Here are two wonderful essays I found in the archives of Prospect Magazine. The first essay, from 1999, is by Ray Monk, British philosopher and biographer of Wittgenstein, who Monk calls "the greatest philosopher of [the 20th] century". In it, Monk explores why "At a time like this, when the humanities are institutionally obliged to pretend to be sciences, we need more than ever the lessons about understanding that Wittgenstein—and the arts—have to teach us." (Also check out this excellent essay by Stuart Greenstreet on his two major works, personal life and beliefs, as well as Wittgenstein, a quirky, brilliant film by Derek Jarman.)
Nearly 50 years after his death, we can see, more clearly than ever, that the feeling that he was swimming against the tide was justified. If we wanted a label to describe this tide, we might call it “scientism,” the view that every intelligible question has either a scientific solution or no solution at all. It is against this view that Wittgenstein set his face. Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretence which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterised by bogus theorising, spurious specialisation and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.
There are many questions to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions. These include questions about love, art, history, culture, music—all questions, in fact, that relate to the attempt to understand ourselves better ... Wittgenstein himself described his work as a “synopsis of trivialities.” But when we are thinking philosophically we are apt to forget these trivialities and thus end up in confusion, imagining, for example, that we will understand ourselves better if we study the quantum behaviour of the sub-atomic particles inside our brains, a belief analogous to the conviction that a study of acoustics will help us understand Beethoven’s music. Why do we need reminding of trivialities? Because we are bewitched into thinking that if we lack a scientific theory of something, we lack any understanding of it.
The second essay, from 2003, is by British philosopher Simon Blackburn, and is an extraordinary exposition of the life and mind of Richard Rorty, a pragmatist philosopher who Blackburn calls "arguably the most influential philosopher of our time."
There seem to be forces at work of which we have little knowledge that generate the categories — socio-economic, cultural, gender-related — in which we work. They mould the practices of our “interpretive community,” determining which approaches count as respectable at any given time. Hence there is no such thing as the given, or the unvarnished truth. There are only what the Harvard philosopher Nelson Goodman called “versions,” and the versions current at any place or time are the results of these hidden forces. The truth is not even to be discerned at the end of a tunnel: it is varnish all the way down. Reason is primarily a patriotic badge pinned onto our own ways of carrying on, and one we deny to others who disagree with us (a thought, incidentally, not peculiar to postmodernists).
Can we escape such melancholy meditations? Can we get off the unhappy seesaw of either staying with Hume and losing confidence that we represent the world correctly, or going with Kant and holding that we represent only a world which is in some sense constituted by us? This question sets the scene for Rorty’s contribution. For suppose that Hume and Kant commit the same mistake. Suppose there is a way of undercutting the whole problem, of pointing the gun at some concept that each side unwittingly shares. And there is, indeed, a way. Each side is bothered about our capacity to describe truly, or represent the world. So each shares an ideal of representation. But suppose that this very idea is itself a delusion — suppose the mind is not even in the business of mirroring the world? The idea that the mind is the arena of appearances, so that it is up to the philosopher to undertake the task of telling which appearances rightly represent the world — suppose that is all a mistake? This is Rorty’s proposal.