Jean-Francois Lyotard is one of the staple philosophers of postmodern thinking. Though he is often neglected as a philosopher in recent days, he still has a lot of influence to modern thinking by giving his account on knowledge which highly influenced Postmodernism. In this book he presents the postmodern stance on knowledge. It is where he defines postmodernism as: “an incredulity towards metanarratives”. So, Postmodernism does not believe in the grand dominant narratives of the world. Being it liberalism, fascism or communism. But also, history, science and philosophy are just some big grand narratives.
According to Lyotard the truth is just the concept that empowers the dominant narrative. Here he uses the method of Language Games, which is a concept which has been introduced by Ludwig Wittgenstein. There are multiple language games: a denotative statement, an order, a joke, an essay, a book review. These are all language games and they all have different rules. A rule for a joke might be that it is funny. If there are no rules there are no language games. Whenever you speak, you make a ‘move’ in the language game and according to Lyotard, to speak is always in a way to fight.
And here knowledge comes into play. Knowledge is just whatever the dominant framework or narrative regards as knowledge. Back in the Middle Ages, many Europeans believed the Earth was flat and this was regarded as knowledge. Now we believe the Earth is a sphere and this is now regarded as knowledge. The language we use in the dominant narrative is knowledge if it strengthens the performativity of the system which uses that grand narrative. So, knowledge is according to Lyotard highly subjective.
Now this is also highly political. The ruling class are the ones who impose the grand narratives. In the future more and more forms of regulation and reproduction will be given to machines, but who are in control of the machines? The ruling class. Here is definitely a Marxist framework where the oppressing ruling class has total control over the oppressed ruled class. Whenever we play in a language game there is always a displacement when a ‘move’ is made against someone. Because the system is one big narrative and the ruling class are the ‘movers’ the ruled class are being displaced by the system.
The narrative is made to legitimize the ruling class. Think about the old knight tales. The legend of King Arthur was created to legitimize the English kingdomship. Now we have traded those legends for views of a liberal, or communist utopia. Lyotard wants to get rid of these narratives. Ironically, he justifies himself in a Marxist narrative of oppressor and oppressed.
There is a lot of information and ideas in this book. If you want to know more about postmodernism this is one of the first books you should read on the subject from a primary source. You have a lot of great secondary sources but at some point, you’ll have to read some primary literature about it. This book is a good one to start with. This was a small introduction into the thought of Lyotard and his view on knowledge. He brings a lot to the table and it is hard not to see the postmodern condition we live in this day. The book is still highly relevant and a good read for anyone trying to understand the dominant philosophical thought today.