Speech Criticism, the Development of Standards for Rhetorical Appraisal

By Lester Thonssen; A. Craig Baird | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
INTRODUCTORY PRINCIPLES

The Problem of Criticism

Criticism is a much abused word. It has come to mean many things, from discerning appraisal to irresponsible faultfinding. Its locus of meaning probably will never be fixed for, like matters of taste from which it is not wholly dissociated, it often makes excursions into subjectivity, running from honest predisposition to forthright caprice. Small wonder, then, that criticism itself, to quote W. C. Brownell, "is much criticized,--which logically establishes its title."1

Despite the fact that criticism is not completely free from a certain "odour of unsanctity," it is an important and necessary business. It is, however, a sadly neglected activity. Of carping objection to what is said and done in public life, there is no shortage; of sentimentalized affirmation and approval, there is no want. But of intelligently critical evaluation and judgment there is not, cannot be, enough.

How does this problem relate to speechmaking, or rhetorical criticism? The criticism of speeches is old; and yet it is in its infancy. It is old in that Plato, Cicero, Quintilian, and a host of other scholars of antiquity practiced the art. It is young in that relatively little systematic effort has been put forth to formulate a working doctrine of rhetorical evaluation. Except for the work of a group of scholars in Speech during the past few decades, a mere handful of substantial contributions to rhetorical criticism is all that the field can claim.

Much of contemporary speech criticism is of an incidental character. The speaking accomplishments of a public figure are often interwoven with the story of his life. This biographical approach, however admirable in its own sphere, usually fails to throw the meaning of a man's speaking efforts into the right focus; the emphasis remains on the sequence of events in the biography, rather than upon the social pattern in which the speaker's thoughts were expressed or upon the responses which the speaker sought to secure from particular audiences. Praiseworthy exceptions to this general rule may be found, however, in such readable contributions as G. M. Trevelyan

-3-

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