I cannot tell you how often I’ve heard the term “postmodern” as either identical with “skepticism” or “relativism” from scholars in other disciplines. And while postmodernists are skeptical about some things, I think re-addressing what postmodernism is might be a little fun, especially considering the recent attention Derrida is getting from Eric Schliesser at Digressions and Impressions. I argue that postmodernism should be understood within its appropriate and nuanced context, and also that there are two types of postmodernism: epistemic anti-realism and a metaphysical anti-realism. People tend to conflate these varieties and indict all French philosophy because of this conflation. At the same time, however, the difficulty of someone like Lyotard (or even Caputo) is that these two varieties are co-extensive in their work. Postmodern philosophers equally take this co-extensivity for granted when it suits their purposes, so one must become careful in deciphering which anti-realism is operative when engaging these texts.
In each philosopher, the “postmodern project” shifts depending on the target of skepticism. To boil down these specific projects to the overall implication of what those discourses might say about truth is simply a distortion of their overwhelming complexity and beauty—even if we fundamentally disagree with them. In analytic philosophy, Gilbert Harman’s paper “Moral Relativism Defended” is a more refined and sophisticated piece than the relativism we teach in our introductory ethics classes. The same is true about any of the postmodern theorists. In Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, a concentrated interrogation of Lyotard’s Preface can introduce elements of postmodernism and show why they are anti-realist.
Postmodernism can be divided into two distinctions: postmodern epistemological anti-realism and postmodern metaphysical anti-realism. Postmodern epistemological anti-realism is the view that epistemic agents cannot claim to know anything outside their own lived-contexts, and as such, knowing what there is created and bound to those same lived-contexts. In postmodern metaphysical anti-realism, the thesis is that the only things that exist are the projects and fabrics of lived-contexts. The fabric of reality is a woven construction of mind-dependent factors inhering in lived-contexts. Lyotard is both a postmodern epistemological anti-realist and postmodern metaphysical anti-realist. From the fact that human beings are no longer bound to metanarratives in terms of knowing also indicates that we have no access to reality itself apart from them.
In Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, Lyotard develops a conception of postmodernism as a report on the status of knowledge in the post-industrial age from the 1950s even until today. In this way, his work could be understood as either a particular discourse in either social epistemology or the philosophy of science, but more broadly, his work could capture the spirit under which the other postmodernists might embrace. Ultimately, however, Lyotard’s project amounts to a type of sociology of knowledge about science as it is practiced in today’s ethos. Specifically, science seeks truth within its own discourse, but the legitimation of science, its contents, theories and practices is what Lyotard defines as philosophy. Furthermore, Lyotard defines the modern as “any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative.” So the real ambiguous question is what does he mean by a “grand/meta-narrative” ? Let’s give a few examples. Kant’s first critique provides the possible conditions of possible knowledge such that it legitimates Newtonian mechanics. Put another way, Kant’s transcendental critique defends why we experience objects of experience that Newtonian mechanics studies. In another example, Descartes removes the uncertainty about God and souls from 17th century natural philosophy’s domain in the res extensa, securing certainty of their existence in a realm untouchable by physics in his res cogitans. Therefore, the grand/meta narrative is that which grounds and motivates a particular discourse like in the examples above. The ground and motivation are often implicit in a discourse. Lyotard attributes the role of the metanarrative historically to several examples: the dialects of spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working class, or the creation of wealth. One could easily imagine Hegel, Gadamer, Kant, Marx, or Smith in those examples.
In contrast to the modern, Lyotard’s postmodern is “an incredulity toward metanarratives.” Each metanarrative is an apparatus of legitimation that justifies the sciences at that particular historical moment. The purpose of what Lyotard labels postmodern knowledge is in the cultivated “sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.” In this way, the postmodern condition explains the condition under which information is controlled since the practices of legitimation are interlinked with the normative problems of ethics and politics. For Lyotard, the interlinkage between science and values (ethics and politics) “stem from the same perspective, the same ‘choice’ if you will, the choice of the Occident.” By that “choice,” The West (since Plato) has always linked the normativity of what is just with the expectations of what knowledge can serve. The metaphysical and epistemological projects are tied to the social dimensions of knowledge and power—“revealing that knowledge and power are two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is and who knows what needs to be decided?” In addition, since both metaphysical and epistemological efforts can secure the social dimensions of knowledge and power, this inextricability of the social underlies both metaphysics and epistemology, and that provides evidence to the view established above, namely, that Lyotard is both a postmodern epistemological anti-realist and a postmodern metaphysical anti-realist.
It’s not true that all postmodernists are both epistemological and metaphysical anti-realists. Many people in theology, for example, can be epistemological anti-realists about scripture, interpretation, and our ability to know God while believe in God as if they were metaphysical realists. When we observe postmodernism in theology, we must acknowledge the deeply ethical place such motivation comes from. In not having access to thee reality of God (cut away like the Moon Woman in Pollock's painting above), we are made humble before all possible differences of belief to such an extent that we can see an enlarged but similar motivation from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. In the Letter, Locke urges tolerance of various Christian denominations precisely because we do not have epistemic access to which version of Christianity is true, and in holding with this same epistemic ignorance, postmodern epistemic anti-realists generalize this condition to all epistemic agents and all communities. By extension, postmodern ethicists embrace the limits of knowing morality even though they might practically adopt a belief in a real answer to ethical questions. It’s just that we can never think we know those answers with any measure of confidence, so the best we can hope for is to call for the radical tolerance of many voices.
 See Gilbert Harman’s “Moral Relativism Defended” in The Philosophy Review vol. 84 no. 1 (January 1975): 3-22.
 Some notable work has been done by Lee Braver to introduce the anti-realism and realism distinction first coined by Michael Dummett in his “Realism” in Truth and Other Enigmas (London: Duckwork, 1978). See Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-realism (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008).
 I really have to thank J. Aaron Simmons of Furman University for a discussion on this point.
 Jean-François Lyotard’s, Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 3.
 Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.
 Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.
 Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.
 Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiv.
 Lyotard, Postmodernism xxv.
 Lyotard, Postmodernism, 8.
 Lyotard, Postmodernism, 9.
 You’ll also note this insight is why so many feminist and social epistemologies were inspired by postmodern French philosophy in the first place. To ignore the social dimensions of context and power in epistemology is the reason why gender is under-theorized before the 20th century.