Jean-Francois Lyotard

'A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern', once wrote Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998). Lyotard is an important name in the coterie of twentieth-century French philosophers who shaped modern thinking. In his seminal work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979)Lyotard discusses how knowledge is shaped in the era of mass communication and information technology.

Jean-Francois Lyotard Jean-Francois Lyotard

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    Does it surprise you to know that this iconic French philosopher who popularised the term postmodern rejected time as a linear construct? Fans and students of Lyotard would tell you that this is nothing out of the ordinary in his oeuvre full of jarring juxtapositions and non-sequiturs. Lyotard's idea of metanarratives tackles the reliability of knowledge in the environment of postmodernism.

    Postmodernism: an intellectual stream of thought and temporal distinction associated with the period that followed modernism in Europe. The features of postmodernism include the breakdown of the distinction between high and low culture, fragmented narratives, intertextual and metafictional accounts, and the embrace of randomness and disorder.

    Jean-François Lyotard: biography

    Jean-François Lyotard was born in 1924 to an aspirational middle-class family. Lyotard's father was a sales representative for a cloth manufacturer who also stood out in his childhood for his remarkable intelligence. It went unfulfilled because of difficult circumstances like poverty and war. Jean-François inherited his father's intelligence, but his mother wanted him to lead a conventional family life. This later led to ruptures within the Lyotard family.

    As a young man, Lyotard was very disciplined and followed his everyday routine religiously. After serving as a medic during the second world war, Lyotard started studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. Lyotard's thesis was a comparative study of detachment in different religions. From 1949 to 1950, Lyotard was away from Paris to teach at a military college in Burgundy. He later held teaching positions in different parts of France, and French Algeria, a colony of France at the time. He also taught at universities like the Sorbonne, Nanterre, University Paris VIII and several leading universities in the United States. Lyotard was married twice and had three children from his marriages. Lyotard died in Paris in 1998 at the age of 73.

    Jean-Francois Lyotard Theory StudySmarterFig.1 Lyotard's writing always reflected his political militancy.

    Jean-François Lyotard: theory

    Although Lyotard only taught in Algeria for two years, his time there had a profound effect on him. He followed the independence struggle in Algeria closely and commented on the matter. His first marriage to Andrée May also shaped his career and political opinions. May was part-Jewish and alerted Lyotard to the brutal realities of being Jewish in the climate of anti-Semitism. She also taught him English as his career grew in scope outside of France.

    Lyotard is commonly included in the list of postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers of the twentieth century.

    Poststructuralism: an intellectual movement that developed in the 1960s and 1970s which rejected structuralist ideas of language and literature. Poststructuralists argued that truth or meaning is fluid rather than fixed and monolithic.

    Lyotard once shrugged off an interviewer's questions about his life with the remark, 'Ah, you want me to fall into biographical idiocy.' 2 He rejected the idea that information on an artist's life could be used to explain their work.

    Lyotard was a member of the faculty at Nanterre in 1968 and played an important role in the Mouvement du 22 Mars (Movement of March 22). It was a student-led movement at the University of Nanterre that began on 22 March 1968 and led to a lengthy occupation of the university's main administrative building by students. The police intervention and the ensuing commotion brought nationwide media and intellectual attention to the movement. The events eventually accumulated momentum in May 1968 in other parts of France, causing riots and civil disruption.

    Lyotard's political engagement was the bedrock of his philosophical works; not only did they not shy away from politics, but each of the works also acknowledged his political dissidence.

    Jean-François Lyotard: postmodernism summary

    The oft-quoted phrase from The Postmodern Condition offers an unambiguous summary of Lyotard's attitude towards postmodernism and the organisation of knowledge after the late modern era (estimated to be around the mid-twentieth century).

    I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.

    Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 1979

    In Lyotard's view, totalitarian narrative forms seek to explain all of existence. Postmodernism intervenes to say that such narratives are inadequate for that task and end up creating an exclusionary dialogue. Lyotard foretold the technological transformation of knowledge systems, where knowledge takes on a value based on its technological form. Lyotard argued that the mistrust of narratives along with a crisis of knowledge systems became the postmodern condition.

    It is often believed that the word postmodern was first used by Lyotard. However, Lyotard merely adopted it from existing discourses in arts and sociology and applied it to a philosophical dimension.

    Jean-François Lyotard: metanarratives

    Lyotard argues that knowledge is given legitimacy by what he calls the grands récits (translated as grand narratives or metanarratives). A grand narrative can be defined as the dominant mode of thought, ideology, or belief system that influences and shapes what is perceived as true, real, and acceptable.

    Capitalism, science, religious ideologies, political democracy, feminism, and patriarchy are all metanarratives that claim to explain the world or promote a worldview.

    Capitalism is a political and economic system where property and goods are privately owned and the market is driven by profit.

    Feminism can be broadly described as an ideology that advocates for women's rights and against gender inequality.

    Grand narratives are seen as a tool of authoritarianism that fails to acknowledge differences. In the postmodern world, there is rising scepticism about such universal narratives. Essentially, everything is taken with a pinch of salt. By resisting metanarratives, postmodernism opens up more room to explore interconnections instead of imposing preset oppositions.

    Lyotard argued that the advances in technology and means of communication were the primary reason the belief in grand narratives of modernism was shaken. With the growth of multicultural societies with competing claims on knowledge systems, all-encompassing narratives gradually declined in strength.

    Diversity is an important feature of postmodernism. As grand narratives fall short to represent everyone in society equally, the axis of power and legitimacy shifted towards little narratives. As we become conscious of our differences, there arises an abundance of smaller, perhaps, more localised narratives that are suitable for everyone. This facilitates a multitude of perspectives and alternate narrative forms.

    Lyotard elaborates on the idea of difference and metanarratives in The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (1983). Lyotard uses 'differend' as a technical term in the book to emphasise how language functions on the basis of difference.

    Lyotard's analysis of the differend is way more nuanced than a theory on language. For him, a differend represents a serious wrong that cannot be mediated, expressed, or compensated for. The premise of this radical notion is the plausibility of articulation and inclusion/exclusion. Are people who are wronged or oppressed heard? Are they understood? Can their grievances be expressed meaningfully?

    In simple words, a differend is an injustice that cannot be expressed because the language or the opportunity to talk about it is not available to the victim.

    Other works of Lyotard include The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (1988), Libidinal Economy (1974), and Enthusiasm: The Kantian Critique of History (1986).

    Jean-François Lyotard: quotes

    Lyotard was against all forms of essentialist interpretation of texts. Generalised, monolithic narratives are replaced in the postmodern era by fluid and multifaceted perspectives.

    Often on a more or less naive question it turns out that it is essential to 'make a detour' by such a text of Spinoza, of Aristotle, of Joyce or of Eisenstein or to make a study of such and such logic or linguistic theory.

    Christian Descamps and Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Entretien’, La Quinzaine littéraire', 1980

    Like most postmodern thinkers, Lyotard fought against complacency in knowledge and understanding, and persistently pushed the boundaries of meaning.

    Thought must 'linger', must suspend its adherence to what it thinks it knows. It must remain open to what will orientate its critical examination: a feeling. The critique must inquire into the 'dwelling place' of a judgement's legitimation.

    Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, 1994

    Lyotard's work on the French painters Jacques Monory (1924–2018), Daniel Buren (b. 1938), and Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) are some of the artistic engagements that accompanied Lyotard's philosophical musings in his later years.

    New materials, in a wide meaning of the term, are not merely materials which are new. They question the idea of Man as a being who works, who plans and who remembers: the idea of an author.

    Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Les Immatériaux’, 1984

    Jean-Francois Lyotard - Key takeaways

    • Jean-François Lyotard was a French philosopher born in 1924.
    • Lyotard was among the group of French philosophers who heavily influenced contemporary philosophy, art, and literary criticism.
    • Lyotard is well-known for his work on postmodernism, titled The Postmodern Condition.
    • Lyotard postulated that the postmodern condition is characterised by a crisis of knowledge and incredulity towards generalisation, otherwise known as metanarratives.
    • Lyotard's idea of metanarratives talks about how information is organised and, in turn, legitimises cultural belief systems and ideologies.


    1. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence 1982– 1985, 1986
    2. Philippe Lançon, ‘Jean-François Lyotard, 72 ans, moine-militant devenu philosophe a publié un (beau) livre sur Malraux’, Libération, 1996
    Frequently Asked Questions about Jean-Francois Lyotard

    Does Jean-Francois Lyotard use Baudrillard's ideas?

    Jean Baudrillard suggested the idea of hyperreality where truth or reality is concealed by a near-replica of the real, and slowly the real becomes irrelevant. For Lyotard, postmodernism was characterised by a breakdown of grand narratives in favour of smaller, more fluid narratives that are inclusive. 

    What did Lyotard say about postmodernism?

    Lyotard argued that postmodernism is characterised by the loss or breakdown of grand narratives, which came to be replaced by smaller, more fluid narrative forms aided by technological advances. 

    What did Jean-François Lyotard do?

    Lyotard was an academic who had taught at universities across France and the United States. He also had a relatively successful writing career as a philosopher.

    What does Jean-Francois Lyotard assert as postmodernism?

    According to Lyotard's famous quote, postmodernism is characterised by an 'incredulity towards metanarratives'.

    What are metanarratives according to Lyotard?

    For Lyotard, metanarratives are the totalising narratives that endow legitimacy to knowledge and influence belief systems. 

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