Lyotard: Against Input/Output Philosophy


I was listening this morning to a fragmented lecture by JF Lyotard on post-modernism. I liked what I heard, although I’m not convinced that I understood anything. Yet using my right to freely interpret, here is my understanding of this fragment, which elusively explains what’s post-modernism through an observation of what has happened to philosophy and what is the role of story telling in our culture.


Since Kant, Philosophy has gradually lost its status as a meta-science, a science that provides the knowledge-of-the-self for all other sciences, and even – defines all other sciences. From this omniscient perspective, Philosophy has crashed down.

Why did it crash?

Lyotard doesn’t explain, but I could understand, and I might be just as wrong here, that Philosophy crashed because rational, linear discourse is always limited. Plato, Descartes, Spinoza and many others, always got to the point where they needed another medium in order to proceed.

What is this other medium?

Rising up again, the Philosophy returned to what has preceded it and to what has been its subject of negation and fighting for a thousand years – the stories, the legends, the myths. I’m not talking about their content, but rather about their form, the story telling as an explanatory medium.
The story telling, le recit, was that tool used when all other tools have failed. And so, post-Kant continental philosophy has started to develop a new brand of Philosophers, who excelled not [or not only] in mathematics, science and analytics, but rather in… story telling. And stories themselves have been repositioned as containers of philosophical value. And all this is Modernism.

So what is post-modernism?

Clearly, this modern phenomenon met the resistance of the utilitarian philosophers, implicitly labeled by Lyotrard as the Input/Output philosophers who, like any other cost-oriented scientists, are measuring philosophical narratives by their outcome: this is what went in, this is what came out – did we gain something out of it?
Those I/O philosophers, says Lyotard, can find themselves and did find themselves helping out hideous regimes to justify their acts, and its because of that, I think, that Lyotard defines post-modernism as a preference for short stories and limited narratives over never-ending epical narratives, which tend to provide a total framework.

Foucault, audaciously defined his writings as fiction, stating that his books are “experience books, as opposed to truth books or demonstration books”. And in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” he speaks about his preference to short fiction. Naturally, I’m doing an analogy here, but you will be able to see it in the following excerpt:

[…] the historical ontology of ourselves must turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical. In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions

(and see also Questions to which answers are not the right answer)


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