Jean Francois Lyotard (1924 to 1998) was a proponent of post-Marxist ideas.
Lyotard argued that knowledge had become fractured and fragmented in the ‘postmodern condition’, which was the title of his most famous book.
Lyotard developed his theory of knowledge by drawing on the work of two philosophers: Nietzsche and Wittgenstein who had both criticised modernist conceptions of knowledge for claiming there could be unproblematic, objective and absolute truth, and that science was the way to that truth.
Nietzsche and Wittgenstein both argued that there were a plurality of specific, localised truths which were relative to particular times and places. What counted as true in one context may not be true in another and there was no way of knowing which truth was ‘truer’ than others.
They also argued that we had to recognise the contingency and uncertainty of human knowledge.
Knowledge is subjective not objective.
Lyotard insisted that knowledge is always particular and subjective rather than universal and objective.
Different groups each have their own narratives which help them to make sense of the world and themselves, but each of these ‘mini-narratives’ is valid in its own right for each particular group and cannot be criticised or evaluated from the point of view of another, because no one narrative is more true than any other.
Narratives and language games
Narratives help to establish the social order of a society and narratives are developed through what Lyotard called language-games. Language-games are games in which participants try to assert that certain claims are true.
Each statement is a move in which participants are trying to get other people to accept their truth-claims as valid and reject the validity of other statements. Whoever wins the language game gains legitimacy or power over the truth.
Knowledge has always been relative, but at certain points in history some narratives have gained prominence and tried to cover up the truth that knowledge is relative – such as with religious world views, science or political ideologies such as Liberalism and Marxism.
Modernity and Metarranatives
in pre-modern societies the telling of stories, myths or legends was the principle language game.
The people with the right to speak these stories gained their legitimacy on the basis of who they were, on their authenticity as being born into that particular tribe and having had those stories passed down to them by their parents and grandparents.
However this changed in the 17th century with the onset of the Enlightenment…
The Enlightenment and Metanarratives
With the Enlightenment, language games were replaced with scientific ‘denotive games’ in which legitimacy was no longer based on an individual’s authenticity but on the extent to which statements stood up to testing according to agreed upon standards from by other people (other scientists in the case of science).
Scientific statements are subjected to rigorous testing by other scientists who either provide proof of a truth-claim another scientist is making or falsify that claim. Evidence found using the scientific method and rational argument are employed to establish the legitimacy of truth claims made by scientists.
Science attempted to maintain a distance between itself and other social conventions so that it could remain objective, and in doing so science established itself as a metanarrative (big stories which claim universal truths).
Scientists claimed they had access to superior knowledge based on the scientific method which was objective, and this would be the basis for emancipating humanity from the ignorance of primitive knowledge based on narratives which were in turn were legitimated by the status of the people telling those stories.
Scientists believed that their objective knowledge could form the basis for human progress.
However Lyotard criticised the ability of scientific institutions to be able to remain truly detached from the narratives of daily life, especially when science is funded by powerful institutions.
Science was not the only ‘big story’ making claims to universal truths in modernity. According to Lyotard the two principle political metanarratives of modernity were Liberalism and Marxism.
Liberalism claimed that modernity was a period of increasing individual freedom and prosperity based on the spread of capitalism and democracy.
Marxism believed that Capitalism only advanced through subordinating the working classes and that in order to achieved true progress we needed to emancipate the working classes through revolution and communism.
However according to Lyotard both of the above are fictions, merely the idea of particular people who benefitted from trying to pass off these stories as truth.
The postmodern condition
Lyotard famously defined postmodern thought and the condition of postmodernity more generally as an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’.
Starting from at least the 1950s, but certainly by the 1980s the majority of the population had people had started to be sceptical about the possibility science and reason could find universal truths. In other words a critical mass of people had become sceptical about the scientific metanarrative.
Also by the 1980s the majority of the population were sceptical about religious and political metanarratives such as Liberalism and Marxism and embraced the principles of doubt and uncertainty about everything.
Thus we can described society since the 1980s as postmodern because by that point the majority of the population had a postmodern outlook in terms of their attitude towards knowledge.
The postmodern condition and scientific knowledge
In science denotative games (the search for universal truth) are replaced by technical games as science turns more towards the most efficient way of achieving goals, rather than the search for absolute truth
Moreover for Lyotard in postmodern society knowledge increasingly becomes something which can be bought and sold, it is a market-product and thus most certainly not free from relativist context.
A mindset, not a period in history
For Lyotard the postmodern condition isn’t just a period in history like some other commentators on postmodernity have suggested, it is a mindset that has always existed.
Subjectivity, relativism and uncertainty have always been part of life, they were part of modernity too, but in modernity the postmodern mindset was subjugated by metanarratives which claimed a monopoly on truth.
Evaluations of Lyotard
Lyotard’s view of knowledge as subjective does open up the possibility for individuals to be free from those in power who claim they have access to the universal truth or the best path to progress.
However there are at least two major problems with his theory:
There are some contradictions in Lyotard’s work. He claims that all knowledge is subjective and yet he seems to be claiming to have found the ‘truth’ of how knowledge systems have progresses from pre-modern through modern and now postmodern.
If we accept the view that knowledge is subjective and that there is no universal truth it makes it difficult to criticise anything, which means Capitalism has a free for all in which those with money and power can choose to legitimate any system of knowledge they choose and the rest of us have no real basis to criticise the truth claims those in power are making.
Jean Francois Lyotard FAQ
What is the postmodern condition?
Lyotard defined the postmodern condition as an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. What he meant by this is that the postmodern mindset rejects claims to universal truth and accepts that there are a plurality of truths which are context-dependent, relative and subjective. The postmodern condition is thus one of epistemological uncertainty.
What is a metanarrative?
Metanarratives are overarching stories which claim to be able to explain everything in the world and they tend to do so in the name of increasing human emancipation or freedom.
What’s the difference between the postmodern condition and postmodernity for Lyotard?
The postmodern condition is a mindset: scepticism attitude to the possibility of objective knowledge and universal truth. For Lyotard when the majority of the population have this mindset, as was the case by the 1980s, we can talk of having entered the historical period of postmodernity.
Jean Francois Lyotard (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
Jean Francois Lyotard by Bracha L. Ettinger, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2517804..
The Postmodern Condition book cover By Scan of book cover, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44167713.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
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