Rhetoric has been studied for centuries, and researchers agree on some basic points regarding the matter. However, different approaches to the art of persuasion are now under discussion as the focus is on different facets and associated issues. Kenneth Burke is regarded as one of the most prominent theorists exploring the essence and instruments of rhetoric, who came up with a clear definition and a comprehensive perspective of persuading (Herrick, 2015). Burke noted that rhetoric could be referred to as a symbolic tool to achieve cooperation (Burke, 2017). This definition is compatible with the views of other major thinkers who examined the peculiarities of rhetoric.
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First, it is necessary to note that Burke (2017) saw rhetoric (communication, language) as a means to make people collaborate or, in other terms, behave in a certain way. The major goal of persuasion is regarded as achieving cooperation, so the consequence of the verbal interaction is placed to the fore. Burke (2017) identifies the basic aspects of rhetoric that are included in his pentad: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. The social aspect is central to rhetoric, according to Burke (2017), who stressed that the system of symbols used for communication was to be common for the speaker and the listeners.
The researcher sees language itself (as well as the process of communication) as a system of symbols that serve as screens for real-life objects (Borchers & Hundley, 2018). Burke (2017) emphasized that people expressed their attitudes towards objects rather than simply identified them due to the peculiarities of language. These attitudes are formed (and often transformed) alongside the development of societies. People’s vocabulary is consistent with the existing values and codes that have been accumulated for decades and centuries. The social context was the primary focus of Kenneth Burke and new rhetoricians who believe that communication can be effective if communicators are aware of the meanings used within their group (Hansen, 1996). The process of communication and persuasion encompasses the utilization of such symbols as the speaker wants to engage their listeners.
For instance, when Trump addresses his supporters, he employs a system of symbols that are clear and easily decodable, which makes the politician’s message understandable and persuasive (Arrigo, 2018). Therefore, in a wider context, all languages and means of communication between humans are symbolic systems. This aspect discussed by Burke is grounded in Aristotle’s ideas regarding rhetorical art. The Ancient Greek philosopher stated that persuasion consisted of logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos stands for facts, ethos is associated with the credibility of the message, and pathos could be seen as an emotional load (Aristotle, 2018). Aristotle taught that a combination of these three components could have diverse effects on people depending on the quality and weight of each chosen element. As mentioned above, logos is also a symbol, although Aristotle did not go into such details when exploring persuasion.
Burke (2017) claims that symbols have different connotations and intensities. For example, the word table is, in a way, a symbolic representation of a specific object, but the expression round table refers to cooperation, Arthur’s values, and similar notions. Thus, symbols appeal to people differently due to the multiple levels of meanings. People are more willing to listen and cooperate when they feel they need to be involved. Feelings are potent stimuli to encourage people to act, which has been known for centuries.
The use of emotions and symbols evoking them is illustrative in Hitler’s infamous book that was properly analyzed by Burke in rhetorical terms. Burke (2017) notes that the German dictator used fear and hatred to activate people, making them hostile to a specific group of people, the Jews. He appeals to Biblical symbols that are all linked to people’s emotions rather than reasoning (Burke, 2017). By mentioning Jesus’s struggle against evil and the Prince of Darkness, Hitler makes readers and his supporters feel they are a part of the eternal battle. Burke (2017) claims that the notorious book is a symbolic means to make people cooperative. A leader uses certain texts (a book, a picture, a film, and other types of messages) to make people follow. Hitler chose a book to formulate his symbolism that was utilized in his speeches and addresses. In simple words, a set of symbols and ideas make people behave in a certain way and cooperate with the speaker. Hitler persuaded the entire nation, as well as some people outside Germany, that the war against European countries and the whole world could be justified.
Modern politicians use quite similar instruments, and rhetorical means have not changed dramatically since that time. As mentioned above, Trump tends to appeal to individuals’ feelings and emotions in his speeches (Arrigo, 2018). He mentions basic problems and names specific foes, trying to use emotional keys and symbols, which makes him a successful politician (Arrigo, 2018). Donald Trump’s messages make people cooperate and vote for him. Interestingly, this political process is an illustration of Burke’s definition of form as “the arousal and fulfilling of expectations” (as cited in Hansen, 1996, p. 53). Trump raises some expectations, making people give their votes, but he also tries to fulfill them during his presidency. The symbolic representation of power is vivid, and the role symbols play in persuasion is also unveiled.
It is also necessary to add that the idea of ethos is closely connected with Burke’s idea of symbols, although some may leave this area to emotional facets. Ethos tends to be associated with the qualities of the speaker. Arrigo (2018) notes that the credibility of a message can be achieved if all stakeholders understand a set of symbols. For example, when it becomes known that the speaker is a Princeton graduate, their message can be credible exclusively to those who are aware of the value of this kind of education (Arrigo, 2018). For some groups or in some spheres, a degree from this or any other educational establishment may seem irrelevant. Again, ethos can be seen as symbols that have to be understood in order to be effective.
In conclusion, it is possible to note that Burke’s description of rhetoric as a symbolic means to achieve collaboration is clear and precise. The researcher unveils the essence of the art of persuasion as it aims at making people act in certain ways and consists in using symbols. This definition is closely related to the classical one suggested by Aristotle. Ethos, pathos, and logos are all symbols that can be found on different levels of people’s perceptions. Kenneth Burke defined rhetoric in a more comprehensive way compared to Aristotle’s explanation. By adding the social component, Burke made his perspective more precise.
Aristotle. (2018). Rhetoric (C. D. C. Reeve, Trans.). Hackett Publishing.
Arrigo, A. F. (2018). What Aristotle can teach us about Trump’s rhetoric. The Conversation. Web.
Borchers, T., & Hundley, H. (2018). Rhetorical theory: An introduction (2nd ed.). Waveland Press, Inc.
Burke, K. (2017). The philosophy of literary form: Studies in symbolic action. Fb&c Limited.
Hansen, G. (1996). Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory within the construction of the ethnography of speaking. Folklore Forum, 27(1), 50–59.
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Herrick, J. A. (2015). The history and theory of rhetoric: An introduction. Routledge.