The Five Master Terms  by Kenneth Burke

Burke, Kenneth. “The Five Master Terms: Their Place in a “Dramatistic” Grammar of 

     Motives”. View June 1943: 1-11. Reprinted with permission.

Summary:    In this essay, Burke begins with an overview of motives for behavior.  He notes that there are more undocumented than there are documented, and as such, the alternative to the synoptic approach is a “generating principle”.  He suggests the use of five master terms that allow for a method in which one can anticipate notions of motive.  In Burke’s view, rather than moving from the periphery to the center, a generating principle allows movement from the center to the periphery, a necessary function in predicting philosophies.  He describes his pentad: “They are like the fingers on a hand.”  The Five Master Terms are: Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose.  In his description, philosophies are born when one of the pentad is featured in more prominence than the other.  He goes on to cite many examples, such as Idealism being based in Agent, and Pragmatism being based in Agency.   Burke discusses purpose in both its metaphysical sense and its everyday human sense, and thus how theories such as mechanism and mysticism come about.    Burke notes, simplistically: “that realism treats individuals as members of a group whereas nominalism treats a group as an aggregate of individuals.  He notes the dialectics of Agent and Scene, and of Agency and Purpose.  Ultimately, Burke is showing how use of these terms has led to the dissolution of drama within theology and how this has made science possible.


Burke expounds on the philosophies of realism and how they are based in the definition of Act, as humans are capable of not only motion, but action in the full sense of the word.  From Aristotle, we get God as Actus purus; Saint Thomas Aquinas claims a “form is an act”; existence is “the act of essence”; form realizes matter.  In other words, existence is action and essence is potential action. Therefore, things that exist are act-ualities.  From scholastic realism where form realizes matter, comes the dialectic opposite of nominalism that eventually translates into modernism.  Where scholastic realism stressed the foundations of feudalism and what was best for the group or tribe, nominalism stressed the uniqueness and value of the individual and saw the group as a collection of such.

Burke describes any given philosophy as a sunspot, a “configuration made of molten metals that have been cast forth from the boiling interior of the sun, projected far enough from the source to congeal into a fixed form”.  He states that any philosophy is thus subject at any time to a return to the blazing interior and subsequent obscurity, only to rise again in a slightly different form.  He uses an interesting term, panspermia, to describe this space where the five terms can overlap.  To me, it sounds like a shift in scientific paradigm, only more subtle.  From here he goes on to describe pairings or dialectics.  Of interest to me are the Scene-Agent relationship which gives rise to the “pathetic fallacy”, and the partner of Act which causes the pairing of dramatic action with the lyric pause. 


My general question is: why does Burke draw on so many ideologies in such a brief fashion, and in such a confusing way, instead of simplifying and expanding into a much larger text?

Specifically: why does he insert such a big concept like “mystical philosophies arise as a general social manifestation in times of great skepticism or confusion about the nature of human purpose” in the middle of a dialogue on terminology and philosophy?  Granted, it is appropriate to discuss, but as with much of the essay, more development seems to be in order.

Lastly, why does he end with and not begin with a summary of the piece, and then introduce the new concept of the “super-drama”?  Beginning with the statement: “This dramatistic consideration makes it readily clear why scholastic theology could prepare the way for the secular philosophies of science”, would have been welcome earlier in the essay as a clear discussion point.

Keywords and Phrases:

geopolitics (page 1)

-surrealism (page 1)

-synoptic approach to the subject of motives (page 1)

Ausgangspunkt (page 7)

-sun metaphor (page 9)

panspermia (page 10)


Related readings:

Richards, I. A. How To Read a Page: A Course in Effective Reading, With an Introduction to a

     Hundred Great Words. New York: W. W. Norton, 1942. Print.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “The World as Will and Idea.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia

     Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. http://www.britannica.com


“Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica

     Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic



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