Lyotard, Jean-François (1925–1998)

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Philosopher of the postmodern.

Jean-François Lyotard was one of the most versatile of the so-called poststructuralist French philosophers. Lyotard's concept of "the figural" is important for aesthetics. His interpretations of Kantian idealism increased the importance of justice, judgment, rules, and rights in a late twentieth-century political and cultural environment.

Lyotard's first major work, Discours, figure, was published in 1971. Prior to that date, his principal public activity was dissident leftist political activism with the organization Socialisme ou Barbarie (1949–1965), for whose journal he wrote articles critical of France's colonization of Algeria, where he had taught high school. His later teaching experiences included posts at La Flèche military school, the Sorbonne, and Nanterre (now University of Paris X) and visiting professorships in many foreign universities. In the wake of the May 1968 uprising by students and workers, he was appointed to the "experimental" University of Vincennes (now Paris VIII, in Saint-Denis) where he taught in close association with Gilles Deleuze. He also served as the first president of the Collège International de Philosophie, founded in 1983.

An initially obscure "report on knowledge" to the provincial government of Quebec was to thrust Lyotard into the center of debates about postmodernism in the 1980s. Published under the title The Postmodern Condition (1979), the report enjoyed wide celebrity, but that could not prevent its claims and especially, its implications, from being widely misunderstood. "A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern," Lyotard explained. "Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant" (p. 79). An explainer of the "postmodern condition," Lyotard was not necessarily a proponent of postmodernism.

Of greater importance for philosophy was Lyotard's revival of a reflection on "the sublime"—a notion with origins in Longinus (first century c.e.) and which had come to its modern culmination prior to Lyotard in the writings of Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and especially Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). The Differend (1983) is, from a philosophical perspective, Lyotard's most important work. At one level, the book is a massive and meticulous refutation of Holocaust revisionism. More fundamentally, Lyotard argues that in order to be believable, a witness need not necessarily have seen an event. Courts of law may well listen to such testimony, but they will not hear it because an intractable differend renders understanding impossible.

Lyotard's exploration of Judaism has inspired the claim that he went further than any other non-Jewish twentieth-century thinker in that engagement. His interest in painting was equally significant. In a vast array of books or major essays on Marcel Duchamp, Valerio Adami, Shusaku Arakawa, Daniel Buren, Ruth Francken, Sam Francis, Barnett Newman, Karel Appel, and many others, Lyotard tirelessly tested his own philosophical claims against the work of art.

Lyotard's interest in literature was equally wide-ranging, abiding, and important for literary studies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. His interpretations of Marcel Duchamp and Barnett Newman arguably deal as much with these painters' writings as they do with their contributions to visual art. What literary figures—whether Gertrude Stein (discussed in The Differend) or Pierre Klossowski (in Libidinal Economy, 1974)—have demonstrated stylistically or have asserted directly about the power of a phrase is frequently the crucible from which Lyotard deploys his highly original thought. Without examples borrowed from the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé and Michel Butor, Lyotard's first major treatise, Discours, figure, would have been unable to display what the figural working within discourse looks like on the page. The problematic that Lyotard explores in his final works on André Malraux (1901–1976) and Saint Augustine (d. 604) could be characterized as philosophy's adoption of a literary style in order to speak or write itself.

Some were dismayed by Lyotard's late-life interest in André Malraux, the committed novelist whose subsequent espousal of Gaullism was never forgiven by the Left. Yet the works that most abidingly intrigue Lyotard are Malraux's writings on art: a few compact, obscure essays written early in his career and several massive studies published between the end of World War II and Malraux's death. Lyotard shared with Malraux an almost mystical belief in art's capacity to protect a space in which innovative politics and ethics can still be conceived and invented. In extremely different voices, employing disparate discursive modes, Signed, Malraux (1996) and Soundproof Room (1998) both significantly extend Lyotard's meditation on what remains intractable in the human, on what is inhuman in face of inhumanity. A similar intractability is legible in Augustine's Confessions (1998), Lyotard's last work, left unfinished but published posthumously.

See alsoMalraux, André; Phenomenology; Postmodernism .


Harvey, Robert, and Lawrence R. Schehr, eds. Jean-François: Time and Judgment. New Haven, Conn., and London, 2001.

Malpas, Simon. Jean-François Lyotard. London, 2003.

Williams, James. Lyotard: Towards a Modern Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and Malden, Mass., 1998.

Robert Harvey