Zappen, James P. “Kenneth Burke on Dialectical-Rhetorical Transcendence.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 42.3 (2009): 279-301. Print.


The article discusses the complex and elusive concept of scholar Kenneth Burke of rhetoric that intertwined and infused with dialectic. The author notes that the connection of rhetoric and dialectic of Burke is well established. He mentions that Burke’s rhetoric as identification is recognized through its broadening view while rhetoric as persuasion includes identification as a way to induce cooperation and building communities.

Keywords: kenneth burke, dialectic, identification, education, pragmatic pedagogy, dialectical-rhetorical transcendence, platonic rhetoric



  • Z. begins by noting that B.’s notion of rhetoric is complex – especially as it is intertwined with dialectic in the third part of Rhetoric of Motives.  He also highlights the expansion of rhetoric beyond persuasion through the concept of Burkean identification (279).  Teasing these terms out, Zappen (via Crusius) explains the difference between dialectic and rhetoric thusly: “dialectic explores the substance of a person or thing – all that ‘supports or substands’ it – from multiple ans shifting perspectives, viewing human action dramatistically as act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose.  Rhetoric complements dialectic and its multiple dramatistic perspectives by promoting ‘identification’ and ‘cooperation,’ building ‘a community, a sense of oneness amid diversity of conflicting interests and values’” (279).  Yet the promise of identification – as Burke mentions – is countered by the act of division: all identification necessarily divides and therefore is exclusionary.
  • To escape the problems created in this entire scene of terms, Burke creates “dialectical-rhetorical transcendence” or a merging of dialectic and rhetoric with dialogue and poetic myth.  Said differently, d-r transcendence works to move beyond individual discourses and individual persuasion and even individual identification toward “transcendences” that include both individual and group differences and hold the promise of larger unities (281).
  • Transcendence: a way of resolving contradictions and reconciling opposites. . . as such, transcendence is both a characteristic feature of didactic poety and also the kind of upward and downward movement that Burke later associates with the Platonic dialectic (282).
  • Dialectic substance is the meta-category that Burke explores in relation to human motives and their oppositions.  Substance is “sub-stance” or the thing that supports another thing.  As such, it not only forms the thing, it is constituted by the other.  (285).
  • We get a long summary of the Grammar and the Rhetoric here to explore the notions of dialectic, rhetoric, and identification.
  • The pragmatics of dialectical-rhetorical transcendence offer us something very useful:  how can we bring together individuals and groups with conflicting points of view?  According to Burke this is possible through a “revolutionary program of lifelong education” that includes “davate and discussion” arranged on an “educational ladder” (295).  This educational system is described below in quote #3.

Key Quotes:

This dialectical-rhetorical transcendence is significant for rhetorical theory because it challenges rhetoric as a socially responsible endeavor to view not individual discourses alone but individual discourses in relationship to each other, to act as well as to study these discourses, and thus to

intervene by seeking not only to persuade others in their own best interest but also to create larger communities of interest that transcend individual and group ideologies and interests. In a world filled with a cacophony of conflicting voices, such as Burke’s—or our own—transcendence offers not

more persuasion (“You should believe me . . .”) or even identification in its simple and limited sense (“because you and I are really very much alike”) but a promise of larger unities—transcendences—that encompass individual and group differences (“You might agree with each other if you could see that each of your views is partial and incomplete without the others—and perhaps even at odds with itself ”). (281)

As identification, rhetoric builds social communities by enabling persons divided by opposing interests to “identify” with and thus become “consubstantial” with one another (20–21). Recalling his concept of substance from the earlier Grammar , Burke observes that one person becomes “consubstantial” with another insofar as their interests are joined or insofar as they are persuaded that their interests are joined: “To identify A with B is to make A ‘consubstantial’ with B” (20–21). Rhetoric as identification is necessary because people are so often opposed to and therefore divided from one another. Rhetoric “considers the ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another” (22). Identification is therefore “compensatory to division” (22). As persuasion, rhetoric encompasses all of the means by which one person can identify with another, including, for example, acting persuasively upon oneself: “The individual person, striving to form himself [or herself] in accordance with the communicative norms that match the cooperative ways of his [or her] society, is by the same token concerned with the rhetoric of identification” (39). In this sense, rhetoric is a socializing and a “moralizing process,” a process of building social communities (39). It is “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols ” (43). (288)

In an educational scheme of this kind [dialectical-rhetorical transcendence], the teacher/rhetor would not seek to persuade, except insofar as persuasion encompasses the role of the rhetor as a Socratic midwife who helps to give birth to others’ ideas. Such an educational scheme seeks to inculcate Burke’s utopian vision of dialectical-rhetorical transcendence as a habit of mind, beginning with the very young and extending throughout each person’s life. It is a practical and realistic program of educational reform for the purpose of promoting both lifelong education and a lifelong practice of mutually testing and correcting our own and others’ ideas in pursuit of better ideas than any one of us alone could produce, without, however, any hope of ever achieving “a real and ultimate universal ground,” which exists only in the realm of mysticism and poetic imagination above and beyond the reality of the human condition—the scramble and the parliamentary jangle of “the Human Barnyard” (1969a,442; 1969b, 203). (296)

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