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Criticismis the practice of judging the merits and faults of something.
, engraving byJulio Ruelas, ca. 1907
(in British English seeAmerican and British English spelling differences.)
One specific item of criticism is called a
Criticism is an evaluative or corrective exercise that can occur in any area of human life. Criticism can therefore take many different forms (see below). How exactly people go about criticizing, can vary a great deal. In specific areas of human endeavour, the form of criticism can be highly specialized and technical; it often requires professional knowledge to understand the criticism. This article provides only general information about criticism. For subject-specific information, see theVarieties of criticismpage.
To criticize does not necessarily imply to find fault, but the word is often taken to mean the simple expression of an object againstprejudice, no matter positive or negative. Often criticism involves active disagreement, but it may only mean taking sides. It could just be an exploration of the different sides of an issue. Fighting is not necessarily involved.
Criticism is often presented as something unpleasant, but sometimes, that may not be the case. There are also friendly criticisms, amicably discussed, and some people find great pleasure in criticism (keeping people sharp, providing the critical edge). ThePulitzer Prize for Criticismhas been presented since 1970 to a newspaper writer who has demonstrated distinguished criticism.
Normally criticism involves adialogueof some kind, direct or indirect, and in that sense criticism is an intrinsically social activity. Even if one is only criticizing a book or an idea in private, it is usually assumed there is someone who will be made aware of the criticism being expressed at some point, although who exactly will hear it, may also remain unknown. One is still engaging with the ideas of others, even if only indirectly. One can also keep a criticism to oneself, rather than express or communicate it, but in general the intention is, that someone else ought to be aware of it, however that may occur. Self-criticism, even if wholly private, still mentally takes the concerns of others into account.
Another meaning of criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature, artwork, film, and social trends (see the article links below). The goal of this type of criticism is to understand the possible meanings of cultural phenomena, and the context in which they take shape. In so doing, the attempt is often made to evaluate how cultural productions relate to other cultural productions, and what their place is within a particular genre, or a particular cultural tradition.
This section is about the origin and evolution of the meanings of the expression criticism.
The English word criticism is derived from the French
, which dates back to at least the 14th century.
The words critic and critical existed in the English language from the mid-16th century, and the word criticism first made its appearance in English in the early 17th century.
a judger, decider, or critic), and, even earlier, classical Greek language (
means able to make judgements, or the critic). Related Greek terms are
(to sieve, discriminate, or distinguish) and
(literally, the judgement, the result of a trial, or a selection resulting from a choice or decision).
is also the name of a pupil and friend of the Greek philosopherSocrates, as well as the name of an imaginary dialogue about justice written by the philosopherPlatoin the context of the execution of Socrates.
The early English meaning of criticism was primarilyliterary criticism, that of judging and interpreting literature.Samuel Johnsonis often held as the prime example of criticism in the English language, and his contemporaryAlexander PopesEssay on Criticismis a significant landmark. In the course of the 17th century, it acquired the more general sense ofcensure, as well as the more specialized meaning of the discernment of taste, i.e. the art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic works, implicitly from the point of view of a consumer.
To be critical meant, positively, to have good, informed judgement about matters of culture (to be cultivated, to be a man or woman of distinction), but negatively it could also refer to the (unreasonable) rejection or (unfair) treatment of some outside group (to be critical of them). Derivatively, a criticism also referred to a nice point or a distinction, a tiny detail, a pedantic nicety, a subtlety, or a quibble (the sense of what today is called a minor criticism). Often criticism was governed by very strict cultural rules of politeness, propriety and decency, and there could be immediate penalties if the wrong words were said or written down (in 17th century England, more than half of men and about three-quarters of women could not read or write).
In the 19th century, criticism also gained the philosophical meaning of a critical examination of the faculty of knowledge, particularly in the sense used byImmanuel Kant. (SeeOxford English Dictionary). Such criticism was carried out mainly by academic authorities, businessmen and men of property with the leisure to devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge.
In the 20th century, all these meanings continued, but criticism acquired the more general connotation of voicing an objection, or of appraising the pros and cons of something.
The shape and meanings of criticism were influenced considerably by wars (including two world wars) occurring almost continuously somewhere in the world.
With the growth of specializations in thedivision of labour, and the growth oftertiary education, innumerable different branches of criticism emerged with their own rules and specialized technical meanings.
Philosophers such asKarl PopperandImre Lakatoshave popularized the idea that criticism is a
part of scientific activity. Relatedly, scientific criticism has become a standard expression, just as much as literary criticism.
Gradually it was accepted that criticism is a
process in a democratic society, rather than a sign of inadequacy, or something that should be strictly controlled or repressed.
From the 1970s onward, under the influence ofneo-Marxismcritical theoryandMichel Foucault, it became fashionable in the English-speaking academic social sciences and humanities to use the French wordcritique, instead of the ordinary criticism. The suggestion is that there is adifferencebetween the two terms, but what exactly it is, is often not altogether clear. Often the connotation is that if a deliberation is a critique and not just a criticism, then there is a lot of extra thought and profound meaning behind what is being said. A critique in the modern sense is normally understood as asystematiccriticism, a critical essay, or the critical appraisal of adiscourse(or parts of a discourse). Thus, many academic papers came to be titled or subtitled a critique. From the 1970s, English-speaking academics and journalists also began to use the word critique not only as anoun, but as averb(e.g. I have critiqued the idea, instead of I have criticized the idea). What is often implied is, that critiqueing goes deeper into the issue, or is more complete, than criticizing, possibly because the specialist criteria of a particular discipline are being applied.
From the 1990s, the popular meanings of the word criticism have started to evolve more strongly toward having an objection, expressing dissent, stating a dislike, wanting to dissociate from something, or rejecting something (If you liked it, you would not be criticizing it). In the contemporary sense, criticism is often more the expression of an attitude, where the object of criticism may only be vaguely defined. For example, somebody unlikes something onFacebookor unfriends somebody.
In general, there is less money in literary criticism, while it has become easier for anyone to publish anything at a very low cost on the Internet without necessarily being vetted through critically by others.
Professionally, what it means to criticize has become a much more
matter, where inside knowledge is required to understand the criticism truly; this development is linked to the circumstance, that the
(appropriate use) of criticism, is regarded nowadays much more as depending on ones
, or on the context of the situation (I would like to say something, but I am not in a position to criticize).
Because many more people are able to travel to, or have contact with, worlds completely different from their own, new problems are created of how to
criticisms and their limitations, how to put everything into meaningful proportion. This affects what a criticism is understood to be, or to mean, and what its overall significance is thought to be.
Digital information technology and telecommunications have begun to change drastically the ways people have for getting attention, or for being taken seriously. In turn, this has begun to change the ways people have for
With more possibilities for sophisticated expression, criticism has tended to become more layered. Beneath the observable surface presentation of criticism, which is freely advertised, there are often additional layers of deeper criticism. These are not directly accessible, because they require additional information, or insight into additional meanings. To gain access to the whole story about a criticism, and not just part of the story, may be conditional on fulfilling certain entry requirements (if you dont have the ticket, you dont get the knowledge).
Together with the ability to make finer distinctions of meaning with the aid of digital equipment, the possibilities forambiguityin criticism have increased: is a criticism being implied, or is it not, and if so, what exactly is the criticism? It can take more effort to unravel the full story.
directed toward a person or an animal; at a group, authority or organization; at a specific behaviour; or at an object of some kind (an idea, a relationship, a condition, a process, or a thing).
personal (delivered directly from one person to another, in a personal capacity), or impersonal (expressing the view of an organization, and not aimed at anyone personally).
highly specific and detailed, or very abstract and general.
verbal (expressed in language) or non-verbal (expressed symbolically, or expressed through an action or a way of behaving).
explicit (the criticism is clearly stated) or implicit (a criticism is implied by what is being said, but it is not stated openly).
Different kinds of criticisms can be distinguished as types using the following criteria:
from which the criticism is made (in what framework, from what angle or perspective is the criticism made).
of criticism, what it consists of (what is the criticism).
, motive, use or function of criticism (why is the criticism being raised, what is its aim).
of criticism, language used or medium of expression (in what style or format is the criticism presented).
, transmission or communication for the criticism (how, or by what means, is the criticism conveyed).
or the source making the criticism (from whom criticism originates).
or object of the criticism (criticism of whom or criticism of what).
, place, setting or situation for the criticism (where is the criticism being made).
or audience of the criticism, intended or unintended (criticism directed or addressed to where or to whom).
In dealing with criticisms, usually the most important aspects are who makes the criticism, what the criticism is about, and what or whom it is aimed at. It can also make a big difference though whether a criticism is e.g. communicated in person, or whether it is communicated with a letter or telephone message.
For an overview of criticisms from particular political or philosophical perspectives, seeVarieties of criticism. For subject-specific information, see the critical pages onartfilmliteraturetheatre, orarchitecture.
In general, the psychology of criticism studies the cognitive and emotional effects of criticism, the behavioral characteristics of criticism, and its influence on how people are reacting.
The psychology of criticism is primarily concerned with:
, purpose or intent which people have for making criticisms healthy or unhealthy.
of criticism for the self, and for others positive or negative.
which criticism has on other people good or bad.
to criticisms, or cope with them negatively or positively.
of criticism required to achieve the desired effect or outcome.
in which criticisms are delivered effective or ineffective.
to give and receive criticism successfully.
Parents, teachers, lawyers, managers and politicians are often concerned with these issues, because it can make a great deal of difference to how problems are tackled and resolved.
The motivation as well as the effect of criticism may be rational, or it may be non-rational or arbitrary; it may be healthy or unhealthy.
When psychologists study criticism as a type of human behavior, they do not usually study it in general such a general study is often considered to be more aphilosophicalconcern. Psychologists usually study it in specific contexts and situations. The reason is partly technical (it is difficult to construct and prove universal generalizations about criticism as a human behavior) and partly practical (it is more useful to understand particular behaviors which are of direct practical concern).
The most basic rule-of-thumb of criticism which psychologists usually recommend is:
The thought behind this basic norm for criticism is:
If individuals are attacked for their personal characteristics (for being who they are) it may be impossible for them to change, therefore making the criticism useless.
If it is not actually clear what the person
, the criticism may miss the mark. By concentrating clearly and only on observation of what the individual as a matter of fact
, it is less likely, that the criticism will be misplaced, confused or misinterpreted; it is less likely, that the person being criticized is being misunderstood. It would be unfair and unjust, not to say irrelevant, to criticize people for something they have not actually done. It would be a false accusation.
Inversely, if the individuals are respected with a bit of humor, and due credit is given to their positive intentions as human beings, it is vastly more likely that the criticism will be understood, and taken seriously. And if the criticism is clearly directed only to what people actually do that is wrong, instead of who they are, it creates possibilities, options and choices for doing something different and better. They cant change who they are, but they can change their actions. Because peoples sense of dignity is secure in this case, they are better able to respond to the criticism, and indeed do something about it.
The critics may just want to provoke or vent a bit of hostility, but it might backfire, because the people criticized may make a nasty response. The nasty response may prove to the critics, that the criticism was justified, but the critics have brought this on themselves, they have produced their own nastiness. It is easy to do, but may be difficult to live with. In the process, the whole point of the criticism may be lost all that happens is, that there is a quarrel between people who just vent their hostility. This is very unlikely to produce any solution that all concerned can live with.
The basic psychological rule of criticism assumes that people want to use criticism to achieve animprovement, usually in good faith (bona fide). It assumes the critic has a positive intention in making the criticism. The rule may not make much sense if there is an all-out war going on, where the opposition is just trying to destroy and discredit the target as much as possible, using almost any means they can find. Nevertheless, psychologists recommend to respond by attacking what the opponents actuallydo, notwho they are. That way, the critic cannot be accused of unfair or prejudiced treatment of others.
The basic rule is not always easy to apply.
It may be difficult to have respect for somebody who is the target of criticism, especially if there is a history of grievances.
as though people are being respected, but in reality (if you understand the full meaning) they are being
. It might look formally like they are treated as equals, but in reality (informally speaking, practically and substantively) they are being denigrated.
It may be difficult to consider the action which is being criticized, in its own right,
from the person (only you could do something awful like this to me).
Consequently, psychologists often recommend that before a criticism is being stated to a person, the critic should try to get intorapportwith the person being criticized (get in sync with the other person, on the same wavelength). If that is not possible (because they are enemies), the best thing may be not to express the criticism at all, or get a mediator. It may take considerable strategy in order to find a way of making a criticism, so that it really hits home. Rather than shooting their mouth off, it may be wise if people say nothing, until the right time and place arrives to make the criticism.
One problem at thereceivingend is that a criticism may be taken more seriously than it really merits, or that it is taken too personally, even though that was not the intention of the critic. Criticisms are often voiced without knowing exactly what the response will be. It may be that this problem cannot be entirely removed; the best one can do is to judge, on the basis of experience, what would be the most likely effect of the criticism, and communicate the criticism as well as one can.
Another sort of problem is the limitedattention spanof individuals. To express a criticism may require detailed explanation or clarification; it presupposes that the knowledge exists to understand what it is about, and that people are willing to listen. That takes time, and the time may not be available, or people are reluctant to take the time. This can get in the way of the mutual respect required. It may be possible to overcome this problem only by formulating the criticism as briefly as possible, and communicate it in a form which takes the least time to understand it. Failing that, people must make time to discuss the criticism. It can take considerable effort to create the situation in which the criticism will be heard.
Theexceptionto the basic psychological rule consists of cases where, it is argued, the individuals and their behaviorscannot be distinguished. This would be the case, for example, if the criticism itself consisted of being there (intruding, trespassing, causing property damage), or not being there (non-response).
In some cases people deliberately seek loopholes in the ordinary rules and channels for criticism, in order to make a criticism which, although strictly not illegal, may have a malicious intention, or offends the target of the criticism. That can cause the ordinary consideration which people have for others to be abandoned. What is legitimate and illegitimate criticism is not always easy to establish, and there may be grey areas in the law. It is rarely possible to make rules for every detail of what people may or may not do. The law itself can also be contested with criticism, if it is perceived as unfair. Nevertheless, the courts usually draw the line somewhere.3
The ability to criticize is something which rarely occurs naturally; it must be learnt. Good critics exhibit several kinds of qualities:
: critics should clearly understand
: critics should be emotionally confident and morally comfortable, both about making a criticism, and about dealing with the response to criticism.
: critics should be willing to question authority, popular opinion, and assumptions.
: critics should research the subject of their criticism to maintain the factual integrity of their criticism.
: critics should choose and apply the correct kind of criticism to an issue, so that the criticism will be balanced, complete and persuasive. Critics require adequate skills in reasoning, research, and communication.
: critics should remain consistent and honest before, during, and after a criticism is expressed.
These qualities are learned through practical experience in which people have a dialogue or debate and give each other feedback. Often, teachers can design assignments specifically to stimulate students to acquire these qualities. But the facility for critical thought usually requires some personal initiative. There are plenty of lazy critics, but one must work hard to be a good critic. The lazy critic is soon forgotten, but a good critic is remembered for years.
With criticism it is always important to keep things in proportion, neither overdoing things, nor being too timid.
People can be too critical, but they can also be insufficiently critical. It is important to strike a good balance: to be neither excessively critical nor completely uncritical.
and focus only on the downside or limitation of things run into the problem that others perceive them as being too negative, and lacking a constructive attitude. If there is too much criticism, it gets in the way of getting anything done people are just anti, but it does not lead anywhere.
, however, are often regarded as naive and superficial (suckers); they lack discernment, they are prone to being deceived and tricked, because they readily believe all kinds of things, which they should not accept just like that, for their own good. If they thought more critically, they would not give in so easily to what others say or do. The idea here is that one should not be so open-minded that ones brains fall out.
An important reason why balanced criticism is desirable is, that if things get totally out of proportion, the critics or their targets can lose their balance themselves. Criticism can wreak havoc, and therefore people have to know how to handle it from both ends. If the criticism is balanced, it is more likely to be successful, or, at any rate, it has more credibility.
When psychologists analyze the effect of criticism on others, they are concerned with how people respond to criticism (cognitively and emotionally), and how criticism influences the recipients behavior.
When people criticize, it can have a fruitful, enriching and constructive effect on the recipient, because new ideas and viewpoints may be generated in trying to solve a problem.
People can also be hurt by criticisms, when they experience the criticism as a personal attack. Psychologists concerned with human communication, such as therapists, therefore often recommend that people should choose the right words to express their criticism. The same criticism can be raised in different ways, some more successful than others.
If people formulate their criticism in the right way, it is more likely that other people will accept it. If the criticism is badly expressed, people might reject it, not because it is wrong in itself, but because they do not like being talked to in that way. Even if the content of a criticism is quite valid, the form in which it is expressed may be socounter-productive, that the criticism is not accepted. Thecontentmay be something that people can work out on their own, but theformconcerns the social relationship between people.
The termfeedbackis often used instead of criticism, because feedback may sound more neutral, while criticism may seem to be about finding fault. A more polite language may be used when there are issues ofauthorityandobedience(who has to follow whom), as well as the need for cooperative teamwork to get a job done (constructive collegial attitude). The question is often who controls the feedback, who is allowed to criticize, who owns the problem and who is to do something about the problem. It may be that managers educate employees to employ a more positive and professional language, in order to get them to see things in a way that ismore productivefor the enterprise.
Especially educators, but also e.g. lawyers, managers and politicians are very concerned with thequalityof criticisms. People might raise all kinds of objections and criticisms, but how good are they? Criticisms can be just noise. They can also be a nuisance if they are misdirected, they get in the way of getting things done.
, with a clear start and a finish, not endless.
, not based on hear-say or speculative thought.
, so that the recipient can both understand the criticism and be motivated to
Not all criticisms have all these features, but if one or more of them is missing, the criticism is less likely to achieve its goal. Almost all guidelines for criticism mention these seven points, although in particular contexts their meaning may be more exactly specified (for example, what it means to be articulate and persuasive can vary according to the circumstances).
Logically, there are just as many ways to get a criticism wrong as to get the criticism right.
: people might accept that the critic has a point, but they cant do anything about it now.
: people get confused over what it is all about, they get lost in it, and become disoriented.
: people are likely to say, so what?
, or the critic is not really in a position to make it: people will say youre way out of line.
: people are likely just to conclude that so-and-so is in a bad mood right now or hes had too much of it.
assigns blame or states problems without suggesting solutions
(empty criticism): people are likely to conclude this information is not very useful.
no research before making the criticism
: people will say, very interesting, but this cuts no ice.
: why are you telling me this, and why are you telling me about it now?.
The main effect of lousy criticism is usually that, rather than clarifying things, it becomes disorienting or confusing to people. Therefore, lousy criticism is usually regarded as unhelpful, or as an unwanted distraction getting in the way of things. The only thing a lousy criticism achieves is to make it clear that somebody has an objection (although the objection is not well-taken).
Techniques of constructive criticism aim to improve the behavior or the behavioral results of a person, while consciously avoiding personal attacks and blaming. This kind of criticism is carefully framed in language acceptable to the target person, often acknowledging that the critics themselves could be wrong. Insulting language and hostile language are avoided, and phrases are used like I feel… and Its my understanding that… and so on. Constructive critics try to stand in the shoes of the person criticized, and consider what things would look like from their perspective.7
Some people are not open to any criticism at all, even constructive criticism.8Also, there is an art to truly constructive criticism: being well-intentioned is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for constructively criticizing, since one can have good intentions but poor delivery (I dont know why my girlfriend keeps getting mad when I tell her to stop with the fries already; Im just concerned about her weight), or egocentric intentions but appropriate delivery (Im sick of my subordinate coming in late for work, so I took her aside and we had a long, compassionate talk about her work-life balance. I think she bought it.). As the name suggests, the consistent and central notion is that the criticism must have the aim of constructing, scaffolding, or improving a situation, something which is generally obstructed by hostile language or personal attacks.
People can sometimes be afraid to express a criticism, or afraid to be criticized. Criticism can press all the wrong buttons. The threat of criticism can be sufficient to silence people, or cause them to stay away. So self-confidence can play a big role in criticism the confidence to criticize, and the confidence to face criticism. If peoples emotions are not properly considered, criticism can fail to succeed, even although it is well-intentioned, or perfectly sensible. Hence criticism is often considered an art, because it involves human insight into what one can say and cannot say in the given situation.