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The distinction (distinctio, διάκρισις, διορισμός) is a basic activity of thinking . It consists in the "[...] active determination or clarification of differences, differences, otherness." It is a prerequisite for classification and knowledge . The practice of differentiation is comparison .

Aspects of the term

The following aspects are compilations from common dictionaries. "Distinguish" or "distinction" is a very self-evident term that is seldom reflected on. This article contains information that can inspire you to do so.

Use of the word

According to the dictionary of the Brothers Grimm, the verb 'distinguish' has been in use since the 8th century. At that time the name was Stammverb skeidan and changed later in divorce . It was used in the sense of 'share, separate, decide, settle, end, interpret'. According to the latest dictionaries, essentially nothing has changed in this usage.

The world is divided or ordered with distinctions. Quantities are counted, divided and separated. Judicial distinctions settle disputes and end unclear legal relationships through decisions. With distinctions 'people from people' and 'things from things' are separated according to differences, also called differences. Differences are deviating features ( criteria ) that serve as the basis for differentiating. Distinctions in behavior or appearance are used by humans and for one another. Distinctions are made about things, animals, plants, chemical substances by separating them according to their properties ( qualities ).

In the philosophical tradition, distinctions are schematized in categories . From this, different logical or ontological regularities and concepts can be developed. B. Substance and causality are still generally accepted today as distinctions. Arranging distinctions between objects and topics according to patterns , structures and contexts is treated as categorization in cognitive science .

Differentiate and evaluate

All distinctions are based on evaluating and judging: such as B. good and bad , guilt and innocence , right and wrong etc. Also distinctions like right and left for parties. Distinctions can become out of date if they are assessed differently: Then they are a thing of the past. Certain distinctions are incomprehensible; there are also foolish, obstructive, and invalid distinctions. The kaleidoscope of distinctions and evaluations is inexhaustible. We make fundamental distinctions (e.g. between sciences , standards , goals ...). Even factual distinctions depend on the assessment - i.e. on very specific decisions, which in turn depend on attitudes , world views , religion , party affiliation, etc. Ä. m. decided or determined.

Distinction and meaning

What people see, hear and feel is evaluated and differentiated. Differences are put into words and meaning is expressed. Modern philosophers say that these meanings make up the world in which we live. By making a distinction, this lifeworld becomes clearer or the “complexity of the world” is reduced ( Niklas Luhmann ). All meanings are distinctions. They mark a current state, repetitions and connections. Distinctions are the framework of other distinctions. Everything that is recognized is based on distinctions. These are also called differentiations . If someone thinks differently, then he makes many differences. The connection between meaning and distinction is shown e.g. B. when faces are recognized. There are faces that tell us something or tell us little or nothing. Accordingly, we turn to them or not. Up to the age of six months, human children are able to distinguish monkey faces as well as human faces. Then this ability to differentiate is lost and only faces of people are distinguished.

The idea of ​​distinction


Every scientist, poet, and author should use the figure of thought of differentiation and thus differentiation. For the interpretation of texts, the discovery of distinctions should be helpful, because they presuppose evaluation standards or convictions. Post-structuralist theories of our time have taken up this connection under the term "difference".

Distinctions through observation and reflection : For the majority of the ancient Greeks, philosophizing meant reflecting on sensual experiences. A distinction was made between general principles and individual phenomena. Laws were invented which were based on regular distinctions, such as the Thales theorem or the Pythagorean theorem . Distinctions were sought for solutions to questions that nature and man raise in this world. One found distinguishable, abstract laws of nature (atomic theory of Democritus ) and clearly distinguishable relationships between natural phenomena ( Xenophanes claimed that the evaporation of water causes certain weather phenomena.)

In all areas, the many things were observed, analyzed, sorted according to different characteristics and thus orders (categories) created. So z. B. in the question of the basic building blocks of language (writing, grammar, rhetoric) by the sophists . Comprehensive ideas (theories) were formulated in order to think of individual phenomena in terms of a whole (cosmos), and Aristotle claimed: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Anaximander considered the beginning of everything to be inexplicable and indefinable.

Common distinctions arise in dialogue : The Socratic dialogues - even if they are the poetic inventions of Plato - can give an impression of which and how distinctions were made in conversations between philosophers. Norms and prejudices were examined, terminology clarified and possible solutions thought through together. Trying to make distinctions that could be agreed upon often led to confusing conversational situations for everyone involved.

Dialogue as a means of understanding is still practiced today. Companies appreciate it when ideas, e.g. B. in team meetings, can be won dialogically.

If it was not possible to make common distinctions, this problem became the subject of the respective dialogue. Plato asserted, among other things, that a discourse always becomes controversial when either facts or beliefs contain errors. In order to cope with such difficulties, your own thinking and working on the matter are essential. From today's perspective, the first complete descriptions of such distinctions were made by Aristotle.


Logicians strove to make distinctions distinctive. According to Aristotle , the ability to differentiate ( κριτικόν ) belongs to the soul . He names quantitative and qualitative distinctions . Furthermore, he is said to have been the first to classify distinctions according to essential , insignificant and random features. He called essential characteristics those that applied to a certain genus of living beings and according to which one could unmistakably distinguish a certain species (species) from another. This essential difference was included in the method of definition under the name "differentia Spezifica" . From this he separated the accidental distinctions ("differentia accidentalis"), which did not allow any particular distinction between the species (e.g. two-leggedness). As a third distinguishing criterion, he called the differences that exist between two specimens of the same species, the "differentia numerica" ​​(e.g. the color of the eyes). This is a hierarchical system for distinctions, the parts of which are in turn determined by other distinctions or evaluations.

The scholastics , especially the Scotists , made a distinction for their conceptual distinctions: the difference that corresponds to an objective difference ("distinctio rationis") and the formal, ie abstract, differences ("distinctio formalis"). This distinction played an important role in medieval discourses. The 'distinctio formalis' was a kind of "justified or true statement".

Ontological distinctions

In relation to substances and their properties, the term distinctio realis denotes the difference between two different substances; on the other hand, distinctio modalis means, on the one hand, the difference between a substance and its properties, and, on the other hand, the difference between the properties of a substance.


According to Hume , all "ideas" that are "different" are "separable". The distinction of reason (intellectual, conceptual distinction) includes neither a difference nor a separation. It is based on the consideration of one and the same from different points of view.

Kant writes:

It is completely different to distinguish things from one another and recognize the difference between things. The latter is only possible through judgment. ... To distinguish logically means to recognize that an A is not B, and is always a negative judgment. To distinguish physically means to be driven to different actions by different ideas. "


Distinction has a special meaning in constructivism , especially in radical constructivism . Constructivists assume that reality does not show itself. Reality is not found, we invent it. Differences such as colors and shapes are distinctions that people make. Cyberneticists, like W. Ross Ashby, say of the term distinction: "The most fundamental concept in cybernetics is that of difference, either that two things are recognizably different or that one thing has changed with time." From an ethnological point of view, Gregory Bateson put it : "It takes two things to make a difference."



The ability to differentiate, also known as the ability to discriminate , of the senses has been studied frequently since the pioneering work of the Leipzig physiologist Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795–1878) and the physicist Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887). E. Weber used psychophysical experiments to examine the human ability to differentiate between weights and discovered a constant difference threshold for physical stimuli: "The noticeable difference between two stimuli (dS) is in a constant ratio to the absolute size of the standard stimulus (S) (dS / S = k ) "Fechner found for all sensory qualities a logarithmic dependence of the sensation intensity on the stimulus strength.


The neurophysiologists of the 20th century discovered another basic phenomenon of perception, which leads to the formation of intellectual boundaries, in the formation of contrasts. An automatic-physiological contrast formation (= border formation) can be demonstrated in all sensory areas. It is based on a special interconnection within the conduction pathways ( convergence - divergence ) that pull from the sensory organs to the brain ( lateral inhibition ). This principle is effective in all levels of the nervous system, also in the cerebral cortex, and could be related to the activity or the ability to distinguish. In animal experiments with primates it could be shown that "differences", e.g. B. Features of faces represented by the activity of individual neurons.


Systems theory

In his systems theory, Niklas Luhmann places distinction at the center of epistemological considerations. Luhmann relies on the " Laws of Form " of the mathematician George Spencer-Brown , who in his logical calculus postulates the distinction as the basis of logic.

See also difference (Luhmann)



See Différance .


  1. ^ Rudolf Eisler: Dictionary of Philosophical Terms, Third Volume Sci - Z. Berlin: Mittler 1910 (3rd ed.), 1593
  2. See Johannes Hoffmeister: Dictionary of Philosophical Terms , Hamburg 1955, 2nd ed.
  3. Cf. Gerd Brand: Die Lebenswelt . Wiesbaden 1971 p. 273f.
  4. Cf. Jan Lorenz Wilhelm: Why Evaluation? Potsdam 2012, p. 105.
  5. Cf. Fotis Jannidis et al. (Ed.): Rules of meaning . Berlin / New York 2003, p. 559.
  6. Peter Engelmann : Postmodernism and Deconstruction. Introduction. In: Ders .: Postmodernism and Deconstruction. Texts by contemporary French philosophers. Stuttgart 2015, pp. 5-32.
  7. Cf. Theodor Gomperz : Greek Thinking. 1st volume, 4th edition Frankfurt a. M. 1999, pp. 3-36.
  8. See fragment 1 in Hermann Diels : The fragments of the pre-Socratic . 6. verb. Ed. v. Walther Kranz , Vol. 1, Berlin 1951, 113-139.
  9. Wolfgang Schadewaldt : The world model of the Greeks . Lecture in the SWR. Audiobook, SWR Edition 2013. Text on the homepage of the classical philologist Jörg Dittmer: Enter title under search.
  10. For example, Louis Paul Häußner: dialogue, leadership and cooperation. Diss. University of Karlsruhe 2009. Ibs. “The Socratic dialogue in the context of being with and being.” Pp. 40–43.
  11. Cf. Plato: Die Sophisten , (237a-c). - Interesting in this context is the excursus on Plato's theory of ideas , for which new distinctions are made. (Ibid. 237b-264b)
  12. See Dorothea Frede : Dialoge als memory . In: Mark Siebel & Mark Textor: Semantics and Ontology: Contributions to Philosophical Research. Frankfurt 2004, p. 285.
  13. Johannes Hirschberger : Small history of philosophy . Freiburg i. B. 1961, pp. 34-38.
  14. Aristotle: De anima III 9, 432 a 16.
  15. ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics V 9, 1018 a 12.
  16. Cf. Klaus Oehler : The doctrine of noetic and dianoetic thinking in Plato and Aristotle. Hamburg 1984. p. 82.
  17. See Thomas Blume: Difference . Philosophy online dictionary. ( Memento of the original from December 13, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.philosophie-woerterbuch.de
  18. Peckhaus, Volker , distinctio , in: Mittelstraß (ed.), Enzyklopädie Philosophie und Wissenschaftstheorie , 2nd ed. 2005, p. 236f.
  19. cf. Henryk Anzulewicz: The Theological Relevance of the Image Concept and the Mirror Image Model in the Early Works of Albertus Magnus . Münster 1999, p. 91.
  20. Descartes, René : Meditations on the basics of philosophy , Meiner 1993, note p. 5.
  21. Hume, David: Treatise of Human Understanding . In: The philosophical works . Vol. 1. Edinburgh 1826, 43
  22. Hume, David : Treatise of Human Understanding . In: The philosophical works . Vol. 1. Edinburgh 1826, 43 f.
  23. Kant, Immanuel: From the false nibbling , § 6
  24. See Ernst von Glasersfeld : Construction of Reality and the Concept of Objectivity . In: Heinz von Foerster and others: Introduction to Constructivism; Publications of the Carl-Friedrich-von-Siemens-Stiftung , 5; Munich: Piper, 1992, pp. 9-39.
  25. ^ W. Ross Ashby: An Introduction to Cybernetics . 1955, p. 9.
  26. Bateson: Spirit and Nature . Frankfurt / M. 1979, p. 90.
  27. Manfred Spitzer : Learning. Brain Research and the School of Life . Heidelberg 2006, pp. 86-89.


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  • Sighard Neckel : The power of distinction: essays on the cultural sociology of modern society . Hamburg 2000.
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See also