Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why Lyotard Rejects Meta-Narratives

Of the three most influential postmodernist philosophers, Lyotard is the least popular. He argued that our age (with its postmodern condition) is marked by an 'incredulity towards meta-narratives'. Some have used the word "sensibility" to refer to the postmodern taste, or distaste for 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, religion, and even the possibility of "absolute freedom" (which was a Sartrean idea.) This raises the question of whether the absolute freedom concept is a modernist notion or not. If it is, then Sartre is a modernist.

Lyotard argues that we have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are adequate to represent and contain us all. We have become alert to difference, diversity, the incompatibility of our aspirations, and the incompatibility of postmodernism itself with many of our deeply held beliefs and desire, and for that reason postmodernity is characterized by an abundance of micronarratives. For this concept Lyotard draws on and strongly reinterprets the notion of 'language games' found in the work of Wittgenstein.

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.

Some argue that Lyotard's theories may seem self-contradictory because The Postmodern Condition--the prize-winning essay--seems to offer its own grand narrative in the story of the decline of the metanarrative. It seems to offer a historical argument. On Lyotard's account, it is possible to have compatible micronarratives, but no unifying grand narrativ. Against this it can be argued that Lyotard's narrative in The Postmodern Condition declares the decline of only a few defunct "narratives of legitimation" and not of narrative knowledge itself. But there is a compelling argument against postmodernist knowledge.

It is not logically contradictory to say that a statement about narratives is itself a narrative, just as when Lyotard states that "every utterance [in a language game] should be thought of as a 'move' in a game" his statement is itself a 'move' in a language game.

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