Rhetorical criticism analyzes symbolic artifacts (including words, phrases, images, gestures, performances, texts, films, and "discourse" in general) to discover how, and how well, they work: how they instruct, inform, entertain, move, arouse, perform, convince and, in general, persuade their audience, including whether and how they might improve their audience. In short, rhetorical criticism seeks to understand how symbols act on people.
“[C]riticism is an art, not a science. It is not a scientific method; it uses subjective methods of argument; it exists on its own, not in conjunction with other methods of generating knowledge (i.e., social scientific or scientific)."  The end goals of such criticism is greater understanding and appreciation: “By improving understanding and appreciation, the critic can offer new and potentially exciting ways for others to see the world. Through understanding we also produce knowledge about human communication; in theory this should help us to better govern our interactions with others.”
What is called "rhetorical criticism" in the Speech Communication discipline is often called "rhetorical analysis" in English. Through the process of criticism, a rhetorician defines, classifies, analyzes, interprets and evaluates a rhetorical artifact. Through this process a critic explores, by means of various approaches, the manifest and latent meaning of a piece of rhetoric thereby offering further insight into the field of rhetorical studies generally and into an artifact or rhetor specifically. Such an analysis, for example may reveal the particular motivations or ideologies of a rhetor, how he or she interprets the aspects of a rhetorical situation, or how cultural ideologies are manifested in an artifact. It could also demonstrate how the constraints of a particular situation shape the rhetoric that responds to it. Certain approaches also examine how rhetorical elements compare with the traditional elements of a narrative or drama.
Generally speaking, the average audience member lacks the knowledge or experience to recognize rhetoric at first glance. Therefore, one of the more important functions of rhetorical studies is to determine whether an artifact is inherently rhetorical. This involves the identification of the exigence, rhetor's constraints, audience, and the artifact's persuasive potential.
Criticism also classifies rhetorical discourses into generic categories either by explicit argumentation or as an implicit part of the critical process. For example, the evaluative standard that the rhetorician utilizes will undoubtedly be gleaned from other works of rhetoric and, thus, impose a certain category. The same can be said about the examples and experts quoted within the work of criticism.
Within the realm of rhetorical criticism, analysis involves examining structure and analyzing how the individual rhetorical and literary elements work within the context of the artifact.
Closely related with analysis, to interpretation widens the scope of the examination to include the historical and cultural context of the artifact. A rhetorician should, at this point, draw comparisons with other established works of rhetoric to determine how well the artifact fits into a particular category or if it redefines the constraints of that category as well as how the elements illuminate the motivation and perspectives of a rhetor.
The purposes of rhetorical criticism fall within three evaluative categories: academic, ethical, and political. Academic purposes seek to further the process of rhetorical study. Ethical purposes attempt to reveal implicit cultural values or unethical manipulations. Political purposes involve revealing hegemonic power structures in order to expose oppressive discourses or give voice to marginalized groups.
Rhetorical Criticism Approaches
- Neo-Aristotelian (This perspective is sometimes also known as The "Traditional" Perspective)
- Ideographic (or Ideological)
Notable Rhetorical Criticism Scholars
- Kenneth Burke
- Edwin Black
- Lloyd Bitzer
- Celeste Condit
- Sonja Foss
- Walter Fisher
- Michael McGee
- Herbert Wichelns
- Kuypers, Jim A. (2009). Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-7391-2774-2.
- Kuypers, Jim A. Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. p. 13.
- Jasinski, James (2001). Sourcebook on rhetoric: key concepts in contemporary rhetorical studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication, Inc. ISBN 0-7619-0504-9.
- Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Waveland Pr Inc. ISBN 1-57766-318-7.
- Hill, Forbes I. (2005), "The "Traditional" Perspective", in Kuypers, Jim A., The Art of Rhetorical Criticism, New York: Pearson, pp. 72–81