Jean-François Lyotard coined the term ‘postmodern’ in The Postmodern Condition (1979). As a far-left activist and academic in France, Algeria and the US (in the Critical Theory department of the University of California, then Emory University) he explored the impact of postmodernity on a wide range of subjects; philosophy, epistemology, science, art, literature, film, music and culture.
Knowledge and science
He is critical of claims that knowledge is truth. Knowledge is no longer to be trusted, as it is a slave to 'metanarratives'. As he denies ‘metanarratives’ such Enlightenment theories, also religious, Marxist and Freudian theories, even science, knowledge claims are therefore suspect. Science, in particular, he sees as a metanarrative that puts knowledge in the hands of power and politics, thereby shedding its claim to objectivity. Faith in science, as he explains in Inhuman (1988) legitimises the digital capture of knowledge and therefore faith in technology. Following Wittgenstein, his programme is to see language as ‘language games’.
His alternatives to ‘metanarratives’ are personal ‘mini-narratives’ that reduce knowledge to personal experience. Objective, empirical evidence is trumped by lived experience, so that the mini-narratives of individuals and groups are placed above those of science, general ethics or society as a whole.
Knowledge, for Lyotard, changes with dominant narratives. The Enlightenment narratives of objectivity, truth are no longer applicable. This, he thinks, has caused a crisis in knowledge, as it has been commercialised, creating tensions between rich and poor, private sector and state.
We see in Lyotard an explicit epistemic relativism (belief in personal or culturally specific truths or facts) and the advocacy of privileging ‘lived experience’ over empirical evidence. We also see the promotion of a version of pluralism which privileges the views of minority groups over the general consensus of scientists or liberal, democratic ethics which are presented as authoritarian and dogmatic. This is consistent in postmodern thought.
His attack on science as a metanarrative doesn’t really explain why the scientific method, with falsification lacks legitimacy or what scientific knowledge has been delegitimised. It is a failure to recognise that many of the meta-narratives postmodernists criticise have methods that allow them to examine, even themselves, as they are themselves sceptical about claims claiming to be absolute truths and at least have processes of self-correction.
It is as if the progress we’ve made since the Enlightenment didn’t exist, that there was no Reformation, French Revolution, secular progress, no progression towards liberal democracies and values. Postmodernism doesn’t have a monopoly on emancipation, many of the advances made in the 60s and 70s were prior to Postmodernism, not caused by it. Indeed that was not just the well-spring but theoretical basis upon which such progress was made, the very progress that allows the current generation of critical theorists to think and act for themselves.
Worse still, it destroys all possible methods of discussion, debate and disagreement, the foundations of liberal democracy, there is no arguing with it. All common ground or methods of falsification have disappeared or are interpreted as powerplays. It has donned all the defensiveness of the metanarratives it purports to despise.
Lyotard, J.F., 1984. The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (Vol. 10). U of Minnesota Press.
Pluckrose, H. and Lindsay, J.A., 2020. Cynical theories: How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity—and why this harms everybody. Pitchstone Publishing (US&CA).