Creative thinking

RELATED TERMS: Critical thinking; Design of Narrative environments; Theoretical practice; Design practice and functionalism

While a narrative environment design may serve a critical purpose, it does so creatively, so to speak. Designing a narrative environment, therefore, involves both creative and critical thinking.

The relationship between critical and creative thinking continues to generate debate. While some theorists view critical thinking and creative thinking as distinct but complementary, others believe that they are opposites. For those who view them as opposites, the assumption is that the generation of new ideas requires the abandonment of the logic and criteria of assessment that characterise critical thinking (Bailin and Siegel, 2002: 186).

From this dualist perspective, it is also assumed that critical thinking is strictly analytic and evaluative, an algorithmic process that consists in arriving at the correct evaluations of ideas, arguments, or products. In this view, critical thinking is categorised as noncreative, a mechanical process of following existing rules, and for that reason unable to transcend frameworks or result in new ideas (Bailin and Siegel, 2002: 186).

Again, in this dichotomous view, creative thinking is seen as solely generative, allowing for the breaking of rules, the transcending of frameworks, and the creation of novel outcomes. In this view, creative thinking is considered to be noncritical, since criticism must take place according to prevailing criteria while being creative involves violating these criteria.

Nevertheless, while it is often assumed that they are two different and distinct kinds of thinking, critical thinking and creative thinking need not necessarily be viewed as opposites: there are evaluative, analytic, logical aspects to creating new ideas or products and there is an imaginative, constructive dimension to their assessment. A conceptualisation that proposes two distinct types of thinking, critical and creative, is seriously problematic.

To a large extent, it might be argued, critical and creative thinking overlap. Indeed, it may be the direction in which such thinking is taken or is developed, or the frame/context in which such thinking is developed, that distinguishes them.

According to Gray and Malins (2004: 39), critical thinking involves thinking about thinking, or ‘meta-thinking’, which concerns considering where one, as thinker, stands within such thinking and in relation to such thinking.

One stands in relation to that thinking as a member of an ‘objective’ speech, thinking or discourse community, applying various standards of ‘logic’, reason or rationality. It is not simply ‘my thinking’ but any one’s thinking according to generally accepted terms, rules and methods.

One stands within that thinking, however, through an emotive or affective attachment to it, as one’s own thinking, ‘my thoughts’, ‘my way of thinking’, implying belief, adherence and affiliation, beyond mere rule-following.

Thus, for Gray and Malins (2004: 39), critical thinking is equivalent to creative thinking in as far as: it encourages questioning why something is the case; it requires imagining ‘what if’ something were the case or proceeding ‘as if’ something were the case, i.e. speculation about conditionality and consequence and/or inconsequence; it involves speculative connecting in linking elements that have not been considered in relation to one another before; it involves interpreting possible meanings; and it encourages applying ideas and methods to particular situations and experimenting with novel configurations. It might be added here that critical thinking requires acceptance of chance, accidence or emergence (unanticipated consequences, from unconsidered aspects of conditionality).

In a research context, Gray and Malins (2004: 39) suggest, critical thinking is essential for developing a convincing research proposition, i.e. an argument, in relation to what already exists in the field of study, in order to make a creative contribution to that field.

An argument, Gray and Malins continue, is a process of reasoning in which one attempts to influence someone’s belief that what one is proposing is the case, to convince others of the validity of how you see the world and convince others that they, too, can and should see it the way you do. However, this process itself should be open to the possibility of what cannot be foreseen, predicted and calculated as a possibility, i.e. to the surprise of the invention of the other (Applebaum, 2011) whom you are trying to convince.

Another way of understanding the relationship between critical and creative thinking is suggested by Karen Barad through her notion of diffraction, itself borrowed from Donna Haraway. Barad (2014: 186n) contrasts her diffractive analysis with that of critique, or at least some forms of critique. Diffraction takes its lead from forms of critical analysis, such as those put forward by Marx, Nietzsche and Foucault. Both critique and diffractive analysis take account of the material-discursive conditions of possibility in their historical-social-political-naturalcultural contingency.

However, Barad argues, whereas critique operates in a mode of disclosure, exposure and demystification, diffraction might be understood as a form of affirmative engagement. Diffraction is an iterative practice of intra-actively reworking and being reworked by patterns of mattering. A diffractive methodology seeks to work constructively and deconstructively, but not destructively, to make new patterns of understanding-becoming.

Bruno Latour (2004) develops a separate but related line of argumentation to Barad when he considers what has become of the critical spirit. He points out that it has been a long time since intellectuals were in the vanguard and a very long time since the notions of a proletarian avant-garde and an artistic avant-garde passed away. It is still possible to go through the motions of a critical avant-garde, but the animating spirit or drive has gone, Latour suggests.

If the critical mind is to renew itself, Latour argues, it has to cultivate a stubbornly realist attitude, but a realism that deals with matters of concern, i.e. ‘actual occasions’ or ‘actual situations’ or ‘actual occurrences’, and not matters of fact. The mistake, Latour contends, is to accept too uncritically what matters of fact are, and to think that the most effective way to criticise them is to focus on the conditions that make them possible, as in the Kantian and subsequent critical attitude. [seeing them as constructed; relation to constructivism?]

Such a refusal, i.e. refusing to accept uncritically what matters of fact are and to equate critique with the Kantian move to conditions of possibility, makes it possible to recognise that reality is not defined by matters of fact; and that matters of fact are not all that is given to experience. Matters of fact are not only partial but are also polemical. They are renderings of matters of concern, a subset of states of affairs.

Latour outlines this return to realism in the following way. Enlightenment thinking developed matters of cat as a powerful descriptive tool for debunking prevailing beliefs, powers and illusions. However, this Enlightenment thinking found itself disarmed when matters of fact were submitted to this same process of debunking.

Following Donna Haraway, Latour suggests that one way out of this impasse is to devise or design another powerful tool which focuses on matters of concern and whose impulse is no longer simply to debunk but rather to protect and to care. The critical urge is thereby transformed into an ethos by means of which reality is added to matters of fact rather than subtracted.

Critique is useless when it begins to use the results of one science or domain of knowledge uncritically, i.e. takes them as foundational, inalienable matters of fact. Nevertheless, to retrieve a realist attitude, it is not enough to disseminate the critical weapons uncritically created by previous generations. The split in the realist attitude, embodying a “bifurcation of nature”, as Alfred North Whitehead calls it, must be repaired, so that it no longer continues to be the case that matters of fact take the best or main part, i.e. the substance or substrate, while matters of concern are limited to a rich but void or irrelevant history, accidence or contingency. For Whitehead, it is events (‘actual occasions’ ) which are, in some sense, the ultimate ‘substance’ of nature.

For Latour, Whitehead is the philosopher who can effect this repair. Whitehead considers matters of fact to be poor renderings of what is given in experience that muddle the question. Thus, as Latour explains it, Whitehead does not take the path of critique, which directs attention away from facts, as is done in the critical attitude, but instead digs further into the realist attitude, which recognises that matters of fact are implausible, unrealistic, unjustified definitions of what it is to deal with matter, i.e. the matter at hand, material practices and the material world as ‘actual occasions’.

Thus, for Latour, Whitehead avoids the distractions that are pursuant upon taking the path of the critical attitude, for example, in the Kantian direction, which emphasises the conditions of possibility of facts, the Husserlian direction, which adds flesh to the bare bones of the facts, or the Heideggerian direction, which seeks to avoid as much as possible the fate of the domination of facts or the framing (Gestell) by facts.

Thus, Latour (2004: 245) quotes Whitehead (2006: 20) as saying that, “ … matter represents the refusal to think away spatial and temporal characteristics and to arrive at the bare concept of an individual entity.”

[From a narrative environment perspective, this operates as a refusal to think away the environmental (spatial) and the narrative (temporal) characteristics of an ‘actual situation’.]

Given this Whiteheadian insight, Latour argues, it is not the case that there exist solid matters of fact after which it is then for us to decide whether they will be used to explain something. Furthermore, it is not the case either that the other solution is to attack, criticise, expose or historicise those matters of fact in order to show that they are made-up, interpreted, flexible. Nor is ti the case that we should flee out of them into the mind; or add to them symbolic and cultural dimensions.

Rather, it should be clearly recognised that matters of fact are a poor proxy of experience and experimentation. Moreover, matters of fact are a confusing bundle of polemics, epistemology and modernist politics that cannot claim to represent what is required of a realist attitude.

The direction a new critical attitude might take is that of a multifarious inquiry, using a range of tools from different disciplines, in order to detect how many participants are gathered in an occasion or situation or occurrence (i.e. a “thing” in the Heideggerian sense of ‘a gathering’) to bring it into existence and sustain its existence.

By this means, the critic, rather than being one who debunks, is one who assembles; one who offers participants arenas in which to gather, rather than pulling the rug from under the feet of naive believers; one for whom, if something is constructed (designed, artifactual or artificial) it means that it is fragile and is in great need of care and caution, not one who alternates between anti-fetishism and positivism.

The practical problem this generates is to associate the word criticism with a whole set of new positive metaphors, gestures, attitudes, reactions and habits of thought, such that critique is associated with more, not less, with addition, not subtraction, and with multiplication, not division, generating more ideas than have been received.

This would require that all entities cease to be objects defined by their inputs and outputs and become again “things’, mediating, assembling and enfolding.


Applebaum, B. (2011). Critique of critique: on suspending judgment and making judgment. In: Philosophy of Education Yearbook, 55–64.

Bailin, S. and Siegel, H. (2002). Critical thinking. In Blake, N. et al., eds. (2003). The Blackwell guide to the philosophy of education. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Barad, K. (2014). Diffracting diffraction: cutting together-apart. Parallax, 20 (3), pp.168–187. Available at: [Accessed July 15, 2014].

Gray, C. and Malins, J. (2004). Visualizing research: a guide to the research process in art and design. Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate.

Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30 (2), 225–248.

Parsons, A. (2015, 15 December). Critical thinking, creative thinking and the right to dissent. Poiesis and Prolepsis [Blog]. Available from [Accessed 25 March 2016].

Whitehead, A.N. (2006). The Concept of nature: the Tarner Lectures delivered in Trinity College, November 1919. Project Gutenberg. Available from [25 March 2016].