Distinctions Among Distinctions

I posted the G. A. Cohen impersonation of Ryle (below) both because I thought it was funny and because it seemed to me to satirize moments in my own work.  Now of course I am not worthy to lace Ryle’s boxing gloves, but I have on occasion distinguished distinctions from distinctions–or tried to.  Here’s a short section from late in my book on the Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox.

At this juncture someone might object that the respondents whose responses I’ve been typifying end up looking quite a lot like Frege (as Wittgenstein read him) and Anscombe and Wittgenstein (early and late)—a lot like the philosophers I think we should follow here. I comment on this as Cavell does on a similar fact: The work of these philosophers forms a sustained and radical criticism of such respondents—so of course it is “like” them. It is “like” them in the way that any criticism is “like” what it criticizes. But ultimately, the work of these philosophers and of the respondents is radically unlike: to use an example of Anscombe’s, as radically unlike as soap and washing.

Why is that? Why this radical unlikeness? Well, I’ve done my best throughout the chapter to provide answers to that question. There is a gulf fixed between the work of these philosophers and the respondents, a gulf that closely resembles the gulf between constative language and ladder-language because it is that gulf. The gulf is another of these distinctions without a genus. The philosophers I think we should follow do not take themselves to be trying to bargain the absoluteness of the distinction between concepts and objects away—although I admit they occasionally slip from the strait and narrow onto the broad way. But, no, they are trying to make clear that we can come to see the CHP as no paradox at all only by letting the distinction between concepts and objects be the distinction it is. It is not a distinction with a genus. It is not a distinction of which we need to be informed; we need rather to be reminded of it. It is not a distinction which we recognize and then, having recognized it, impose on thoughts that were thinkable before the imposition. Again, it is know-how, not know-that.

The distinction is of philosophical importance not because it can be given as an answer, in some bit of constative language, to a deep philosophical question. The distinction is of philosophical importance because it is implicated as deeply in thoughts as any distinction could be. No matter how far into thinking nature we retreat, when we turn to think we find such distinctions retreating and turning with us. They are a part of what we are. They are elements in that tawny grammar, that mother-wit, that know-how, that we are initiated into when we are initiated into what Cavell calls “human speech and activity, sanity and community.”  They are what we do. They are what thinkers do.

There are distinctions and distinctions—and so of course the details make a difference. One of the things that reflecting on the CHP’s respondents reveals is how very hard it is to keep straight distinctions among distinctions. After we have distinguished quantitative distinctions from qualitative distinctions, we think we’ve finished distinguishing distinctions. But there are more distinctions to make yet. Is the distinction between soap and washing quantitative or qualitative? It seems to me to be neither. But it’s still a distinction, for all that.

4 responses

  1. I’m trying to make sense of these levels of distinction in connection with the Kantian distinction that you hinted at a few days ago. What I’m thinking is that the phenomena/noumena distinction is only operative as a know-that, a matter of pure reason. When it comes to know-how, to practical reason, the phenomena/noumena distinction would be inoperative. It doesn’t belong there. And so on the flip side: the concept/object distinction is inoperative as a know-that, a matter of pure reason. The concept/object distinction only belongs to know-how, to practical reason.

    Anywhere near the mark?

    • I didn’t intend for the Kantian distinction to get caught up in the vortex of my discussion of concept/object. So I will set aside your Kantian question (sorry!). I’m not sure how to answer it without a lot of Kantian ceremony. But what you say about the concept/object distinction is ok, as far as it goes. Except you must remember that anything said about the concept/object distinction is imperilled, since it is not clear how, or even whether, anything can be said about it. (My book as a whole is imperilled as a result, which is why it begins and ends as it does, ‘under revocation’.)

      • Kelly, I think I understand. It’s like McDowell’s use of ‘naturalized platonism’. Ladder-language, purely transitive, grounding but not ground. What you say truly brings about a peace of mind for me. I’m sincerely grateful for your help. I’m coming to see that no formula can solve all the problems. And also that I’m more entangled than I thought. Your writing helps me find relief. Thanks.

      • If you are finding relief, it must be your own doing. I don’t know that I’ve said anything very clear, much less helpful. But I am pleased that you feel like you are getting somewhere.

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