Jean-François Lyotard Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Writing on philosophy, politics, and aesthetics, Lyotard made the link between postmodernism and poststructuralism, engaged the problems of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and deconstruction, and examined the way society legitimizes knowledge and discourse.

Early Life

Jean-François Lyotard was an intellectual committed to political action whose life’s work in philosophy emerged slowly. He was a secondary school teacher in French Algeria from 1950 to 1952 before the start of the Algerian war for national liberation, a cause he actively and publicly supported. In 1954, he published his first book, Phenomenology, a work heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. In this book, Lyotard defined the intellectual’s role as that of understanding history in terms made available through phenomenology. Subsequently, his politics became increasingly radical, and he adopted an anti-Soviet form of Marxism. From 1954 to 1964, he was a member of the editorial board of Socialisme ou Barbarisme, a Marxist periodical that was critical of the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. During this time, he also contributed articles to the periodical Pouvoir ouvrier (worker power). His antagonism to authoritarianism led him to join an intellectual movement that in May, 1968, expressed its sympathies with the student and worker riots that shook French life; many of the student organizers of these riots were students of Lyotard, who was working as a lecturer at Nanterre University at that point.

Life’s Work

Lyotard began the work for which he is best known with the publication of his doctoral dissertation, Discours, figure (conscious and unconscious communication). In the dissertation, Lyotard rejects the structuralism that had dominated French thought in the 1960’s and relies on Sigmund Freud’s distinction between the conscious and the unconscious to distinguish between the conscious element of communication (discourse) and the unconscious (figure), the latter of which he, following Freud, associates with desire and libido. In contrast to the structuralism of the day, which focused on the form of a work of art, Lyotard argued that on the figural level, art communicates the disruptive force of desires. The work of Paul Cézanne, for instance, overturns the power of representation in favor of unleashing figures associated with feelings and desire. Thus, in an argument that Lyotard would continue in his far more difficult and less well received 1974 work, Libidinal Economy, art is valued for its ability to release desire. This later book puts this aesthetic notion to work in the realm of politics, where Lyotard finds the disruptive traces of libidinal drives, whose power to disrupt any dogma show the limits of Marxist, or any, totalizing theory.

A theoretical problem that inevitably occurs in the absence of a totalizing theory is the problem of judgment. Without a single, clear frame of reference, how can art or actions that proceed from different assumptions be judged good or bad? Although Discours, figure and Libidinal Economy are both more interested in unleashing the energy of the libido and of art than they are in making precise judgments, it is exactly this question of judgment to which Lyotard would turn his attention in his later work and which would make for his most lasting contribution to philosophy.

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge defines the postmodern as a state marked by an unwillingness to accept any grand narratives. The overarching narratives that have been used to justify science and the arts—for instance, the belief that technology will lead to a better life for all, or that the history of civilization is the history of the march toward enlightenment—are met with incredulity instead of firm belief. Thus, Lyotard believed those in the generation following World War II were living through an age of a legitimation crisis—one in which there was no single narrative, no mutually understood common goal, by which society could justify its actions.

It is society’s lack of a standard for...

(The entire section is 1717 words.)