Critical & Creative Thinking

When we talk about critical thinking, we mostly associate it with analytical abilities: to think critically is to take something that is a complex whole and break it into its constituent pieces. Systems thinking is an advanced form of critical thinking, seeking to understand the relationships between parts and how they make up a whole, often with unanticipated inflections (feedback) and dynamics (loops that lead to explosions, like populations, or the reverse, a death spiral).

While there is some assembly in critical thinking, we largely conceive it as re-assembly, and this can be done with breath-taking results. An insightful analysis of a complex artifact – a novel or historical moment – can lead us to see the object or event in an entirely new light. Put another way, there is some creativity in critical thinking. We associate divergent approaches to thinking with creativity. In fact, some consider divergent thinking either fundamental to creativity or a good indicator of it. It makes sense: analysis, the breaking apart of a thing (or things) and divergence, the moving apart of paths are connected, at least by metaphor.

Which leads us to synthesis and/or convergence being aspects of creative thinking, the bringing together of seemingly unrelated things to create, literally, a novel whole. Now, novelty happens all the time. Evolutionary theory is founded on the idea that random events, at the chromosomal level, happen all the time (for whatever reasons) and evolution is the sorting out of the novelties that worked and the novelties that did not. (An unsuccessful novelty does not survive to reproduce, or limits reproduction below a threshold set by a more successful novelty, like modern humans versus neanderthals, as I understand it.)

Part of what that suggests in the realm of thinking, which takes places after all within a larger socio-cultural matrix, is that the novelty cannot be absolute but must be relatable in some fashion to current ideas. Most are familiar with histories of ideas or objects that were “before their time” and thus failed to gather traction in the marketplace. (We tend not to linger on the genius who dies penniless, but, by definition, it has to happen more often than we are aware.)

This failure of an idea or object to succeed, to find fertile space within which to grow is one reason why better organizations seek to create spaces within which novel approaches and ideas are taken more seriously: it’s better to have an idea fail before a larger, more diverse audience than a smaller (and by definition less diverse) one, because there is always the chance that it is a better idea than those currently available and it just needs to find someone to advocate for it.

We tend to think of critical thinking as reductive, breaking things into pieces, and creative thinking as productive, as picking up pieces and putting them together in a new way. The two mechanisms are intertwined.