Dates: 1924-1998

Nationality: French

Jean-François Lyotard (August 10, 1924 – April 21, 1998) was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well-known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of post-modernity on the human condition.

Lyotard was a frequent writer on aesthetic matters. He was, despite his reputation as a postmodernist, a great promoter of modernist art. Lyotard saw ‘postmodernism’ as a latent tendency within thought throughout time and not a narrowly-limited historical period. He favored the startling and perplexing works of the high modernist avant-garde. In them he found a demonstration of the limits of our conceptuality, a valuable lesson for anyone too imbued with Enlightenment confidence. Lyotard has written extensively also on few contemporary artists of his choice: Valerio Adami, Daniel Buren, Marcel Duchamp, Bracha Ettinger and Barnett Newman, as well as on Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky.

He developed these themes in particular by discussing the sublime. The “sublime” is a term in aesthetics whose fortunes revived under postmodernism after a century or more of neglect. It refers to the experience of pleasurable anxiety that we experience when confronting wild and threatening sights like, for example, a massive craggy mountain, black against the sky, looming terrifyingly in our vision.

Lyotard found particularly interesting the explanation of the sublime offered by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (sometimes Critique of the Power of Judgment). In this book Kant explains this mixture of anxiety and pleasure in the following terms: there are two kinds of ‘sublime’ experience. In the ‘mathematically’ sublime, an object strikes the mind in such a way that we find ourselves unable to take it in as a whole. More precisely, we experience a clash between our reason (which tells us that all objects are finite) and the imagination (the aspect of the mind that organizes what we see, and which sees an object incalculably larger than ourselves, and feels infinite). In the ‘dynamically’ sublime, the mind recoils at an object so immeasurably more powerful than we, whose weight, force, scale could crush us without the remotest hope of our being able to resist it. (Kant stresses that if we are in actual danger, our feeling of anxiety is very different from that of a sublime feeling. The sublime is an aesthetic experience, not a practical feeling of personal danger.) This explains the feeling of anxiety.

The feeling of pleasure comes when human reason asserts itself. What is deeply unsettling about the mathematically sublime is that the mental faculties that present visual perceptions to the mind are inadequate to the concept corresponding to it; in other words, what we are able to make ourselves see cannot fully match up to what we know is there. We know it’s a mountain but we cannot take the whole thing into our perception. What this does, ironically, is to compel our awareness of the supremacy of the human reason. Our sensibility is incapable of coping with such sights, but our reason can assert the finitude of the presentation. With the dynamically sublime, our sense of physical danger should prompt an awareness that we are not just physical material beings, but moral and (in Kant’s terms) noumenal beings as well. The body may be dwarfed by its power but our reason need not be. This explains, in both cases, why the sublime is an experience of pleasure as well as pain.

Lyotard is fascinated by this admission, from one of the philosophical architects of the Enlightenment, that the mind cannot always organise the world rationally. Some objects are simply incapable of being brought neatly under concepts. For Lyotard, in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, but drawing on his argument in The Differend, this is a good thing. Such generalities as ‘concepts’ fail to pay proper attention to the particularity of things. What happens in the sublime is a crisis where we realize the inadequacy of the imagination and reason to each other. What we are witnessing, says Lyotard, is actually the differend; the straining of the mind at the edges of itself and at the edges of its conceptuality.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Jean-François Lyotard’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 November 2010, 19:03 UTC, <>

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