Distinctions and Differences

The Rumsfeld epistemology of ignorance, along with Taleb’s popular expositions of it, has been one of the more useful additions to the zeitgeist in the last decade. Here’s my 2×2 version, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock since 2003.


This is possibly the most basic map of external, objective realities you can make up.

I’ve long felt that it should be possible to make an equally basic map of internal, subjective realities. I think I have one now.

And here it is.


The quadrant labels don’t have the satisfying two-level recursion of the Rumsfeld-Taleb 2×2, but capture a very similar set of cognitive-structural relationships.

The key to the construction is the phrase distinction without a difference. The phrase is usually used to talk about alternative statements that have exactly the same practical consequences in a given context, to a given person. If you are leaving my meeting early, whether you’re doing so to catch a train or go to another meeting is a distinction without a difference to me. There is no such thing as a context-independent, perspective-independent universal distinction without a difference.

More robustly, we can call two things distinct if you can tell them apart, and different if you care that they are distinct.

Nature, Nurture and Indifference

When I worked at Xerox, the color scientists I used to work with often talked about laboratory test subjects being able to tell colors apart versus caring about differences in colors. Obviously, there is a genetic component (color blindness for example, is an extreme inability to distinguish colors, but not necessarily indifference to color).

The nurture component is interesting. Language seems to shape both our ability to make distinctions and care about differences.

The idea that ancient Greeks had no word for blue seems shady to me, but as Taleb (iirc) argues, that was probably a case of a distinction without a difference worth naming for them. More recent research on color however (I can’t seem to find the link) does seem to suggest that having distinct words for colors shapes our ability to distinguish them.

You can see similar effects more clearly with sounds.

For example any literate English speaker can see that the words booda and buddha are different as written in English. But most Americans seem unable to either hear or produce the distinction in sounds.

Going the other way, I cannot tell  and sounds apart in English without extreme exaggeration, but I can mechanically produce the distinct sounds (I had to learn to do that to avoid being misunderstood, and still frequently slip up). It is a difference without a distinction for me.

Differences, Distinctions and Value

The point of the previous examples is that differences and distinctions matter at a very practical level, for communication. Societies seem to develop explicit words in their languages around distinctions that are also commonly differences for members. Languages are shared patterns of valuation of environmental distinctions.

An “efficient” language would presumably induce a society with a lot of connoisseurs and not too many posers, mercenaries and philistines (but not zero, since that would mean a dead language). Note that all three non-connoisseur words commonly carry some connotations of outsider status. Connoisseurs — those who can make the shared distinctions and genuinely care about them — are the only true insiders of a culture.

Why is this?

Posers devalue a language (and therefore a culture) by bullshitting in it.

Mercenaries actively destroy a language by exploiting distinctions others care about.

Philistines deflate a language (in the sense of economics) by eroding its currency base of words through disuse.

To counter these effects, cultures have to grow at the other end by turning more distinctions into linguistically codified differences.

(Aside: the snowflake-clod distinction I wrote about a few posts ago is a special case of the connoisseurs-versus-the-rest distinction).

There is probably a theory of measuring cultural GDP growth in there somewhere. A growing language creates a culture that represents a dynamic balance among the four quadrants. A static language will eventually be either policed by powerful connoisseurs and become increasingly detached from the practical realities that need to be talked about, or die through destruction of words in the other quadrants (this is why the alien race of Marklars in South Park is funny; they use the word marklar for everything, yet are able to communicate).

These are all aspects of the dynamics of shared subjective value distinctions for others at the base level of language. Merely by speaking in a particular language, you’ve made commitments about what is important, at the unknown-known level.

But the same things can happen more obviously above the base level.

An interesting example to think about is an experiment (described in The Paradox of Choice I think) where subjects were offered tea, coffee and a variety of sodas.

When asked how many choices they had been offered, Russian subjects said they had been offered 3 choices while Americans said they had been offered more than 3.

To the Russians, the distinct kinds of soda weren’t different. Presumably not because they could not taste the distinction between Coke and Sprite, or because they did not have separate words for the two beverages or for distinctions in their tastes and colors, but because they didn’t care (speculation: this is possibly because Russia is, in Pitrim Sorokin’s terms, an ideational culture, while the West is a sensate culture: Coke and Sprite are different materials that represent the same idea).

While distinctions and differences embodied in language itself create the background canvas of culture, those that operate above the linguistic level create the foreground.

Differences, Distinctions and Persuasion

A common sort of conversation about preferences goes something like this:

A: Coke or Pepsi?
B: Who cares?
A: I do!

Without additional effort by Bis likely to see as being contemptuous. When I first came to the US, I found the then-current Pepsi advertisement featuring a little girl who cared deeply, like A, hilarious because I didn’t think any real people could care. I learned I was wrong. I’ve met plenty of Americans since then who seem to genuinely care about the Coke/Pepsi distinction. I don’t think I could tell the difference blind without a week of careful tongue training. I’m sort of Russian that way, though I think I do care about caffeinated versus not, and diet versus regular, so soda is 4 things to me.

Can you see the A, B conversation playing out with two bottles of Merlot? Probably not. Because distinctions among wines matter to the rich and powerful, both A and B above would pretend to care. would either have pretended to have a preference, or apologetically deferred to A. 

To communicate indifference to a distinction in human society is to insult or assert status over those who do care about the distinction in question. When you express indifference, you have to take special care not to accidentally also cause offense.

The structure of human society seems to be strongly shaped by the task of making other people care about the same differences you do, even if they cannot make the relevant distinctions. A lot of cultural technology is either cues designed to help people make distinctions they are supposed to care about, or coercion towards the same end.

You could say the purpose of power is to turn blindness into distinctions and distinctions into differences. One way or another, you shape how people see and choose.

When the emperor has no clothes, the Prime Minister has to discreetly help courtiers figure out when he thinks he is naked versus wearing invisible clothes. Throw a threat of capital punishment in there and you’d soon have underground manuals explaining how to detect the emperor’s sartorial state of mind based on his body language and facial expressions. I bet such a manual could be written without openly saying or implying that the emperor has no clothes.

The existence of the poseur (the poser spelling of poser) quadrant is clear evidence of the relationship between distinctions/differences and power. What are we to make of the existence of wine snobs who fail taste tests? These are the people who fall for those cheap tricks behavioral economists like, such as switching wine labels around and showing that people think the expensive wine tastes better.

They exist to signal, express and embody the power of the connoisseurs. Power that is usually based more on evoking admiration than fear, (the twin foundations of status, according to this excellent Melting Asphalt post by ex-resident Kevin Simler), but is power nevertheless.

By this model, mercenaries are classic traders for a reason: instead of using their own indifference to assert status over those who have preferences in a domain, they trade on their ability to make the necessary distinctions without necessarily caring. When they do pretend to care, they get it right and make the sale, unlike the poseurs, who are likely to fumble.

The phenomena explored in this post correspond to phenomena modeled by indifference curves and preferences in economics, transposed to the economics-of-pricelessness context, where they are mediated by words instead of dollars.

Which is why, I suppose, indifferences and preferences are so central to economic life, whether you approach them through a commerce or guardian lens. There is some sort of preservation of indifferences/preferences in society I think. Indifferences and preferences that are not traded on will find an outlet in contempt of some sort, leading to societal fractures, or power structures based on admiration of connoisseurs by poseurs.

There is probably a way to measure and model all these things by analyzing differences in the use of languages by different parts of society.



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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Sounds like marketing: Creating a visible distinction (a brand) that is then imbued with meaning (through advertising) so that it now makes a difference.

    Is calling someone a ‘fanboy’ an internet way of calling someone a Poseur? Is someone who wears chinese knockoffs a mercenaries?

    • No, I don’t think fanboyism has anything to do with being a poseur. Poseurs pretend to be connoisseurs. Fanboys admire connoisseurs. The former arguably model the idea that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but otherwise aren’t typical fans.

  2. Nice one, Venkat, classic Ribbonfarm material
    I’d say that you’re pretty close to defining basic tenets for a metalanguage theory here, something that AI people should find interesting.
    And you’ve provided an explanation for why I’ve always felt (subconciously known?) irony and sarcasm at the very least should be used with caution

    • Mitch McGeary says:

      Can you elaborate on your reasoning. Why have you felt that irony and sarcasm should be used with caution?

    • Not sure where you think I’m creating a metalanguage or what that even means in this context. How would an AI person use these ideas?

  3. Much of the color-words-shapes-color-perception work has been done by Lera Boroditsky and collaborators. Her vita with links: http://lera.ucsd.edu/papers/ and particularly http://www.pnas.org/content/104/19/7780.full

  4. When I lived in SE Asia I avoided learning the language, and so my interactions were mostly with those who were learning English. Just like body language, which is expressed more clearly by children but becomes subtle a we age, hearing others engage in your native language lets you distinguish more easily the poseurs and mercenaries. Guardian societies show themselves in the poseur side when most people will never ask if there is a difference between two things.

  5. Rumsfield’s description came directly from Herman Kahn’s work on crisis decision-making and nuclear strategy, particularly in On Escalation (1965).

  6. While I like the simple elegance of your 2×2, I wonder if it encompasses all of human subjectivity. First, where do the truly ignorant, who use language improperly not from indifference or lack of preference, but merely because they articulate sounds without understanding, fit?

    Also, how would your theory that culture drives language to make more distinctions to overcome the degradation of the non-connoisseurs fit with something like the very robust constructed language Toki Pona? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toki_Pona
    Using only a 120 “word” lexicon, it has surprisingly powerful communicative effectiveness despite being unable to make even some very basic distinctions. Some of this is achieved by combinatorial phrasing and the Toki Pona culture (which is extremely small) frequently argues about what is proper use of combined lexical units. So the spirit of the Academie Francaise animates the extended lexicon.

    Still, I find myself captivated by the 2×2. Were I a free agent, I’d classify myself as a connoisseur. My work as an attorney forces me somewhat to be a mercenary, though opposing counsel would probably want to convince you that I was a bullshitting poseur. The one think I know — a known known — is that I am not a philistine and find those of that ilk the most objectionable.

  7. I think Russians would see Coke and Sprite as simply sugar-filled north-american beverages, as distinct from Kvass. They would probably insist on a big difference between Russian and Polish Kvass.

    As far as the 4 types, it seems to me they are all essential.
    If not for poseurs the mercenaries would go broke and/or move to a different field, and the connoissieurs would be deprived of their supplies.
    If not for philistines the supply of poseurs would dry up as poseurs morphed into connoisseurs after putting in enough hours of faking it.

    Connoisseurs are a kind of terminal node here, but pure connoisseurship is unstable, since it turns into an arms-race of increasing refinement. True enlightenment for a connoisseur is to be transformed back into a philistine.
    But then there is the pseudo enlightenment of connoisseurs who pose as philistines – I think that’s called “post-hipster”.

  8. Nice post. The elegance of the 2×2 is appealing since it appears to cover a majority of cases (though someone else commented above about some edges).

    The Kvass comment above appeared spot-on as a deeper look into your “choice of soda” for Russians and Americans distinction, and as I read it I had a similar thought but slightly different:

    You comment that making the same argument (who cares) about Merlot would be unlikely. I disagree in my own case, as I both a) dislike wine universally and b) don’t particularly care if someone thinks I’m somehow inferior for not having a correct opinion about sub-category wine distinctions. I’d say the same thing for any type of goat cheese – It all tastes like shit to me. Personality differences may account for those who “fear” appearing wrong to the connoisseurs of anything, a class of things, or particular “thing” (e.g. subsets of poseurs, perhaps) versus those who decide from a more intrinsically based (vs. extrinsic?) belief for the subject being discussed; the hypnotic, truthful response at the liminal level as it were…

  9. BTW Rumsfeld had this from EST/Landmark: