Efficiency is a concept intuitively associated with business and economics, rather than philosophy. For most of philosophy’s history, efficiency remained a concept predominantly untouched, and was secondary to metaphysical and epistemological questions. In modern times, this has changed and the concept of efficiency has played an increasingly important role within the various contemporary philosophical traditions. This is no more apparent than in postmodernism. Although controversial to categorize as a system of thought, postmodernism does have an overall fixation on efficiency’s crucial role in shaping society and our beliefs.
Two thinkers who focus on this issue are Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault; this essay will analyze how efficiency is a crucial element in their philosophies. Lyotard’s initial conception of efficiency is as one of many language-games. Lyotard borrows from Wittgenstein by formulating that various linguistic utterances are governed by a set of rules determining their use, much like a game of chess (Lyotard 10). Within language there is an addressee and addressor; each utterance by the addressee is like a specific move in a game. This applies to all discourse, and the rules of one language game do not apply to the rules of others.
There are different rules for the other language games: science, justice/ethical wisdom and beauty (Lyotard 18). Lyotard’s basic conception of efficiency is one of the numerous distinct language-games. These language games are categorized into denotative and narrative knowledge. Narrative knowledge is unique in that it has no external referent; it legitimates itself through performance. Denotative knowledge is distinct in that it depends on an external referent. Denotative knowledge has a contradictory relationship with narrative knowledge; it needs a narrative to be legitimated but it is hostile towards it (Lyotard 26).
This hostility is largely based upon a failure to understand the different rules of narrative knowledge. There is a fundamental distinction between denotative and narrative knowledge. Historically, denotative knowledge was legitimated by two forms of grand narratives. Legitimation refers to the process in which a legislator determines whether a given statement should be included in the discourse of knowledge (Lyotard 7). These two grand narratives were the emancipatory narrative and the speculative narrative.
The emancipatory narrative held that denotative knowledge was essential to humankind’s liberation; the more that we understood, the greater our society would become. The speculative narrative held that knowledge was acquired “for its own sake”; knowledge finds legitimation within itself and states what the state and society are (Lyotard 38). These two grand narratives were what legitimated denotative knowledge from the industrial revolution until the Second World War. Following World War II, these two grand narratives eventually broke down leading to the death of narrative knowledge.
The speculative narrative has always had an ambiguous relationship with positive knowledge; knowledge must repudiate itself to be considered such (Lyotard 38). The principle of legitimacy for the speculative narrative ended up being self-defeating; nothing seemed to legitimate the process of legitimation itself (Lyotard 39). The emancipatory narrative broke down based on the realization that science did not seem capable of legitimating other language-games (Lyotard 40). The fact that a statement was true did not mean that it was just (Lyotard 40).
This was extenuated by the rapid increase in technology after the second world war and the collapse of a socialist alternative (Lyotard 38). These metanarratives which once legitimated knowledge have broken down with the advent of the postmodern era. After the collapse of these two grand narratives, efficiency emerges as the main method to legitimate denotative knowledge. Knowledge’s production has fundamentally shifted as a result (Lyotard 45). After the collapse of these grand narratives, the only language game left was that of technology. Technology follows the principle of efficiency; output is maximized for minimal input (Lyotard 44).
Technology has an intrinsic link to profit which preceded of union with science (Lyotard 45). Science needs money to operate; without any grand narrative to legitimate it, science becomes victim to market forces (Lyotard 45). Capitalism has given science its legitimacy; by funding scientific research there is a predicted loss for a certain period of time with an eventual decisive and highly profitable return in the form of a scientific “discovery” (Lyotard 45). Science is no longer concerned with proof; the technical language-game has irrevocably influenced the truth-criterion (Lyotard 46).
Efficiency has emerged as the main source of legitimation for the production of knowledge. Efficiency is also the main source of legitimation for the transmission of knowledge. The result is a university system that is based upon the production of skills rather than any sort of ideal (Lyotard 51). The university system is just as much a force of production as any other institution (Lyotard 45). University is now just a subsystem of the broader social system and is subject to the same criterion of performativity (Lyotard 48). What is legitimated in the university system is that which is popular; this is determined by market forces.
There are a variety of ways in which the contemporary university system has been changed. One is the introduction of new programs and restructuring of old programs focused on the development of skills. Examples would be programs like tourism and hotel management, along with specialized courses in English based on writing technical documents. More and more emphasis is being placed upon faculties correlated with efficiency (business), while departments such as humanities are either abandoned or restructured to adapt. Efficiency has emerged as the basis for the transmission of knowledge as well.