Lyotard JeanFrancois(1924-98) French philosopher and a significant figure in POSTMODERNISM. Between 1949 and 1959 he taught philosophy at secondary schools before becoming professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII (St-Denis) until he retired in 1989. In the 1950s and 60s Lyotard was identified with Marxism. He was on the editorial committee of the socialist journal Socialisme ou barbarie and the left-wing newspaper Pouvoir ouvrier. He was also active in the events of May 1968. However, by the 1970s he seems largely to have renounced his Marxist past. His book (The Postmodern Condition 1984), prepared originally (1979) as a report on knowledge for the Quebec government, identified him in many circles as the father of postmodernism. The book refutes the idea of legitimacy in metanarratives (see GRAND NARRATIVE AND METANARRATIVE). It calls into question the French tradition of regarding society as a unity – a tradition which reached from COMTE and DURKHEIM through to SARTRE and Lefebvre. This tradition regarded the quest for knowledge to be legitimated either by the pure positivist dedication to impartiality and truth, or by the emancipation of a repressed subject (the proletariat). Lyotard argues that each of these bases for legitimacy is now contested so thoroughly that both are invalid. Moreover, there are no means of determining competing truth claims or the goals of knowledge. Borrowing from WITTGENSTEIN, Lyotard submits the science is best understood as a LANGUAGE GAME.
All of these arguments are consolidated in his later, more philosophical, work The Differend (1983). This is devoted to examining the neutralizing of players in language games. When a given field of DISCOURSE has become inflexible it tends to deny or eliminate different narratives and other voices. The Nazi death camps provide the most sickening twentieth-century example. The Differend calls for a more decentralized and diverse approach to questions of politics, history, culture and society. The emphasis is on enabling narratives and dialogues rather than repressing them.
Lyotard's sociology and philosophy have been heavily criticized. The main sociological criticisms are twofold: firstly that his work is morally suspect because it fails to enable the reader to differentiate between the value of different positions; instead it reduces all propositions to a state of equivalence. Secondly, by announcing ‘the end of politics’ he encourages a political quiescence with the status quo. Nonetheless his attempt in The Postmodern Condition to pinpoint the features of postmodernity is rightly regarded as a benchmark work.