Jean Francois Lyotard, born in 1924 in Versailles, France, was a literary theorist and philosopher. He is most noted for his analysis of postmodernism in his 1979 work, The Post Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. The ideas and philosophies set down in his many other works depict a wide range of interests from culture to politics and the arts. In all these disciplines, Lyotard's writings focused on issues of justice and freedom.
Lyotard studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, and his master's thesis analyzed the various forms of indifference and detachment displayed in Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Many of Lyotard's philosophies give an important role to aesthetics. Particularly towards the end of his career, he focused on this branch of philosophy, which deals with the nature of beauty, art and taste.
In 1950, he taught philosophy in East Algeria, was then a French colony. He joined the struggle of Algerian workers against their French rulers. In 1954, he joined the Socialisme ou Barbarie movement, a libertarian socialist group that emerged after World War II. These experiences helped shape Lyotard's philosophical view and ideas.
Lyotard was one of the founders of the College International de Philosophie in Paris. In his later decades he taught at the University of Paris VIII, lectured in Critical Theory at the University of California at Irvine, and was a visiting professor at a number of institutions including the University of California at Berkeley, John Hopkins University, Yale University, the Universite de Montreal and Emory University.
Lyotard authored a number of philosophical works. His first noted work was The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. In this book, Lyotard studies the advances of communication and the status of knowledge. He demonstrates that knowledge is a commodity that will become, if it is not already, the most significant factor in worldwide competition for power. As an example, he brings the case of pharmaceutical companies who sued the South African government because it produced generic anti-AIDS drugs for citizens suffering from the disease. In that case, the pharmaceutical companies were fighting to protect their rights to the knowledge that their years of research had produced.
Lyotard contends that science and knowledge are inextricably linked to politics and ethics. The changes in the way that people relate to knowledge mark a change in the nature of society and the human experience.
In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard introduces the term postmodern. He defines postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives. Metanarratives had previously been the "quintessential form of customary knowledge."
To illustrate a metanarrative, he introduces a tribe whose members tell the stories of their tribal history in a specific format. Through these narratives, the rituals and structure of the tribal society are organized. In addition, their historical narratives construct their group identity and define their societal rules.
Lyotard was a believer in the fact-value distinction, which is a controversial issue in philosophy. The distinction argues that facts denote an actual state of affairs, e.g. the sun is hot. Different from facts are values, which emerge from the human relationship with the state of affairs, e.g. it is uncomfortable to stand in the heat of the sun. A conclusion of the fact-value distinction is that different cultures can have different values, e.g. some cultures may value the sun's intense heat. Lyotard contended that ignoring this distinction may give rise to totalitarianism.
In his book The Differend, Lyotard develops some of the ideas he had written in his two earlier books The Postmodern Condition and Just Gaming. Lyotard's innovative term "differend" refers to a judgment in which it is impossible to apply one set of rules to satisfactorily litigate the case. In such cases, the different cultures and values represented on each side make it impossible to satisfy both parties. A judgment would automatically wrong one of the parties.
Lyotard also stated that a wrong is a damage accompanied by the loss of the means to prove the damage. This loss can occur if a victim dies, is deprived of his or her liberties, or if their words are not believed. One of Lyotard's later works was titled Inhuman. In this work, Lyotard discusses the process in which people are dehumanized by the forces of development and technological progress.