In “The Postmodern Condition” Jean Francois Lyotard defines post-modernity as “Incredulity towards metanarratives”. In outlining Lyotard's position as elaborated in this essay, it is evident that his work focuses primarily on the possibility of achieving what he calls a “unity of experience”. In order to understand his conception of this idea it is necessary to first assess his view of society in relation to the modern world. Postmodern culture demonstrates “a radical break, both with a dominant culture and aesthetic, and with a rather different moment of socioeconomic organization” (Lyotard, 1990, p. vii). This demonstrates a fundamental shift in values from historic norms. The dramatic changes in technology have worked to radically alter these perceptions. This is based on the assumption that “knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 3). As society has moved into this new realm of possibility it is evident that there is a growing need to establish a more profound understanding of the attainment of knowledge and how it is informed by these social aspects. “The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 4). The challenge is therefore to establish a way to overcome this basic dichotomy between the values that have become apparent within this dramatic split. Due to this, the underlying conception of knowledge itself has been profoundly altered. These transformations have resulted in knowledge becoming “the principle force of production over the last few decades” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 5). This is due to the impact that knowledge has on the way that discourse about society itself is approached. There are only two ways that this can end. The author argues that “either society forms a functional whole or it is divided in two” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 11). While one side is primarily concerned with the pursuit of optimization, or enhancing the performance of society, the other focuses on the struggles between the various classes of society as well as the capacity for development and distribution. The unity of experience that Lyotard discusses is fundamentally related to this division. The author notes that, while it is tempting to form a unity by simply making a distinction between these differing types of knowledge, this simply reproduces the problems and traps society in a circular form of thinking that is unable to account for the nature of opposition inherent in the postmodern world. He argues that what is becoming increasingly important to the unification of society is information itself. The question is becoming less about who has authority and more about “who will have access to information” in order to “guarantee that the right decisions are made” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 14). This demonstrates the growing interconnections of social reality and the need to account for the complex behaviors and beliefs that inform the decisions that people make on a daily basis. It is evident that in this context, “each [self] exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 15). For this reason, the ability to communicate and relay information has become an increasingly necessary element in the development of a unity of experience. Scientific knowledge is therefore essential to this understanding. Unlike social knowledge, in which language can be conceived of as almost a game, in scientific knowledge, a “statement's truth value is the criterion determining its acceptability” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 25). This is fundamentally different than ethical judgments, up which acceptability is primarily a result of the underlying cultural values of society as a whole. These values are generally the result of a narrative that is somehow important in the context of the society's historic relationships. With those within and without. Scientific knowledge is therefore not a narrative. A scientific statement “gains no validity from the fact of being reported” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 26). While the scientist is primarily concerned with making statements that can be established as being valid or invalid and made the subjects of truth. Narratives, however, are built upon a more natural and composed of “opinions, customs, [and] ideologies” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 26). This tenuous relationship between narrative and scientific knowledge demonstrates the need to achieve a unity of experience. The question becomes associated with the need to establish scientific knowledge without succumbing to the need of using narrative. Truth, therefore, can “only be established within the bonds of a debate that is already scientific in nature” and proof of the validity of this truth lies in the “consensus extended to them by the experts” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 29). These modes of understanding are legitimized in entirely different ways. While in both cases a narrative of sorts is the legitimizing factor, within scientific knowledge this narrative gains a greater authority. In regards to these political and philosophical narratives it is evident that there is a conflict between “denotations answerable only to the criterion of truth [and] governing ethical, social, and political practice that necessarily involves decisions and obligations” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 32). These obligations are largely founded on the fundamental principles that the society in general has accepted. In this context, it is evident that there is a need to consider the capacity of these theories to address the potential for a union of truth. Achieving a unification of experience is primarily concerned with “not only in the acquisition of learning by individuals, but also in the training of a fully legitimized subject of knowledge and society” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 33). In this sense, the unification of experience is fundamentally related to the capacity for society to establish an objective reality upon which those that make it up can agree to share specific values. From the use of narrative in order to attain knowledge, the increasing value of skepticism has resulted in an “internal erosion of the legitimacy principle of knowledge” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 39). In order for knowledge to have value it must be legitimate. Ensuring legitimacy is, however, difficult. This ultimately results in science being more flexible in nature. Mathematical and other axiomatic principles that can have legitimacy due to their agreeableness and that they can be demonstrated form the basis of other forms of knowledge which themselves are “the object of consensus among experts” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 43). This unity of experience then involves finding common ground between the needs of optimizing the social system that society is based on and establishing functional relationships in order to fulfill its needs. Throughout history, meta-narratives have been used in order to establish conversations surrounding important ideas or to establish an objective conception of truth. The author states that, in the modern world, it is likely that “these narratives are no longer the principle driving force behind interest in acquiring knowledge” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 51). Rather, knowledge is obtained through the reactionary efforts of those that are engaged in a dialogue regarding the capacity of social change to express a specific intent. In understanding the values upon which the social doctrines of justice can be related a more accurate conception of this form of knowledge can be attained. Lyotard argues that “it seems neither possible nor even prudent to [orient] our treatment of the problem of legitimization in the direction of a search for universal consensus through a dialogue of argumentation” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 65). For this reason, it is necessary to develop a more cohesive relationship between the various value-oriented groups that make up society. Unity of experience, in this sense, can be obtained through the objective application of rational decision making. The author demonstrates that unity can be achieved, but by radically different ideals than in the past. “Consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value [however] justice as a value is neither outmoded or suspect” (Lyotard, 1990, p. 66). In developing consensus on modes of achieving justice the dichotomy between considerations of individuality and those of totality can be brought together.
Habermas's notion of "uncoerced discourse" offers a possible antidote to the "cultural pessimism" which is to some exent evident in the work of Weber and Foucault. In order to elaborate on Habernas's program, which focuses on the need for transparency, reflection and critique on both the individual and societal level, these authors must be discussed in a more thorough way. Habermas asserts that we must be willing to subject our most cherished beliefs to the rigours of discursive argumentation and allow "the force of the better argument" to prevail. However, whether this is really possible comes into question. In discussing whether Habernas's argument is compromised by the twin problems of utopianism and, often covert, power differentials it is necessary to establish an objective basis for consideration. The argument presented by Habermas is based on the assumption that the individual and society, and the way they learn, are fundamentally interconnected. He proposed that by “engaging in discursive argumentation, participants subject their most cherished beliefs to close scrutiny” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. iii). This, he believes, is the underlying bedrock upon which social norms can be assessed and reconstructed. Weber did not believe that there is a possibility for predicting social evolution due to the complexity of reality and the presence of conflicting values. Habermas, however, contended that “individual moral learning will lead to the creation of new societal structures” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 3). In rejecting the possibility of understanding social change, Weber essentially makes it impossible to find any solutions to potential problems. This demonstrates a major challenge for Habermas to overcome in order to establish the possibility of understanding change. However, in doing so, the author demonstrates that Habermas “constructs “ideal” stages of evolution which may not necessarily exist in reality” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 110). This demonstrates a potential shortcoming in regards to the argument presented by Habermas. His discourse must overcome the need to confirm the truth of the objective reality that is being posited. It is argued that while Habermas is able to develop a basic outline and present rudimentary principles regarding the direction that society might be able to take “the shape of such a society remains nebulous” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 111). This seems to indicate that his conception of social change is unable to overcome these difficulties. The vague nature of his conception of reality belies any possibility of social change. Horkheimer and Adorno consider the fact that “we seek to dominate whatever we fear the most; and we fear that which stands apart fro us” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 115). They therefore fall into nihilism. This is a deeper challenge for Habermas to overcome, as it presents a conflicting reality than that being pursued within his discussion. Habernast, however “castigates his former mentors for renouncing hope and a sense of connectedness to the world” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 123). This positivist attitude fundamentally rejects the nihilism that was presented by Horkheimer and Adorno. Instead, he proceeds to demonstrate that there can be a basic understanding of social change. The issues that were expressed by his predecessors were simply unable to overcome these limitations. Habermas argues that this is due to the fact that Weber's underlying theory is “unable to conceive of change in societal terms” which essentially “strips modern institutions and structures of all rationality” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 127). For this reason, Habernas presents his evolutionary theory of social change. This theory is established in relation to the expression of a positive attitude about the capacity of human knowledge to come to an understanding regarding the complexities of society and its evolution. The issues inherent in Weber's work regarding the loss of freedom due to the inability of change is what allows Habermas to “explicate the need for a theory of communicative action” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 128). Weber seems to indicate that viewing the perfection of society should not be presumed to be possible. If the ideals of reason and equality have not flourished in the world then it is evident that it won't necessarily happen. Habermas, however, is positive, asserting that it is possible “if we come to a deeper understanding of how we have arrived at our present state of incomplete development and how we may hope to transcend it “ (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 129). His argument is therefore rooted in the need for historic inquiry. The attainment of knowledge itself can help to inform the evolution of society. Those who deny this are unable to overcome their skeptic positions in order to concede that knowledge is possible. He argues that those who take Weber's position “have failed to grasp the distinction between potentiality and actuality” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 130). This has resulted in limiting the potential of society for growth. However, in modern society there is a profound focus on the need for moral or ethical social change. “The cognitive-moral capacities of the individual progressively move away from an egocentric perspective on the world and towards one which takes account of the needs of others” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 136). These values correspond to the validation of power or authority in order to institutionalize the specific moral obligations that society sees as necessary. This capacity is a fundamental aspect of his argument concerning social change. The legitimacy that an authority has is primarily dependent upon “the regime's ability to understand, express, and uphold the worldview of its people” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 138). In modern society, this legitimacy is primarily based on moral reason, rather than on ideologies or religious belief. This capacity for reason can have a profound effect on the values of society, and so also, authority. Habermas concludes that his approach is able to “both diagnose social problems and specify the direction of future development” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 150). He argues that, as individuals within societies have learned, these learning processes and changing world views become reflected in the larger social context. However, the author indicates that the connection between these ideas is not necessarily clear. Habermas demonstrates that, rather than attempting to build societies that agree on everything, it is essential to “find ways to argue which are free of irrationality and coercion” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 164). The need to establish better methods for dialogue and argumentation is therefore evident. In doing so society is able to evolve to a higher degree. For him, this capacity for discourse provides “the medium through which the unavoidable but not altogether desirable ethical patterning of the state may be continually confronted and challenged” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 169). His conception of social change is therefore primarily dependent on the individual's capacity for knowledge. The ability of the people that make up society to reflect and question the principles of social values are a fundamental aspect of social change. The author indicates, however, that discourse “could conceivably be carried out indefinitely without reaching any conclusions” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 173). Simply because moral or ethical issues are being discussed in a rational manner does not mean that they will be resolved. In this sense, the author contends that society is comprised of “struggles among disparate groups, all of whom feel that their competing validity claims are worthy of recognition” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 174). Often in belief, people are unable to make compromises. Habermas's social reality is “made up of individuals who are able and willing to reach conclusions about generalizable interests” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 175). However, interests may not necessarily be generalizable to the extent that they can be compromised on. Furthermore, it is evident that the individuals that hold these interests will not always be willing to work together. While these forms of discourse may work to challenge the established social structures that are built into society, the complexity of the public and the capacity of these structures to adopt coercion in order to maintain power represent the “twin problems of directionality and the sometimes covert exercise of power” (Pasdermanjian, 2005, p. 176). These problems underlie a profound issue in relation to the social considerations that are presented by Habermas. Although he seems to be committed to the belief that social change is primarily dependent on the knowledge of the individual, it is also evident that the direction of knowledge and the authority that dominates its inception can be seen to be fundamentally based on the realities of power and its exercisse.
Lyotard, JF (1990) "The Post Modern Condition" In J. Alexander and S. Seidman (eds.) Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates (Cambridge CUP) pp. 330-341.
Pasdermanjian, P (2005) "Habernas's Defence of Modernity" Section II, Ch.4, in Rationalization, Legitimation, and Domination in Modern Industrial Societies: The Alternative Perspective of Max Weber and Jurgen Habernas. Unpublished Ph.D These, Concordia University, pp. 110-149.
Pasdermanjian, P (2005) "Jurgen Harbermas's Discourse EthicsL Social Evolution and Moral Development" Section 11 Ch.5, Rationalization, Legitimation, and Domination in Modern Industrial Societies: The Alternative Perspective of Max Weber and Jurgen Habernas. Unpublished Ph.D These, Concordia University, pp. 150-205.