“Truth in art is not the discovery of facts, not an addition to human knowledge in the scientific sense of the word. It is, rather, the exercise of human propriety, the formulation of symbols which rigidify our sense of poise and rhythm. Artistic truth is the externalization of taste.”
–Kenneth Burke

Key Terms: Syllogistic progression, Qualitative progression, Repetitive form, Conventional forms, Minor/incidental forms

In his 1968 work, Counter-Statement, Kenneth Burke offers up an extensive discussion of artistic form, striking key distinctions between information and the form in which that information is produced. In defining form, Burke writes, “Form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (31). He further argues that form orients to the experience of the audience, not the subject (32). Thus, he defines “artistic felicity” as the correct use of form upon the audience, and eloquence is when the form used elevates the information conveyed (37).

Much of the rest of the work orients to the function of form. In noting the appeal of form to audiences, Burke discusses “innate forms of the mind,” referring to the capacity and affinity of the human mind for the completion of particular patterns. (This calls to mind Raph Koster’s discussion of games and “chunking.”) Conversely, Burke also examines the way that artists become inclined to utilize rhetoric to convey certain effects. The artist becomes rhetor as he “discovers himself with not only a message, but a desire to produce effects upon his audience” (54). In reproducing the emotions they experience, artists thus produce “a mechanism to produce that emotion in others” (55). Thus, Burke concludes, “The artist’s means are always tending to become ends in themselves” (54-55).

Lexicon Rhetoricæ

The main section of the book that serves my own interests is the chapter called the “Lexicon Rhetoricæ.” In this section, discussing “the nature of form,” Burke offers the definition that “Form in literature is an arousing and fulfillment of desires” (124). He then divides form into five aspects, including syllogistic and qualitative progression, repetitive form, conventional forms, and minor or incidental forms (124). Syllogistic progression refers to progression directly along a logical form, such that A to E entails steps B, C, and D (124). Qualitative progression is more subtle, where a quality present makes another quality “appropriately follow” (125). Repetitive form is “the consistent maintaining of a principle under new guises” (125). Conventional form is perhaps the most familiar, a staple of most genre expectations, and refers to “when a form appeals as form” (126). As to minor or incidental forms, they encompass various literary and verbal devices (127). This breakdown of form offers a useful method to consider the ways that form manifests in narrative.

Later in his lexicon, Burke turns to discussing “patterns of experience,” which he breaks down into: universal experience, or those emotions and states of being that are common to human beings (149); modes of experience, or the circumstances that give rise to universal experiences (150); and patterns of experience, when modes of experience are repeated and give rise to symbols (152). Here Burke enters into a thorough discussion of the appeals of symbols, fitting very neatly into the “interests” presented in The Rhetoric of Fiction presented by Wayne Booth. As the chapter continues, Burke presents six key appeals of the symbol. He notes that the list is “not exhaustive, but illustrative” (156).

  1. As the interpretation of a situation: In a rather metonymic function, this appeal gives “simplicity and order to an otherwise unclarified complexity” (154).
  2. By favoring the acceptance of a situation: Burke treats this appeal as relating to revealing unseen obstacles, but it can also be seen in a perhaps liberatory fashion, such as when something previously unacceptable to society is rendered acceptable, normalized, by its treatment in media (154).
  3. As the corrective of a situation: This appeal of the symbol offers recompense, such as representing the charms of country life to one who lives in the city (155).
  4. As the exerciser of “submerged” experience: This appeal refers to granting the reader or audience a vicarious experience that might otherwise be denied them (155).
  5. As an “emancipator”: As with the previous appeal, this grants the reader something they could not have experienced, but in this case an experience that runs against the character or morality of the reader (155).
  6. As a vehicle for “artistic” effects: This appeal is perhaps best termed “craft,” tied to notions of eloquence and artistry (156).


Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. 2nd ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968. Print.