Critical thinking is disobedient, not correct
Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas
Critical thinking is not a public, regulated discourse; unlike the "Three kinds of criticism" I describe elsewhere, it is private flow of judgement that takes place inside your head. Later, wisely, it may or may not be expressed in public.
Critical thinking is justified to disobey before becoming reasonable. The freedom of questioning everything - other people's reason and yours included - and the defying of received opinion and of face value must be unfettered in people who want to be free.
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.
True critical thinking tests the world, and itself, with no holds barred. The first instinctive move of critical sense is to 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. Realism and reasoning method will come to ground the flow of criticism as a necessary ulterior move - to check and to justify the critique, the need to criticise or the way of doing it - following the initial intuitive drive to differ.
The reverse of “critical thinking” is not the one which makes errors, nor bad thinking but credulity and lack of independent judgment. The opposite of being gullible and servile is the disobedient mind that 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 critical thinking.
Worse, the manuals of “critical thinking”, while teaching usefully what is good and bad argument, also prescribe what exists, what truth is, what must happen in our head, what criteria to use, as if those criteria were sacred axioms above suspicion; but they are not. Such manuals are rich with procedures, skills, logical rules and examples of fallacies, vital knowledge, 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 critical.
Your own critical thinking is the real-life criticism that takes place in our mind, intimately. Besides analysing other people's arguments and reasons to judge whether they are justified and logical, we have our own ideas, not only to be questioned but also legitimately questioning; unlike 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, even against Method.
Critical thinking is a grain of rebellion against authority and conformity. The critical thinker respects authority only on merit and accepts received knowledge only after understanding it, not by someone else's recommendation. To make sense of something it is indeed desirable to use the best 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.
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 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 agree 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 true.
It is at this price of challenging perpetually and undoing the given and 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 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.
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, justified among the humans. Creation is undoing, changing, replacing and inventing the not yet existent. It is asking “Why so?” 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 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 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 and spilt the 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 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 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 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 and risky; it needs some slow logic 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. 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. 
A critical temper – which in my mind is the embodiment of the ideal Critical Spirit - questions everything, ceaselessly: to understand, by disposition, 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 opinion like mouton. 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; what a sad translation of the brilliant French "esprit critique"! Without this perverse interpretation of the words in English, often made with a hand placed on Scripture, I would have called my subject "critical spirit" instead of "Critical Thinking". I see critical spirit as the ideal precursor, parent and initiator of its recent 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- a method of emancipation 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. This, I do rarely to attack evil but more often in all sympathy 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 or a question - confronting it with the proposed idea and advancing the questioning until the argument or the idea “wins or loses” and convinces me. Then, I signal victory of one critique or concede 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 satisfied by the fall of my successive testing arguments. I am pleased when my arguments fall. The aim is to test and to improve, to strengthen 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!
Critical thinking is also a key part of good judgement: it is personal understanding.
Before 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 gives 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 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, most of the things I understood that did not work, were not detected by formal rules, 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 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 will have to grow old before you earn the right to think. And then, the experts will still explain you that you did not understand.
Imagine a world where you can only dislike or reject something, where you can manifest your taste, follow your preference or vote, only after proving that your thinking is in full conformity, 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.
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 follow after the anarchic choices of intuitive criticism is still not only by the book; if your judgement is to be good, it embraces complex, contradictory, incomplete knowledge, the one we have in our real life. Its point of view is not objective precision. What counts most for good judgement are practical mindedness and respect for the shared preferences, norms and values of the human persons not exclusively of 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 as you can observe reality check, logic and good scientific method, all the good advice of the "critical thinking" books, but without being reduced to them. It 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 thinker will be indignant. He prefers disciplined ideas reflecting reality, 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.
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.
 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