Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something.
, ca. 1907
- The judger is called a critic.
- To engage in criticism is to criticise
- One specific item of criticism is called a criticism or critique.
To criticize does not necessarily imply "to find fault", but the word is often taken to mean the simple expression of an object against prejudice, no matter positive or negative. Often criticism involves active disagreement, but it may only mean "taking sides". Constructive criticism will often involve an exploration of the different sides of an issue.
Criticism is often presented as something unpleasant, but there are friendly criticisms, amicably discussed, and some people find great pleasure in criticism. The Pulitzer Prize for Criticism has been presented since 1970 to a newspaper writer who has demonstrated 'distinguished criticism'.
When criticism involves a dialogue of some kind, direct or indirect, it is an intrinsically social activity.
Criticism is also the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature, artwork, film, and social trends. The goal is to understand the possible meanings of cultural phenomena, and the context in which they take shape. In so doing, it is often evaluated how cultural productions relate to other cultural productions, and what their place is within a particular genre, or a particular cultural tradition.
EtymologyThis section is about the origin and evolution of the meanings of the expression "criticism".
Early English meaning
- The English word criticism is derived from the French critique, 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.
- In turn, the French expression critique has roots in Latin, and, even earlier, classical Greek language. Related Greek terms are krinein, krei- and krisis. Crito is also the name of a pupil and friend of the Greek philosopher Socrates, as well as the name of an imaginary dialogue about justice written by the philosopher Plato in the context of the execution of Socrates.
To be critical meant, positively, to have good, informed judgement about matters of culture, but negatively it could also refer to the rejection or treatment of some outside group. Derivatively, "a criticism" also referred to a nice point or a distinction, a tiny detail, a pedantic nicety, a subtlety, or a quibble. 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 the 19th century, criticism also gained the philosophical meaning of "a critical examination of the faculty of knowledge", particularly in the sense used by Immanuel Kant.. 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.
20th centuryIn 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 occurring almost continuously somewhere in the world.
- With the growth of specializations in the division of labour, and the growth of tertiary education, innumerable different branches of criticism emerged with their own rules and specialized technical meanings.
- Philosophers such as Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos have popularized the idea that criticism is a normal 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 normal process in a democratic society, rather than a sign of inadequacy, or something that should be strictly controlled or repressed.
- 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". 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 on Facebook or "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 specialized and technical matter, where "inside knowledge" is required to understand the criticism truly; this development is linked to the circumstance, that the right to criticize, or the propriety of criticism, is regarded nowadays much more as depending on one's position, or on the context of the situation.
- 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 relativize 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 going about criticizing, and what criticism means for people.
- 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.
- Together with the ability to make finer distinctions of meaning with the aid of digital equipment, the possibilities for ambiguity in 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.
- personal, or impersonal.
- highly specific and detailed, or very abstract and general.
- verbal or non-verbal.
- explicit or implicit.
- the result of critical thinking or spontaneous impulse.
- Point of view from which the criticism is made.
- Content of criticism, what it consists of.
- Purpose, motive, use or function of criticism.
- Form of criticism, language used or medium of expression.
- Method of delivery, transmission or communication for the criticism.
- Type of critic or the source making the criticism.
- Target or object of the criticism.
- Context, place, setting or situation for the criticism.
- Recipients or audience of the criticism, intended or unintended.
For an overview of criticisms from particular political or philosophical perspectives, see Varieties of criticism. For subject-specific information, see the critical pages on art, film, literature, theatre, or architecture.
PsychologyIn 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.
Area of studyThe psychology of criticism is primarily concerned with:
- the motivation, purpose or intent which people have for making criticisms – healthy or unhealthy.
- the meaning of criticism for the self, and for others – positive or negative.
- the effect which criticism has on other people – good or bad.
- how people respond to criticisms, or cope with them – negatively or positively.
- the quantity and quality of criticism required to achieve the desired effect or outcome.
- the form in which criticisms are delivered – effective or ineffective.
- how people learn to give and receive criticism successfully.
- the sublimation, repression or denial of criticism.
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 a philosophical concern. Psychologists usually study it in specific contexts and situations. The reason is partly technical and partly practical.
The most basic ruleThe most basic "rule-of-thumb" of criticism which psychologists usually recommend is:
RationaleThe thought behind this basic norm for criticism is:
- If individuals are attacked for their personal characteristics it may be impossible for them to change, therefore making the criticism useless.
- If it is not actually clear what the person does, or what they are really saying, the criticism may miss the mark. By concentrating clearly and only on observation of what the individual as a matter of fact does or says, 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 can't change who they are, but they can change their actions. Because people's sense of dignity is secure in this case, they are better able to respond to the criticism, and indeed do something about it.
The basic psychological rule of criticism assumes that people want to use criticism to achieve an improvement, usually "in good faith". 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 actually do, not who they are. That way, the critic cannot be accused of unfair or prejudiced treatment of others.
ApplicationThe 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.
- It may be that it seems as though people are being respected, but in reality they are being disrespected. It might look formally like they are treated as equals, but in reality they are being denigrated.
- It may be difficult to consider the action which is being criticized, in its own right, separately from the person.
One problem at the receiving end 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 limited attention span of 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".
Exception to the ruleThe exception to the basic psychological rule consists of cases where, it is argued, the individuals and their behaviors cannot be distinguished. This would be the case, for example, if the criticism itself consisted of "being there", or "not being there".
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.
Learning to criticizeThe ability to criticize is something which rarely occurs naturally; it must be learnt. Good critics exhibit several kinds of qualities:
- Insight: critics should clearly understand why they are criticizing.
- Attitude: critics should be emotionally confident and morally comfortable, both about making a criticism, and about dealing with the response to criticism.
- Inquiry: critics should be willing to question authority, popular opinion, and assumptions.
- Knowledge: critics should research the subject of their criticism to maintain the factual integrity of their criticism.
- Skills: 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.
- Integrity: critics should remain consistent and honest before, during, and after a criticism is expressed.
BalanceWith 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.
- People who are too critical 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".
- People who are uncritical, however, are often regarded as naive and superficial ; 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 one's brains fall out."
Effect on othersWhen psychologists analyze the effect of criticism on others, they are concerned with how people respond to criticism, and how criticism influences the recipient's behavior.
Positive and negative effectsWhen 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.
FormulationIf 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 so, that the criticism is not accepted. The content may be something that people can work out on their own, but the form concerns the social relationship between people.
Feedback fallacyThe term "feedback" is 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 of authority and obedience, as well as the need for cooperative teamwork to get a job done. 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 is more productive for the enterprise.
QualityEspecially educators, but also e.g. lawyers, managers and politicians are very concerned with the quality of 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.
GoodIdeally, a criticism should be:
- timely, not too early nor too late.
- brief and succinct, with a clear start and a finish, not endless.
- relevant and to the point, not misplaced.
- clear, specific and precise, not vague.
- well-researched, not based on hear-say or speculative thought.
- sincere and positively intended, not malicious.
- articulate, persuasive and actionable, so that the recipient can both understand the criticism and be motivated to act on the message.
- Criticism is made at the wrong time and place: people might accept that the critic has a point, but "they can't do anything about it now."
- Criticism is too long: people get confused over what it is all about, they get lost in it, and become disoriented.
- Criticism is vague: people are likely to say, "so what"?
- Criticism is inappropriate, or the critic is not really in a position to make it: people will say "you're way out of line".
- Criticism has no clear target: people are likely just to conclude that "so-and-so is in a bad mood right now" or "he's had too much of it."
- Criticism assigns blame or states problems without suggesting solutions : people are likely to conclude this information is not very useful.
- Critic did no research before making the criticism: people will say, "very interesting, but this cuts no ice."
- Criticism has no clear motivation: "why are you telling me this, and why are you telling me about it now?".
- Critic makes bad criticisms regularly: it discredits the critic.
Techniques of constructive criticismTechniques 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 "It's 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.
Giving and receiving the messageSome people are not open to any criticism at all, even constructive criticism. Also, 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, or egocentric intentions but appropriate delivery. 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 people's 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.
Hamburger methodOne style of constructive criticism employs the "hamburger method", in which each potentially harsh criticism is surrounded by compliments. The idea is to help the person being criticized feel more comfortable, and assure the person that the critic's perspective is not entirely negative. This is a specific application of the more general principle that criticism should be focused on maintaining healthy relationships, and be mindful of the positive as well as the negative.
PsychopathologyThe psychopathology of criticism refers to the study of unhealthy forms of criticism, and of unhealthy kinds of response to criticism. Psychologists often associate these with particular categories of mental disorders, especially personality disorders, as classified in the U.S. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
- Low self-esteem: emotionally vulnerable individuals that are often excessively sensitive to criticism, or to being defeated, they can't handle it.
- Narcissistic personality disorder: although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may "haunt" or leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty. They may react with disdain, revenge, narcissistic rage, or defiance. Narcissists are extremely sensitive to personal criticism and extremely critical of other people. They think they must be seen as perfect or superior or infallible or else they are worthless. There's no middle ground.
- Paranoid personality disorder: these people are often rigidly critical of others, but have great difficulty accepting criticism themselves.
- Avoidant personality disorder: these people are hypersensitive to criticism or rejection. They build up a defensive shell. If the criticism seems to imply something bad about them, a defensive shell immediately snaps into place.
- Dependent personality disorder: individuals that will often apologize and "self-correct" in response to criticism at the drop of a hat.
- Hypercriticism: these people are often regarded as anal retentive or nitpickers. Nitpickers engage in minute, trivial, and unjustified faultfinding to excess. Nagging means endless scolding, complaints, and faultfinding.
- Hypocriticism: these individuals are hypocrites who criticize and accuse others about the vice that they are guilty of themselves. Hypocrisy contains some kind of deception, and therefore involves a kind of lying.
A term describing pathologic criticism may be used as argumentum ad hominem without proven diagnosis.
Anti-psychiatry movementThe anti-psychiatry movement opposes labeling persons who engage in criticism as having a "disease".
- The medicalization of criticism rejects the criticism as a disease. The critics are silenced, and their viewpoint is denied. They are regarded as incapable of sensible criticism, but their disease often cannot be proved – other than saying that voicing a criticism in a certain way is proof of a disease.
- Why exactly a criticism is "unhealthy" can be difficult to prove, nevermind its rights or wrongs – it could be subjective interpretation, a matter of personal likes and dislikes, or a matter of point of view. What is "healthy" or "unhealthy" might depend on the context, or on how it is understood.
- People labelled as "ill" cannot be held morally responsible for their critical utterances, but people can often choose their own behaviour with regard to criticism, and they should take responsibility for their own behaviour, if they can practically do so.
- Even if it is possible to kill the criticism with a pill, the cause or the target of the criticism may not go away. A bad situation may remain; the only difference is that somebody is doped sufficiently, so that no overt criticism is made or received.
Authority issuesCriticism can cause harm as well as good things. Criticism can hurt or people can feel offended. It can "upset the apple cart", cause chaos, or do real damage. For these reasons, people often try to keep the flow of criticism under control with rules. Such rules often state:
- Who has the right to criticize, and who isn't allowed to criticize.
- Who or what can be criticized, and who or what cannot be criticized.
- What sorts of criticism are acceptable.
- When and how the criticism may be made.
- What counts as an appropriate motivation for criticism.
PurposeHere the purpose of criticism and its relative merits in particular situations are discussed.
Negative argumentsCriticism may not be a positive response to an individual, action, or belief in all circumstances. There are two reasons that this might be the case:
- The recipient of the critique may be hurt by it. This is particularly true when the object of criticism is personal or when the critique is composed in a malicious way, rather than in an attempt to improve the recipient.
- The critique may not result in any positive change. If the critique is not written in a persuasive manner, if the recipient of the criticism isn't willing to acknowledge their faults, or if the recipient lacks the resources needed for change, then the critique will not have an impact.
- Diagnosis and error correction: critiques identify the limitations of the object of criticism. A film critic, for example, might discuss the extent to which a particular film was able to communicate a theme. Criticisms also identify prejudices, biases, and hidden assumptions.
- Improvement: by evaluating the ability of an individual, action, or idea to accomplish a given objective, critiques identify possible improvement areas. Criticisms may also present alternative perspectives or suggestions, both of which facilitate improvement.
- Ethical implications: critiques of societal norms or public policies have the potential to affect a large number of people in a profound way and are thus ethically desirable.