Reading Guide to: Honneth, A (1985) 'An Aversion Against the Universal: A Commentary on Lyotard's Post-modern Condition', in Theory Culture and Society, Vol. 2, No. 3: 147 - 56

A number of 'diffuse layers of consciousness', together with some academic themes have coalesced into 'pseudo - concrete formulae', focused in terms like post-modernism (147). This term has been generalised away from its origin in architecture. Currently, it is used by a number of odd 'coalitions' in Social Sciences, principally those based on French post-structuralism. These coalitions share a tendency to criticise modern rationalism and also to reject Levi-Strauss - type structuralism. Lyotard is the main exponent of this conjunction: he has concretised what had always been 'pure possibilities' in post-structuralism -- what had been philosophical deconstruction now appears as 'a phenomenon of actual history' (148).

Lyotard himself followed the familiar path from phenomenological marxism into Nietzsche. He has come to criticise not capitalism any longer, but logo-centrism. He poses to this tendency 'unconstrained speech or the power of erotic desire' (148). He has grounded this work on Wittgenstein, though, permitting links to Anglo-Saxon and German traditions, especially the work of Habermas and Luhmann. Thus did the concept of post modernism enter 'into the social sciences' (148).

However, the term lost the roots of its meaning, especially with the loss of something that strongly contrasts with it, as the original architectural use had possessed. One obvious way to remedy this is to provide a time-frame, attempting the difficult task of operationalising the various notions of modernity [finding actual sociological examples, assessing the various social trends and so on]. Post-structuralism had rejected this approach, however, and had attempted to apply philosophical categories immediately, seeing social practices as some objectification of an underlying principle of rationality. This is the same tactic as in Dialectic of Enlightenment [rather ironically]. The characteristic features of modernity were sketched on the basis of 'thought anchored in the principle of subjectivity' (149).

For Lyotard, the 'principle of legitimation' is the key to understanding social change, in contrast to the development of instrumental reason as in earlier efforts. Wittgenstein had to be reworked to stress the competitive elements of language games rather than their intersubjectively shared elements, the playful manoeuvres and trumps rather than the shared rules. Nietzsche's will to power became the 'linguistic power of imagination' (149) in these playful manoeuvres. To explain social order, Lyotard has to agree with Foucault that linguistic creativity is a source of social danger, and that it needs to be organised and regulated through various institutional filters and networks. (These limiting aspects are themselves affected by the state of language strategies.) However, this introduces the need for legitimation, justification for ending linguistic challenges and counters. Lyotard wants especially to explain the constraints and forms of compliance in modernity.

The formation of the Sciences is the crucial development here. The truth claims of science are institutionalised, and other narratives are compared adversely. This is a form of cultural imperialism and it is particularly likely to subdue traditional narratives. However, a paradox emerges -- how can science itself be justified? There is performativity, but above all metanarratives describing the civilising role of science. However, all such narratives have really been condemned! Science offers a particular emancipation metanarrative, where 'the people' either emancipate themselves from their ignorance [the French option], or where a Spirit develops its self-knowledge in order to unify all the narratives under Reason [the German option]. Marxism remains with a split view. Generally, though, some 'supra-individual subject... unfolds itself in the process of history in order to discover its ultimate being in the knowledge of the Sciences' (151).

However, this role of science is not a recent phenomenon, but is found in Comte, or more generally in many attempts to justify bourgeois society through Reason. This analysis also ignores other developments of scientific thinking too, for example those traditions in Phenomenology or American pragmatism which try to ground scientific thought in the every day categories of ordinary consciousness. There is no speculative historical process here, but this justification is ignored in Lyotard's argument [and this ignorance is theoretically generated, as we shall see].

This emancipation narrative encounters crisis which leads to a loss of credibility for metanarratives as such, in Lyotard's [simplified] approach. The origins and nature of the crisis lie in the political and military catastrophes and the unregulated economic growth of European capitalist societies, but this is not fully argued. For example, new technologies are seen as indices rather than causes of this crisis. The whole historical dynamic is an 'inner one', the [mainly]  'intellectual erosion of legitimating narratives' (152). A formative episode appears to be what happened when Nietzsche's nihilism impacted on Viennese thought and society, stimulating a philosophical crisis which led to the avant-garde: this was the 'historical precursor of post-modernism' (153) [I am not sure if this is Honneth's or Lyotard's example -- apologies for the flawed scholarship].

For Lyotard there are also more immediate and recent changes to explain the collapse of modernity. Science comes under pressure externally to pursue efficiency rather than truth, and internally there is a recognition of paradigm dependency rather than universal claims. The latter is based on the work of Kuhn and Feyerabend, although Lyotard's application of these writers is 'misleading, in fact false' (153). What for Lyotard is an historical process is a universal and structural condition for Kuhn and Feyerabend. Lyotard's historicism is responsible for his Utopian hope for 'growth in the imaginary potential of science' (153) [that is, the imaginative possibilities of liberated science]. Science could develop playfulness rather than performativity. However, the whole discussion is seen in terms of opposing tendencies -- playfulness or terror, pluralism or the domination by technology. Lyotard finally hopes for the first of these oppositions with equal rights given to language games, and a celebration of difference. But this is a normative question again, and normative elements are not well addressed.

Lyotard's position seems to be the same as that of post-structuralism on the toleration or protection of difference -- 'all social forms of life enjoy the same right to autonomy and to the unimpeded development of their creativity, without the consequence that the regulation of such equality would necessarily ignore or curtail the differences between them' (Honneth's summary, page 154). This position helps oppose the limits of more substantive notions of egalitarianism [not specified, but things like equality for specific groups?], but takes a stand against any universalism.

Such a stand also involves a misunderstanding of Habermas, who is seen as an old modernist still promising emancipation. Lyotard thinks that this is what freedom from domination in dialogues means for Habermas, although the project is really about testing the generalisability of interests and needs. The goal of Habermas's work is precisely to realise 'differing interests and needs within the common relations of social life' (154) [and not to impose some terroristic people's consensus as Lyotard suggests].. Lyotard simply refuses to consider any universal presuppositions, or to ask whether some language games might be based on universal rules. He does not ask whether there are grounds for moral principles in any universal presuppositions about human understanding, although he has explored this possibility for science and its strivings for universal epistemology. However, outside of science, language games are simply asserted to be heterogeneous. 'For him the universal is the false' (155). [This failure to explore the universalising tendencies of ordinary language games is what is responsible for for Lyotard's blank on American pragmatism and its explanation of the growth of science]. Lyotard is also unable to see any universal strivings in the present, including the 'growing sensitivity to violations of human rights' (155). This helps make post-modernism attractive to all those who share this aversion [a further hint about the complicity of post-modernism with personal competitiveness?].

But even Lyotard cannot dismiss the universal 'without remainder' (155), and this produces a block or aporia [a dilemma where neither choice is logically possible] in his work. The problem is that there must be some universalistic argument to support the institutionalisation of the universal recognition of equal rights and tolerance of difference. At the same time, Lyotard's aversion to universalisation, and his 'theoretical antipathy' towards any such arguments prevents this being attained! This sort of debate with Lyotard itself shows that universalistic principles are just not that easily dismissed.