A book on ethics and philosophy of values

(Note: this is a non-professional translation of the original text in French. Help improve this translation: please report any mistake!)

II/ Axiological panorama of our time


a/ How to characterize our age, from an axiological point of view?

a) the end of great narratives (Lyotard)

What are the axiological characteristics of our time? What is its axiological profile? Lyotard sums it up, in this brief formula: “the end of great narratives”: Simplifying to the extreme, I define post-modern as incredulity toward metanarratives 1. Our age is defined as a “post-modern” one. What does it mean?

A narrative is a story grouping a series of events, in a discourse which has a meaning, a signification. A sequence of disconnected words cannot be a narrative, only a delirium. To speak in musical terms, a narrative may not be a rhapsody, only a melody. It is impossible for a storyteller to make with words what a man does when he lets his fingers run freely across a piano keyboard. But a narrative must also have a direction, that is to say, a beginning, a middle, and an end. A purpose is aimed at in a narrative, for example “to live happily and to have many children”. All events in this kind of story work towards a common goal, at least in principle, and are only means to this end.

To say that our era begins when the age of great narratives comes to an end is to say that the post-modern man gives no credit anymore to any theory which attributes a meaning, and a direction, to our time.

Does it mean that no more signification can be found in the world? No, but it means that any signification whatsoever is no more based on history: it is not time which constitutes by itself this meaning, which makes it to appear in all its fullness. We ourselves give this signification to the world, by our work and efforts, and this meaning disappears as soon as we lose our motivation, change our will or cease our efforts.

It does not mean that our time is only an aimless wandering for man; nor that man cannot choose one direction anymore, but moves randomly, each of his acts being deeply irrational (in fact post-modern man is maybe the one whose life is best determined by the rational calculation of his self-interest). It means that each man sets his own course, and that the multiplicity of these orientations is no longer able to converge towards a single point, which would be the direction of mankind.

The two narratives to which Lyotard refers are probably those proposed by Hegel and Marx, which attribute to human history a meaning (events do not follow from each other at random, but are led by the World spirit, or the dialectic of production relationships), and a final destination (the Absolute Knowledge, or the establishment of a State in which the classes, and thereby their conflicts, are abolished).

With the « end of great narratives » diagnosed by Lyotard, we imagine that what occurs in history is not a “melody of events” anymore, but a “rhapsody of events”, and even several rhapsodies, since everybody plays his part at the same time: a cacophony.
The world as cacophony: here is the definition of our time which seems to be included in the statement of Lyotard.

Is that true?

1. The Postmodern Condition