Jean-françois Lyotard: Biography, Thoughts, Contributions, Phrases, Works

Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) was a renowned sociologist and philosopher of French nationality. He was characterized by his interdisciplinary knowledge, since his works covered very varied topics such as postmodern and modern art, music, criticism, communication, epistemology, literature and even cinema.

One of Lyotard’s main contributions was his notion about the concept of postmodernity. For the author, postmodernism consisted of a form of thought devoid of criteria and molds. Likewise, Lyotard established that the postmodern condition designated the state of culture after it was affected by the scientific and technological transformations that emerged from the 19th century.

Furthermore, Lyotard argued that postmodern thought arose due to three great failures in the history of man: the democratic politics of the French Revolution, the search for economic betterment, and Marxism (although the author was notably influenced by the theories of Karl Marx to carry out his first studies).

Likewise, the French sociologist also affirmed that postmodernity is characterized by its disbelief in the face of the meta-stories that have shaped humanity throughout its history.

The meta-stories can be defined as those narratives that have a legitimizing function, such as the idea of ​​the enrichment of societies through progress or the foundations of Christianity.

Therefore, it can be established that postmodern thought calls into question all the statements that have been taken as absolute truths (or legitimating, according to Lyotard) in the course of history.


Early years

Jean-François Lyotard was born on August 10, 1924 in Versailles. His parents were Madeleine Cavalli and Jean-Pierre Lyotard, who worked in sales. He completed his first studies at the Lycée Buffon and the Lycée Louis le Grand, both institutions located in the city of Paris.

As a child he was interested in many disciplines. First he wanted to be an artist, then a historian and even a Dominican friar. His greatest aspiration was to become a writer, however, he abandoned this dream after publishing a fictional novel that was unsuccessful (this novel was published when Lyotard was just 15 years old).

Subsequently, he began to study philosophy at the Sorbonne University. However, her studies were interrupted with the outbreak of the Second World War. During this period, the philosopher had to participate as an auxiliary volunteer for the army of France; he even acted in the liberation of Paris in 1944.

The devastation that the author lived in his own flesh motivated him to study socialist ideas, becoming a devout Marxist. After this, he was able to complete his university studies in 1947.

Academic development

In this first academic stage, Lyotard nurtured his thought within the scope of critical Marxism. In addition, he was notably interested in phenomenology, which led him to publish his first critical book on this trend in 1954.

Beginning in 1960, Jean-François moved away from Marxist ideas and dedicated himself to studying postmodern thought. He was also interested in aesthetics and psychoanalysis.

One of his most interesting studies was his analysis of the pictorial work of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Lyotard affirmed that the work of this painter symbolized the free flow of the unconscious impulses related to the libido. For this work, the philosopher took into account the Freudian conception of the arts.

In 1950, Lyotard began working as a teacher at the Lycée de Constantine, located in Algeria. Later, he obtained a doctorate in 1971. During this stage he became interested in the Algerian War of Independence, which he personally experienced while teaching in that country.

Personal life and last years

In 1948, he married his first wife Andree May. With her he had two children: Laurence and Corinne. He subsequently married Dolores Djidzek in 1993, with whom he had already had a son named David in 1986.

In his later years, Lyotard continued to write and publish texts on a variety of topics. However, his main interest remained in the concept of the postmodern. His essays Postmodernity Explained to Children , Postmodern Fables and Towards the Postmodern date from this period .

Jean-François Lyotard died on April 21, 1998, on his way to give a lecture on his text Postmodernism and Media Theory. It is claimed that he died of leukemia that had advanced rapidly. His remains rest in the Père Lachaise cemetery, located in Paris.


The three failures that started postmodern thought

For Jean-Francois Lyotard, postmodernism is the consequence of the failure of three notable humanist conceptions, which had been introduced into communities as absolute truths during the last centuries.

In the first case, Lyotard mentioned the liberal politics born during the French Revolution. This had tried to achieve equal opportunities within different areas such as culture and education. This ideal did not work, since today societies are manipulated by the communication media and by power, displacing educational values ​​and freedom of thought.

Likewise, the other great ideal that failed according to Lyotard was the search for economic improvement through work. The author stated that, although living standards today are higher than those of a few decades ago, it cannot be proven that development has caused a jobs crisis or modified the structure of the social sectors.

Finally, the third failure of modernity would be Marxism, which became the main food of the political police within the Eastern countries, but which lost credibility in the Western territories.

For Lyotard, the failure of these three ideals causes societies to struggle between a strong melancholy and the certainty that these principles are no longer useful or credible.

About scientific knowledge

After stating that postmodernism did not believe in the legitimacy of meta-stories, Lyotard questioned the legitimacy of scientific knowledge. The philosopher answered this doubt by establishing that scientific knowledge ceased to have a hegemonic role within narrative classes.

For this reason, both technologies and sciences today feed on language and preserve its meaning as long as they remain within their own borders.

In conclusion, Lyotard affirmed that science, although before it had been conceived as a knowledge that had the ability to transcend subjectivities and superstitions, in our days it no longer had the same universal validity that was granted to it in the past.

Other contributions

About aesthetics

Jean François Lyotard wrote frequently about the aesthetic discipline. One of the peculiarities of this author lay in the fact that he promoted modern art, despite assuming himself as a postmodern. However, he did essays on various contemporary artists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

One of the concepts most used by Lyotard within the aesthetic matter was that of the sublime. This notion consisted of the pleasant anxiety faced by the individual when visualizing, for example, a wild landscape. In general terms, the concept of the sublime involves a clash between two notions: reason and imagination.

About economy

One of the most controversial texts by Jean-Francois Lyotard was Libidinal Economics (1974), where the author first criticized the point of view of Karl Marx. For the author, the working class belonging to the 19th century did not assume a conscious position, but rather enjoyed the fact of being part of industrialization.

According to Lyotard, this occurred by libidinal energy, which refers to the unconscious desires that appear in consciousness and respond to the concept of libido from psychoanalytic theories.


Below are some of the most famous phrases spoken by Jean-François Lyotard:

– “Neither liberalism, economic or political, nor the various Marxisms come out unscathed from these two bloody centuries. None of them are free from the accusation of having committed crimes against humanity ”(extracted from Postmodernity explained to children ).

– “Scientific knowledge is a type of discourse” (extracted from The postmodern condition ).

– “The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is inseparable from the formation of the spirit, and even of the person, falls and will fall even more into disuse” (extracted from The postmodern condition ).

– “We must get used to thinking without molds or criteria. That is postmodernism ”(said during a conference in Madrid).

– “At the moment in which knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, its transmission is no longer the exclusive responsibility of academics and students” (extracted from The postmodern condition ).

Published works

The difference , published in 1983.

The Postmodern Condition , 1979.

Libidinal Economy , published in 1974.

Speech, figure , from 1971.

Postmodernity explained to children , carried out in 1986.

Signed, Malraux. Biography published in 1996.

Postmodern Fables, 1996.

Why philosophize ? , 1989.

Agustín’s confession , published in 1998.

Lessons in the analysis of the sublime, carried out in 1991.

The phenomenology. First work of the author, published in 1954.

Duchamp’s Transformers , from 1977.


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