The Postmodern Condition  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) is a short but influential philosophy book by Jean-François Lyotard in which he analyses the epistemology of postmodern culture as the end of 'grand narratives' or metanarratives, which he considers a quintessential feature of modernity. The book was originally written as a report to the Canadian Counseil des Universities. The book introduced the term 'postmodernism', which was previously only used by art critics, in philosophy with the following quotation: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives". It was published in English 1984.

Among the metanarratives are reductionism and teleological notions of human history such as those of the Enlightenment and Marxism. These have become untenable, according to Lyotard, by technological progress in the areas of communication, mass media and computer science. Techniques such as artificial intelligence and machine translation show a shift to linguistic and symbolic production as central elements of the postindustrial economy and the related postmodern culture, which had risen at the end of the 1950s after the reconstruction of western Europe. The result is a plurality of language-games (a term coined by Wittgenstein), without any overarching structure. Modern science thus destroys its own metanarrative.

In the book, Lyotard professes a preference for this plurality of small narratives that compete with each other, replacing the totalitarianism of grand narratives. For this reason, The Postmodern Condidtion has been criticized as an excuse for unbounded relativism. However, Lyotard suggests that there is an objective truth, but because of the limited amount of knowledge that humans can understand, humans will never know this objective truth. In other words, Lyotard advocates that there is no certainty of ideas, but rather there are better or worse ways to interpret things.

The Postmodern Condition was written as a report on the influence of technology on the notion of knowledge in exact sciences, commissioned by the Québec government. Lyotard later admitted that he had a 'less than limited' knowledge of the science he was to write about, and to compensate for this knowledge, he 'made stories up' and referred to a number of books that he hadn't actually read. In retrospect, he called it 'a parody' and 'simply the worst of all my books'. Despite this, and much to Lyotard's regret, it came to be seen as his most important piece of writing.

Quotes

"Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements--narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on [...] Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?" -- Jean-Francois Lyotard




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