Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

26: Jean-François Lyotard:
Meta-narrative and Language Games

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Jean-François Lyotard claimed that the western advanced liberal democracies since the second world war have not had nor needed a meta-narrative for their legitimation. This is his criteria for determining whether a society should be labeled post-modern.
         Examples of highly complex meta-narratives or world views are Marxism, Catholicism (and any world view of any religion), the national myths promoted by extreme nationalism. Examples of simpler but still often pervasive meta-narratives include progress, a struggle for victory, development etc.
         In the past all rulers used a meta-narrative to legitimize their rule. Marxism in the early 20th century was a complete explanation of all things. This explanation was used to justify the revolutionary actions of the Communist Party. Likewise the Catholic Church provided the legitimization narrative for many princes and it was used to subjugate the people. Every cult has a world view that the founder uses to control the followers.
         Sometimes (such as during a national emergency) the meta-narrative can become quite simple but if it pervades the society it is still a meta-narrative. In China progress and development seem to be a meta-narrative in the sense that these two notions trump all other concerns. In a war situation the meta-narrative transforms into victory or survival. If anything can be done to the people for the sake of victory or survival then they are the meta-narratives of legitimation.
         Meta-narratives provide a unity to the society. Lyotard believes that our post modern society is the first in history that does not have any unity and we do not need it. His very important point is that we really do not need an all encompassing meta-narrative of legitimation.
         The life of social members is contextualized by practical linguistic contexts: language games with their own internal norms. Society functions without a high level of coordination among those games.
         For example at work there are some rules about what can be said and to whom. Church has a different language game. School has its own too. Societies of one gender have different language games than societies of two genders. Every family has its own language game of what is appropriate and what is not. In the post modern sense all of these language games are self contained there is not any master language game; they do not have any unifying meta-narrative and they do not need one. Postmodern society is fragmented and it works well – this fragmentation is not a problem that needs to be solved.
         Even science is not a unifying ideal anymore. Today there is a plethora of distinct sciences each with its own research programs and methods (the scientific method is not a unified notion) creating and producing knowledge which cannot be integrated or reduced to 'one' science.
         This fragmentation is good and desirable. Unity and consensus are the great dangers to human freedom. Individuality is created in the movement between the language games. Unification always means the suppression of some differences and is therefore inherently oppressive (the many become like the few; the many different language games become closer and closer to one). A free pluralistic society ought to have many competing narratives which allow the members the freedom to move in and out (or at least out) of any group or language game.
         1) Do you have a meta-narrative that gives unity to your whole life? If so, can you tell us about it? If not what are your sources of Identity?
         2) Do you agree that modern society does not have a master meta-narrative and does not need one?
         3) In what sense would you be better off with a master meta-narrative rather than many fragmented mini-narratives.
         4) In what sense are you better off with many fragmented mini-narratives rather than one.
         5) The big three religions (Catholicism, Islam and Buddhism) have provided the world with the greatest and most comprehensive meta-narratives (or language games). Would the world exist without religion?
         6) What do you see as some of the more(A) beneficial and (B) detrimental elements in the following narratives:
         1. Communism
         2. Catholicism (or any other religious world view)
         3. Korea's current 'victim nation' narrative
         4. American exceptionalism
         5. Other narratives ____________________
         7) In a world with many mini-narratives, what would it take to create a new one? What would you suggest as critical components for a new narrative that would benefit you and your society much more than any current narrative?
         8) Do you believe that individual personal identity comes from an individual's movement between language games (or groups)?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren