Jean-François Lyotard's "little narratives", which he explains in The Postmodern Condition, are often criticized for being relative, for destabilizing truth and authority etc. But what are the benefits of his "little narratives"?

I guess what I am looking for is the opposite of a critique. What is a good thing Lyotard's theory is about?

  • You have to comapre it with grand narratives (or metanarratives): "Lyotard proposed that metanarratives should give way to petits récits, or more modest and "localized" narratives, which can 'throw off' the grand narrative by bringing into focus the singular event". Jan 8 '18 at 12:10
  • See also Jean-François Lyotard: "Lyotard famously defines the postmodern as 'incredulity towards metanarratives,' where metanarratives are understood as totalising stories about history and the goals of the human race that ground and legitimise knowledges and cultural practises. " Jan 8 '18 at 12:12
  • Postmodernism is the triumph of relativism; thus, only "local" truths (narratives, points of view) are available, after the destruction/deconstruction of old grand narratives (ideologies, Weltanschauung). Jan 8 '18 at 13:58

Lyotard's rarely mentions the petits recits by name but a notable place is the final chapter of the Postmodern Condition:

“Le petit récit” reste la forme par excellence que prend l’invention imaginative et tout d'abord dans la science.” (“little narrative” remains the quintessential form of imaginative invention, first of all in science.”)

As his text develops, a petit recit appears to be a local contradiction to some paradigm or grand scheme, which can have major consequences. Such is for instance Gauss' (or Bolyai's) 'recit' that the Fifth postulate in Euclid could be replaced by something else; same for Planck when he proposed that black body radiation might be coming out in 'chunks' (or quantas). Proposals for wholesale change of a dominant view are obviously doomed, but a petit recit turns out to be something that cannot be accommodated within the frame of an existing grand recit. It is difficult to disagree with Lyotard that at least in science there is a net benefit.

Interestingly, the chapter's title is Legitimation by paralogy and one should bear in mind that Lyotard uses the word 'paralogy' in a Kantian sense [KRV, II] and not in the usual one (as "fallacy"); for him a paralogism is mainly a paradox, a word to be opposed to 'analogy' and 'homology'. Discovering paradoxes reveals that our understanding is far from perfect and for some people that might also be beneficial.

  • @sand1.You are right - and it's important - to mention paralogy. I didn't. Kant tells us that 'A logical paralogism consists in the falsity of a syllogism due to its form, whatever its content may otherwise be. A transcendental paralogism, however, has a transcendental ground for inferring falsely due to its form' (KRV A 341/B. I wonder if Kant allows that both the premises and the conclusion of a paralogism can be true, though the paralogism is invalid by virtue of its logical form.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 8 '18 at 22:32
  • Thank you for your answer! @GeoffreyThomas: Could you please elaborate on the quote you provided? I see that Kant separates a logical paralogism from a transcendental paralogism, while a logical paralogism is invalid due to its logical form, the transcendental paralogism is invalid in virtue of his transcendental form. But I find it hard to establish a connection to Lyotard. In what sense is Lyotards understanding of a paralogism a Kantian understanding of a paralogism?
    – strixstrix
    Jan 10 '18 at 9:13
  • @strixstrix. Thank you for your comment. Lyotard uses the term 'paralogy' and I wanted to acknowledge this to sand1. I understand the Kantian 'paralogisms' as involving attempts to 'cognize a priori from the concept of a thinking being' (CPR, A381). Thus it is attempted to prove e,.g. that the soul is a substance (A348). All such attempts to establish the existence of things beyond the limits of possible experience fail. If there is a connection between K's'paralogisms' and L's 'paralogies', I do not know what it is and I am frankly sceptical that any really significant connection exists.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 10 '18 at 20:47
  • @GeoffreyThomas – thank you! Your comments have been very helpful.
    – strixstrix
    Jan 10 '18 at 22:55

Mainly three : they make room for for 'multiplicity, incommensurability, and local consensus'. (Jean-François Lyotard & Niels Brügger, 'What about the Postmodern? The Concept of the Postmodern in the Work of Lyotard', Yale French Studies, No. 99, Jean-Francois Lyotard: Time and Judgment (2001), 84.)

Grand narratives, for reasons with which you will be familiar, are ruled out by Lyotard. But different groups and individuals still have ideas about the subjects that grand narratives were about - justice, religion, democracy, the direction of history and so on. Any idea of constructing a grand narrative that can achieve consensus about such things is a fantasy. Yet 'little narratives' are possible - the different ideas of different groups and individuals which are irreducibly plural or multiple (Judaism, Christianity and Islam will never agree), incommensurable (the God of Islam is not the God of Christianity, and neither is the God of Judaism if we look carefully), and enjoy local consensus (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) bond and join sub-sets of different communities in coherent forms of life. This is how social life is, and 'little narratives' are intrinsic to it. If we consider them clearly, they embody the cultural data of social life after the age of grand narratives. Also, while they do not agree, they are not inherently antagonistic. A culture can accommodate them all.

This is a free reading of Lyotard but I think it conveys what he is getting at with his idea of 'little narratives' and the benefits they carry.

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