Jean-Francois Lyotard Biography

Philosopher (1924–1998)
A leading 20th century philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard was noted for his analysis of postmodernity and its impact on humankind.


Jean-Francois Lyotard was born on August 10, 1924, in Versailles, France. He attended the Sorbonne and went on to have a successful career in the field of philosophy. His look at the impact of postmodernity greatly shaped the world of French philosophy. Lyotard taught both in France in the United States. His landmark books include The Postmodern Condition and The Differend. He died of leukemia in Paris, France, on April 21, 1998.

Early Years

Jean-Francois Lyotard was born on August 10, 1924, in Versailles, France. The son of a salesman, Lyotard showed creative and contemplative qualities at an early age. He dreamed of becoming a painter or novelist, and for a time even thought about becoming a Dominican monk. Eventually, however, philosophy won out and Lyotard enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris for his studies.

With the onset of World War II, Lyotard interrupted his studies. He served as a first aid volunteer for the French Army, and experienced the fight to liberate Paris in August 1944.

No doubt shaped by the destruction and devastation he'd witnessed during the war, and drawn to the early promises of socialism, Lyotard became a devout Marxist in the years following World War II.

Political Years

By his own admission, Lyotard turned a period of his life after World War II over to socialist revolution. His writing largely centered on left-wing politics and he took a particular interest in the war for Algeria's independence, which he saw in person while teaching there.

During this time Lyotard edited Socialisme ou Barbarie, a journal that was published by a group of communist sympathizers of the same name. In addition he churned out published material to distribute to workers at factory gates. Lyotard was also at the center of the labor strikes and political unrest that swept through Paris in May 1968.

But Lyotard's relationship with his fellow Marxists wasn't a smooth one. After a split with his comrades at the Socialisme ou Barbarie, he joined an offshoot group before abandoning Marxism altogether and turning toward the beginnings of what would become postmodernity.


In 1979, Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. The landmark work helped set the stage for the beginning of thought on the postmodern condition, and helped make the philosopher a more recognizable name in the English-speaking world.

Lyotard's writing, and the work that would follow, set the stage for his full departure from what he called the "grand narratives" of Marx and the Enlightenment.

The world had grown too complex, Lyotard reasoned, too diverse in thought and ambition, for these larger ideas to represent everything to everyone. What ruled instead were a series of micro-narratives. The older, simpler industrial world was dying, Lyotard argued, and its place had arisen a more technologically driven world that centered increasinly on linguistic and symbolic production.

Threaded through the work was a certain nod toward relativism, with the author theorizing that there is no right or wrong way to interpret the world around you.

Jean-Francois Lyotard's two other leading published works on postmodern theory are The Postmodern Condition and The Differend.

Teaching Career

Over the course of his career, Jean-Francois Lyotard taught at a number of universities, both in France and elsewhere. His career included time at the University of Paris X, Nanterre and University of Paris VIII, Vincennes, as well as stints in the United States, including at Yale University. Additionally, Lyotard was the founding director at the Collège International de Philosophie.

Personal Life

Jean-Francois Lyotard was married twice and fathered three children. He died of leukemia in Paris on April 21, 1998.

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