Two colors almost identical. Two words almost synonymous. Two sounds almost indistinguishable. How to distinguish? When we set about to “distinguish” two or more items or objects, thoughts or ideas, we’re looking for what separates them, some way of placing them into separate classifications or categories. Some questions to ask when you’re about to distinguish one thing from another: What’s your basis of evaluation? What justification do you have which makes your way of distinguishing more valuable than some other way? Why is your distinction a meaningful one? Is the distinction you’re about to draw worth the time and trouble of making it? That is, does it shed some light?
One thinking skill we take for granted is drawing correct distinctions, we assume we’re good at it, yet too often our urge to distinguish can at times be oversimplified, or blurred at the margins, and may lead us astray. Let’s take the perplexing category of, say, people. How easy it is to distinguish by physical appearance, gender, race, ethnicity, or age. But what if our method of distinguishing was something odd––say, “chance that this person enjoys classical music” or “likelihood that this person regularly reads poetry.” Now, our generalizations drawn from merely glancing at someone’s outward appearance become less reliable. Before we can reliably begin to distinguish based on those methods we will need to know more, much more.
Merely “seeing” something would appear to be invariably reliable. After all, we can easily distinguish green from red, smooth from rough, transparent from opaque. But, again, we’re only looking at the surface. What if our method of distinguishing were less obvious––say, “chance that this compound–chemical is carcinogenic” or “likelihood that this liquid-solution is acidic.” Now, we have to move beyond appearances, we have to search out and find a property which most likely can be derived only through testing.
Distinguishing as a value judgment. Perhaps distinguishing the right way implicates nothing more than a value judgment, a personal choice between alternatives. “The distinguishing characteristic of mind are of a subjective sort; we know them only from the contents of our own consciousness.” –Wilhelm Wundt. If that’s the case, then it makes sense to take care of one’s own inner state––to carry out on a regular basis a bit of mental housekeeping, so that one’s own interior closed loops and dead-end streets, dredged up from the past, are ruthlessly swept away.
Distinguishing as a skill similar to artistic or musical ability. Perhaps distinguishing at a high level is innate, something akin to artistic or musical ability. It may be that presenting a case depends on nothing more than an ability to make correct distinctions. The trick is to see, as if from a distance, the beginning, middle, and end––and to make instantaneous adjustments as events unfold. What to include, what to ignore, what to enlarge (“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”—Martin Scorsese) the thought may simply be to tend to matters of visual and verbal expression with care so that others are enabled to draw the same distinctions.
Distinguishing as a proficiency akin to intuition, a sixth sense, or a flash of insight. Perhaps distinguishing is involuntary, not within our control, akin to intuition, a sixth sense, or a flash of insight. Trying to consciously control this may in fact be counterproductive. There’s something to be said for not overthinking things. Particularly when thought alone will not work as the sole method of arriving at the correct conclusion.
Two colors almost identical, two words almost synonymous, two sounds almost indistinguishable––the secret may be in just trusting one’s own inner sense. For example, a great American writer can observe and write about someone laughing at another and still make the fine distinction that this person may not in fact be mocking, but merely making an effort to put things into perspective, or to recollect and react ruefully, or to communicate a message larger than can be expressed in words:
“I’ll pray for you, Walter.” Bruch stopped crying, clearly startled. “What do you mean, Uncle Sammler. You pray?” The baritone music left his voice, and it was gruff again, and he gruffly gobbled his words. “Uncle Sammler, I have my arms. You have prayers?” He gave a belly laugh. He laughed and snorted, swinging his trunk comically back and forth, holding both his sides, blindly showing both his nostrils. He was not, however, mocking Sammler. Not really. One had to learn to distinguish. To distinguish and distinguish and distinguish. It was distinguishing, not explanation, that mattered. Explanation was for the mental masses. Adult education. The upswing of general consciousness. A mental level comparable with, say, that of the economic level of the proletariat in 1848. But distinguishing? A higher activity.” (Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet)(Pg. 61)(Penguin Books 1977)