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Jean-Francois Lyotard

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Jean-Francois Lyotard

"Lyotard" redirects here. It is not to be confused with Leotard, Léotard, or Liotard.
Jean-François Lyotard
Bracha L. Ettinger, 1995 French philosopher, sociologist, and literary theorist
Born (1924-08-10)10 August 1924
Versailles, France
Died 21 April 1998(1998-04-21) (aged 73) (leukemia)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Postmodernism
Institutions Sorbonne, University of Paris VIII, University of California, Irvine, Emory University, Collège International de Philosophie, University of Paris X, Yale
Notable ideas The "postmodern condition"
Collapse of the "grand narrative"

Jean-François Lyotard (French: [ʒɑ̃ fʁɑ̃swa ljɔtaʁ]; 10 August 1924 – 21 April 1998) was a French philosopher, sociologist, and literary theorist. He is well known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition. He was co-founder of the International College of Philosophy with Jacques Derrida, François Châtelet, and Gilles Deleuze.


Jean François Lyotard was born in 1924 in Versailles, France to Jean-Pierre Lyotard, a sales representative, and Madeleine Cavalli. He went to primary school at the Paris lycée Buffon and Louis-le-Grand. As a child, Lyotard had many aspirations: to be an artist, a historian, a Dominican monk, and a writer.[1] Lyotard describes the process of realizing he could not become a monk, an artist, an historian, or a writer as "fate" in his autobiography called Peregrinations.[2] Lyotard studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. His master's thesis, Indifference as an Ethical Concept, analyzed forms of indifference and detachment in Zen Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism, and Epicureanism.[3] After graduation, he held a research post at France's National Center for Scientific Research .[4] In 1950, Lyotard took up a position teaching philosophy in Constantine in French East Algeria. Lyotard earned a Ph.D in literature with his dissertation, Discours, figure (published 1971).[5] He married twice: in 1948 to Andrée May, with whom he had two children, Corinne and Laurence, and for a second time in 1993 to Dolores Djidzek, the mother of his son David (born in 1986).[6]

Political life

In 1954 Lyotard became a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie, a French political organisation formed in 1948 around the inadequacy of the Trotskyist analysis to explain the new forms of domination in the Soviet Union. His writings in this period mostly concern with ultra-left politics, with a focus on the Algerian situation—which he witnessed first-hand while teaching philosophy in Constantine.[7] He wrote optimistic essays of hope and encouragement to the Algerians, which was reproduced in Political Writings.[8] Following disputes with Cornelius Castoriadis in 1964, Lyotard left Socialisme ou Barbarie for the newly formed splinter-group Pouvoir Ouvrier, before resigning from Pouvoir Ouvrier in turn in 1966.[9] Although Lyotard played an active part in the May 1968 uprisings, he distanced himself from revolutionary Marxism with his 1974 book Libidinal Economy.[10] He distanced himself from Marxism because he felt that Marxism had a rigid structuralist approach and they were imposing 'systematization of desires' through strong emphasis on industrial production as the ground culture.[11]

Academic career

In the 1950s Lyotard taught Lycée Constantine in Algeria. In the early 1970s Lyotard began teaching at the University of Paris VIII, Vincennes until 1987 when he became Professor Emeritus. During the next two decades he lectured outside of France, notably as a Professor of Critical Theory at the University of California, Irvine and as visiting professor at universities around the world including Johns Hopkins University, University of California, Berkeley, Yale University, Stony Brook University and the University of California, San Diego in the U.S., the Université de Montréal in Quebec (Canada), and the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He was also a founding director and council member of the Collège International de Philosophie, Paris. Before his death, he split his time between Paris and Atlanta, where he taught at Emory University as the Woodruff Professor of Philosophy and French.

Later life and death

Lyotard repeatedly returned to the notion of the Postmodern in essays gathered in English as The Postmodern Explained to Children, Toward the Postmodern, and Postmodern Fables. In 1998, while preparing for a conference on Postmodernism and Media Theory, he died unexpectedly from a case of leukemia that had advanced rapidly. His work-in-progress, Augustine's Confession, was published posthumously in the same year. He is buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


Lyotard's work is characterised by a persistent opposition to universals, meta-narratives, and generality. He is fiercely critical of many of the 'universalist' claims of the Enlightenment, and several of his works serve to undermine the fundamental principles that generate these broad claims.

In his writings of the early 1970s, he rejects what he regards as theological underpinnings of both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud: "In Freud, it is judaical, critical sombre (forgetful of the political); in Marx it is catholic. Hegelian, reconciliatory (...) in the one and in the other the relationship of the economic with meaning is blocked in the category of representation (...) Here a politics, there a therapeutics, in both cases a laical theology, on top of the arbitrariness and the roaming of forces".[12] Consequently he rejected Adorno's negative dialectics which he regarded as seeking a "therapeutic resolution in the framework of a religion, here the religion of history".[13] In Lyotard's "libidinal economics" (the title of one of his books of that time), he aimed at "discovering and describing different social modes of investment of libidinal intensities".[14]

The collapse of the "Grand Narrative"

Most famously, in La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979), he proposes what he calls an extreme simplification of the "postmodern" as an 'incredulity towards meta-narratives'.[15] These meta-narratives—sometimes 'grand narratives'—are grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom. Lyotard argues that we have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are adequate to represent and contain us all. He points out that no one seemed to agree on what, if anything, was real and everyone had their own perspective and story.[16] We have become alert to difference, diversity, the incompatibility of our aspirations, beliefs and desires, and for that reason postmodernity is characterised by an abundance of.[17] For this concept Lyotard draws from the notion of 'language-games' found in the work of Wittgenstein. Lyotard notes that it is based on mapping of society according to the concept of the language games.[18]

In Lyotard's works, the term 'language games', sometimes also called 'phrase regimens', denotes the multiplicity of communities of meaning, the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their circulation are created.

This becomes more crucial in Au juste: Conversations (Just Gaming) (1979) and Le Différend (The Differend) (1983), which develop a postmodern theory of justice. It might appear that the atomisation of human beings implied by the notion of the micronarrative and the language game suggests a collapse of ethics. It has often been thought that universality is a condition for something to be a properly ethical statement: 'thou shalt not steal' is an ethical statement in a way that 'thou shalt not steal from Margaret' is not. The latter is too particular to be an ethical statement (what's so special about Margaret?); it is only ethical if it rests on a universal statement ('thou shalt not steal from anyone'). But universals are impermissible in a world that has lost faith in metanarratives, and so it would seem that ethics is impossible. Justice and injustice can only be terms within language games, and the universality of ethics is out of the window. Lyotard argues that notions of justice and injustice do in fact remain in postmodernism. The new definition of injustice is indeed to use the language rules from one 'phrase regimen' and apply them to another. Ethical behaviour is about remaining alert precisely to the threat of this injustice, about paying attention to things in their particularity and not enclosing them within abstract conceptuality. One must bear witness to the 'differend.'

"I would like to call a differend the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim. If the addressor, the addressee, and the sense of the testimony are neutralized, everything takes place as if there were no damages. A case of differend between two parties takes place when the regulation of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom."[19]

The sublime

Lyotard was a frequent writer on aesthetic matters. He was, despite his reputation as a postmodernist, a great promoter of modernist art. Lyotard saw 'postmodernism' as a latent tendency within thought throughout time and not a narrowly-limited historical period. He favoured the startling and perplexing works of the high modernist avant-garde. In them he found a demonstration of the limits of our conceptuality, a valuable lesson for anyone too imbued with Enlightenment confidence. Lyotard has written extensively also on few contemporary artists of his choice: Valerio Adami, Daniel Buren, Marcel Duchamp, Bracha Ettinger and Barnett Newman, as well as on Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky.

He developed these themes in particular by discussing the sublime. The "sublime" is a term in aesthetics whose fortunes revived under postmodernism after a century or more of neglect. It refers to the experience of pleasurable anxiety that we experience when confronting wild and threatening sights like, for example, a massive craggy mountain, black against the sky, looming terrifyingly in our vision.

Lyotard found particularly interesting the explanation of the sublime offered by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (sometimes Critique of the Power of Judgment). In this book Kant explains this mixture of anxiety and pleasure in the following terms: there are two kinds of 'sublime' experience. In the 'mathematically' sublime, an object strikes the mind in such a way that we find ourselves unable to take it in as a whole. More precisely, we experience a clash between our reason (which tells us that all objects are finite) and the imagination (the aspect of the mind that organises what we see, and which sees an object incalculably larger than ourselves, and feels infinite). In the 'dynamically' sublime, the mind recoils at an object so immeasurably more powerful than we, whose weight, force, scale could crush us without the remotest hope of our being able to resist it. (Kant stresses that if we are in actual danger, our feeling of anxiety is very different from that of a sublime feeling. The sublime is an aesthetic experience, not a practical feeling of personal danger.) This explains the feeling of anxiety.

What is deeply unsettling about the mathematically sublime is that the mental faculties that present visual perceptions to the mind are inadequate to the concept corresponding to it; in other words, what we are able to make ourselves see cannot fully match up to what we know is there. We know it's a mountain but we cannot take the whole thing into our perception. Our sensibility is incapable of coping with such sights, but our reason can assert the finitude of the presentation. With the dynamically sublime, our sense of physical danger should prompt an awareness that we are not just physical material beings, but moral and (in Kant's terms) noumenal beings as well. The body may be dwarfed by its power but our reason need not be. This explains, in both cases, why the sublime is an experience of pleasure as well as pain.

Lyotard is fascinated by this admission, from one of the philosophical architects of the Enlightenment, that the mind cannot always organise the world rationally. Some objects are simply incapable of being brought neatly under concepts. For Lyotard, in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, but drawing on his argument in The Differend, this is a good thing. Such generalities as 'concepts' fail to pay proper attention to the particularity of things. What happens in the sublime is a crisis where we realise the inadequacy of the imagination and reason to each other. What we are witnessing, says Lyotard, is actually the differend; the straining of the mind at the edges of itself and at the edges of its conceptuality.


Manfred Frank argues that Lyotard ignores that the underlying conditions for consensus is also a condition for the successful communication of his own thought.[20] He criticizes Lyotard for playing into the hands of the irrational forces that often give rise to injustice and differends by putting forward a false argument against rational consensus.[21]


The collective tribute to Lyotard following his death was organized by the Collège International de Philosophie, and chaired by Dolores Lyotard and Jean-Claude Milner, the College's director at that time. The proceedings were published by PUF in 2001 under the general title Jean-François Lyotard, l'exercice du différend.[22]

Lyotard's work continue to be important in politics, philosophy, sociology, literature, art, and cultural studies.[23]

To mark the tenth anniversary of Lyotard's death, An Collège International de Philosophie (under the direction of Dolores Lyotard, Jean-Claude Milner and Gerald Sfez) was held in Paris on 25–27 January 2007.

Selected publications

  • Phenomenology. Trans. Brian Beakley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991 [La Phénoménologie. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1954].
  • Discourse, Figure. Trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011 [Discours, figure. Paris: Klincksieck, 1971].
  • Libidinal Economy. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993 [Économie libidinale. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1974].
  • Duchamp's TRANS/formers. Trans. Ian McLeod. California: Lapis Press, 1990 [Les transformateurs Duchamp. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1977].
  • Just Gaming. Trans. Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985 [Au juste: Conversations. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1979].
  • The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984 [La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979].
  • Pacific Wall. Trans. Bruce Boone. California: Lapis Press, 1989 [Le mur du pacifique. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1979].
  • The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988 [Le Différend. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1983].
  • The Assassination of Experience by Painting – Monory. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. London: Black Dog, 1998 [L’Assassinat de l’expérience par la peinture, Monory. Bègles: Castor Astral, 1984].
  • Driftworks. Ed. Roger McKeon. New York: Semiotext(e), 1984. [Essays and interviews dating from 1970-72.]
  • Enthusiasm: The Kantian Critique of History. Trans. George Van Den Abbeele. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009 [L'enthousiasme, la critique kantienne de l'histoire. Paris: Galilée, 1986].
  • The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982–1985. Ed. Julian Pefanis andMorgan Thomas. Trans. Don Barry. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993 [Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants: Correspondance, 1982–1985. Paris: Galilée, 1986].
  • The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991 [L’Inhumain: Causeries sur le temps. Paris: Galilée, 1988].
  • Heidegger and ‘‘the jews.’’ Trans. Andreas Michael and Mark S. Roberts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990 [Heidegger et ‘‘les juifs.’’ Paris: Galilée, 1988].
  • The Lyotard Reader. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
  • Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988 [Pérégrinations: Loi, forme, événement. Paris: Galilée, 1990].
  • Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime: Kant’s Critique of Judgment, §§ 23–29. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994 [Leçons sur l’‘‘Analytique du sublime’’: Kant, ‘‘Critique de la faculté de juger,’’ paragraphes 23–29. Paris: Galilée, 1991].
  • The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999 [Un trait d’union. Sainte-Foy, Quebec: Le Griffon d’argile, 1993].
  • Political Writings. Trans. Bill Readings and Kevin Paul Geiman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. [Political texts composed 1956-1989.]
  • Postmodern Fables. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997 [Moralités postmodernes. Paris: Galilée, 1993].
  • Toward the Postmodern. Ed. Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993. [Essays composed 1970-1991].
  • Signed, Malraux. Trans. Robert Harvey. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999 [Signé Malraux. Paris: B. Grasset, 1996].
  • Jean-François Lyotard : Collected Writings on Art. London: Academy Editions, 1997.
  • The Politics of Jean-François Lyotard. Ed. Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner. New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • The Confession of Augustine. Trans. Richard Beardsworth. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000 [La Confession d’Augustin. Paris: Galilée, 1998].
  • Soundproof Room: Malraux’s Anti-Aesthetics. Trans. Robert Harvey. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001 [Chambre sourde: L’Antiesthétique de Malraux. Paris: Galilée, 1998].

Further reading

  • Lewis, Jeff. Cultural Studies. London: Sage, 2008
  • Lyotard, Dolorès et al. Jean-François Lyotard. L'Exercice du Différend (with essays by Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Claude Milner). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001
  • The critical analysis of David Harvey in his book The Condition of Postmodernity (Blackwell, 1989).
  • Elliott, Anthony, and Larry J. Ray. "Jean Francois Lyotard." Key contemporary social theorists. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.
  • Lemert, Charles C.. "After Modern." Social theory: the multicultural and classic readings. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993.
  • Mann, Doug. "The Postmodern Condition." Understanding society: a survey of modern social theory. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Parker, Noel. The A-Z guide to modern social and political theorists. London: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997.
  • Callinicos, Alex. Social theory: a historical introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  • Sica, Alan. Social thought: from the Enlightenment to the present. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2005.

See also


External links

  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Jean-François Lyotard
  • European Graduate School (Biography, bibliography, quotes and web resources)
  • The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (The first 5 chapters)
  • Collège International de Philosophie January 25–27, 2007 (French)
  • Les Immatériaux: A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard

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