My students look vaguely baffled — it is one of their most common expressions — when I try to explain that the traditional and established meaning of disinterested is impartial, not having an interest in the matter at hand. A judge, I tell them, is supposed to be disinterested, not caring which side wins or loses at trial. To be disinterested means not having a dog in that fight.
Then they go back to using disinterested, as do their fellows, to mean uninterested, with only a flickering recognition that they are trapped for a semester in a classroom with some old guy who carries on about things that no one else cares about.
Gordon S. Wood writes about the importance of that word, that concept, in the last quarter of the 18th century, in Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different:
“Disinterestedness was the most common term the founders used as a synonym for the classical conception of virtue as self-sacrifice; it better conveyed the threats from interests that virtue seemed increasingly to face in the rapidly commercializing eighteenth century. Dr. Johnson had defined disinterested as being ‘superior to regard of private advantage; not influenced by private profit,’ and that was what the founders meant by the term. We today have lost most of this earlier meaning. Even educated people now use disinterested as a synonym for uninterested, meaning ‘indifferent or unconcerned.’ It is almost as if we cannot quite imagine someone who is capable of rising above a pecuniary interest and being unselfish or impartial where an interest might be present.”
Disinterestedness, like journalistic objectivity, is not easy to achieve. We can thank psychology and literary criticism for insights in how deeply our interests are embedded in our actions and in our language. And who among us has not had to come up against the bitter realization that we have not lived up to our own standards of conduct?
But, of course, it wasn’t thought easy in the 18th century, either. It was part of the cultivation of qualities of learning and manners that contributed to the meaning of another antique word, gentleman. Now, before you level against me the charge of patriarchal elitism, I admit to everything. I am two-thirds of the way toward being a dead white male, and it’s too late to turn back.
All the same, there is something about that concept of disinterestedness, of the effort to rise above our own inherent selfishness and grubby concerns to entertain a wider perspective, and to act on it. Words can carry a substantial freight of meaning, association, history. Disinterested is one of those words, with a weight that impartial does not quite display. It should be worth something to us to maintain its traditional heft and dignity, rather than to allow it to be submerged among the multitude of the uninterested, who couldn’t care less.
Or, of course, it could just be that the Old Man is on a tear today.