The Nature of Critical and
Creative Thought, Part II
By Linda Elder and Richard Paul
In the previous column, we introduced the notion that creative and critical
thinking are often understood 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, A true understanding of critical and creative thought
recognizes them as inseparable, integrated, and unitary. As we pointed out
in the first part of this series, creative thinking, especially, must be demystified
and brought down to earth. In this column we elaborate this position,
emphasizing the following points:
1, Reasoning is inherently creative since the mind must daily create
the ideas it uses,
2, Contrary to conventional wisdom, much creative genius is developed
through years of practice and commitment, rather than a result
of inborn innate talent.
Reasoning as a Creative Act
In the broad sense, all thinking is thinking within a system, and when one
has not yet learned a given system—for example, not yet learned the logic
of the internal combustion engine, the logic of right triangles, or the logic
of dolphin behavior—the mind must bring that system into being within
the structure of previously established ways of thinking. Hence, when
thinking something through for the first time, to some extent one creates
the logic to be used. One brings into being new articulations for specific
purposes and reasons, making new assumptions, and forming new concepts.
By asking new questions and making new inferences, an individual
point of view emerges in a new direction.
Indeed, there is a sense in which all reasoned thinking, all genuine acts
of figuring out anything whatsoever, even something previously figured
out, is a new making, a new series of creative acts, for one rarely recalls previous
thought whole cloth. Instead, the thinker remembers only some part
of what was figured out and figures out the rest anew (based on the logic
of that part and other logical structures more immediately available). One
continually creates new understandings and recreates old understandings
via similar processes.
Consider the process by which an anthropologist, discovering just one
bone from an animal, is able to deduce, and thus create, the complete skeleton
and the rest of the body of the animal in question. The human mind
continually uses some meanings to create others. Meanings, like living
things, are found in systems. They do not stand alone in the mind. They
are not like marbles in a bag, each marble independent of all the others.
They are like bodily systems such as the digestive or nervous system; they
work together in relation to each other.
To understand the intimate interplay between creative and critical
thinking, it is important to understand, at least in part, how the mind creates
In the process of figuring something out, at least three systems are involved:
1, The logic to be figured out (the system one is trying to understand
2, The logic used to do the figuring (chosen from previously learned
or created systems).
3, The logic that results, in the end, from the reasoning process and
that has to be assessed for its fit or the extent to which it has captured
the system to be figured out.
In studying history, one may use one's understanding of the logic behind
an economic crisis to understand the logic behind another economic crisis
(e,g,, that of the 1930s vs, 1990s in the USA). The mental reconstruction
one creates may or may not make sense of the logic of what was actually
going on economically in the 1990s, Or again, one may use, for example,
one's understanding of the major themes in a D.H, Lawrence novel (e,g..
Sons and Lovers) as an initial framework for understanding the themes of
another (e.g.. Lady Chatterley's Lover). The resulting understanding may
or may not make sense of the actual story. However, in all learning, thinkers
mentally create provisional models (small-scale logical systems) for
figuring out the system to be grasped. The resulting product of thought is
a self-created system that may or may not match reality.
Creative Genius — An Exception?
Some might object to the line of reasoning we have laid out thus far. They
might claim that the intimate interconnection of critical thinking and
creative thinking does not hold for creative genius, arguing that creative
genius emerges spontaneously and mysteriously and is linked to unconscious
processes that defy rational explanation. As cases in point, they
might cite the work of great artists, inventors, and thinkers such as Leonardo
Da Vinci, Mozart, Shakespeare, Einstein, and Darwin.
To think through the relationship between creative genius and critical
thought and respond to these objections, consider the following questions:
• To what extent is the capacity for creative genius realized in a purely
• To what extent must genius be cultivated through the development of
We will consider these questions briefly from a conceptual perspective.
Language as a Guide
How does language shed light on genius and related concepts? The Oxford
English Dictionary defines genius in two ways:
1. Having natural aptitude, ability or capacity; quality of mind; the
special endowments which fit a person for their peculiar work,
2, Native intellectual power of an exalted type, such as is attributed to
those granted highest esteem in any department of art, speculation,
or practice; instinctive creation, original thought, invention or discovery.
The first definition comes close to what is typically meant by the term
gifted, and it implies that the gift predisposes one to high quality thought
within a specialty. The second sense focuses on the successful use of intellectual
processes, primarily on creative production which need not imply
To better understand the concept of genius, reflect upon its most basic
meaning as well as the meanings of some related concepts: talent, giftedness,
aptitude, intelligence, brilliance, accomplishment, proficiency, and
Consider the following definitions (and distinctions) developed from
entries in Webster's New World Dictionary.
• Talent implies an apparently native ability for a specific pursuit and
connotes either that it is or can be cultivated (or left largely undeveloped)
by the one possessing it.
• Gifted suggests a special ability bestowed upon one, as by nature, and
not acquired through effort,
• Aptitude implies a natural inclination for a particular work, specifically
as pointing to a special fitness for or probable success in it,
• Genius suggests an inborn mental endowment, specifically of a creative
or inventive kind in the arts or sciences, or that which is exceptional or
• Intelligent implies the ability to learn or understand from experience or
to respond successfully to a new experience.
• Brilliant implies an unusually high degree of intelligence.
• Accomplished means skilled, proficient,
• Proficient is highly competent, skilled, adept.
• Virtuoso suggests a person displaying great technical skill in some fine
art, especially in the performance of music.
Notice that talent, gift, genius, and aptitude all imply an inborn disposition
to excel within some domain of thought. But intelligence, brilliance,
accomplishment, proficiency, and virtuosity need not presuppose innate
tendencies. Assuming that these distinctions mirror important qualities
in human development, a real possibility is suggested: A person may be
highly creative or even brilliant without having a high degree of innate
talent. This possibility is borne out by empirical fact. Many highly accomplished
thinkers, rightly considered geniuses, have displayed that brilliance
only after investing years in perfecting potential not extraordinary
to begin with.
The Narrow-Minded Genius
It is also important to recognize that genius may exist in a highly circumscribed
form. At one and the seime time, a person can combine "genius"
in one domain of life with narrowness and parochialism in others. For example,
many brilliant thinkers enthusiastically served in the Nazi regime.
The rocket scientist Werner Von Braun was one such person. The German
generals Rommel and Guderian were two others. Within their specialties
they functioned at the very highest levels, yet their ethical reasoning abilities
and world perspective were sadly impoverished. One-dimensionality
is as possible in the life of a genius as in anyone else's life.
Moreover, without development of critical capacities, raw inborn talent
is easily wasted or misused. The cultivation of innate gifts must be joined
with critical thinking skills and abilities if one is to achieve results worthy
of high praise.
The interplay Among inborn Gifts, Environment, and
what, then, distinguishes people who excel at creative thought from those
who don't? Outstanding creative work ultimately emerges from application
involving both criticality and originality. We concede the obvious: A
minimal level of inborn capacity is necessary for high achievement. But
one might well become an eminent thinker without inborn genius or extraordinary
gifts if moderate raw capacity is joined with intellectual perseverance,
intellectual stimulation, and intellectual discipline.
To be more precise, three conditions contribute to a high level of creative
1, A minimal level of innate intellectual capacity (though it need not be
2, An environment that stimulates the development of that capacity.
3, A positive response and inner motivation on the part of the person
thus born and situated (Paul, R., & Elder, L,, 2005, The thinker's
guide to critical and creative thought. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation
for Critical Thinking).
Creativity involves more than a mere haphazard or uncritical making,
more than the raw process of bringing something into being. It requires
that what is created meets criteria intrinsic to the intended product. Novelty
alone will not do, for worthless novelty is easy to produce. Intellectual
standards and discipline, rightly used, do not stand in the way of creativity.
Rather, they provide a way to begin to generate it—slowly and painfully,
one problem, one insight at a time.
If one learns to engage in genuine intellectual work focused on problems
worthy of reasoned thought and analysis and becomes a judicious
critic of the nature and quality of related thought, one is well positioned
to become a critically creative and creatively critical person and thinker.
Stimulating intellectual work develops the intellect as a creator that evaluates
and as an evaluator that creates. The result is fitness of mind.
Linda Elder is executive director of research and professional development
and Richard Paul is director of the Center for Critical thinking at Sonoma
State University, Pohnert Park, CA 94928. (J)
The National Tutoring Association's
15th Annual Conference
36 JOURNAL 0F DEVELOPMENTAL EDUCATION
VOLUME 30, ISSUE 3 • SPRING 2007 37