One of the things that irritates me is when we lose useful concepts when words are misused. Now, despite being a closet pedant, I am quite happy to accept that language evolves and that words do change their meaning. Attempts to freeze language are pointless and futile. More than that, the changing nature of language is a resource for thought. Often tracing the changing meanings of words like “education” or “jobs” is a means of generating new insights or innovations. But, there are words we can ill afford to lose. I am thinking, in particular, of words like “disinterest” and “disinterested”, which have come to mean in common usage the same thing as “uninterested”.
I was pleased to come across a piece by Terry Eagleton making a similar point. “Disinterestedness, a notion almost universally scorned by the cultural left nowadays, grew up in the 18th century as the opposite not of interests, but of self-interest. It was a weapon to wield against the Hobbesians and possessive individualists. Disinterestedness means not viewing the world from some sublime Olympian height, but a kind of compassion or fellow-feeling. It means trying to feel your way imaginatively into the experience of another, sharing their delight and sorrow without thinking of oneself.”
Since we seem to live in a time when “everyone for themselves” is proclaimed as a rational way of being, the notion of disinterestedness may be an important counter. Putting ourselves in the place of the other may modify our behaviour for the good. Our inability to do so certainly enables brutalities we might otherwise reject.
But, equally, the hard won human ability to distance ourselves from what we want to be the case, to a disinterested assessment of the realities of a situation, is crucial to effective action in the world. The value of such a stance has been under attack for something like the last thirty years. As Eagelton writes, “Postmodernism rejects the idea of there being firm foundations to social life. ‘Nothing we do,’ writes Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘can be defended absolutely and finally,’ a statement that may be taken as a keynote of much modern thought. In a brutally fundamentalist era, this sense of the provisional nature of all our ideas – one central to post-structuralism and postmodernism – is deeply salutary. Whatever the blind spots and prejudices of these theories, they pale in comparison with the lethal self-righteousness of the fundamentalist.”
Never-the-less, while we may recognise that the foundations of a disinterested assessment may be provisional and tentative, the failure to base our actions on such an assessment can lead us to disasters with profound human consequences. To take a contemporary example, had the governments of US and UK made a more disinterested assessment of the situation in Iraq, instead of being driven by some “sincere” beliefs, we might have had a happier outcome than now looks likely for both the Iraqi people and ourselves.