Intrinsic interest

I’ve been asked to think about what intrinsic interest is for my PhD cluster* and I thought the best way to stop this topic annoying me and stopping me from getting on with what I am meant to be doing is to jot down a few thoughts here.

As ever, my Wittgensteinian hackles show themselves when I’m given a “what is” question – the idea that there’s going to be a quick and easy answer, that the essence of intrinsicness (intrinsicality?) can be neatly defined in the space of an hour by a bunch of non-philosophers – makes me want to brush it off and I am getting so annoyed about having to think about it that it is blocking everything else I try to think about.  I realise that I want to brush the thought off as trivial – as an annoyance – as a fly buzzing at the edge of my thought, and that’s a very Wittgensteinian response to a Socratic demand. ** However, there’s also a wee bit at the beginning of Plato’s Republic that makes me think that this question is badly formed for a different reason.

In Book 2, Glaucon sets Socrates the challenge of showing that justice is not merely of instrumental benefit.  In so doing, he sets out three theories of motivation:

  1. Instrumental.  Justice is self interest.
  2. Intrinsic.  Justice is good in and of itself
  3. Instrumental and intrinsic.  Justice is good both in itself and because of the benefits to the individual.


Glaucon asks Socrates to show that justice has both intrinsic and instrumental value to the individual.

This got me thinking.  Why am I being asked to talk about the intrinsic value of learning, when surely a more plausible model is going to look at both intrinsic and instrumental value?


It’s not often I agree with Plato.

* A group of PhD students with diverse research interests and little in common other than sharing a supervisor.

** In various places Socrates is described by Plato as a gadfly, stinging folk out of the complacency of strongly held opinions. At the same time, though, he can come over as downright annoying with his constant dialectic of essences.  Wittgenstein, of course, describes the aim of philosophy as showing the fly out of the flybottle, but his method of doing this was decidedly not Socratic.

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