Critical Thinking: The Nature of Critical and Creative Thought

By Paul, Richard; Elder, Linda | Journal of Developmental Education, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking: The Nature of Critical and Creative Thought


Paul, Richard, Elder, Linda, Journal of Developmental Education


The critical and creative functions of the mind are so interwoven that neither can be separated from the other without an essential loss to both.

- Anonymous

To the untutored, creative and critical thinking often seem to be opposite forms of thought: the first based on irrational or unconscious forces, the second on rational and conscious processes; the first undirectable and unteachable, the second directable and teachable. Although there is no known way to generate creative geniuses, or to get students to produce novel, ground-breaking ideas, there are manifestations of creativity that we do not fully understand. The same is true of forms of criticality. To teach simultaneously for both creative and critical thinking requires focusing on these terms in practical, everyday contexts; keeping their central meanings in mind; and seeking insight into how they overlap and interact with one another. In understanding critical and creative thought truly and deeply, they are recognized as inseparable, integrated, and unitary. Creative thinking, especially, must be demystified and brought down to earth.

In learning new concepts, in making sense of our experience, in apprehending a new subject field or language, in reading, in writing, in speaking, and in listening, our minds engage in full-fledged (though commonplace) creative acts. To live productively, one needs to internalize and use intellectual standards to assess thinking (criticality). Individuals also need to generate-through creative acts of the mind-the products to be assessed.

That minds create meanings is not in doubt; whether they create meanings that are useful, insightful, or profound is. Imagination and reason are an inseparable team. They function best in tandem, like the right and left legs in walking or running. Studying either one separately only ensures that both remain mysterious and puzzling, or, just as unfortunate, are reduced to stereotype and caricature.

The Inseparability of Critical and Creative Thought

For several reasons the relationship between criticality and creativity is commonly misunderstood. One reason is cultural, resulting largely from the mass media's portrayal of creative and critical persons. The media frequently represent the creative person as a cousin to the nutty professor, highly imaginative, spontaneous, emotional, and off-beat but often out of touch with everyday reality. The critical person, in turn, is often represented as given to faultfinding, skeptical, negative, captious, severe, and hypercritical.

These cultural stereotypes are not validated by precise use of the words critical and creative. For example, in Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, the word critical implies an effort to see a thing clearly when applied to persons who judge and to their judgments. In such a true perception, not only the good in a judgment may be distinguished from the bad and the perfect from the imperfect, but also the perception as a whole may be fairly judged and valued. In Webster's New World Dictionary, the word creative has three interrelated meanings: 1. creating or able to create, 2. having or showing imagination and artistic or intellectual inventiveness (creative writing), and 3. stimulating the imagination and inventive powers.

Criticality Assesses; Creativity Originates

Critical and creative thought are both achievements of thought. Creativity masters a process of making or producing, criticality a process of assessing or judging. The very definition of the word creative implies a critical component (e.g., having or showing imagination and artistic or intellectual inventiveness). When engaged in high-quality thought, the mind must simultaneously produce and assess, generate and judge the products it fabricates. In short, sound thinking requires both imagination and intellectual standards.

In this column we elaborate on the essential idea that intellectual discipline and rigor are at home with originality and productivity and also that these supposed poles of thinking are inseparable aspects of excellence of thought. …

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