Kenneth Burke has been described as arguably the most important rhetorician and critical theorist of the twentieth century, and yet an important part of his scholarship has been generally overlooked by the academic community. The pentad has become the most prominent "Burkean" framework for analyzing texts, yet Kenneth Burke himself preferred "a more direct" way of approaching texts which he named "indexing." This thesis recreates this method from the pieces found in his scholarly writing, personal correspondence, and the papers his students produced for the class he taught at Bennington College. Kenneth Burke believed indexing could uncover the "pattern of experience" or "motivational structures" a text embodies, and thereby help people become aware of the persuasive power different texts have. The method of indexing has two parts: 1. Finding the implicit equations in a text, and 2. Tracking the hierarchies of terms and God-terms in those equations. Identifying equations in a text starts with finding "key terms" in a text, meaning terms which carry special significance as indicated by their intensity and frequency of usage. One then tracks the context of these terms throughout a text to find which other words frequently occur together with these words. The second step, tracking hierarchies of terms, is done by finding how the terms in the equations relate to each other in a hierarchy. We start with specific and move upward to more general terms. On the top of the pyramid we find the God-term, which is the driving motivation and ground of all possibility in the text. Kenneth Burke hoped his method of indexing could help us understand the power language and motivational structures have to drive human action, and that we could question our own motivational structure as well as that of others and of the communities we operate in.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Isaksen, David Erland, "Indexing and Dialectical Transcendence: Kenneth Burke's Critical Method" (2012). Theses and Dissertations. 3091.
Kenneth Burke, rhetorical criticism, indexing, God-terms, dialectical transcendence, patterns of experience, social analysis, linguistics, hierarchies of terms, motivational structures