Disagreement, Judgment, and Universality in the Work of Jean-François Lyotard

Dr. Javier Burdman

Laufzeit des Forschungsprojekts: 01/2018 – 12/2019

The project developed a new interpretation of the political thought of Jean-François Lyotard by reading it in dialogue with other political thinkers. Lyotard’s influential notion of a „postmodern condition“ is usually interpreted as a negation of the possibility of universal principles that orient political action and judgment in contemporary societies. Through a systematic analysis of Lyotard’s later work, which has received scarce attention by scholars, the research showed that its goal is not to deny universalism altogether, but rather to transform it. The first part of the project focused on a series of texts developed by Lyotard after the publication of The Postmodern Condition. The analysis of these texts showed that Lyotard produced a new conception of universalism. According to this conception, the universal aspirations of political action and judgment are not grounded on a universal rule or procedure, but rather on feeling. This feeling, Lyotard claims, is analogous to the feeling of the sublime in Kant’s aesthetics. In order to understand this analogy, the project inquired into Lyotard’s interpretation of Kant, another aspect of his thought that has received scarce attention.
The interpretative research showed that Lyotard developed a kind of “universality without consensus,” or a “conflictive universality.” The reason why scholars often misread Lyotard as dismissing universality altogether is the widespread presupposition that universality and disagreement are mutually exclusive. Lyotard, however, challenges this assumption. In his view, universal judgments stem from a feeling produced by the encounter of two radically heterogeneous discourses (such as science, narratives, art, technology, economics, etc.), with conflicting rules for judgments. The fact that, in order to judge, one set of rules must prevail over the another, generates a silence and a corresponding feeling that a voice remains to be heard. Political judgments are universal not by virtue of a rule for judgment that is by itself universally valid, but rather by virtue of inventing a new rule that allows for the expression of a voiced that had remained silenced. This means that universal judgments always take place within disagreements and can never crystalize in a fixed set of principles.
On the basis of this conception of universality, the project contrasted Lyotard’s views with those of authors within the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Habermas, Honneth) and Hannah Arendt. It was shown that, despite their differences, most authors within the Frankfurt School tradition remain committed to a notion of universality linked to a fixed standard that is beyond disagreement. Arendt, by contrast, believes that universality is constructed on the basis of taking into account multiple viewpoints at the moment of judgment. Lyotard’s view is unique in stressing the interrelation between universality and consensus. The research thus calls for further studies that problematize established notions of universality and its role in political action and judgment in contemporary societies.

The project had three main aims:
1) To challenge established readings of the political thought of Jean-François Lyotard.
2) To reassess the role of Lyotard’s thought within contemporary discussions around the nature of political action and judgment.
3) To develop a new understanding of the universalism of political action and judgment.

The project relied on an interpretative methodology that combined close reading, intertextual reading, and comparative reading. The close reading traced the development of a series of concepts across different texts, in order to specify their meaning and identify changes. Different essays by Lyotard, including unpublished manuscripts available at the archives, were contrasted with one another in order to identify the fundamental tenets of his thought. The intertextual reading traced the influence of different philosophical perspectives upon Lyotard’s thought. Especial attention was paid to Lyotard’s indebtedness to Kant’s critical philosophy, Wittgenstein philosophy of language games, and phenomenology. The comparative reading identified points of connection and disagreement between Lyotard’s views and that of other authors working on similar issues.

Selected publications related to this project
Burdman, Javier, “Universality without Consensus: Jean-François Lyotard on Politics in Postmodernity”, Philosophy and Social Criticism, Vol. 46 N. 3 (2020).
The article challenges the common misreading of Lyotard according to which he disavows the possibility of universal judgments in modern societies. It argues that Lyotards defends a “universality without consensus.” This universality is based on the feeling produced by the dissensus between different discourses, when one discourse is silenced by another one. The silence is “felt” as a universal demand to make previously unheard voices be heard.


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