Lyotard, Jean-François

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French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998), who was born in Vincennes, France, on August 10, was an originator of what became known as postmodernism. After teaching philosophy in secondary schools in France and Algeria, Lyotard was awarded a position at the University of Paris VII, where he also served as a council member of the Collège international de philosophie. Toward the end of his life he also held visiting professorships in the United States. Lyotard died of leukemia in Paris on April 21.

Lyotard's work is marked by a persistent interest in the relations between science, technology, ethics, and politics, as can be seen in the work for which he is most well known, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984), which focuses on the state of knowledge in highly developed countries. According to Lyotard, the sciences and late twentieth-century societies were in the midst of a legitimation crisis because of the inability to provide a justification in the form of an overarching explanation of the relations between science, technology, and society.

Lyotard explains the crisis using Ludwig Wittgenstein's (1889–1951) notion of language games. A language game is a field of discourse defined by a set of internal rules that establish the types of allowable statements. Different discourse practices, such as science and ethics, have become distinct language games, adhering to different sets of rules. Because disparate language games prohibit statements that fail to conform to their rules, it is impossible to give a single, overarching account that would guarantee the legitimacy of all possible discourse practices. For this reason, Lyotard states that the postmodern situation is marked by an "incredulity toward meta-narratives" (Lyotard 1984, p. xxiv).

If Lyotard is correct and it is no longer permissible to give an overarching account for the diversity of discourse practices, then the postmodern condition demands a new response to the problem of legitimation. Lyotard claims that the appropriate response to the problem in a society marked by the postmodern condition is "paralogy." In the practice of paralogy, the goal of producing an overarching legitimation narrative is replaced by an attempt to increase the possible language moves in a particular language game. Hence, paralogy champions the diversity of discourse practices by prohibiting the hegemony of a single discourse over all others. Paralogy thus resists the tendency to treat ethics and politics as forms of scientific knowledge or technology.

The Postmodern Condition has implications for ethics that are further developed in The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (1988). A différend is Lyotard's label for an irresolvable conflict between two phrases or parties. The différend as a conflict between phrases was implied in Lyotard's earlier work as the inability to unify diverse language games. In this work, however, rather than being concerned with the legitimation of knowledge, Lyotard develops the notion of the différend to include a certain type of injustice that occurs to differing language games (or genres), specifically the cognitive and ethical.

The ethical genre, according to Lyotard, is concerned with prescriptive statements of the form "you ought," whereas the cognitive genre consists of descriptive statements. Ethics, with its prescriptive statements, is a discourse of obligation. As such, ethics takes the form of phrases marked by an asymmetry between the addressor and the person addressed. The person who says "You shall not lie" commands interlocutors and places obligations upon them, but the statement "Lying is wrong" leaves out the relation between persons that is characteristic of ethical discourse. Consequently for Lyotard, the nature of ethics is covered over in attempts to transform the prescriptive into the descriptive.

In response to this threat, the task of philosophy, according to Lyotard, is to champion and protect the diversity of discourse and practice. While not providing a unifying account of the relations between genres, philosophy is marked by an obligation to bear witness to the différend. Although primarily focused on discourse, this responsibility extends to the sociopolitical world, in which there is the continuous threat of one social entity (individual persons or cultures) being overpowered by another.

Lyotard's thinking continues to be a powerful, cautionary note for the relations between science, technology, and ethics. Rather than subsume distinct discourses under a unifying account, his work argues for maintaining that which marks each as different.


SEE ALSO French Perspectives;Postmodernism.


Bennington, Geoffrey. (1988). Writing the Event. New York: Columbia University Press. Critical exposition of Lyotard's philosophy.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Originally published as La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Minuit, 1979).

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1988). The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Originally published as Le différend (Paris: Minuit, 1983).

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1988). Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1997). Postmodern Fables, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Originally published as Moralités postmodernes (Paris: Galilée, 1993).

Rojek, Chris, and Bryan S. Turner, eds. (1998). The Politics of Jean-François Lyotard: Justice and Political Theory. New York: Routledge. Collection of eight articles.

Silverman, Hugh J., ed. (2002). Lyotard: Philosophy, Politics, and the Sublime. New York: Routledge. Collects sixteen articles.