Adam I. Gerard

Grand Meta-Narratives

Much has been said about Nietzsche's "Death of God" and Lyotard's "Grand Meta-Narratives".


This post combines a few of my own thoughts on these subjects.


This is one of my favorite summaries of Nietzsche:

Download: The Compassion of Zarathustra

The primary aim of the article is to persuade readers to alter a common misunderstanding about Nietzsche. Namely, that Nietzsche should be depicted as an enemy of compassion (which is a concept central to both Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism - they mostly disagree about the State's role in managing compassionate activities).

First, Frazer contrasts Nietzsche against other landmark philosophers (who, perhaps surprisingly, all argued that empathy is undesirable) by aligning Nietzsche with Schopenhauer (one of the few philosophers who argued for the merits of compassion).

Second, Frazer repudiates the claim that Nietzsche presents an altogether original philosophy situating Nietzsche's work firmly within the Aristotelian Virtue Ethics tradition.

On the second point, my take on certain Nietzschean concepts (and some famous philosophical concepts) is that they are but subtle repackagings or rebrandings of previous concepts (I think these can be mostly intersubstituted without too much loss):

  1. The Death of God - The eventual triumph of Pyrrhonian Philosophical Skepticism but with a focus on morality and religiously-grounded notions.
  2. Noumenal-Phenomenal Distinction - The Parable of the Cave with an emphasis on the limits of the psyche (here, the philosopher's term) and mental.

I've further critiqued Nietzsche here.

On Grand Meta-Narratives

Here's one of the most interesting notions to come out of modern philosophy (regardless of the viability of postmodernism as a concept or critique). It intersects other intriguing notions like Wittgenstein's Language Games (

While Lyotard's focus is on the nature of knowledge at the end of the 20th century (and, how it has and will change). The concept can be extracted from this wider work on society and epistemology.

A quick pass through the history aisle shows just how influential certain pervasive ideas have been in structuring future and past societies:

  1. The Enlightenment (the victory of science and reason against dogma and superstition) and Modernity (its implementation and outcome)
  2. The Renaissance (the defeat of the Dark Age and the return of Classical Thought) and Humanism (shifting to concern for mortal humans above solely the Heavenly)
  3. Imperium (people proclaiming themselves as heirs of the Roman Empire lasted until well-into the 20th century - Czar and Kaiser both directly translate to Caesar)
  4. Universal Polity (the European Union, Christendom, Caliphate, Mongol Khan, The Absolute, Charles V/Carlos II)
  5. The Software Revolution - Marc Andreessen's "Software Will Eat the World" (read:

Clearly, a single book or idea can be greatly influential. Adherents of the world's five largest religions know that. As do the uncountable heresies, rebels, dissenters, scientists, philosophers, etc. who have challenged them.

Here, Grand Meta-Narratives are more than mere stories. They contain within them similarly powerful religious ideas and give substance, meaning (by way of teleology), and inspiration for the creation of whole societies and civilizations.

A teleology gives meaning to a subject in the same way that a story is told from beginning to end. A teleology situates a subject within the context of a history - a narrative progression from start to finish.

The Death of Grand Meta-Narratives

I think we can reasonably recast Nietzsche's thesis about the Death of God as the victory of skepticism and the end of Grand Meta-Narratives.

  1. Religion, in a vacuum, is just writings - a forgotten scrap of parchment (regardless of its truth or veracity about the divine). What makes religion relevant is that it shapes our lives, is a visible social institution, and encompasses the breadth of one's thoughts (in true adherents).
  2. Thus, the great religions are Grand Meta-Narratives (and their writings part of them, per the above).

The absence or decline of a unifying narrative is concurrent with a feeling of aimlessness, anomie, malaise, fragmentation, division, epistemic failure, and so on.

Practical Considerations

A few questions?

  1. Do groups create Grand Meta-Narratives or do Grand Meta-Narratives form groups? W.R.T. the politics of Europe, it would seem like the latter rather than the former (Holy Roman Empire, European Union, French Empire, etc.). So there's probably something worthwhile in fostering Grand Meta-Narratives rather than just groups of people.
  2. Are Grand Meta-Narratives just what we mean by Culture? Probably not, I'd argue that Culture is shaped by Grand Meta-Narratives. Cultures are expressions of Grand Meta-Narratives.
  3. Is there greater peace and social harmony when a single Grand Meta-Narrative dominates?
  4. Can one Grand Meta-Narrative exist in harmony with others?