Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I recently received a gift for being a best man at a wedding, the book, “The One-Minute Philosopher” by Dr. Montague Brown.  It is comprised of a series of brief comparisons and contrasts of word pairs, such as “Confidence/Pride” and “Freedom/License”.  I may wish to challenge the author on a few distinctions, such as “Questioning/Skepticism”, adding a caveat about multiple connotative uses, but for the most part it’s solid yet accessible and concise.  It’s a nice find for the uninitiated in the realm of philosophy, useful in approaching life’s problems, from the mundane to the sublime.   I’ve even used it once or twice as a cheat sheet to clarify a point to others.

I’d like to think I’ve brought many a discussion to a higher level by helping others make distinctions they had not before, ones that when not present cause division and confusion.  The only problem then is when people reject distinctions, or dismiss them as semantics when they are not.  And making the distinction between a meaningful and meaningless distinction is a whole other skill level!  But without distinctions we often make no progress from the place of no context, where “all of this is always true” or “all of that is always false”.

Sometimes the distinctions are subtle with profound implications, such as “tolerance” versus “relativism”.  “Live and let live” is quite different in application from “anything goes”.  Sometimes they are [[Accident (fallacy)|syllogistic]], such as [[Islam]] and [[Islamism]], where all Islamists are Muslim, but not all Muslims are Islamist.  That’s a matter of simple ignorance, but is apparently not always curable.  And sometimes it is simply a matter of context, such as late-term abortion as casual contraception versus termination to save the life of an imperiled mother.  If you listen to people argue this point, you’d think all cases were one or the other extreme, or that there were no degrees of ethical culpability between.  

The point is that when a sensible person is confronted with a meaningful distinction, they can move from stating false (and often offensive) generalizations to get closer to the heart of the matter.  Once we can talk specifically, for example, about lawful gun ownership versus criminal use, or legal versus illegal alien, it is no longer a shouting match for blanket solutions where some injustice or another becomes inevitable.

However, sometimes is it the case where an otherwise rational or even wise fellow has scotomization on a single, pet peeve issue.  And sometimes it seems to be the same people structuring the same over-simplistic arguments on any and all topics. 

It all makes me wonder if such a thing is hard-wired, an adjunct of [[Piaget’s theory of cognitive development]], where either a person can make fine distinctions or they simply, neuro-physiologically cannot.  After all, I’ve met one or two people who arguably have never entered the stage of formal reasoning, yet at an age considered hence-after developmentally immutable.  I wish I were kidding.

I don’t always sense stubborness or malice when a clear and vital distinction is seemingly ignored.  Is it attitude or aptitude? Or is the more appropriate distinction between nature and nurture?  Can perceiving and grasping distinction be a taught skill for using a latent ability?  Or is it no different from the wife who simply cannot do more than simple math, or the friend who will never be able to spell or construct a sentence diagram to save his life?

No matter the cause, this leaves us with two problems in [[dialectic]] and [[debate]] (besides being sure to distinguish which of these is at hand). The first is to posit meaningful distinctions, and the second is to discern if and when someone isn’t willing or able to accept them.  And the latter may save you a lot of frustration the sooner you find out.