A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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II/ The axiological panorama of our time

a/ How can we characterise our era axiologically?

a) The end of grand narratives (Lyotard)

What are the axiological characteristics of our times? What is the axiological profile of our era? Lyotard has found it possible to sum up this profile in a pithy formula: the "end of the grand narratives": Simplifying to the extreme, I define post-modern as incredulity toward metanarratives 1. It is as 'post-modernism' that our era is referred to. What can this formula mean?

A story is a narrative discourse that has meaning. A series of disjointed words cannot constitute a narrative, only a delirium. A story cannot be a rhapsody, to put it in musical terms, only a melody. The storyteller cannot do with words what a man does by letting his fingers run randomly over a piano keyboard. A story must also have a meaning, a direction, in other words a beginning, a middle and an end. A story has a goal, for example "to live happily ever after and have lots of children". All the events in the story are directed, at least in principle, towards achieving this goal, and are merely means to this end.

To say that our era begins when the era of grand narratives ends is to say that we no longer give any credence to any theory that would assign our era a meaning and a direction.

This does not mean that no more meaning can be found in the world, but that this meaning, whatever it may be, is not borne by history; it is not time itself that constitutes this meaning, that brings it to unfold in all its fullness for us. It is we ourselves who give this meaning to the world, who imprint it on it through our work and our efforts, and it disappears as soon as our labour or our will is exhausted or changes object.

Nor does it mean that our era is nothing more than aimless wandering; it is not that man can no longer set a direction for himself, and that he goes about his life at random, each of his acts being tainted by a profound irrationality (in fact, post-modern man is perhaps the one whose life is best determined by the rational calculation of interest). This is because every human being now sets his own direction, and the multiplicity of these directions no longer manages to converge towards a single point, which would be the direction of humanity.

The two narratives to which Lyotard alludes are probably those proposed by Hegel and Marx, which give human history a meaning (events do not follow one another randomly but are driven by the Spirit of the world or the dialectic of relations of production) and a final destination (absolute Knowledge or the advent of a state in which classes, and hence their conflicts, are abolished).

With the "end of grand narratives", as Lyotard put it, we can imagine that what is happening in history is no longer a melody of events, but a rhapsody of events, and even several rhapsodies, since everyone is playing at the same time: a cacophony.
The world as cacophony: this is a definition of our times as it seems to be encapsulated in Lyotard's proposal.

What are we to make of this diagnosis?

1. The Postmodern Condition