Critical Concepts

Criticism and Critical Analysis

“Critical” in the sense in which we use the term here is not synonymous with “fault-finding.”  The essay we are going to examine is an excellent piece of work, it is “critical analysis” that reveals how and why that is.   The term “criticism” comes from the Greek word krinein, which means “to pick.”  (There is a brand of Greek cuisine available in the supermarkets that carries this name.  The makers are saying that their product is “select” – the “pick of the crop,” as it were.)  

What critical examination picks out is what is relevant to notice if we want to understand how something works. 

Thus we can have critical analysis of a tractor or a frog’s heart.  In this case we are interested in noticing what the various parts are and how they operate together to get certain functions done.  In the case of biology, critical analysis has a special name:  it’s known as “anatomy and physiology,” and skill in doing and following reports of this is an essential part of the training of any physician or researcher.

We can have critical analysis of a court opinion.  This is the heart of what is known as “briefing a case,” and anyone who goes to law school either learns how to relish doing this, or decides to pursue a different profession.  The goal is to understand how the court reached its conclusions in a particular case, in order to decide what degree of authority this opinion will have for a court faced with the particular case we are now dealing with.  We need to assess which facts played what role, as premises in the judge’s argument.  We need to understand exactly how the facts of our case are alike and different from those ruled upon in the opinion we are reading.  And we need to judge how relevant these similarities and differences are in light of the established principles relied on in the opinion we are trying to understand.

Consider for a moment some of the possible results of our critical examination of a particular judicial opinion.

The point that needs stressing here is that all of these possibilities depend on our critical skills.  Criticism is not just fault-finding, because it is what we had to rely on in order to discover the "golden key" -- that perfect precedent that's a winner for us.  (And even when what we turn up is a golden key for the opponent, that knowledge is essential for us to do our best by our client.) 

We can have critical examination (often quite admiring) of the execution of a football play or of the coaching strategy at work in the final minutes of a basketball game.  This is what we know as “sports commentary,” but it’s nothing other than a particular version of critical analysis.  A good commentator will know, from experience, what moves to notice, and what questions to pursue once he notices them in action.  He knows what sorts of things work – what the various standard offensive and defensive strategies are, when they are called for and when not, and what has to go off for them to succeed in their aims.  In live broadcast, what often predominates is a running commentary (“play-by-play”), but in more retrospective and searching analysis — the sort of thing even the most adept commentator can put together on the basis of watching replays, thinking through implications, and sorting things out — the commentator arrives at a comprehensive vision, which takes on a modular character.  The commentator shows us one thing, shows us another, and explains (say) how these two together made for something else, the point of which was to outflank X, but which failed because of such and such (as we can see by noticing this and that), etc.  Though he may deliver his analysis orally, what he is delivering is nothing more or less than an expository/argumentative essay — a critical analysis.

We can bring critical attention to bear on just about any object we care to subject it to.  Of course, depending on the nature of the object, and the purposes of our interest in it, the kinds of things it makes sense to select for notice will be different.  In this course, we will primarily be interested in doing critical analysis of works of literature -- this or that fictional narrative, dramatic, or lyric work.  Often, the medium in which we will be carrying this out will be some form of expository/argumentative essay.  Since we will be interested in improving our writing, we will find it useful from time to time to bring critical attention to bear on this kind of object as well.

You can get an initial idea of what each of these kinds of critical examination amounts to by working through the explication of a sample student essay on a literary work.

That discussion is designed to highlight as well the distinction between two importantly different forms of critical examination:  explication and critical analysis.

It also drives home the point that what we are here calling criticism is not to be confused with "fault-finding"!

  Return to the Index to the Glossary of Critical Concepts.

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      Contents copyright © 2000 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 25 October 2000 .