Jean-François Lyotard

Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Jean-Francois Lyotard.jpg
Name: Jean-François Lyotard
Birth: August 10, 1924
Flag of France Versailles, France
Death: April 21, 1998
Flag of France Paris, France
School/tradition: Postmodernism
Main interests
Notable ideas
The "postmodern condition"
Collapse of the "grand narrative"
Influences Influenced
Montaigne · Kant · Marx · Freud
Wittgenstein · Parsons · Durkheim
J.L. Austin
Rorty · Barthes · Foucault · Derrida

Jean-François Lyotard (pronounced [ʒɑ̃ frɑ̃swa ljɔtaʀ]; August 10, 1924 – April 21, 1998) was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well-known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition. He was a Marxist but he was deeply disappointed with it and rejected any form of "grand narrative," a totalistic, universal theory which promises to explain and solve all problems by one set of ideas. Lyotard adopted Wittgenstein's concept of "language games" and Kant's theory of aesthetics for his analysis. Critics argue that postmodernism is a skepticism that presents no positive alternative. Lyotard, however, captured the pluralistic tendencies of the late twentieth century.



He was born in Versailles, France to Jean-Pierre Lyotard, a sale representative, and Madeleine. He went to primary school at the Paris Lycées Buffon and Louis-le-Grand and later began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. He married Andrée May in 1948 and became a father. After graduation he took up a position teaching philosophy in Constantine in French-occupied East Algeria in 1950.

Political life

In 1954, Lyotard became a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie, a French political organisation formed in 1948 around the inadequacy of the Trotskyist analysis to explain the new forms of domination in the Soviet Union. Socialisme ou Barbarie became increasingly anti-Marxist and Lyotard was prominent in the Pouvoir Ouvrier, a group that rejected the position and split in 1963. His writings in this period are mostly concerned with ultra-left politics, with focus on the Algerian situation, which he witnessed first hand while teaching philosophy in Constantine.

Academic career

In the early 1970s, Lyotard began teaching at the University of Paris VIII, Vincennes until 1987 when he became Professor Emeritus. During the next two decades he lectured outside of France notably as a Professor of Critical Theory at the University of California, Irvine and as visiting professor at universities around the world including John Hopkins, Berkeley, Yale, and San Diego in the States, the Université de Montréal in Canada and the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He was also a founding director and councile member of the Collège International de Philosophie, Paris. Before his death, he split his time between Paris and Atlanta, where he taught at Emory University as a Woodruff Professor of Philosophy and French.

Later life and death

Lyotard repeatedly returned to the notion of the Postmodern in essays gathered in English as The Postmodern Explained to Children, Toward the Postmodern, and Postmodern Fables. In 1998, while preparing for a conference on Postmodernism and Media Theory, he died unexpectedly from a case of leukemia that had advanced rapidly. He is buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


The collapse of the "Grand Narrative"

Lyotard's work is characterised by a persistent opposition to universals, meta-narratives, and generality. He is fiercely critical of many of the 'universalist' claims of the Enlightenment, and several of his works serve to undermine the fundamental principles that generate these broad claims. Most famously, in La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979), he argued that our age (with its postmodern condition) is marked by an 'incredulity towards meta-narratives'. These meta-narratives—sometimes 'grand narratives'—are grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom. Lyotard argues that we have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are adequate to represent and contain us all. We have become alert to difference, diversity, the incompatibility of our aspirations, beliefs and desires, and for that reason postmodernity is characterised by an abundance of micronarratives. For this concept Lyotard draws on and strongly reinterprets the notion of 'language-games' found in the work of Wittgenstein.

In Lyotard's works, the term 'language games', sometimes also called 'phrase regimens', denotes the multiplicity of communities of meaning, the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their circulation are created.

This becomes more crucial in Au juste: Conversations (Just Gaming) (1979) and Le Différend (The Differend) (1983), which develop a postmodern theory of justice. It might appear that the atomisation of human beings implied by the notion of the micronarrative and the language game suggests a collapse of ethics. It has often been thought that universality is a condition for something to be a properly ethical statement: 'thou shalt not steal' is an ethical statement in a way that 'thou shalt not steal from Margaret' is not. The latter is too particular to be an ethical statement (what's so special about Margaret?); it is only ethical if it rests on a universal statement ('thou shalt not steal from anyone'). But universals are impermissible in a world that has lost faith in metanarratives, and so it would seem that ethics is impossible. Justice and injustice can only be terms within language games, and the universality of ethics is out of the window. Lyotard argues that notions of justice and injustice do in fact remain in postmodernism. The new definition of injustice is indeed to use the language rules from one 'phrase regimen' and apply them to another. Ethical behaviour is about remaining alert precisely to the threat of this injustice, of paying attention to things in their particularity and not enclosing them within abstract conceptuality. One must bear witness to the 'differend'.

The sublime

Lyotard was a frequent writer on aesthetic matters. He was, despite his reputation as a postmodernist, a great promoter of modernist art. (It is worth commenting that Lyotard saw 'postmodernism' as a latent tendency within thought throughout time and not a narrowly-limited historical period.) He favored the startling and perplexing works of the high modernist avant-garde. In them he found a demonstration of the limits of our conceptuality, a valuable lesson for anyone too imbued with Enlightenment confidence.

He developed these themes in particular by discussing the sublime. The "sublime" is a term in aesthetics whose fortunes revived under postmodernism after a century or more of neglect. It refers to the experience of pleasurable anxiety that we experience when confronting wild and threatening sights like, for example, a massive craggy mountain, black against the sky, looming terrifyingly in our vision.

Lyotard found particularly interesting the explanation of the sublime offered by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (sometimes Critique of the Power of Judgment). In this book Kant explains this mixture of anxiety and pleasure in the following terms: there are two kinds of 'sublime' experience. In the 'mathematical' sublime, an object strikes the mind in such a way that we find ourselves unable to take it in as a whole. More precisely, we experience a clash between our reason (which tells us that all objects are finite) and the imagination (the aspect of the mind that organizes what we see, and which sees an object incalculably larger than ourselves, and feels infinite). In the 'dynamical' sublime, the mind recoils at an object so immeasurably more powerful than we, whose weight, force, scale could crush us without the remotest hope of our being able to resist it. (Kant stresses that if we are in actual danger, our feeling of anxiety is very different from that of a sublime feeling. The sublime is an aesthetic experience, not a practical feeling of personal danger.) This explains the feeling of anxiety.

The feeling of pleasure comes when human reason asserts itself. What is deeply unsettling about the mathematical sublime is that the mental faculties that present visual perceptions to the mind are inadequate to the concept corresponding to it; in other words, what we are able to make ourselves see cannot fully match up to what we know is there. We know it's a mountain but we cannot take the whole thing into our perception. What this does, ironically, is to compel our awareness of the supremacy of the human reason. Our sensibility is incapable of coping with such sights, but our reason can assert the finitude of the presentation. With the dynamical sublime, our sense of physical danger should prompt an awareness that we are not just physical material beings, but moral and (in Kant's terms) noumenal beings as well. The body may be dwarfed by its power but our reason need not be. This explains, in both cases, why the sublime is an experience of pleasure as well as pain.

Lyotard is fascinated by this admission, from one of the philosophical architects of the Enlightenment, that the mind cannot always organise the world rationally. Some objects are simply incapable of being brought neatly under concepts. For Lyotard, in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, and drawing on his argument in The Differend, this is a good thing. Such generalities as 'concepts' fail to pay proper attention to the particularity of things. What happens in the sublime is a crisis where we realize the inadequacy of the imagination and reason individually. What we are witnessing, says Lyotard, is actually the differend; the straining of the mind at the edges of itself and at the edges of its conceptuality.


Some argue that Lyotard's theories may seem self-contradictory because The Postmodern Condition seems to offer its own grand narrative in the story of the decline of the metanarrative. Against this it can be argued that Lyotard's narrative in The Postmodern Condition declares the decline of only a few defunct "narratives of legitimation" and not of narrative knowledge itself. It is not logically contradictory to say that a statement about narratives is itself a narrative, just as when Lyotard states that "every utterance [in a language game] should be thought of as a 'move' in a game"[1]

See also


  1. Jean-François Lyotard, 1979, The Postmodern Condition, A Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press, 1984. The First 5 Chapters of main body of work are reproduced here. his statement is itself a 'move' in a language game. Retrieved November 11, 2007.


External links

All links retrieved August 23, 2014.

General Philosophy Sources


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