Metanarrative Problem

Postmodernism was summarised by Lyotard as having an incredulity toward metanarratives.

What does this mean? What are metanarratives, and why harbour incredulity toward them?

Metanarratives are narratives. Stories presented through a lens with a certain perspective. These stories provide a historical account of how a culture arrived to where it has. They can be viewed as origin stories. Metanarratives are also teleological, as they provide the foundation to progress, to advance the culture to a better future. Embedded in these metanarratives are the rules and conditions necessary to navigate, both from the past and into the future.

We’ve got stories. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian, Yuval Noah Harari tells us how important stories are for having made human progress. Hooray for us!

This sounds good so far. Right? We’ve got Caesar, Cornwall, and Kahn. We’ve got triumph of us over others. Good prevailing over evil. Right over wrong. So why the incredulity?

Let’s keep in mind that Lyotard is suggesting incredulity and not rejection. The narrative could be fine and accurate enough. One might argue that the benefit of the narrative for the purpose of cohesion outweighs the detriments posed.

There are several notable problems with metanarratives.

Firstly, the past suffers from a cherry-picked survivorship bias. The story threads that don’t support the narrative are abandoned, and some threads are marginalised. So, there’s a dimensional problem. As with any historical account, one needs to adopt a perspective and create a story. Let’s not forget that the word history comes from the word story. In fact, French only has one term: l’histoire. History is story.

Secondly—and this is somewhat related to the survivorship bias problem—, is that we privilege the perspective we take to view this history. In his book, We Have Never Been Modern, Latour uses this line of argumentation to arrive at the conclusion that we have never been modern. It is only because we are here now and surveying history through a rearview mirror that we can even look into the past. And we feel that we have somehow overcome this past. The past was primitive, but we are modern. Some time in the future we’ll deservedly be viewed in the same light because that’s how progress works. But there is no reason to accept this privileged assignment. It’s a function of ego—and to be even more direct: hubris.

Lastly, there’s the issue of teleology. Through this privileged vantage, we orient toward some alleged destination. Like fate, it’s just there for the taking. The only barriers are time, not keeping your eyes on the prize, and not following the rules to get there. There’s an embedded deontology. Those other societies don’t understand what it takes. You need to follow this path, this religion, this sports team. Because this is the best there is.

But there are no crystal balls. We cannot divinate the future. There is no particular reason to believe that our imagined path is the best path. If you don’t believe this, just ask the culture next door.

I’d like to think that somehow Progressives would be more aware of this tendency—and perhaps in some sense they are, but it’s not very apparent pragmatically. I don’t want to get distracted by the notion of institutionalism, but that is evidence of taking a privileged position regarding the status quo—even if your vision of the future would take a different path than your more conservative brethren and sistren.

In closing, this has been a summary of the problem postmoderns have with metanarratives. It could be that the metanarrative you believe to be valid is valid. It could be that your religion is the true religion. It could be that your sports team is the best sports team. That your system of government is the best of all other alternatives. It’s more likely that you’ve convinced yourself that these things are true than them being true.

We can either adopt the perspective of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss and consider our world to be the best of all possible worlds, or we can step back and consider that we haven’t exhausted all of the possibilities.

16 thoughts on “Metanarrative Problem

  1. Yay. That’s pretty good. And I would add what has occurred since then, since Lyotard.
    Don’t give me wrong, he is one of my foundational people. But I think he is saying a little bit more than what you expressed in your post here.

    Juergen Habermas Made a critique against Foucault. In short, That there is a position that Foucault assumes, And this assumption is enrolled into his discourse. And of course we all love Faoucualt. But the issue that JH brings up is that there’s no possibility that it could have arisen as such. And this is to say, as JH argues, that if we agree with MF, then there is no position which is able to notice the view that MF is putting forth. This is to say that there is “nothing“ at the root of his position, And so to take MF as a sort of critical philosophy is really nothing better than to have a, sort of, faith in humanity. And this is odd because MF seems to be saying so much about how we are able to understand ourselves in the modern world. Remember that MF was not post modern. In fact, he said he was doing an archaeology, he wasn’t even doing Philosophy. nor critical theory, and he denied that he was a “poststructuralist”. In fact I would argue that he probably hated anything that was called “post”. As well I would say the “post modern“ authors didn’t consider themselves “Post modern”. And I would say, I would even go so far as to suggest that Layotard represents a kind of by furcation in what we understand as philosophy/critical theory. Because, he is essentially saying that he is not post modern but that indeed the incredulity Boards metanarratives is the problem at hand. Not that he has an incredulity towards metanarratives, but what he is viewing is a condition of Thinking that anything that arises is incredible, which is to say, hard to believe.

    Lyotard is that pointing to a condition of knowledge that he sees. He’s not saying that “hey everyone all human beings exist in this condition“. He is pointing at a condition that the view allows him.

    And the reason why I bring up these other authors in the context of Lyotard It’s because all of these authors are not really talking about “ideology”. They’re not even talking about ontology or epistemology or anything like that really. All of them are trying to get to the strange mystery that they are able to notice these problems, with the underlying assumption that it is a condition that I am excluded from by virtue of my view. And this is incredible, it’s hard to believe. And yet here it is. The issue then is not that it is a problem to be over come. I would argue that what we consider post modern theory, people who identify themselves as post modern, have misinterpreted these authors. For indeed this is the issue that these authors are talking about. This incredible situation that people are constantly misunderstanding what the authors are saying.

    We find this pretty much since the 1800s. On one hand, we have a particular approach upon discourses that assumes a common humanity, it assumes that the author is in the same situation as the reader, and yet the reader is taking that situation as indeed an ontological basis for a problem that needs to be over come.

    And then on the other hand we have the authors that are indeed trying to address this problem, the problem where people view discourse is as suggesting a problem that needs to be overcome.

    I’d say the pivotal author, the watershed Philosopher was Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
    I’m getting a little too deep here.

    But let me bring it back to the point you are making. Ultimately the narrative that I have difficulty in believing is the narrative that I’m telling myself. It is the condition in which I rise where the very discourse by which I know my self in the world is incredible.

    Less ideology, less that we can have cultural formations, less psychology, these are all analogies for the fundamental issue of the subject that arises in the modern world.

    And in so much as this is understood as the significant problem. Where ideology and personal opinion and culture are but subsequent problems, not foundational and basic problems, there we have the authors coming up after postmodernism. And to RJ, that is where we have speculative realism and Harmons object oriented ontology addressing this basic and significant issue that becomes prior to ideological, cultural, and subjective considerations


    1. Great points. I should do an in-depth accounting next. I was really just trying to provide a surface explanation.

      As you know, Lyotard, himself, tried to walk some of this back. I still haven’t delved into Harmon, but Amazon has been recommending it to me. haha

      I find that do many people disagree even with the core argument, that they feel there is actually something there to cling to, but *I* simply can’t see it.

      I feel that Barthes ‘author is dead’ position suggests that (from a position of grammatology), we have no control over how one interprets a piece of work. It’s been argued that not even the author retains the privilege. Your point about Habermas’ critique of Foucault is precisely what my contention is around ‘re-integration’. And narrative requires a POV. For Foucault, it was all about Power, and it’s a fair criticism that this may have been forced or otherwise reductionist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Badiou: the operator of truth relinquishes that truth for the sake of the multiple. He thereby retains fidelity to the truth by giving it up.

        Sounds like a re-integration has nothing to do with ones intension. Or, it has intention “in-itself”, The re-integration itself is intentional. Harmon talks about this so far as objects so far as, for example, me and the tree occupy a space of intentionality. And yet both of us, myself and the tree, recede from each others of you. I can no more find out what the “real tree is”, then the real tree can find out what the “real me” is. That’s why he says that real objects withdraw from view. It is not just a quality of my thinking, it is indeed a quality of objects as they arise in the universe itself.

        Therefore, whatever is “the real me” accords to the space of nothingness that these critical theory us we’re coming up on 2030 4050 years ago. It actually is nothing. There is nothing that can be said about what the real me is, from an object ontological standpoint. Because, everything that I say with Fidelity to the truth of myself is ultimately misinterpreted and commandeered for the intentionality that exists somewhere in reality. This intentionality I am a part of it does not stem from me. It is something that I interact with, that I’m involved with, as a universal being, just as this dish towel is a universal being as well. Or the floor that I’m walking on, or the sound of my voice. All of these things have intentionality, and they all arise as objects in the universe with which I am involved. But whatever it is that I am ultimately gets lost.

        But I turn this on its head. I say that reality is that sphere of intentionality. But what is true, is that which I am retaining fidelity with. Which is my self. I have Fidelity to myself and it is true. Just the same way as the tree is retaining fidelity to its truth. And hence I talk about truth, and the conditions that must be met in order for us to be able to talk about what is true of the universe, as opposed to what is real of the universe. What is real of the universe is ultimately what arises in the intention, but what we regularly default to say that is centered in the human brain, only within human thinking.


      2. … and I will add, that it is due to having Fidelity to the truth of the matter, fully acknowledging that at no point do I ever arrive in reality, and yet behaving and acting with Fidelity to the truth — by virtue of the complete inability to an act myself as a total intention, I thereby must acknowledge that it is not me alone, alienated, which is caught in this predicament, but indeed everything that arises in the universe is it self bound in the same ontological manner. What occurs then is that I behave truthfully, the only way that I am ever possibly able to act and a rise in reality, just as a tree grows, just as a sidewalk is laid, just as a grape becomes a raisin — I am no longer concerned as much with imposing my view as an argument with other people who have different opinions, For even as I engage with these arguments and differences of opinions, the truth of the matter yet arises, indeed, because it is the truth. It is not my truth. But it is indeed a truth that I am involved with, just as every other object in the universe likewise is involved with that intention of the universe.

        it is not then that I don’t have emotions, or that I don’t worry, or I don’t cry or I’m always happy. Rather, nothing about me is ever shaken, because all of these other aspects that I am involved with arrive intentionally, which is to say, within an intention.


  2. … But again, I am flipping this on its head. I am saying that indeed I arrive in reality all the time just as phenomenological dictates would outline. As I talk with you and have discussions in debate, indeed all these things arrive in reality. It is not that what is true negates reality as such, or that reality dominates in the estimation of truth, on the contrary; I say that we are involved with reality all the time, the consequences the philosophical discussions, the heated arguments, all that is real. But in truth, the truth of the matter is just that reality occurs in that way, reality is that Arena where intentionality arises between all universal objects in truth.


    1. When you arrive in reality ‘all the time’, what is ‘real’ is necessarily only real for a timeless instant. Rinse and repeat. And as with plane geometry, the time is dimensionless. Analogously, in 2-dimensional space, there may be length and width, but the depth dimension is 0.

      In a Zen way, all we have is the present. Connecting a series of ‘present’ loci creates the illusion of history. Future is merely a concept that presumes we can extrapolate these loci.

      So the future is not real and does not exist because it hasn’t been instantiated. And neither is the past real. It’s merely a figment that may have been true in the instant, but it remains only as material from which we can construct histories. There is more than one permutation of history, though sequencing matters.

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      1. That is absolutely real. But for sure there’s never a point where we arrive in reality “all the time”. I’m fairly certain that the idea that there is some sort of “eternal presence” is similarly just another real idea, just another theoretical idealism posited a pond a fundamental transcendence that we can access immanently.

        I’m not negating reality. I’m not saying that reality the fundamental nature of reality is “X”. Harmon and the other speculate a realist and all the philosophers of that sort, yes, they are arguing amongst them selves about what some fundamental reality is. All spiritual programs and systems ultimately are towards some sort of ontological real truth. And so yes.

        I’m not proposing that what you were saying is incorrect.

        I’m saying that it doesn’t really get us anywhere. It just gets a bunch of subjects coming to their own ideas about what is actually true and carrying on and negotiating with one another in a bunch of individual subjective reality is that never touch each other. They never interact. Because each subject is involved with its own intention. Every position that would suggest that my intentionality is somehow reaching to out to another subject and their intentionality, is ultimately reduced and falls back into the individual subject intentionality.

        Yes. All subjects get to come up with their own reality, their own version of the truth of reality. Yes. That’s what human beings do. That is what reality is. Whatever anyone says about it, whatever we discuss about it, whatever arguments we want to create over what it is, that’s what it is. That’s what it is. If you want to call it a “eternal reality of the present. Go right ahead. If you want to call it “God‘s plan“ sure that it’s real also. All of these things occur in reality. They all are real to various extents, which ultimately depend on elements of power. How many people can I get to agree with me. How much money I’m spending. How much I don’t give a shit. I can have my own spiritual truth. All of this occurs in reality for sure. And all of it in reality can be more or less real and more or less true.

        When we speak of what is true of the matter we’re talking about what is true of that situation that I just described.

        To the extent that I am oriented upon my own thinking, or, that human beings think and create reality in negotiation, there do I say that people are oriented upon real things. They are oriented and invested in what may be more or less true of reality.

        I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m not saying that we need to improve upon it. I’m not making any sort of judgment upon it at all. All I am doing is describing what is already there.

        Of course, I can make all sorts of moves and talk about whatever we want about it. I could say that it ultimately reduces to a giant spaghetti monster that lives in an Nother dimension that’s going to appear through a portal one day. It could be more or less real depending on what we are saying about and what people are doing about it.

        And so I really think the basic concept behind all this is a unilateral duality. If we don’t understand what her unilateral duality is, then we’re constantly reducing things to either or concepts, what I say is conventionally real determination.

        And then I’m saying, which a whole lineage of other authors are saying, once we have cycled through these real negotiations, once we have reduced all these negotiations to some fundamental truth and then we doubt that truth, what we have left must be the truth, it cannot reduce infinitely, because then all we have is a bunch of real subjects never encountering each other. Which is to say only encountering each other in a fantasy. And then we could talk about psychoanalysis and that whole lineage. Again, all of that occurs in reality. I’m not saying that Somehow I get to step outside of reality. On the contrary. I’m just actually drawing from what you just commented upon. What it seem like we both agreed upon. That in the end ultimately there’s nothing that’s showing us that anything at all has any opinion whatsoever, and yet we do. All I’m calling upon is to realize what that means instead of just setting it aside some curiosity.

        Anyways. I ramble because it’s voice dictation.

        Pretty much any rebuttal that you can give me, I would say, yes, I agree with you, and we are both in a real negotiation. We are both sitting there in the intention between ourselves in reality having a discussion in a negotiation about the possibilities of what could be real or more or less true of our involvement with reality.

        What is true of the satiation involves a different type of discussion. It moves along different lines of knowledge.

        I mean you could check out Donna hair away if you want to. “Situated knowledges. I believe his her seminal essay. And she talks about cyborgs and stuff like that. What she is saying and other authors along that feminist lineage is not much different.


      2. Of course, I’ve heard ‘but that won’t get us anywhere’ quite a bit with my ‘dis-integrationist’ position, which is why I ALSO adopt a Pragmatic stance, but feeling that it’s sort of ‘living a lie’, but at least I am honest about it. lol

        This dissonance has been problematic since I adopted Buddhism as a scaffold. When ‘all are one’ and ‘there is no difference’ is your worldview in a world defined by difference’, it tends to create friction. hah

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Maybe Taoism.
        I mean. Doesn’t get us anywhere. In the sense of philosophically. Elsewhere; I feel that philosophy has only to do with itself. And has little to do with life as we actually live it, that is. Unless I have a philosophy of living. Which. Mine is not. Lol. Maybe more a “philosophy of existence”. But not really just life.

        Be kind. Be healthy. And get dirty. Maybe that’s my philosophy of life. 🎅🏿


      4. Hey. Amd if you are ‘disintegrated’. Maybe that shows they way to other things that exist besides what you think. Things that also are ‘not integrated’. Things that all do thier own thing-ness. ?


      5. I don’t remember what that site was that does blog podcasts of the blog. Where it uses the robot boy so where you get a podcast or something. Where was that what was that do you remember? and where do we find it on WordPress?


      6. is the site. I don’t know where it shows up on WordPress. It appears on my ‘free’ sites (like, but it doesn’t appear on the site I pay to host (

        For that site, I created a free site just to product the content, and then I copy the blog and audio content to my hosted site.

        Technically, I think it has to access files that my hosted site won’t give it permission to access. But I’m not sure. My work-around seems to work OK.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. There is no time. Therefore: we have all the time we need to accomplish what needs to be done.

        Time is a placeholder for scientific mathematical formulas. But it is also a measure by which I go from unpalatable food to a lovely dinner.


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