Distinctions of the Moment

I could use a better name for this (any suggestions?), but I’ll use “distinctions of the moment” for the moment.

A distinction of the moment is a distinction made between two synonyms or near-synonyms (or sometimes antonyms), for the sake of pointing out a difference which is important to the discussion at hand. For example, I might contrast “knowledge” and “understanding” for the sake of a discussion about memorization-and-regurgitation style education vs focusing more on reasons. In a different conversation, I may well use “knowledge” vs “understanding” to talk about knowing-how vs knowing-what (and I might well call either of those two “understanding” and the other “knowledge”—it doesn’t matter, it’s just a distinction of the moment).

The important thing about distinctions of the moment is that they just have to be made clear for the purpose of the conversation, and can be thrown away afterwards. This fails if someone thinks that they need to argue the definition of a word as if it were a sacred duty. Perhaps I make a distinction between “liberal” and “progressive” for the purpose of conversation, and someone takes issue with it because they’ve got a favorite definition of one or both of those terms which they think is importantly correct. This is not useful to the conversation.

A pet peeve of mine is that a lot of people seem to carry around distinctions-of-the-moment forever, as if they were true subtle differences in the meanings of words. I feel this way about distinguishing between “sympathy” and “empathy”—I’m not sure quite why, but it seems to me that the distinction people tend to draw between the two is something which is just not generally useful enough to be more than a distinction-of-the-moment. The two words have different usage patterns, yes, but I don’t think those usage patterns are really well-explained by “feeling emotion in response to others vs putting yourself in their shoes”.