Burke’s Four Master Tropes, A Brief Summary

. “Four Master Tropes,” in A Grammar of Motives, 503-517.

This article is, in my opinion, a key to understanding Burke. I have read it many times, and the more I read it the more it makes sense. I highly recommend it.

Basically, there are four master tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. In this essay, Burke is particularly interested in their epistemological functions, and not just how they function as rhetorical figures. In other words, how do these tropes help or enable us to discover what we know? The tropes “shade into one another,” and if a person has one of them, he or she can derive the other three. How do the 4 master tropes appear in the real world?

When we talk about what we know, we use words that correspond with the four master tropes. For metaphor we use perspective; for metonymy, reduction; for synecdoche, representation; and for irony, dialectic. Or, at least, we could substitute one of these words for the other. They are the realistic counterparts or applications for the four tropes. Just as the four tropes shade into one another, these terms also shade into one another. So it looks like Burke will, in the rest of this essay, argue for his use of the interchanging of these terms: metaphor and perspective, metonymy and reduction, synecdoche and representation, and irony and dialectic.

Metaphor and Perspective
Metaphor sees something in terms of something else. It sees some aspect of a thing’s character that it brings out, and sees it from the point of view of another character. “And to consider A from the point of view of B is, of course, to use B as a perspective upon A” (504). The fact that we can have multiple perspectives doesn’t mean that everything is relative. On the contrary, we can only see the totality of everything insofar as we do have differing perspectives. If we don’t know what a thing is, for example, we try to look at it from a variety of perspectives. We taste it, smell it, see it from all angles, touch it, listen to it, etc.

I understand Burke to be saying here that the degree to which we perceive a thing is the degree to which the thing is to us. What we know a thing to be is the totality of our understanding of that thing, an understanding of a multiplicity of different perspectives that we have of the thing. The coming together of this variety of perspectives is what Burke calls poetic realism, to which Burke opposes scientific realism. Things are not just one thing and not everything else that they are said that they are “not.” Things are more than we think they are, and the more we learn about a thing the more we discover how little we really know. Plants “are” more than minerals, animals more than plants, and humans more than animals, though humans are also animals, and animals, plants, and minerals have things in common.

Burke says he’s developed the relationship between metaphor and perspective at greater length in Permanence and Change in his discussion of what he calls perspectives by incongruity. He comments by saying that seeing “something in terms of something else involves the ‘carrying-over’ of a term from one realm into another” (504). This process brings the realms together in one sense, although the realms aren’t the same. But it isn’t necessary to recreate everything Burke has already discussed in Permanence and Change because, since the tropes all shade into one another, we can simply move on to the next pair and carry this pair with us.

Metonymy and Reduction
Anciently, words came from using words for physical things to indicate spiritual things. Tangible is a substitute for the intangible. Metonymy is when this process is reversed and spiritual things are substituted for physical senses. So, first we go from spiritual to material, and second, from material back to spiritual.

Metonymy is the poetic counterpart of a scientific reduction. Metonymy discusses the intangible in terms of the tangible, the incorporeal in terms of the corporeal. It is like saying “the brain” instead of “the mind” or “the heart” instead of “the emotions.”

Science is concerned with correlation and not motivation (at least in the sense that correlation is observable and motivation is “not”). Pure science would abstract itself from humanity and the social realm. Science is a reduction. Science is real. Poetry, however, is metonymy. Poetry is seen as being “not real.”

The poet offers his or her metonymy as a reduction of something to a word, knowing that it’s necessarily a reduction. The scientist offers his or her reduction “as a ‘real’ reduction,” though not as a scientist but as a human being.

[To understand this section, we have to have understood “Semantic and PoeticMeaning” as well as the writings on substance in the Grammar.]

Synecdoche and Representation
A reduction is a representation, so metonymy shades into synecdoche. For example, a map of the United States is a reduction, but it’s also a sign for the thing signified. Synecdoche is just that: a part for the whole, a whole for the part, a container for the thing contained, a sign for the signified, and, which brings us close to metonymy, a material for the thing made. Leibniz uses the term representation when he discusses a synecdochic relationship in his monadology.

To represent can mean to be identified with something. [That’s important!]
We have politicians who “represent” us. Our senses are also representations. Metonymy is like a special type of synecdoche. The terms we choose should be representative and not reductive. And that brings us to irony and dialectic.

Irony and Dialectic
As soon as we say that a thing issomething, we’ve also said what it is notbecause we can’t sum something up into what we’ve just summed it up into! When we have a summing up or a perspective of perspectives, we have to say that that perspective of perspectives includes all perspectives, but that each individual perspective is not the same thing as the perspective of perspectives.


Hence, what goes forth as A returns non-A. 

That’s it for now. I honestly can’t do the essay justice. But it’s a lot of fun to try. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Burke’s Four Master Tropes, A Brief Summary

  1. I wonder sometimes if science is a form of poetry as well. We observe correlations, but have to consider motivations too. I took organic chemistry this summer and was interested that our prepress or taught us the characteristics of different forms of matter as having desires.

    For example-hydrogen wants to be completed in an octet form. A hydrogen atom will never stay on it's own because it wants to be more stable with another atom.

    Boron always breaks chemistry rules and does the opposite. Argon will never talk to anyone because it likes to be alone.

    I think poetry and science are no different in attempting to study and understand patterns. Humans are perhaps a little more complex than rocks to see clear correlations for though.

  2. n terms of psychotherapy and Nuero-linguistic Programming (NLP) practices, has anyone observed a relationship between Burke's Four Master Tropes and Metaphor Identification Procedure University Amsterdam (MIPVU) (Pragglejaz; Steen, 2016); Clean Language (Lawley, 2016), and ZMET (Zaltman's Metaphor Elicitation Technique) (Zaltman, 1996)?

  3. "Trope-based Listening Curriculum and Its Effect on English-Language Proficiency of Ninth-Grade Student" is the title of an Intro and Lit Review I recently completed for a graduate-level project in educational research methods in tandem with a real-world version that's still a work-in-process. I'll be glad to share what I have if you're interested in collaborating.

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