The demise of grand narratives?

Postmodernism, power-knowledge, and applied epistemology

Authored by: Matthew Sharpe

The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138932654
eBook ISBN: 9781315679099
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter introduces postmodern epistemology by focusing on Lyotard’s now-canonical “report on knowledge,” The Postmodern Condition (1984 [1979]), in which Lyotard stakes out the broader lineaments of an epistemological perspective shared by many “postmodernist” authors working in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences since the early 1980s (e.g., Rorty 1979). In section 1, I examine the social and historical bases of Lyotard’s claims concerning “knowledge in highly advanced societies.” In section 2, I turn to his claims about the alleged proliferation of “language games” in these societies. In section 3, I look specifically at Lyotard’s “applied” claims concerning the “scientific language game,” undermining its claims to epistemic difference and superiority over “traditional” or “narrative” forms of knowledge. Section 4 then looks at the resulting epistemic relativism Lyotard defends in The Postmodern Condition: an “agonistics” (1984 [1979]: 16) which assigns positive value to the “paralogical” disruption of existing forms of consensual knowledge, over traditional epistemic norms like truth, verisimilitude, simplicity, falsifiability, etc. (1984 [1979]: 60–67). In section 5, I look at one instance of what a postmodern, paralogical “applied epistemology” looks like: the famous case of Pierre Rivière as analyzed by Michel Foucault in the early 1970s.

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