Friday, March 3, 2017


Is saying that something is interesting cognitively valuable? I ask this because I recently read a piece (here) suggesting that the term is more emotive than cognitive.  Or, as the piece (author: Corey Powell (CP)), puts it “[c]alling something interesting is the height of sloppy thinking. Interesting is not descriptive, not objective, and not even meaningful.” Thus, thought use of the term may carry information, it is subjective information about the user (denoting, perhaps, something like entertainment value (CP: “In practice, interesting is a synonym for entertaining”)) rather than an objective judgment about the intellectual content of the subject matter. Here’s the CP article’s take:

…if someone tells you ‘this is interesting’, remember that they aren’t describing the thing at all. They are describing the effect of that thing on them. Even though we hear it a lot from the would-be Vulcans around us, interesting is a subjective, emotional word, not the objective, logical word we want it to be.

I disagree. Here are some reasons why.

First, I doubt the claim that interesting is merely evaluative. What I mean is that it is perfectly reasonable to ask why someone considers something interesting, while it is far less clear that it is equally apposite to ask why someone considers something entertaining. Entertaining is a more like tasty in that it is a matter of mere taste.[1] Someone’s tastes may be perverse, but they are what they are. Asking someone why they find something entertaining is less asking for information than asking for justification (as in: that is no laughing matter and so not entertaining, and so you shouldn’t be laughing, unless you are a pervert). Interesting is different. Unlike tastes, interests can be defended, criticized, and reasoned about. In particular, it is legit to ask for a defense of one’s interests in polite company. In this sense, then, interesting aspires to cognitive content in ways that entertaining does not.

Second, there are many things worse than being entertaining. Indeed, I would go further, at least when it comes to intellectual matters the best ideas are vastly entertaining. There is nothing quite like the feeling of delight that accompanies ingesting and digesting a really good insight. It has a palpable taste and the better the idea the rounder the experience. Think wine, but a whole body experience. Think sex, but the high lasts longer. Good ideas are entertaining and that is one very good reason for relentlessly pursuing them.

Let me harp on this. I was recently discussing the emotional vicissitudes of academic life with a grad student. The major downside is that research is deeply unfair. Reward is not guaranteed to the just or the hard working. Lazy shits can, and do, succeed. The reason is that there is no unity to the good: bad people can be smart, beautiful humans can be lazy, lazy people can be lucky, virtuous people can be dumb. Thus, the fact that you have done everything “right” and have lived a righteous research life does not mean that you will ever run into a good idea. But, and this was what we discussed, the possibility of doing so is what drives many of the academics I know. Once you’ve tripped over one, or one has snuck up and grabbed you the sensation is so fantastic and intoxicating that the (often hopeless) pursuit of others of the same ilk (ideas that will generate a similar visceral sensation) becomes addictive. So, never let anyone tell you that intellectual work should not be entertaining to be serious. Truth may or may not be beauty, but deep ideas really are entertaining, which is one good reason to look for them.

Does this mean that everything that is entertaining is a good idea? No, there is such a thing as cheap entertainment (and I don’t reject cheap entertainment either, but it’s not the same thing) and its joys are different. But, I do think that being entertaining in the right way is a mark of a serious idea and, hence, a useful symptom of one.

Third, evaluations of interest serve an important function in research. Interesting is a predicate mainly of ideas, as opposed to facts. This is not to say that facts might not be interesting, but I think that their interest is at one remove.  They are interesting for what they might tell us or suggest about theories, ideas, hypotheses. In and of themselves, facts are, well, facts.  Being interesting lies not primarily in what there is, but in why what there is is the way that it is. And this requires explanations. Theories, hypotheses, guesses, conjectures, thought!! And that is why interesting is an important adjective and not, as the CP article claims, just so much “linguistic connective tissue.”

Again let me elaborate. As I’ve lamented many times before, linguists tend to undervalue theory. There is a “just the facts ma’am” attitude abroad in the land where corralling a stray data point is taken to be most important thing research can hope to achieve. Interesting is the adjective of choice for the anti-attitude to this. We don’t have nearly enough questions of the following sort: Why is what you are doing interesting? Why should anyone be interested in this? Why should I care? Questions like these force explanatory concerns onto the table. And as the aim of research is to explain (with description being in service of explanation) asking why a proposal is interesting is asking for the proposal’s explanatory oomph. And, sad to say, many advancing a proposal have little idea of why or what makes it interesting. The problem is not then with the term. Asking for interesting is asking about/for a real, abstract but objective, facet of ideas. The problem is that too many people have no idea how to explain why and how a proposal is of interest. Many would rather dwell on the data coverage and forget about the stories that make sense of them and that the facts should be in service of. Many think that data speak for themselves, or at least should do so. Many think that data, especially Big Data, will make interesting superfluous. Many hope that we can mechanize thought and eliminate imagination. Many many many hate theory and think it pretentious. These same many distrust interesting because it adverts to theory. IMO, that is too bad.

So, do I think that CP has gotten it wrong? Not entirely. Part of what CP says seems right to me. It is that we have lost grip on how the term ought to be used. Ideas are objectively interesting or not. Proposals can be ranked wrt their oomph scale. Science amounts to more than collecting, cleaning, and arranging facts. Science aims to explain, which is why we prize it. When done well it provides cognitive kicks with their own special flavor. When done well, it is interesting and entertaining. The hollowing out of interesting is yet another sign that the explanatory aims of science (and intellectual life more generally) are under data siege. It is a leading indicator of the rise of a pernicious Empiricism, one that takes theory and hypothesis to be little more than a way of summarizing the facts, and hence something once removed from what is real. And one main problem with this view is that it is so uninteresting.

[1] I say mere here deliberately. Taste is often worth debating. So de gustibus disputandum est. In fact, it is often the most important thing to debate. But, this is less true for low level tastes (maybe better termed preferances). I like vanilla you don’t. What’s to debate. But, I like theories that shed light on FL and you don’t, THAT I am happy to debate till the cows come home, and then some.

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