ii.     He also mention “The First Three Chapters of Genesis” in which he argues that the imposition of Order “makes men [sic] in principle subject to temptation” (p. 44)

c.      “Myth (story) translates statements about principles into archetypal, quasi-temporal terms” (ibid.)

3.     With an introduction of Plato’s “anamesis” Burke questions the order in establishing archetype.  In other words, is the archetype pre-existing or is it imposed after the fact? 

4.     Burke cautions against improper use of the notion of “archetype.”  He uses as an example Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, which Burke feels incorrectly argues that sex is dialectical, thus dialectics is sexual.  This reversal reduces  “principles of unity and division” to “special cases of sex, earth, and sky” (p. 47-48). 

5.     For Burke, “We are all mythmen [sic].”  We need myths to complete our experiences.  This is what Burke appears to mean by the “entelechial principle.”  He states, “The important consideration is not where such mythic completions come from geographically, but what they add up to symbolically” (p. 49).

a.      Burke then discusses ritual as an entelechial process that allows individuals to “transcend their nature as individuals” and become part of a group (ibid.). 

b.     He  concludes his discussion of entelechy by stating, “Perhaps it should also be pointed out that the culminative aspect of the entelechial principle is not confined to symbolic structures that have the quality of summaries and paradigms.  It can also come to a focus in the symbolizing of an attitude, since attitudes possess a summarizing quality” (p. 50).


After this discussion of entelechy and its connection to archetypes, Burke undertakes a brief examination of the role of satire in relation to these concepts. 

1.     He states, “The satirist can set up a situation whereby his text can ironically advocate the very ills that are depressing us – nay more, he can ‘perfect’ his presentation by a fantastic rationale that calls for still more of the maladjustments now besetting us” (p. 52).

2.     To clarify Burke addresses the conflict between “Humanism” and “Technologism”

a.      The two are placed in an antithetical relationship.

b.     Technologism is distinguished from technology in that it “would be built upon the assumption that the remedy for the problems arising from technology is to be sought in the development of ever more and more technology” (p. 53). 


Appendix A


This first appendix clarifies Burke’s use of the term “entelechy.”  He writes, “In these pages no such universal metaphysical application of the term is considered.  We are concerned solely with a ‘logological’ tendency intrinsic to the resources of symbolic action. If it does figure in the realm of sheer motion, the discussion of it in that respect would require quite different modes of observation and analysis” (p. 57). 


Appendix B


This appendix provides a model of the “dialectical design underlying the entelechial principle.  Using “bread’ as an example as he walks through the process of finding the perfect “in principle.”


Appendix C


Using Joseph Fontenrose’s book, Python, a Study of Delphic Myth and its Origins, as a starting point Burke clarifies his concern with “origins.”  Fontenrose’s book is concerned with two types of origins; Burke’s focus is on the second type, which is stated as, “a paradigm summarizing the main themes of the combat myth, in its nature as a story with beginning, middle, and end” (p. 61).


Burke writes, “My essay was designed to show how this second kind of origin has nothing to do with temporal succession, but is essentially concerned with such purely formal principles as the first of these two talks discussed with reference to Aristotle’s Poetics” (ibid.).


There is also a brief discussion of the introduction of Darwinian speculation into his discussion of the “perfect” myth.  Burke concludes, “A myth could be perfectly formed as regards poetic tests of perfection, without having this added ‘Darwinian’ kind of aptitude that happened to endow it with summationally cosmic connotations of authority” (p. 62).


Reviews of the book:


Nichols, M. H. (1973). Dramatism and Development (Book). Quarterly Journal of Speech,

59(2), 227.


“The lecture is a rambling excursion in which Burke considers entelechy, or the principle of perfection, with refence to archetype, or prototype.”


“In our time, there would doubtless be those who would describe Burke’s lectures as non-linear in presentation.  With this writer’s “trained capacity” with reference to non-linearity, she would suggest simple coherence as a means for obtaining instant intelligibility, in view of the fact that the material presented was intended for the ear, not the eye.  A great deal fo reading in Burke’s works would have been necessary for an audience to profit from the lectures.  The ideas, of course, as in the main summaries of previous explored topics, which are not exactly bedside reading in the first place.”


Prepared by Jessica Prody, Fall 2006