In 1979, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition. The book is often interpreted as a critique of metanarratives. But its main argument is more descriptive than prescriptive. Lyotard shows that science was facing a legitimation crisis. That crisis foreshadowed the contemporary mess that people refer to by the label of post-truth politics.
Lyotard’s argument builds on Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games. A language-game consists of simple examples of language and of the practical uses to which language is put, connected by ‘family resemblances’. Lyotard reinterprets this idea to emphasize the rules which govern the uses of language. If a game, like chess or bridge, is defined by its rules, a language-game similarly is defined by its rules, so that different rules make different games.
Lyotard goes on to argue that any given language game has to legitimate itself somehow. That is, people have to agree to play by the rules of a given language-game in order to accept the statements made within that language-game as valid.
However — and this is the key point — any language-game cannot provide its own legitimation. The reason for this is simple:
- Any legitimating narrative has to be expressed using one language-game or another.
- Therefore, to even understand the narrative, much less agree with it, one has to already be using the language-game it belongs to.
- So a language-game cannot provide its own legitimating narrative any more than a person can pull themselves up into the air by tugging on their own bootstraps.
Science is one language-game among others. This in itself should be obvious. Lyotard’s claim is that, like all language-games, science cannot legitimate itself.
In other words, a scientific proof of the legitimacy of science either preaches to the choir or falls on deaf ears. For people to accept the validity of science as a way of speaking about the world, they must have some non-scientific justification.
This non-scientific justification for science is what Lyotard means by a metanarrative.
Now, Lyotard does not actually provide a critique, much less a refutation, of the idea of metanarratives or the specific metanarratives pertaining to science. He’s often treated as having done so, but actually he makes no attempt to do this.
Instead, he makes an empirical assertion. Science, says Lyotard, has historically depended on two main metanarratives, and both of these metanarratives are being treated with increasing skepticism by the general population.
These metanarratives are: the belief in progress, and the belief in the unity of Being. For various reasons, people no longer believe that science acts consistently as a bringer of improvements to the human condition. And for various reasons, people no longer believe that there is one single objective reality that science can describe.
So, Lyotard’s point is that science faces a legitimation crisis because the great metanarratives which formerly sustained it are losing their appeal to many people.
Postmodernist theory anticipated, or at least foreshadowed, the mess we’re in now. Does it have any solutions to offer?
The answer is: some.
Lyotard’s own prescriptions in The Postmodern Condition are twofold. First, a radical democratization of the production of knowledge, condensed into a demand to “throw open the databanks”.
In an era of Big Data, most of which is kept secreted away by governments or corporations, this demand has some relevance. But Lyotard does not make clear how this will lead to a revival of the legitimacy of science.
His second prescription is even more elliptical, although I find it intriguing. It is to develop a notion of truth that does not depend on consensus.
What that means exactly is something that Lyotard was never able to specify. I think it’s an interesting unsolved problem, and actually an important one for any radically democratic future society. Maybe it has some relevance now, in an age where so many irreconcilable claims are made about truth and ethics are being made by people who shout loudly but feel totally unheard.
Postmodernists who came after Lyotard were mostly not interested in restoring the waning legitimacy of science. Instead, they mostly seemed to revel in the idea of a ludic proliferation of narratives without metanarrative coherence.
This is the type of postmodernism that Marxists like David Harvey and John Sanbonmatsu love to hate. I think what they are really hating is the streak of centre-left, cosmopolitan but procapitalist liberalism that underlies this kind of postmodernism. But whatever the reason, postmodernists as a group are open to the charge of linking epistemological relativism to a rejection of materialism and class politics.
There are important exceptions, though. The American postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty, who died in 2007, regained public exposure in 2016 when a passage from his 1998 book Achieving Our Country circulated through Twitter.
In the passage in question, Rorty had written
[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
Postmodernism does not require giving up a materialist understanding of social relations and class struggle.
It does require giving up the belief that the kind of rationality embodied in scientific knowledge is simply the product of universal human Reason allowed to operate freely.
Postmodernism requires us to understand scientific truth as a culturally specific achievement dependent on particular social conditions for its production and reproduction.
And so it prompts us, if we care about science, to ask what those conditions are, how they have decayed, and how they can be revitalized.