One of the interesting questions often asked of social theorists is, "How do you know?" If we take the example of Marx, that if we are all suffering from false consciousness, how did the divine wisdom break through to him that he was able to see through this? The use of "divine" here is deliberate, because the religious schemes always allow divine wisdom as a shaft of light of revelation into a situation around which no one else can see the truth. Humanist schemes, the big metanarrative of progress, allowed for reason to get to the truth.
Habermas of course, as a modernist, does have a theory for this, and it is the ability of the intellectual to see the place and purpose and outcome of communicative reason, because of the freedom from instrumental values. A values-free discussion leads to true outcomes.
The same problem of how can he say this visits Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) with his postmodernist analysis as it did Marx regarding the existence of false consciousness. Lyotard does not allow for Habermas's rational road to truth, and yet Lyotard is able to analyse the situation rather objectively while everyone else lies within the relativity of knowledge. Indeed Lyotard goes further because, despite being a theoretical Wittgensteinian postmodernist, he contrasts his view on the relativity of knowledge with a structural binary opposite of actual rational knowledge with cultural myths and illusions.
Suppose we agree with Lyotard that all knowledge exists within Wittgensteinian language games, and that there is no greater claim of one kind of knowledge over another. One language game suits that area of discourse, whereas another suits another - language does a job of making meaning within its own working. Worse than this, suppose we also agree that science, that falsifiable method towards truth (which could be regarded as simply its language game) is impure because it is the subject of commercial agreements and decisions that distort it. Scientific projects these days are bought; scientists are in the pockets of big business or government requirements. And anyway science has paradigm shifts (T. S. Kuhn) that occur because of shifts in interest rather than any getting closer to knowledge. So science is discredited, never mind being different from other ways of speaking (e.g. art, religion) and so having no overarching claims.
There is no metanarrative either because the paradigm shifts in science do not run along with other paradigm shifts in other areas of human cultural activity. The one Enlightenment project is pluralised.
If everything is therefore relative, then so must be Lyotard's own explanation. But his is not. He posits the opposites of truth and relativism, or validity and myth (see Noble, 2000, 230). We obviously assume that Lyotard is not himself generating more myths and illusions. He actually has a clear vision of knowledge.
How did he achieve this? For Lyotard, capitalism distorts the production of knowledge, as with the production of science. Furthermore, everything is temporary, passing, where the contract defines so many areas of cultural life. This is the equivalent to the effect of capitalism on the lifeworld as analysed by Habermas. Yet Lyotard seems able to be free from this.
If Lyotard is not free from this outcome, then what would be made of his ability to do his analysis? His analysis should be as relative as the rest. But if his analysis is not relative, then he must allow the possibility of reasoning towards a rational outcome, as he has done. And therefore modernism is not dead and his postmodernism is compromised. A metanarrative of progress could return, under the right conditions, and be not just a metanarrative but a way to rational outcomes.
Lyotard, J. F. (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Noble, T. (2000), Social Theory and Social Change, London: Macmillan.