Critical thinking is disobedient, not correct
Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas
Critical thinking is not public, regulated discourse. It is the Critical Spirit at work.
Unlike the "Three kinds of criticism" I describe elsewhere, this kind of reasoning is a private flow of backlash and judgement that takes place inside your head. Later, wisely, it may or may not be elaborated to be expressed in public.
When it changes level and leaps uncensored into public discourse, critical thinking appears as a process of rupture, even further away from submission to regulated thought. It may ring radical change.
Critical thinking is justified to disobey before becoming reasonable. The freedom of questioning everything - other people's reason and yours included - the freedom to defy any given rules of received opinion and of face value must be unfettered in people who want to be free and start something new.
The difference between a critical and a complacent person is the difference between an open and a closed mind.
Those who profess that critical thinking is nothing but inspecting beliefs and arguments to be realistic and disciplined [*], put a yoke on their own neck and then preach freedom. Kierkegaard would say: "Among all of them, critical thinkers, is there one who is a critical thinker?"[**]
The critical mind - with its intuitive movement, its common sense judgements and its more orderly reasoning - tests itself and the world, with no holds barred, always open to revise its and other people's beliefs, perpetually ready to question certainty, anew. The first instinctive move of critical sense is to doubt and resist the steady-state, obviousness, complacency and sway, not to conform, nor be self-satisfied or disciplined.
Correct reasoning is not the first move, nor the main function of a critical spirit at work; irony, the thinking from above, breaking the mould towards some next level, is. Realism and reasoning method will come to ground the flow of criticism as a necessary ulterior move - to check and to justify or discard the critique, the need to criticise or the way of doing it - following the initial intuitive drive to differ.
When it comes to empower individual persons to think, the most important corruption of our judgement is not the thinking which makes errors, nor bad thinking but sheepish imitation, credulity and lack of independent, of creative understanding. The opposite of being gullible and servile is the disobedient mind that evaluates witnesses and examines everything, including itself, its own basic rules and assumptions, with or without method.
I claim that what is theorised and taught today under the name "critical thinking" is incomplete, only one face of the coin. We are presented with a methodological critique of thinking but the other face of this Janus, critical spirit, the gadfly, is ignored, swept under the carpet. Critique of thinking waters down the practice of being critical.
Worse, the manuals of “critical thinking”, while teaching usefully what is good and bad argument, also prescribe, without warning, what exists, what truth is, what must happen in our head, what criteria to use, as if those criteria were the unique ones, sacred axioms above suspicion; but they are not. Such manuals are rich with procedures, skills, logical rules and examples of fallacies, vital knowledge for the literate person, but incomplete; if you just follow the rules, your thinking will be utterly uncritical. I dare you that this much does not make your thinking autonomous and enlightened.
To have questioning ideas and personal points of view
Your own critical thinking is the real-life criticism that takes place in our mind, intimately. Before and besides analysing our own and other people's witnessing, arguments and reasons to judge whether they are factual, justified and logical, we must have points of view and ideas in the first place, conscious points of view and our own ideas, not only ideas to be questioned but also ideas legitimately questioning; unlike civilised criticism communicated to other people, our inner practice of criticism, be it friendly, objective or hostile, doubts and challenges everything without limitations of good practice, politeness and interpersonal sensitivity.
You can experience critical thinking informally, with or without method, and definitely, against Method.
Critical thinking is a grain of rebellion against authority and conformity. The critical thinker respects authority but only on merit and inevitably accepts received knowledge but only after understanding it, not by someone else's recommendation. To make sense of something we are empowered by using the huge knowledge and the best expertise achieved by humanity but even if we did not learn all that knowledge yet, we must have the right to use our common sense.
The root of our critical thinking is a spur, our critical sense - an attitude, a disposition, an instinct, manifestation of critical spirit. Many people do not feel this spur naturally.
Healthy critical sense roams as orderly as storm. It takes liberty to approve or reject, and proceeds to undo or to support, rationally or irrationally, often because so we please or itch. Its ironic creative momentum may rise against justified belief, repeal what everybody admires or defend that which everyone around us disapproves. We have a right to differ. It is reasonable to disagree. We own the right to select out as we select in, to shun or prefer, to contest and to dream away.
We have the private mental right to depart from what is; even when the present is faultless. You can dislike and reject even something perfect and verified as true.
It is at this price of challenging perpetually and undoing the given, the mainstream, that critical thinking may start something new. You can be disapproving without being right or proving that you are right. This defiance is a reaction of life, of the “me”, not a good syllogism; it is only when you affirm your critique as true and rational or want to convince other people that you must justify and prove.
The live movement of the critical mind uses two measures “deux poids, deux mesures” , not one: besides testing against reality, standards, definitions and other people’s views, it is also testing things against us: our interests, our taste, our understanding and even the most obscure of our feelings.
Critical spirit is the way life thinks
Something else, liberation, our own point of view, fairness, new truth, life – not just copies of copies - may come from restlessness or discontent, first intuitive or irrational and later, hopefully, thought out and justified among the humans. Creation is undoing, changing, replacing and inventing the not yet existent. It is asking “Why so?” "Why not?" and “Why not otherwise?” It certainly needs to demolish – mentally - the given and requires a disorder elbow room to turn; anarchy at least here in your mind, where your freedom to swing your fist does not meet someone else’s nose [1a].
Your critical thinking is – let me repeat - personal, private and unique, with no need of model. It takes place informally, sheltered in your mind, not publicly. It follows your interest and intentions and is grounded by your understanding, the representations in your mind, not someone else’s. Nobody has a right to intrude and to regulate this, your inner garden. It is initially a mixture of feeling, intuition and common (or uncommon) sense thinking. It sketches and follows your reaction, your interest and intentions and is grounded by your understanding, the image in your mind, not someone else’s.
Your private critical flow of mind is a core part of your freedom to consider any choices, to be an autonomous agent initiating new beginnings, a person. It is not neutral. We have the right to feel and to say no in our mind, long before we express and ground our opposition by strict argument and justify criticism with valid, acceptable proofs. That will come later. Any creation, any thought of change says “no!” to what is. Or, it says “yes” to something else which is not. Not yet.
The status of personal laboratory is the good reason why your private mind-work should know no inhibition and no mercy. It has the inner sanctuary right to be as wild and iconoclastic as Nietzsche shows it to be in his "Twilight of the Idols", "Beyond Good and Evil" or "Ecce Homo" (except that he transgressed the prudence of the philosopher and spilt the esoteric beans carelessly into unprepared public space).
Nothing should be impossible in the mind when there are no rules and substantial limitations. There is no guilt, in my opinion, in allowing to be born and in observing - without censure, moral or logical - any representations and thoughts that may arise in your mind. It is mere freedom of thought, a basic human right. You should not kill your baby-thoughts because they are born wild. Responsibility consists in what you will do with them later.
To make this simple, I say that critical thinking is the act of freedom by which you take the risk and have the somewhat childish, youthful courage, at any time needed, to draw a line and say: “Now I will think for myself, humbly but freely, with as little as I know. I will conceive what is true for me at this time and what not, what is good for me and what is bad, what I prefer to do and what I elect to refrain from”
However, we do not live alone and we are no beasts; if we are not mad, we become responsible, morally and logically, for the valuations and the conclusions we make ours. Moreover, when thoughts come out in words and deeds we become accountable to other people too. The intuitive critical flow is fast, abrupt and risky; it needs some slow reasoning when we elaborate and communicate it. When we cast our criticism among people, we must be coherent, reasonable, moderate and constructive as persistently as we were anarchic inside the crucible of our mind. Often we must wisely chose to express it in veiled irony or question form or even not to express it at all.To paraphrase the common place of the formerly notorious Dr Johnson, we may follow Fancy for our guide but must take Reason as our companion. 
Anathema of the bigot
A critical temper – which in my mind is the embodiment of the ideal Critical Spirit - questions everything, ceaselessly: to understand, to change, to help or to fight. It has a habit to test everything from all sides; to judge how things sound after it knocks on them. It soon becomes skilled in doing so. It takes the freedom to see what is inside things, underneath at their root and behind them, "in the sky and below the earth" as Socrates was accused in the Apology [2a]; not to submit instead to dominant testimony and opinion, like mutton. There is nothing wrong in this urge to see things with our own eyes, touch them like Thomas the Unbeliever, and judge them with our intuition or common sense, as modest and fallible as they may be.
The Anglophone bigoted, tried historically and still try today to do away with the critical temper by bad-mouthing it and calling it "critical spirit" from the tip of the lips, as if critical spirit were something evil, inferior, not something that makes us human and free; what a sad translation of the brilliant French "esprit critique"! Without this perverse interpretation of the words in English, often made with a sweaty hand placed on Scripture, I would have simply called my subject "critical spirit" instead of "Critical Thinking". I see critical spirit as the ideal precursor, true parent and initiator of its recent domesticated offspring and complement, the contemporary "critical thinking" school that feels satisfied to merely check validity and argument.
Critical thinking is, as I claim, a readiness of the human nature, a skill and - if completed (but not choked) by education- an emancipation safeguard of the civilised person.
Let me take, with humble caution, my own example:
When I consider my habits of criticism I observe a constant preference, a positive style, to challenge and test things on all sides, with insistence, to check whether or not they sound empty or have weak points. I also seek instinctively how they look from higher above or from deeper below. This, I do rarely in order to attack but most often in all sympathy, to serve, and even when I have little doubt about the truth or the correctness of the matter at hand, particularly when I like the object.
I feel that submitting ideas and projects to showers of contrary arguments and challenges is useful, valuable and constructive.
My method is to start by advancing one critique - an observation, a re-definition or a question - confronting it with the proposed idea and to advance the questioning until the argument or the idea “wins or loses” and convinces me. Then, I signal victory and consequence of my critique, or concede its defeat, with no hard feelings, it is “de bonne guerre”. After this, I advance the next objection and follow the same cycle, and so on. I could do this for a long time, undisturbed but, on the contrary, rather satisfied by the fall of my successive testing arguments. I am pleased when my arguments fall and their object keeps standing.
The aim is to test and to improve, to strengthen against surprise by the vaccine of critique, not to win or to destroy. Interesting to see that such a functioning of the mind appears as unbearable and even dishonest to some people. Too bad for them!
Good judgement has a component of criticism
Critical thinking is also a key part of good judgement, the judgement that proves to be right by succeeding: it is a way of granting that understanding is personal, capable of revision and fit to people's practice.
Before a necessary phase of reasoning "well" and usefully, your critical thinking sets the very ground on which you will judge, the one often taken as obvious; a critical approach checks, finds or even invents and proposes shared meaning, clarifies what things are for you, from your angle, points at the essential for you and for the other people involved. It chooses the rules. It elaborates your locally valid truth, the beliefs based on which you will judge. Ahead of applying properly prescribed criteria, your critical sense will choose what criteria to apply.
In my experience of advising and helping, most of the things I understood that did not work, were not detected by formal rules; they surfaced by looking otherwise, they were intuitions of what things really meant, what “appeared” really important for a given purpose, what rules were adequate locally, of what felt not right, the labels accepted, the words used. Being critical consisted first of all in guessing that the proposed choices were themselves a wrong choice, other choices of choices being possible.
If you begin your thinking in submission, even to healthy logical rules, instead of starting free to be divergent, if you use words without examining what they mean to you and other people, you are doomed to only find in the end what you or the people implied knew already. You remain a mere link in a long chain of witnessing by various people, relating some statement supposed to be knowledge. You will have to grow old before you earn the right to think. And then, the experts will still explain you with authority that you did not understand.
Imagine a world where you can only dislike, doubt or reject something, where you can manifest your taste, follow your preference or vote, only after proving that your thinking is in full conformity with observed fact, scientifically grounded and logically correct. See how absurd it is! Therefore, you should not postpone your critical drive until you master prescribed method, even with a risk to be mistaken. Just keep ready to correct when proven false!
The books on “critical thinking” are full of eye-opening procedures, skills, logical rules and examples of fallacies, very useful, valuable, true, vital to learn from, but, let me repeat, if you just follow the literal rules, your thinking will remain uncritical. Is critical thinking a mere inspection or arguments and detection of faults? Advancing by the book? Censoring your own thinking as you censor somebody else's arguments? Taking distance from yourself? This is misleading. Where is the method to challenge things, received ideas, the world? Sometimes I wonder if the authors ever questioned what they want critical thinking to achieve: change the world or tame the mind?
The good judgement itself, the one that should intervene and follow after the anarchic choices of intuitive criticism is still not only by the book of logic; if your judgement is to be good, it embraces complex, contradictory, incomplete knowledge, the one we have in our real life. It keeps doubting itself and learning. Its point of view is not one of objective precision. What counts most for good judgement are openness, practical mindedness and respect - with a touch of humour - for the shared preferences, norms and values of the human persons, not exclusively for scientific truth or logic. Certainly, ideas should follow and be consistent but the aim is in the good sense of the content not the perfection of the form.
Critical thinking may start in uprising but it needs not end in rebellion
In a justification context, self-examining comes next, to make you master, not slave, of your own critical reaction. Now, to free your deliberation from unaware bias and not to be blinded by passion or wishful thinking, you need to rise above yourself, above your raw critical drive, to understand which is your point of view , what moved you to be critical, and if you speak, why you speak and what you want to achieve; otherwise, your criticism is like the buzzing of flies.
Now it is time to accept if on reflection you were mistaken or unfair and if at second thought you are still attached to your criticism, to find other, better arguments. For criticism communicated is also doing things with words, rhetoric.
Now, when you formulate arguments and speak, there is usage and canons to respect . Now you censor yourself as you censor other people. It is insane to practice all we imagine and feel and it is boorish to punish people with our freedom to think and speak; politeness and prudence preserve us from harm!
My view of critical thinking values and includes inevitably, logic and good scientific method, all the good advice of the "critical thinking" books, but without being reduced to them. The reasoning is much larger in scope.
You may not need to be logical when you start thinking, but you do when you conclude. That is the moment to use what you learned from the many books about “critical thinking”. It is for this that you gain to read them. Critique expressed must be consistent inside and fit outside into the limits of accepted reality and of accepted opinion. That is the stage when the proper flow of logic rules and the awareness of fallacies, formal and informal, preserves you from ridicule and defeat. If you cannot cope with this, better keep your mouth shut.
PS: Of course, a flaw weakens my view presented here; it is not fool proof. Critical thinking is dangerous anarchy in the head, not for kindergarten. I do not write for those proud to affirm ignorance.
The fool will misunderstand that anything goes.
The pedant will confuse the Promethean birth of ideas with the growth, the verification and the communication of ideas.
The convergent thinkers - and among them, particularly, the closed minds who need stable certainties will be indignant. They prefers disciplined ideas reflecting pinned-down reality, beliefs justified once forever, not shots in the dark.
Who likes chaos? But we need this dark space of wild freedom in the mind to conceive the newness which we later analyse and prove, disprove as false and prove again with the advancement of human knowledge...
Last but not least; critical thinkers must have ideas. Where there is no sign of pregnancy even the midwifery of Socrates will help no birth.
© 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 Ioan Tenner & Daniel Tenner
[*] Take a typical example of how critical thinking is defined in the justification mode:
"We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as the explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment was based."(cf. Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. The Delphi Report: Research findings and recommendations prepared for the American Philosophical Association. P. Facione, Project Director. ERIC Doc.No. ED315-423, 1990.) It seems to me that beyond the well thought goal to make all critical thinking objective and rational there is a blindness concerning the reality of the critical mind at work and its functions, personal and social; mainly to affirm something different and to change something.
[**] See Lear, Jonathan, A CASE FOR IRONY, Harvard U.P., Cambridge Mass., .., 2011
 Deuteronomy. 25:13-14 and Proverbs 20:10
[1a] "In June 1919 the Harvard Law Review published an article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr. titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time” and it contained a version of the expression spoken by an anonymous judge [ZCYQ] [ZCHL]: Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” ( [ZCYQ] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Zechariah Chafee, Jr., Page 141, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [ZCHL] 1919 June, Harvard Law Review, Freedom of Speech in War Time by Zechariah Chafee, Jr., Start Page 932, Quote Page 957, Harvard Law Review Association, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view))" All this quote cf. and quoted with thanks from Quote Investigator
where you can read the whole history of the expression
 The original was “We may take Fancy for a companion, but must follow Reason as our guide.” —DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON, letter to James Boswell in: Boswell James, The life of Samuel Johnson..., vol. 1, Carter, Hendee and Co, Boston, 1832
[2a] "There is a certain Socrates, a wise man, a ponderer over the things in the air and one who has investigated the things beneath the earth and who makes the weaker argument the stronger." The Apology, In PLATO - EUTHYPHRO APOLOGY CRITO PHAEDO PHAEDRUS, Loeb Classical Library, Tr. H.N. Fowler, Harward U.P., Cambridge..,London, 2005, p.73
 Gert J. J. Biesta and Geert Jan J.M. Stams, Critical Thinking and the Question of Critique..., Studies in Philosophy and Education 20: 57–74, 2001, Kluwer Academic Publishers
 McInerny, D. Q., Being Logical. A Guide to Good Thinking, Random House, New York, 2004