What Is Ideological Criticism?

G. Wiesen

Ideological criticism is a form of criticism that usually targets ideographs within a particular work or speech in order to better understand the ultimate substance of the work. Ideographs are “artifacts” within a work, often either particular words or images, which have a greater, symbolic meaning that is understood and observed on a cultural level. Words in American English such as “justice” or “freedom” are ideographs that have more meaning to them than merely a dictionary definition. Ideological criticism often targets political discourse or written works as a way to identify greater meaning within a work and then determine the validity of that secondary meaning.

Ideological criticism targets words within a particular work in order to better understand the substance of that work.
Ideological criticism targets words within a particular work in order to better understand the substance of that work.

The underlying principal behind this type of criticism is that there are certain artifacts within language and visual symbolism called ideographs. These ideographs convey greater meaning within a particular cultural context than they may have on a purely denotative level. For example, the word “freedom” is often used in American political discourse, and has been used throughout the entirety of American history. Yet the meaning of this word has changed through the decades and has had certain cultural contexts and meanings that surpass the basic idea of “freedom” as a dictionary definition.

Ideological criticism is used to identify these types of ideographs and consider how this cultural meaning is used within a particular piece of communication. When an American politician uses the word “freedom” during a speech, for example, someone can use ideological criticism to first identify that this is an ideograph and then consider why it was used. In the instance of “freedom,” its usage is often intended as a way to rally Americans behind a common cause or ideal, since “freedom” is often seen as the highest political “good” that can be performed. As an ideograph, few words are more powerful in American political dialogue and convey greater meaning, yet like other ideographs its meaning has changed over time and should be considered in a larger context for the sake of criticism.

In 1776, for example, “freedom” may have meant “freedom from tyranny” in the form of the British monarchy and its power over the American colonies. Modern uses of “freedom,” however, have nothing to do with British power and so ideological criticism considers how the ideograph “freedom” has changed over time. It is now, typically, used to promote the idea of spreading “American freedom” to other countries. Through ideological criticism, someone can identify that “freedom” has functioned as an ideograph for hundreds of years, though its meaning has changed, and may mean something very different to a citizen of France, Germany, or Iraq.

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Discussion Comments


I don't know a lot about this topic. We described it briefly in class. From what I understood of that brief discussion, ideological criticism is like an analysis of rhetoric used by people to come to conclusions about their ideologies. If we were to expand on that, it's basically an attempt to understand a group's beliefs and values based on the words and symbols they use.


@bluedolphin-- Yes, of course. The meanings of ideographs are changing all the time. That's why ideological criticism is important. It plays a significant role in conjecture, especially political conjecture. It also makes it easy to identify propaganda.

When politicians use ideographs with strong and impactful meaning, it's usually obvious that they are trying to mobilize the public for a stand or political decision. US Presidents often talk about freedom, liberty, security and democracy before going to war. It's not a coincidence. These are important words with significant meaning and effect on Americans.


So the meaning of an ideography only makes sense within a cultural and historical context. If this is the case, then I think many people have flawed understanding of ideas and written works from a long time ago. When we read a document from, say, two hundred years ago, we don't really think about what the ideographs meant at that time. We try to interpret it based on our current definition of the ideograph. This is obviously wrong.

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