Revisiting Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Metaphor, History


  • Davide Del Bello



The work of American rhetorician Kenneth Duva Burke (1897-1993) continues to exercise the attention of critics and spark controversy on account of its bewildering scope and its stylistic obscurity. This essay rereads two early works by Burke: Permanence and Change (1935) and Attitudes toward History (1937), for cues to a more articulate understanding of history and historiography through the lenses of poetry and rhetoric, and vice versa. The analysis of these two seminal texts aims to show how Burke’s eclectic approach, based on a keen eye for the workings of rhetoric over a wide and somewhat hazy cultural expanse, greatly enhances our awareness of the ways in which language as a symbolic strategy operates through and across discursive practices (in literature and history first but also, for instance, in the social sciences). Accordingly, the study reasserts the immediate relevance of the Burkean method (or lack thereof) for liberal academic studies today.


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