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The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard

Mike Sutton discusses Jean-François Lyotard’s classic report on The Postmodern Condition.

The Postmodern Condition, published in 1979, was commissioned by the Council of Universities of the Provincial Government of Quebec. It is a report on the state of knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, in the contemporary world, by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924-98).

In this book, Lyotard considers knowledge, including its ubiquity. His concern here is prescient, given computerisation’s pervasive influence on our lives in the half century since his report.

Knowledge in philosophy is concerned centrally with metaphysics and epistemology: ‘What can we know?’ and ‘How do we know?’ respectively. The empirical sciences emerge from such questions. Now, with information plentiful and readily available, ‘knowledge’ is to many people merely what they think they know. This is not always reliable. Lyotard also sees knowledge becoming weaponised for what Nietzsche called ‘the will to power’. Modern economies utilise knowledge to grow. Technology, capital growth, and globalisation all depend on it. Hence the use of science as a feedstock for technology and capital growth, which he sees as a modern demonstration of the will to power. In the postmodern world, knowledge has become commodified.

Legitimacy & Language Games

So how do we know if some supposed knowledge is correct, or fit for use? Given the widespread availability of information, and the ease with which it can be spread, who or what can we trust, and what is bogus or dangerous? Can we trust authorities? Indeed, who are the authorities?

Lyotard sees the problem of legitimation of knowledge as paramount in contemporary life. Those with knowledge can now question others with similar knowledge. Fashions or ideas can rise up and disappear with dizzying rapidity.

How do we communicate information anyway? According to Lyotard, by means of language games. The term ‘language game’ was introduced to philosophy by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Through experience, and conversations with others, we all implicitly learn the rules of the language games we play to communicate information.

Language games are about making meaningful statements; and making a meaningful statement is sometimes called a ‘speech act’ by philosophers of language. In his seminal 1962 paper, ‘How to Do Things with Words’, J.L. Austin defined three aspects of speech acts: locutionary – the meaning of an utterance (‘Do we have bread?’); illocutionary – the implication or purpose of that utterance (I want to eat some bread); and perlocutionary – the effects of utterances on the hearer – which could range from making a mental note (to get more bread) to being affected emotionally (‘I forgot to get bread and feel bad about it’). So statements do not just imply their primary meaning. They can also change their meaning with context, as understandings of the words are developed either by the same speakers or by different speakers as the information is passed on. This way, understandings and misunderstandings, facts and rumours, and different interpretations develop. Maxims and principles, customs and practices, skills, and other knowledge which does not require formal research but which does require description and detail, can all be affected by the language games through which they have been transmitted, and by the background culture of the hearers and transmitters. And there is much scope for misunderstanding – think of the common expression, ‘you’re talking a different language’: this is an acknowledgement of different language games being played. Furthermore, there is at least a mildly competitive – what Lyotard calls ‘agonistic’ – aspect to each game.

Nevertheless, the practical use of language is a cooperative effort, and requires a social bond. The social systems we live in prime this bonding by setting the contexts in which words are understood. For instance, Lyotard sees a self-regulating democratic society which promotes competition as a different context to a Marxist society, where income inequalities are seen to be politically motivated. The social bond is also active when knowledge is passed down generations, or when stories and instructions are exchanged.

Can Lyotard help us with knowledge?
Lyotard © Bracha Ettinger 1995 Creative Commons

Scientific Knowledge

Unlike narrative knowledge – the knowledge of everyday experience – scientific knowledge is supposed to be legitimised: it consists of facts and theories discovered by research and discussed among professionals.

Although he does not say so, Lyotard seems to subscribe to the view of Sir Karl Popper (1902-94) who defined science as conjectures which can in principle be falsified, but for the time being (maybe even forever) are accepted. Another philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn (1922-96), argued that science proceeds by paradigm shifts: a major discovery takes place (for example, Darwinism, quantum mechanics or relativity), which is then verified and refined over a period of time, until observations and evidence require a better model or theory to replace it. Neither Popper, Kuhn, nor Lyotard imply a view of science as absolute or enduring truth. Rather, they see science as providing models of what might be the case, through descriptions of the facts and discoveries which support the model. But the paradigm can change with new facts and discoveries that can’t be accounted for within the old model.

Lyotard’s attitude to scientific experts and technocrats generally seems to be that running the world should not be left to the scientific method alone. More is required. Scientific methods can provide reasoned arguments based on models, but politically speaking, there is a need to see a bigger picture. Lyotard sympathises with Niklas Luhmann’s observation that overreliance on scientific method and modelling in administration and government can lead to important factors being left out of consideration. This can lead to unfairness, and to minorities being neglected.

There has been much misunderstanding of Lyotard’s attitude to science. In The Postmodern Condition he does not go further than Popper and Kuhn in his basic definition of science. There is no implication that he considers scientific knowledge unsafe or illegitimate. He would probably have been horrified by the anti-vaccine movement. Some modern interpreters of his criticisms of science do not seem to have understood this. Certain academics cite Lyotard’s attitude to science as being one of scepticism and mistrust. This is unfortunate, and untrue, and a mistrust of science has had baleful consequences. For example, in their book Cynical Theories (2020), Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay show how movements such as postcolonial theory, race theory, queer theory, and gender theory – which ought to be liberal and based on trying to be kind to people – have been taken over by “far-left progressive social crusaders [who] portray themselves as the sole and righteous champions of social and moral progress” and who consequently seek militant action. These ‘crusaders’ mistakenly assume that the original postmodernists, such as Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, give them permission to abandon principles of scientific reasoning, especially of objective, observable truth, when theorising. So, instead of analysis, the crusaders produce barely comprehensible anti-scientific arguments which can lead to the ostracism of those who oppose their views through an intolerance of criticism, with the resultant no-platforming.

Grand Narratives & Little Narratives

Probably the best-known statement by Lyotard is his definition of postmodernism as ‘the death of metanarratives’. Metanarratives are beliefs held by a large number of often knowledgeable people which are supposed to explain (parts of) human history. They are sometimes also called ‘grand narratives’.

Greater availability of information and research means that many traditional grand narratives, such as Christianity or Marxism, are open to criticism, and sometimes to demolition. In postmodernism, this applies to scientific laws as well as to ethics or theology. As Lyotard puts it, postmodern science has become a search for instabilities. Newton’s laws of motion and gravity were considered incontrovertible until the advent of the theory of relativity – showing that science is indeed falsifiable and only as good as the empirical evidence which supports it. Ethical laws have also changed, and there is no agreement on one single ethical position. Likewise with theology.

While grand narratives are subject to revision in the postmodern world, society will always rely on ‘little narratives’ (or as Lyotard calls them, petit recits), which inform thinking well, within limits. These limits are not necessarily easy to specify. When does a theory or law become inapplicable? This is an open question for society to solve differently in many situations, scientific, ethical, economic, or theological. But it leads to uncertainty and confusion about what to rely on in the world and in our lives. This is another legitimation problem.

Lyotard adds an Appendix about the postmodern phenomenon in general. He examines the role of the arts, referring to the aims of the postmodern in literature: the use of syntax, vocabulary, and narration to represent the hitherto unrepresented, and the abandoning of unity of vision and traditional forms. He also considers Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) concept of the ‘sublime’ in postmodern terms. Kant ultimately describes the sublime as wonder at the boundlessness of reason and experience of its universal validity (as opposed to the beautiful, experience of which is associated with perfect form). The sublime cannot necessarily be represented in ordinary language. Lyotard poses the problem: “But how to make visible that… which cannot be seen? The sublime is the intellectual realisation of the conceivable, beyond the popular or that which appeals only to the senses.”

Insight & Foresight

So what did Lyotard reveal in his report on the postmodern condition?

Even back in 1979, he saw that the emerging information age would change our attitudes to knowledge. Nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophy could have no inkling of the amount of information which would eventually be at peoples’ disposal. The Internet would have been a revolution indeed to Frege and Nietzsche. By 1979, the easy availability of information was emerging, with the prospect of even greater availability to come. But what in fact did this presage? Mainly a predilection to question facts and opinions, an ability to communicate personal opinions, and the possibility of contributing one’s own evidence to the debate. This has led to difficulties in the legitimation of knowledge and the increased disregard for metanarratives. Science is also questioned, and not always by people who are well-informed. Elsewhere, narrative and scientific knowledge are muddled up. Dubious claimed ‘knowledge’ is widely available from influencers and others, sometimes with baleful consequences.

Lyotard sees that all of this will both damage and strengthen the social bond. But it can also lead to new thinking and ways of expression – new language games. He sees the need for the widest possible exchange of opinions and information, including the production of ideas going against or outside of established norms; the avant garde in the arts; a search for instabilities in science… In all this, Lyotard anticipated both the ‘post truth’ world in which we find ourselves today, and the changes in attitudes which our being awash with information has brought. His insight when writing this prophetic thesis over forty years ago was extraordinary.

© Mike Sutton 2023

Mike Sutton lives in Birmingham and writes about the importance of philosophy in science, technology, and social life.

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