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Kenneth Burke’s Constitution: In Brief

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Humanities, Information Design, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics, Western Philosophy on August 8, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Kenneth Burke treats the constitution—or, in some cases, constitutions—as a dialectic, symbolic act that is representative of the tendencies and preferences of communities.  Burke applies the elements of the pentad—act, agency, agent, scene, and purpose—to form what he calls paradigmatic anecdotes for understanding how constitutions apply to and interact with communities.  The pentad, for Burke, is equipment for simplifying complex ideas into understandable categories or anecdotes.  It provides, in that sense, what he calls an “idiom of reduction” for understanding human motives.

Humans are sign-using creatures motivated by different “grammars,” and it is a grammatical move to interpret human action in terms of the pentad.   A constitution is not simply a tangible document—indeed, as Burke points out, there is no written constitution in Britain—but instead represents a symbol of the coordination of individuals that provides them with a calculus for determining not only how to act, but also how to know what motivates action.

Constitutions put forth general types, or principles, that can be considered ideals, and these types, principles, or ideals provide standards or criteria by which individuals in a community aspire to act.  A constitution is therefore more of a symbol of that which coordinates human behavior within a given community than it is a top-down imposition of legislative fiat.  A constitution, in short, is a communicative sign validated and made useful by its ability to induce cooperation among people.

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