Rhetorical criticism is an approach to communication, which constitutes a systematic investigation of symbolic artifacts and analysis and interpretation of persuasive uses of communication. Being a constituent part of the term, criticism means the clarification and definition of the theoretical basis of rhetoric. Its auxiliary goal is to establish a standard of excellence in the field. In the traditional sense, rhetoric is the use of a message with a persuasive effect. In many cases however, contemporary rhetorical criticism treats fiction and many other uses of language as an art of communication with a recipient. In its broader sense, rhetoric can even cover non-verbal modes of communication.
The first study and analysis of rhetoric, in this sense the first example of rhetorical criticism, in the European civilization appeared in The Phaedrus by Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (429-347 BCE). The philosopher reflects on the art of rhetoric and its rules. The main protagonist Socrates (469-399 BCE) - who is another leading Greek philosopher - is trying to outline the characteristics of good and bad rhetoric. According to his interlocutor Phaedrus, truth is not a factor for making a good speech. Instead, he is convinced that the ability to persuade is crucial for the art of rhetoric. However, Socrates refutes this theory and the conclusion of the discussion is that "as the Spartan said, there is no genuine art of speaking without a grasp of truth, and there never will be." Socrates also makes the point that regardless of the importance of the subject, rhetoric requires the same efforts and skills. Artful speakers can take both sides in an argument, but if they do not know the truth, their position will be ridiculous and rhetoric will not be art.
Despite the uni-vocal message in The Phaedrus, Plato's position on rhetoric proves to be controversial. It ranges from the apotheosis expressed in statements like "rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men" to complete rejection of rhetoric. In Gorgias, Plato gives a more critical perspective on rhetoric: "Rhetoric seems not to be an artistic pursuit at all, but that of a shrewd, courageous spirit which is naturally clever at dealing with men; and I call the chief part of it flattery… a knack and a routine" (463).
Other classical philosophers, including Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Cicero (106-43 BCE), regarded rhetoric as a major art. Hence, rhetoric played a crucial role in Ancient Greece and Rome. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, however, rhetoric lost its prestigious status. For centuries, the written language became dominant over oral language. Rhetoric remained part of the compulsory curriculum at school until the end of the 19th century. Gradually, rhetoric regained its status its status not only thanks to its practicality but also to its artistic merits.
Contemporary rhetorical analysis evaluates rhetorical effect, rhetorical artistry, propriety and linguistic competence. Traditional rhetorical schools, including Formal Criticism and Neoclassical Criticism, place a strong emphasis on the form. Their representatives are particularly interested in accuracy, beauty and effectiveness of the message. On the other hand, deconstructionists pay attention to semiotics, value analysis, psychoanalysis and other implicit features of the message.
Rhetorical analysis has the task to unveil the author's conscious and unconscious intent, the addressee's perspective, the identity of the intended recipient and the change of the meaning of the text over time. Therefore, normally the rhetorical analysis is a multi-layered process that looks into themes, stylistic features, argumentative features and political context. Rhetorical criticism aims to isolate and analyze narrative techniques and other tools of achieving an effect on the reader. It is interested in the goals of a speech and the strategies used to achieve them. In response to the rapid development of the communication channels in contemporary society, the scope of rhetorical criticism has broadened. Dann L. Pierce, as a representative of modern rhetorical criticism, has extended the analysis in the field to visual rhetoric.
Sonja Foss also states that rhetorical criticism covers a number of artifacts outside its traditional scope - speeches, essays, conversations, poetry, novels, stories, TV programs, films and plays, architecture, dress, music, dance and advertisements. The extension of the concept is enabled by the broader understanding of rhetoric — "any kind of symbol use that functions in any realm" (Foss, Foss and Griffin).