Jean-François Lyotard

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Jean-François Lyotard, photography by Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinge.

Jean-François Lyotard (born August 10, 1924 in Versailles , † April 21, 1998 in Paris ) was a French philosopher and literary theorist . He became known primarily as a theoretician of postmodernism . Lyotard's writings can be broadly divided into three phases: early phenomenological , political, and writings that also criticize structuralism . A discussion of libidinal issues followed. In his later work Lyotard then turned to postmodernism and the problem of the other.

Despite the multitude of topics he dealt with, some basic positions of Lyotard can be identified. So he does not start from an omnipotence of reason , but also devoted himself to the non-rational, instinctual structures of human knowledge and behavior. He rejected humanism in its classical form as well as the human subject as the carrier of knowledge and understanding. Lyotard believed that an understanding of society in the sense of perpetual progress was outdated due to the technological, social and cultural change of the late 20th century. His philosophical views had far-reaching consequences for him in the field of politics as well. If the real world can never be represented in its entirety by means of reason, then a policy that makes its decisions on the assumption that it has an overview of "reality" appears to be outdated.


Lyotard was born in Versailles in 1924. In 1950 he passed his agrégation (state examination) in philosophy . The starting point of his philosophical career is Edmund Husserl , on whose phenomenology Lyotard wrote the description La Phenomenology . Lyotard initially taught philosophy at various high schools, including from 1950 to 1952 in Algeria (at that time still part of mainland France).

From 1954 to 1966 he was a member of the group Socialisme ou barbarie ("socialism or barbarism") founded by Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort , a group of left-wing French intellectuals that had formed in 1949 to differentiate from the Soviet model of socialism. In the magazine of the same name he published 13 articles, all but one of which dealt with the Algerian war . The group fell out and Lyotard resigned in 1966: "A period of my life was over, I left the service of the revolution, I did something else, I had saved my skin."

From 1968 he was professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes, Saint-Denis) and other universities (including Sorbonne and Nanterre ). He later taught critical theory at the University of California, Irvine, and French and philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta and Yale University . Lyotard founded the Collège international de philosophie in Paris with Jacques Derrida . In 1971 he received his habilitation as a doctor of lettres . In 1987 he retired.

Lyotard has a daughter from his first marriage, the current philosophy professor Corinne Enaudeau .


The postmodern knowledge

Title pages of three issues of Socialisme ou Barbarie from the 1950s

In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard published the study The postmodern knowledge (original title: La condition postmoderne ), which he had written as a commissioned work for the University Council of the Government of Québec . In it he deals with knowledge in “post-industrial” societies. In the same paper he set out his concept of postmodernism .

Lyotard distinguishes between two forms of knowledge:

  • scientific knowledge - a scientific knowledge, the legitimation of which remains unclear;
  • Narrative knowledge - traditional knowledge in the form of stories and narratives for which no deeper legitimation is deemed necessary.

Lyotard saw science as a new form of knowledge that is confronted with the problem of its own justification. For this he suggested two possible narratives of legitimation :

According to Lyotard, both “great narratives” fail to legitimize a generally binding scientific rationality, as postulated by the epistemological and scientific theories of the Enlightenment, humanism and some representatives of idealistic philosophy. He summarized such projects under the term "modernity". The speculative-philosophical legitimation disintegrates as it recognizes that its central principle, the life of the spirit, is only one interpretation among many. The emancipatory legitimation is untenable because it cannot derive the binding nature of its own rules. Nor could she take a position on aesthetic or practical-moral questions.

The "modernity" project therefore failed. The "big stories" would have to be abandoned. They are replaced by a variety of discourses , each with their own rules of constitution and linking of statements, and with their own criteria of rationality and normativity. Lyotard described these discourses as isolated "language games". This description took up a concept by Ludwig Wittgenstein . Wittgenstein had used the term " language game " as a heuristic tool to analyze certain simple elements of human communication . One can ascribe to Wittgenstein the thesis that to participate in a language game in a comprehensive sense and to understand it means to participate in a way of life, and that the use of a language game cannot be adequately described without also using the terms within a certain language game be used. The question of the number would have been pointless for Wittgenstein. Lyotard transferred Wittgenstein's relativization of expressive criteria to language games and ways of life and emphasized that there is no possibility of mutual understanding or criticism between very different language games. Thomas S. Kuhn called such a situation “incommensurable” (without a common measure) with regard to different scientific theories (Kuhn himself did not speak of theories, but of “paradigms” in order to capture more conditions than in the classic theory concept). Lyotard reinforced the image of the game by giving it the meaning of battle. Lyotard therefore also assumes a variety of discourse formations which he describes as language games that cannot be "translated" into one another or as "incommensurable types of reason". There is no integrating “metadiscourse”.

However, transitions and bridges between the discourses are possible. Lyotard described this operation with the picture of an admiral who undertakes expeditions from one island to another, but has no base of operations of his own, only the main sea, the Archipelagos. Lyotard has been credited with advocating an absolute difference that makes conflict inevitable and insoluble. Such a position has been criticized by some authors who are commonly classified as “postmodern”. However, against the failed claims of all-embracing explanations and framework theories, Lyotard uses a form of reason that sets itself the rules for each situation. In doing so, he adapts Kant's concept of “judgment”. In Kant's case, this basic mode of operation of reason, which is assigned to aesthetics, was supposed to enable the bridge between theoretical and practical philosophy, which in Kant's system meant: between descriptions of reality that obey the necessary laws and descriptions of action that presuppose the ascription of freedom. According to Lyotard, in the above picture, the power of judgment is used by the captain who moves between the discourse “islands”, specifically: the individual who is “thrown back on himself” and who invent “little stories” in the form of surprising and new moves must. In any case, according to Lyotard's diagnosis, this limited space of freedom remains in modern societies that are characterized by a discourse of power that controls a game of efficiency in technology and access to knowledge.

For Jean-François Lyotard, a paralogy fulfills the function of postmodern legitimation of knowledge. The paralogy makes it possible to shift attention from ordinary thinking to the rules according to which the respective discourses are conducted through blurring and false conclusions:

“Postmodern knowledge is not just the instrument of power. It refines our sensitivity to differences and increases our ability to endure the incommensurable . It does not find its reason in the agreement of the experts, but in the paralogy of the inventors. "

- Lyotard

Political Implications

Lyotard's considerations have political implications . For example, he also counted Marxism among the failed “framework narratives” . He criticized theoretical approaches such as Habermas ' theory of communicative action as “unification theories ”. A pluralistic liberalism seemed to him to be the only available theoretical framework in view of the “untranslatable discourses” condemned to coexistence . Lyotard's philosophy presents itself as an attempt to save enlightenment and reason (and their tradition ) - for example from the renewed invasion of religion into the political.

Aesthetics - the sublime

Lyotard's aesthetic refers to the Kantian definition of the sublime . With his Critique of Judgment, Kant tried to build a problematic bridge between the realms of nature and freedom, theory and practice. While the beautiful - so Lyotard's reading - promises a unity of the subject, this is undermined in the sublime. In fact, Kant understood the sublime to be an overpowering of the understanding: in the mathematically sublime the object breaks every measure available to it and in the dynamically sublime violently exceeds the power of the subject. While Kant saw the subject thrown back to the freedom of its own reason, Lyotard emphasized the fragility of the subject and the limits of its knowledge. Subsequently, he formulated an aesthetic of the unrepresentable, which he v. a. found exemplified in the work of Barnett Newman .

Kant had described the feeling of the sublime versus the great as one made up of pain and joy. Sublime objects, such as a mountain range, cannot be fully absorbed by us through the senses because they are too big. So all that remains for us is to develop your idea in reason. An attempt that gives us pleasure. Lyotard now extended this approach to all objects, not just the big: Everything that is not from us linguistically 'll get to represent the feeling of the sublime might create. In this way those things showed at the same time the limits of the subject, who cannot seize them with reason.

Lyotard pleaded for a strict separation of aesthetics and politics , because their convergence always led to fascism - whether left or right. In this he was close to Theodor W. Adorno , whom he otherwise severely criticized for deliberately conducting enlightening criticism "without consequences".

The inhumane

Lyotard rejected classical humanism mainly because it either fixes the human being to an image or, paradoxically, assumes that the human is something that everyone is born with and then demands again, only through the terror of education to realize. Why, so Lyotard's question, when what is humane is common to all of us, must we first gain it through education?

Lyotard used the concept of the inhuman to describe all those things that humanism has excluded from its definition of man. Lyotard tried to make it fruitful as something that repeatedly questions our self-image.

Lyotard developed a science fiction thought experiment that would take place 4.5 billion years from now, at the time of the sun's explosion. Should the human species then be able to use technical means to live as a planet even without the earth, what would then be left of “humanity”? Everything that is important for our determination of what is human today would be omitted in an extra-planetary life. Lyotard's opinion on this remained divided: On the one hand, he criticized the dehumanizing effects of modern technology that can already be observed today, on the other hand, he saw in them the opportunity to open up a space of possibilities, as they do not fix people in a picture.

Works (in selection)

For more complete bibliographical information cf. the following web links, especially the bibliography by M. Buchmann.
  • Politics of Judgment (with Jean-Loup Thébaud), trans. by Esther von der Osten, Zurich 2011 (diaphanes Verlag) ISBN 978-3-03734-147-6
  • Libidinal Economy , trans. v. Gabriele Ricke and Ronald Voullié, Zurich / Berlin 2007 (diaphanes Verlag) ISBN 978-3-03734-011-0 (French original edition from 1974: Economie libidinale , Paris: Ed. Minuit)
  • Das postmoderne Wissen , (Ed. By Peter Engelmann), Vienna 2012 (Passagen Verlag) - 7th unchanged edition, French original edition from 1979 La condition postmoderne , ISBN 978-3-7092-0036-0 ( excerpt from the English transl. ) Lyotard's main work on diagnosis
  • Discours, figure , Paris 1971 The early major work that anticipates many of today's media and art philosophical discussions - an excerpt from the central chapter is available in German: "Veduta on a fragment of the history of desire", trans. v. E. Alloa, in image theories from France. An anthology , ed. v. E. Alloa, Munich, 2011, 137-201 ISBN 978-3-7705-5014-2 .
  • Heidegger and "the Jews" , (Ed. Peter Engelmann), Vienna 2005 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-85165-730-6
  • Der Widerstreit , Fink, Munich 1989, ISBN 3-7705-2599-X Lyotard's main systematic work
  • The enthusiasm. Kant's Critique of History , (edited by Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1988 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-900767-04-1
  • The analytics of the sublime. Kant lessons , Fink, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-7705-2885-9
  • The misery of philosophy , (edited by Peter Engelmann), Vienna 2004 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-85165-551-6
  • The logic we need. Nietzsche and the Sophists , Denkmal-Verlag, Bonn 2004, ISBN 3-935404-04-2
  • The inhumane. Chats about time , (Ed. By Peter Engelmann), Vienna 2004 (Passagen Verlag). (3rd edition), ISBN 3-85165-551-6
  • The anechoic room , (edited by Peter Engelmann), Vienna 2001 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-85165-497-8
  • Drawn: Malraux , Dtv, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-423-30825-7
  • Postmoderne Moralitäten , (Ed. By Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1998 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-85165-320-3
  • Karel Appel: A gesture of color . Bern - Berlin: Verlag Gachnang & Springer, 1998. ISBN 3-906127-53-2
  • The wall, the gulf and the sun . Eine Fabel, (edited by Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1991 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-900767-74-2
  • Heidegger and the Jews (lectures in Vienna and Freiburg), (edited by Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1989 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-900767-39-4
  • Postmodern for children . Letters from the years 1982–1985, (edited by Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1996 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-85165-252-5
  • Childhood Readings , (Ed. By Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1995 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-85165-172-3
  • Phenomenology , Junius-Verlag, Hamburg 1993, ISBN 3-88506-421-9
  • Forays. Law, Form, Event , (edited by Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1989 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-900767-20-3
  • Die Transformatoren Duchamp , Edition Schwarz, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-925911-13-8
  • Tomb of the intellectual , (Ed. By Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1985 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-205-01300-X
  • The Wall of the Pacific , (edited by Peter Engelmann), Vienna 1985 (Passagen Verlag), ISBN 3-205-01306-9
  • The patchwork of minorities , Merve Verlag, Berlin 1977, ISBN 978-3-920986-88-3
  • Intensities , Merve Verlag, Berlin 1978, ISBN 978-3-920986-94-4
  • Apathy in theory , Merve Verlag, Berlin 1979, ISBN 978-3-88396-007-4
  • Immateriality and Postmodernism , Merve Verlag, Berlin 1985, ISBN 3-88396-043-8
  • Essays on an affirmative aesthetic , Merve Verlag, Berlin 1985, ISBN 978-3-88396-022-7
  • Philosophy and painting in the age of experimentation , Merve Verlag, Berlin 1986, ISBN 978-3-88396-049-4
  • Economics of desire , Impuls-Verlag, Bremen 1984, ISBN 3-921883-28-0
  • Au juste. Conversations , Bourgeois, Paris 1979, ISBN 2-267-00194-2
  • Clausjürgens, Reinhold, bibliography of the complete works of J.-F. Lyotards, in: Lyotard, J.-F., Der Widerstreit, trans. by Joseph Vogl, Munich 1987, pp. 309–323, ISBN 3-7705-2599-X


  • Walter Reese-Schäfer : Jean-Francois Lyotard for an introduction . 3rd, revised edition. Junius, Hamburg 1995, ISBN 978-3-88506-913-3 .
  • Reinhold Clausjürgens: Language games and judgment. Jean-François Lyotard's discourses on narrative pragmatics. In: Philosophisches Jahrbuch , Vol. 95 (1988), pp. 107-120.

Web links

Commons : Jean-François Lyotard  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Introductory information

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Reprinted in: Jean-François Lyotard: La guerre des Algériens. écrits 1956–1963. Choix de textes et présentation par Mohammed Ramdani, Paris: Galilée, 1989
  2. Quoted from Walter Reese-Schäfer: Lyotard for an introduction. Hamburg 1988, p. 14.
  3. ^ For example, in The Postmodern Condition , Minnesota 1984, xxiv-xxv.9ff
  4. U. a. in the Philosophical Investigations , §§ 7.27.66 u. ö.
  5. So the interpretation of Hilary Putnam , widely recognized in recent Wittgenstein research , as found in Words and Life , 1994, chap. 13; in Renewing Philosophy or in On negative Theology .
  6. Postmodern Condition, 10: " to speak is to fight ... and speech acts fall within the domain of a general agonistics "
  7. ^ Postmodern Condition, 36
  8. Enthusiasm, 33. Widerstreit, 218f
  9. See: Wolfgang Welsch : Our Postmodern Modernism , Berlin: Akademie Verlag 2002, Chapter VIII u. IX.
  10. ^ Jean-François Lyotard: The postmodern knowledge. Vienna 1994. p. 16.
  11. see Pagan Instructions
  12. The Sublime , 1985; Kant lessons