Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lyotard on Language Games

Lyotard claims that we have now lost the ability to believe in meta-narratives, that the legitimating function that grand quests once played in society has lost all credibility. The question then becomes, what now forms the basis of legitimation in society if there is no overarching meta-narrative? For Lyotard, the answer lies in the philosophy of Wittgenstein, which analyzes the way sub-groups in society regulate their behavior through rules of linguistic conduct.

If we have rejected grand narratives, then what we have fallen back on are micro-narratives. Micro-narratives are essentially Wittgenstein's “language-games”, limited contexts in which there are clear, if not clearly defined, rules for understanding and behavior. We no longer give credence to total philosophical contexts like Marxism which ostensibly would prescribe behavior in all aspects of life, rather, we have lots of smaller contexts which we act within.

Later in Lyotard’s report on knowledge he uses the language-game theory to talk about justice for the various linguistic communities who obey competing forms of logic. All natural language groups are composed of families of language-games. These meanings are not separated from each other by sharp boundaries, but blend into one another. The concept is based on the following analogy: The rules of language (grammar) are analogous to the rules of games; meaning something in language is thus analogous to making a move in a game. The analogy between a language and a game brings out the fact that only in the various and multiform activities of human life do words have meaning. Lyotard says, in an almost Rawlsian fashion, that we need to strive for justice without first deciding what kinds of laws are just. The two “rules” he gives for this are as follows.

A recognition that there are many language games and it will not satisfy us to legitimate one over the other. That would be a politics of terror. That is a politics of forcing others out of the conversation. But for ourselves we will want to rearrange the conversation so that we continue to have a voice. Learning to define rules of language within our local situation. The language game of “resistance” needs to be settled upon and agreed to locally and provisionally with the present situation. Only if we can agree on local and provisional rules will our conversation begin make sense to the postmodern ear. In general, we choose the rules that seems most able to foster our local paralogy, that is, the rules that generate new ideas within the community conversation (or the therapy dialogue).It seems to me that computers will assist us in this paralogical process because they can make more available the information we need to understand each other. Also, the availability of information makes it less tempting to resort to suppressing each other's voice (i.e., terror). Lyotard recommends, therefore, that everyone should have complete access to the data that can be made available to them through telecommunications and informatics. If we can make our conversations more paralogical, more generative of new ideas that we find inspiring or satisfying, then we will never exhaust the fruits of our discussions. Although there will always be a winning and losing of points, the process itself will generate new fruits of understanding forever, and continuously -- and that will be a winning situation for all of us who have become postmodern.

Lyotard wants to call this paralogy a “postmodern justice” because it provides people what they deserve without requiring us all to agree. We do not have to agree before hand what we are striving for. It happens if we do these two things. Think of it like this: Each win or loss occurs within the language game at hand and can be re-evaluated within other language games. That is, there are no overall winners and losers, just won and lost points. Such a practice not only satisfies our desire for justice, but it will help us make inroads into the unknown because the fruits of our paralogical discussion will not be merely a recycling of yesterday's understandings.

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