Metanarrative or grand narrative or mater narrative is a term developed by Jean-François Lyotard to mean a theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to universal truth or universal values.

In this context, the narrative is a story that functions to legitimize power, authority, and social customs. A grand narrative or metanarrative is one that claims to explain various events in history, gives meaning by connecting disperse events and phenomena by appealing to some kind of universal knowledge or schema. The term grand narratives can be applied to a wide range of thoughts which includes Marxism, religious doctrines, belief in progress, universal reason, and others.

The concept was criticized by Jean-François Lyotard in his work, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). In this text, Lyotard refers to what he describes as the postmodern condition, which he characterized as increasing skepticism toward the totalizing nature of "metanarratives" or "grand narratives."


According to John Stephens it "is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience." The prefix meta means "beyond" and is here used to mean "about," and a narrative is a story. Therefore, a metanarrative is a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other 'little stories' within totalizing a schema.

The Postmodern Condition

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) is a short but influential philosophy book by Jean-François Lyotard in which he analyzes the epistemology of postmodern culture as the end of 'grand narratives' or metanarratives, which he considers a quintessential feature of modernity. The book was originally written as a report to the Conseil des universités du Québec.[1] The book introduced the term 'postmodernism', which was previously only used by art critics, in philosophy with the following quotation: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives".[2][3]

Among the metanarratives are reductionism and teleological notions of human history such as those of the Enlightenment and Marxism. These have become untenable, according to Lyotard, by technological progress in the areas of communication, mass media and computer science. Techniques such as artificial intelligence and machine translation show a shift to linguistic and symbolic production as central elements of the postindustrial economy and the related postmodern culture, which had risen at the end of the 1950s after the reconstruction of western Europe. The result is a plurality of language-games (a term coined by Wittgenstein[4]), without any overarching structure. Modern science thus destroys its own metanarrative.

In the book, Lyotard professes a preference for this plurality of small narratives that compete with each other, replacing the totalitarianism of grand narratives. For this reason, The Postmodern Condition has often been interpreted as an excuse for unbounded relativism, which for many has become a hallmark of postmodern thought.[3]

The Postmodern Condition was written as a report on the influence of technology on the notion of knowledge in exact sciences, commissioned by the Québec government. Lyotard later admitted that he had a 'less than limited' knowledge of the science he was to write about, and to compensate for this knowledge, he 'made stories up' and referred to a number of books that he hadn't actually read. In retrospect, he called it 'a parody' and 'simply the worst of all my books'.[3] Despite this, and much to Lyotard's regret, it came to be seen as his most important piece of writing.

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements—narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on [...] Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside? - Jean-Francois Lyotard[5]

Examples of metanarratives

Lyotard and other postmodernists take a critical or skeptical stance towards metanarrative in which they include a variety of thoughts from other religious doctrines to Marxism, Fredudianism, and others.

  • Many Christians believe that human nature, since the Fall (Genesis 3), is characteristically sinful, but has the possibility of redemption and experiencing eternal life in heaven; thus representing a belief in a universal rule and a telos for humankind. See also Universal History.
  • The Enlightenment theorists believed that rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress.
  • Muslims view human history as the story of divine contact through prophets like David, Abraham, or Jesus demonstrating rationally impossible feats for human beings (miracles) as proof of authenticity and sent to every people over time to teach purity of heart so that people may receive the guidance of the one true creator or God. These prophets or their messages are resisted when introduced, and distorted or corrupted over time necessitating new prophets, the final one being Muhammad and the uncorrupted Quran; victory ultimately being for those who have purified their hearts and accepted the divine nature of the world.
  • The Marxist-Leninists believe that in order to be emancipated, society must undergo a revolution. Just as the bourgeoisie (whose living depends on the control of capital or technology) took power from the noble class (whose wealth was based on control over land), they believe that the present system of capitalism will fall and the proletariat (who live by selling their labor) will take over. This change will be driven by the unstable and cyclical nature of capitalism, and by the alienation felt by the labourers who keep the system working.
  • Freudian theory holds that human history is a narrative of the repression of libidinal desires.
  • Categorical and definitive periodizations of history, such as the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages and Renaissance.
  • Many feminists hold that patriarchy has systematically oppressed and subjugated women throughout history.
  • The Whig Interpretation of History, where history was viewed as a teleological process gradually leading to increased liberty and democracy.

Replacing grand, universal narratives with small, local narratives

According to the advocates of postmodernism, metanarratives have lost their power to convince stories that are told in order to legitimize various versions of "the truth." With the transition from modern to postmodern, Lyotard proposes that metanarratives should give way to 'petits récits', or more modest and "localized" narratives. Borrowing from the works of Wittgenstein and his theory of the "models of discourse",[6] Lyotard constructs his vision of a progressive politics that is grounded in the cohabitation of a whole range of diverse and always locally legitimated language games. Postmodernists attempt to replace metanarratives by focusing on specific local contexts as well as the diversity of human experience. They argue for the existence of a "multiplicity of theoretical standpoints"[7] rather than grand, all-encompassing theories.

Is poststructuralism a metanarrative?

Lyotard's analysis of the postmodern condition has been criticized as being internally inconsistent. For example, thinkers like Alex Callinicos[8] and Jürgen Habermas[9] argue that Lyotard's description of the postmodern world as containing an "incredulity toward metanarratives" could be seen as a metanarrative in itself. According to this view, post-structuralist thinkers like Lyotard criticize universal rules but postulate that postmodernity contains a universal skepticism toward metanarratives, and so this 'universal skepticism' is in itself a contemporary metanarrative. Like a post-modern neo-romanticist metanarrative that intends to build up a 'meta' critic, or 'meta' discourse and a 'meta' belief holding up that Western science is just taxonomist, empiricist, utilitarian, assuming a supposed sovereignty around its own reason and pretending to be neutral, rigorous and universal. This is itself an obvious sample of another 'meta' story, self-contradicting the postmodern critique of the metanarrative.

Thus, Lyotard's postmodern incredulity towards metanarratives could be said to be self-refuting. If one is skeptical of universal narratives such as "truth," "knowledge," "right," or "wrong," then there is no basis for believing the "truth" that metanarratives are being undermined. In this sense, this paradox of postmodernism is similar to the liar's paradox ("This statement is false."). Perhaps postmodernists, like Lyotard, are not offering us a Utopian, teleological metanarrative, but in many respects their arguments are open to metanarrative interpretation. Postmodernism is an anti-theory, but uses theoretical tools to make its case. The significance of this contradiction, however, is of course also open to interpretation.

Also see


  1. Frédérick Bruneault (Autumn 2004), "Savoir scientifique et légitimation," Revue PHARES vol. 5. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  2. Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Minuit, 1979).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity (London/New York: Verso, 1998), 24–27.
  4. Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir (Les Editions de Minuit, 1979).
  5. Jean-Francois Lyotard, Introduction The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge," 1979: xxiv-xxv. Retrieved February 18, 2009.
  6. Johannes Willem Berterns, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (London: Routledge, 1995, ISBN 0415060117), 124.
  7. Michael A. Peters, Poststructuralism, Marxism, and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, ISBN 0742509877), 7.
  8. Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
  9. Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity versus Postmodernity," New German Critique, No. 22, Special Issue on Modernism, 1981: pp. 3-14.


  • Anderson, Perry. The Origins of Postmodernity. London: Verso, 1998. ISBN 9788433905918
  • Bertens, Johannes Willem. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London: Routledge, 1995. ISBN 9780415060127
  • Callinicos, Alex. Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1990. ISBN 9780312042257
  • Habermas, Jürgen. "Modernity versus Postmodernity." New German Critique, No. 22, Special Issue on Modernism, pp. 3-14. 1981
  • Heartney, Eleanor. Postmodernism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 9780521802956
  • Lyotard, Jean-François, and Andrew E. Benjamin. The Lyotard Reader. Blackwell readers. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989. ISBN 9780631163398
  • Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Theory and history of literature, v. 10. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. ISBN 9780816611737
  • Peters, Michael. Poststructuralism, Marxism, and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001. ISBN 9780742509870
  • Stephens, John, and Robyn McCallum. Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature. New York: Garland Pub, 1998. ISBN 0-8153-1298-9.

External links

All links retrieved October 21, 2014.


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