Dear MO-community, I am not sure how mature my view on this is and I might say some things that are controversial. I welcome contradicting views. In any case, I find it important to clarify this in my head and hope that this community can help me doing that.
So after this longish introduction, here goes: Many of us routinely use algebraic techniques in our research. Some of us study questions in abstract algebra for their own sake. However, historically, most algebraic concepts were introduced with a specific goal, which more often than not lies outside abstract algebra. Here are a few examples:
- Galois developed some basic notions in group theory in order to study polynomial equations. Ultimately, the concept of a normal subgroup and, by extension, the concept of a simple group was kicked off by Galois. It would never have occurred to anyone to define the notion of a simple group and to start classifying those beasts, had it not been for their use in solving polynomial equations.
- The theory of ideals, UFDs and PIDs was developed by Kummer and Dedekind to solve Diophantine equations. Now, people study all these concepts for their own sake.
- Cohomology was first introduced by topologists to assign discrete invariants to topological spaces. Later, geometers and number theorists started using the concept with great effect. Now, cohomology is part of what people call "commutative algebra" and it has a life of its own.
The list goes on and on. The axiom underlying my question is that you don't just invent an algebraic structure and study it for its own sake, if it hasn't appeared in front of you in some "real life situation" (whatever this means). Please feel free to dispute the axiom itself.
Now, the actual question. Suppose that you have some algebraic concept which has proved useful somewhere. You can think of a natural generalisation, which you personally consider interesting.
How do you decide whether a generalisation (that you find natural) of an established algebraic concept is worth studying? How often does it happen (e.g., how often has it happened to you or to your colleagues or to people you have heard of) that you undertake a study of an algebraic concept and when you try to publish your results, people wonder "so what on earth is this for?" and don't find your results interesting? How convincing does the heuristic "well, X naturally generalises Y and we all know how useful Y is" sound to you?
Arguably, the most important motivation for studying a question in pure mathematics is curiosity. Now, you don't have to explain to your colleagues why you want to classify knots or to solve a Diophantine equation. But might you have to explain to someone, why you would want to study ideals if he doesn't know any of their applications (and if you are not interested in the applications yourself)? How do you motivate that you want to study some strange condition on some obscure groups?
Just to clarify this, I have absolutely no difficulties motivating myself and I know what curiosity means subjectively. But I would like to understand, how a consensus on such things is established in the mathematical community, since our understanding of this consensus ultimately reflects our choice of problems to study.
I could formulate this question much more widely about motivation in pure mathematics, but I would rather keep it focused on a particular area. But one broad question behind my specific one is
How much would you subscribe to the statement that EDIT: "studying questions for the only reason that one finds them interesting is something established mathematicians do, while younger ones are better off studying questions that they know for sure the rest of the community also finds interesting"?
Sorry about this long post! I hope I have been able to more or less express myself. I am sure that this question is of relevance to lots of people here and I hope that it is phrased appropriately for MO.
Edit: just to clarify, this question addresses the status quo and the prevalent consensus of the mathematical community on the issues concerned (if such a thing exists), rather than what you would like to be true.
Edit 2: I received some excellent answers that helped me clarify the situation, for which I am very grateful! I have chosen to accept Minhyong's answer, as that's the one that comes closest to giving examples of the sort I had in mind and also convincingly addresses the more general question at the end. But I am still very grateful to everyone who took the time to think about the question and I realise that for other people who find the question relevant, another answer might be "the correct one".