One of the most useful and incisive ways to render a thought into language is by trying to create a distinction. When I distinguish between the bats that fly at night and the bat that is swung at a baseball, I am able to show two things that cannot trivially be confused with each other. This allows me to dissect into the descriptive intuitions implied in my story of the time I swung a bat at a bat in my attic and broke the window.
When I distinguish between things that are subtler than material objects—things like concepts, ways of speech, and modes of being—the rigor and process of making a distinction becomes more refined and elusive.
In the end, a distinction is never meant to replace what it shows. The best distinctions, in one sense, are the most clear and permanent ones. But there is value in working through weaker distinctions, pushing them to their limit, and being sober about a distinction’s own set of boundaries, i.e., the finer degrees that dwell in the excluded middle dividing it.
Furthermore, not every distinction makes a real, nontrivial difference. This is a slightly different issue, but it adds to the layers of complexity present in trying to clearly express the difference between this and that. I spend a great deal of time trying to teach through the use of distinctions. Some of them are homemade, most of them repeat or borrow from classic distinctions of ages past.
Some might object to the use of distinctions because they are inherently dualistic, binary, and even dialectical. This objection, of course, fails to distinguish between a distinction used as a tool and the idea that distinctions are somehow embedded into the world ontologically. One need not be a gnostic or a Hegelian to carve out a useful distinction. An easy way to break a facile theory of opposites is to ask what the opposite of pineapple is, but that is not reason to think of the contrasts between life and death, light and darkness, and friend and foe, as meaningless. Often, distinctions themselves are clarified through other distinctions. At some point this use of distinctions to make distinctions becomes tautological or repetitious, but it is only a matter of how much weight the original distinction can bear.
When a distinction is being drawn, it is always provisional and the intent rarely quite matches its first attempted communication. Indeed, the content of the first rendition often shows the blindness of the intent. It is a first draft. All distinctions are highly editorial in this way. Where I may have an intuition about a mutually exclusive difference between two separate things, I may find at closer and more careful study that no such distinction can be made, that things are not so simple or that I am simply wrong.
The ultimate problem with an elegant distinction is this: it is only analytic in its use-value. It can only be useful. It can only clean away the dirt and make things a bit clearer and more accessible for more serious work to be done. I hesitate to call this “work” philosophy because surely this process abounds in many mediums of thought, far beyond the reach of philosophy. But there is little doubt that this particular tool, when expressed in this form, is thoroughly philosophical.
As a teacher I find that distinctions are among the most reliable ways to both add clarity and complexity that can be discussed and disputed in a way that can be followed intuitively and, sometimes, logically. The ability to hold this and that in one’s mind and push the ideas around until they reach a paradox or a counterfactual is a large portion of what the possession of a sound mind is about. The ability to recognize the truth that governs even a tiny distinction adds subtlety and nuance to one’s appreciation of the world.
What precedes every distinction is a certain absence of ideology, an ability to take an idea on its own terms and see where it goes without fear or attachment. This is why so many of the stark differences and polarizations nowadays lack true distinctions that can appeal to real things and ideas instead of ideology.
With so many artificial distinctions around, built by giant headlines and motored into our screens at a constant rate, it is not hard to see why some people are alarmed about the future. The response to this alarm is often to rail and swing and fight. This is what the culture wars were, and still are, primarily about. The problem with this apologetic approach is that it is always a reaction rather than a response.
Consider this distinction: My son hits his brother with a stick and I am angered by it, I am annoyed to be distracted, and I feel righteous rage for his victim. I react and strike out with a tongue-lashing. I burn him to the ground with words and looks that are born of good and perverted into the rage of a Pharisee father. This is what I mean by the term “reaction.” I would distinguish this from what I am calling a “response.” In the same scenario a response would be to contain my most immediate reaction and respond to the situation by perhaps watching a bit longer, letting the scene play itself out, by first checking on the well-being of my protagonist son, or by pulling his antagonist brother aside to understand what was going on. The situation might play out in the same way in all the external details, but my choice to respond instead of reacting would be the difference that might make a more lasting and wholesome difference.
To make and consider a distinction is not just an intellectual exercise or game. It requires the ability to respond in a way that rejects cheap reactions—or perhaps responds to them with a carefully distinguished rejection. It is tedious work and often does little to nothing to change things. Distinctions will not build a smarter planet or save the world, but they might bring clarity, sanity, and the ability to cope with the inevitable excess gracefully (or, graciously).
The art of making and breaking a distinction, of playing with this and that, and the disposition and moral temperament required for it, is something we can all share.