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Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998)
by Terence Green
Grand Truth is interred,
Charlatan or sage?
Lyotard © Bracha Ettinger 1995
Seeking to rival the incomprehensibility achieved by many twentieth century Anglo-American philosophers through their use of mathematics and formal logic, twentieth century European philosophers adopted the more straightforward approach of simply being incomprehensible. The champion of them all was Jean-François Lyotard, the evangelist of postmodernism. He wrote as if he believed himself to be a divine oracle, and his minions have tended to write in the same impenetrable way ever since.
Lyotard recalled how as a child he considered various careers: historian, writer, artist, and Dominican monk. It’s a shame he didn’t become a monk – the unfathomable mysticism of the Dominicans would’ve suited him. But in the end he studied philosophy and literature, despite which he seemingly never learnt the art of writing well or expressing himself clearly.
In 1979 his eulogy for the Enlightenment (or the ‘modern age’) was published, entitled La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge). Here he claimed that since the Enlightenment the modern age has been marked by a misguided faith in ‘grand narratives’ – theories such as scientism or Marxism, which claimed to offer over-arching truths about reality. That age, he said, was over, and the postmodern age has begun: an age marked by, in his words, ‘incredulity towards grand narratives’.
According to this view, there are no absolute truths, there are just many different ways of knowing the world, none superior to the others. Science may claim the contrary; but it is wrong, and arrogant to do so. In this way Lyotard opened the door for every type of New Age swindler to assert the legitimacy of any claim, no matter how absurd, for no one has a monopoly on the truth. Postmodernism represents an astonishing nadir for scholarly endeavour – behind the façade of learning and the imprimatur of the academy, postmodernists effectively commit licensed fraud, passing off the most execrable and meaningless hogwash as profundities.
I think it’s safe to say that we now live in post-post-modern world. But of course, that’s just my humble opinion, and heaven forbid I should impose it on anyone.
© Terence Green 2021
Terence Green is a writer, historian, and lecturer who lives in Eastbourne, New Zealand.