Critical thinking

RELATED TERMS: Critical Theory; Design practice and functionalism; Feminism - Material feminism; Historical materialism - Marxism; Method and methodology; Modernism and avant-garde art practice; Postmodernism; Theoretical practice; Genealogy - Nietzsche; Arendt; Modernity

Critical thinking in the West can be traced back back to the Socratic-Platonic tradition, with Plato formalising the Socratic critique of received opinions into a distinction between knowledge, in the form of episteme, and doxa, in the form of belief. This serves as the basis for distinguishing the elevated position of the philosopher, as having epistemic knowledge, from the common man, who has only doxic belief (Biesta and Stams, 2001).

However, Biesta and Stams insist, it is Kant’s three Critiques which remain, for the contemporary 21st century reader, a major attempt to articulate what it could mean for a philosophy to be critical. Kant also provided an explicit argument for linking critique and education. Judith Butler (2009: 775) contends that Kant extended the scope of critique yet further, arguing that while critique arrives at its modern formulation within philosophy, it also makes claims that exceed the particular disciplinary domain of the philosophical. In Kant, Butler states, critique operates not only outside of philosophy and in the university more generally but is also a way of calling into question the legitimating grounds of various public and governmental agencies.

The term ‘critical theory‘, which develops within the same conceptual frame, has a narrower scope, however, referring to the thought of several generations of scholars within the Frankfurt School.

What is particular interest in the context of narrative environment design is the relationship between critical thinking and creative thinking. Thinking about the relationship between the critical and the creative can be assisted by considering the thought of Bruno Latour and Jacques Derrida, amongst others, who consider what has been called a ‘crisis of the critical’.

Latour, for example, starting from a materialist anthropological perspective, sees critical thinking as a ‘modern’ conception based on the separation of the subject (critic) from the object (the criticised), as in Cartesian-derived dualistic thinking. Contemporary problems, Latour argues, require overcoming this dualism by recognising the implication of the critic in the problematique, not standing apart from it, and as part of the constitution of the ‘object’, ‘subject’ and the ongoing situation in which they are inter-related.

Derrida similarly, but with a very different style derived from philosophical discourse, questions the binary assumptions concerning the ground upon which the critic stands, arguing that this cannot be simply outside or above, in the sense of ‘exterior and ‘transcendental’, but rather must remain on a level with that with which there is a critical engagement. The critical engagement is both an intervention, or event, and an invention, or creation, for Derrida.


Biesta, G. and Stams, G.J.J.M. (2001). Critical thinking and the question of critique: some lessons from deconstruction. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 20 (1), 57–74.

Butler, J. (2009). Critique, dissent, disciplinarity. Critical Inquiry, 35, 773–795.