Definitions and Characteristics of
|Since the term "Modern" is used to describe a
wide range of periods, any definition of modernity must account for the
context in question. Modern can mean all of post-medieval European history, in the context
of dividing history into three large epochs: Antiquity, Medieval, and Modern. Likewise, it
is often used to describe the Euro-American culture that arises out of the Enlightenment
and continues in some way into the present. The term "Modern" is also applied to
the period beginning somewhere between 1870 and 1910, through the present, and even more
specifically to the 1910-1960 period.
One common use of the term, "Early
Modern" is to describe the condition of Western History either since the mid-1400's,
or roughly the European discovery of moveable type and the printing press, or the early
1600's, the period associated with the rise of the Enlightenment project. These periods
can be characterized by:
Growth of tolerance as a political and social belief
Rise of mercantilism and capitalism
Discovery and colonization of the Non-Western world
Rise of representative democracy
Increasing role of science and technology
Proliferation of mass media
The Cartesian and Kantian distrust of tradition for autonomous reason
In addition, the 19th century can be said to add the following facets to modernity:
Naturalist approaches to art and description
Evolutionary thinking in geology, biology, politics, and social sciences
Beginnings of modern psychology
Growing disenfranchisement of religion
- Emergence of social science and anthropology
- Romanticism and Early Existentialism
Defining Characteristics of Modernity
There have been numerous attempts, particularly in the field of sociology, to
understand what modernity is. A wide variety of terms are used to describe the society,
social life, driving force, symptomatic mentality, or some other defining aspects of
modernity. They include:
Nationalism--the rise of the modern nation-states as
rational centralized governments that often cross local, ethnic groupings
Urbanization--the move of people, cultural centers, and
political influence to large cities
Subjectivism--the turn inward for definitions and
evaluations of truth and meaning
Linear-progression--preference for forms of reasoning that
stress presuppositions and resulting chains of propositions
Objectivism--the belief that truth-claims can be
established by autonomous information accessible by all
Universalism--application of ideas/claims to all
cultures/circumstances regardless of local distinctions
Reductionism--the belief that something can be understood
by studying the parts that make it up
Mass society--the growth of societies united by mass media
and widespread dissemination of cultural practices as opposed to local and regional
Industrial society--societies formed around the industrial
production and distribution of products
Homogenization--the social forces that tend toward a
uniformity of cultural ideas and products
Democratization--political systems characterized by free
elections, independent judiciaries, rule of law, and respect of human rights
Mechanization--the transfer of the means of production from
human labor to mechanized, advanced technology
Totalitarianism--absolutist central governments that
suppress free expression and political dissent, and that practice propaganda and
indoctrination of its citizens
Therapeutic motivations--the understanding that the human
self is a product of evolutionary desires and that the self should be assisted in
achieving those desires as opposed to projects of ethical improvement or pursuits of
- Bureaucracy--impersonal, social hierarchies that practice a
division of labor and are marked by a regularity of method and procedure
- Disenchantment of the world--the loss of sacred and
metaphysical understandings of al facets of life and culture
- Rationalization--the world can be understood and managed
through a reasonable and logical system of objectively accessible theories and data
- Secularization--the loss of religious influence and/or
religious belief at a societal level
- Alienation--isolation of the individual from systems of
meaning--family, meaningful work, religion, clan, etc.
- Commodification--the reduction of all aspects of life to
objects of monetary consumption and exchange
- Decontexutalization--the removal of social practices,
beliefs, and cultural objects from their local cultures of origin
- Individualism --growing stress on individuals as opposed to
meditating structures such as family, clan, academy, village, church
Modernity is often characterized by comparing modern societies to premodern or
postmodern ones, and the understanding of those non-modern social statuses is, again, far
from a settled issue. To an extent, it is reasonable to doubt the very possibility of a
descriptive concept that can adequately capture diverse realities of societies of various
historical contexts, especially non-European ones, let alone a three-stage model of social
evolution from premodernity to postmodernity. As one can see above, often seemingly
opposite forces (such as objectivism and subjectivism, individualism and the nationalism,
democratization and totalitarianism) are attributed to modernity, and there are perhaps
reasons to argue why each is a result of the modern world. In terms of social structure,
for example, many of the defining events and characteristics listed above stem from a
transition from relatively isolated local communities to a more integrated large-scale
society. Understood this way, modernization might be a general, abstract process which can
be found in many different parts of histories, rather than a unique event in Europe.
In general, large-scale integration involves:
- Increased movement of goods, capital, people, and information among formerly separate
areas, and increased influence that reaches beyond a local area.
- Increased formalization of those mobile elements, development of 'circuits' on which
those elements and influences travel, and standardization of many aspects of the society
in general that is conducive to the mobility.
- Increased specialization of different segments of society, such as the division of
labor, and interdependency among areas.
Seemingly contradictory characteristics ascribed to modernity are often different
aspects of this process. For example, unique local culture is invaded and lost by the
increased mobility of cultural elements, such as recipes, folktales, and hit songs,
resulting in a cultural homogenization across localities, but the repertoire of available
recipes and songs increases within a area because of the increased interlocal movement,
resulting in a diversification within each locality. (This is manifest especially in large
metropolises where there are many mobile elements). Centralized bureaucracy and
hierarchical organization of governments and firms grows in scale and power in an
unprecedented manner, leading some to lament the stifling, cold, rationalist or
totalitarian nature of modern society. Yet individuals, often as replaceable components,
may be able to move in those social subsystems, creating a sense of liberty, dynamic
competition and individualism for others. This is especially the case when a modern
society is compared with premodern societies, in which the family and social class one is
born into shapes one's life-course to a greater extent.
At the same time, however, such an understanding of modernity is certainly not
satisfactory to many, because it fails to explain the global influence of West European
and American societies since the Renaissance. What has made Western Europe so special?
There have been two major answers to this question. First, an internal factor is that
only in Europe, through the Renaissance humanists and early modern philosophers and
scientists, rational thinking came to replace many intellectual activities that had been
under heavy influence of convention, superstition, and religion. This line of answer is
most frequently associated with Max Weber, a sociologist who is known to have pursued the
answer to the above question. Second, an external factor is that colonization, starting as
early as the Age of Discovery, created exploitative relations between European countries
and their colonies.
It is also notable that such commonly-observed features of many modern societies as the
nuclear family, slavery, gender roles, and nation states do not necessarily fit well with
the idea of rational social organization in which components such as people are treated
equally. While many of these features have been dissolving, histories seem to suggest
those features may not be mere exceptions to the essential characteristics of
modernization, but necessary parts of it.
Modernity as Hope, Modernity as Doom
Modernization brought a series of seemingly indisputable benefits to people. Lower
infant mortality rate, decreased death from starvation, eradication of some of the fatal
diseases, more equal treatment of people with different backgrounds and incomes, and so
on. To some, this is an indication of the potential of modernity, perhaps yet to be fully
realized. In general, rational, scientific approach to problems and the pursuit of
economic wealth seems still to many a reasonable way of understanding good social
At the same time, there are a number of dark sides of modernity pointed out by
sociologists and others. Technological development occurred not only in the medical and
agricultural fields, but also in the military. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki during World War II, and the following nuclear arms race in the post-war era, are
considered by some as symbols of the danger of technologies that humans may or may not be
able to handle wisely. Stalin's Great Purges and the Holocaust (or Shoah) are considered
by some as indications that rational thinking and rational organization of a society might
involve exclusion, or extermination, of non-standard elements.
Environmental problems comprise another category in the dark side of modernity.
Pollution is perhaps the least controversial of these, but one may include decreasing
biodiversity and climate change as results of development. The development of
biotechnology and genetic engineering are creating what some consider sources of unknown
Besides these obvious incidents, many critics point out psychological and moral hazards
of modern life - alienation, feeling of rootlessness, loss of strong bonds and common
values, hedonism, disenchantment of the world, and so on. Likewise, the loss of a
generally agreed upon definitions of human dignity, human nature, and the resulting loss
of value in human life have all been cited as the impact of a social process/civilization
that reaps the fruits of growing privatization, subjectivism, reductionism, as well as a
loss of traditional values and worldviews. Some have suggested that the end result of
modernity is the loss of a stable conception of humanity and/or the human being.
[Much of the above is taken from Wikipedias free article. In conjunction with the
website's philosophy, I have freely adapted materials, added my own, and deleted other
selections without clear attribution. Anyone who wants to see the full article may go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernity ]
Conditions of the Modern Self
- The modern self assumes an autonomy that seeks to reject the claims
of authority, tradition, or community.
- The modern self searches for personal therapy that only results in
the subjective experience of well-being.
- The true, the good, and the beautiful are undiscoverable, so they are
judged as not applicable to human experience.
- The modern self has moved from an emphasis on redemption of character
to liberation from social inhibitions.
- Identity is self-constructed through self-consumption of products of
- Such claims about identity and truth call for a technical mastery of
the environment, as well as a division between the public and private spheres of reality.
Adapted from Gay, Craig M. The Way of the (Modern) World:
Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
|Peter Berger's Six Propositions on The Nature
of Western Individuality
Thus, with the above in
mind, this is how most of Western society understands human identity:
- The uniqueness of the individual represents his or her essential
- Individuals are or ought to be free.
- Individuals are responsible for their own actions, but only for their
- An individual's subjective experience of the world is
"real" by definition.
- Individuals possess certain rights over and against collectives.
- Individuals are ultimately responsible for creating themselves.
Berger, Peter L. "Western Individuality: Liberation and
Loneliness," Partisan Review 52 (1985).
|The image above is of Torsten
Renqvist's 1971 Ordet. It is an image of Christ. I have chosen to
include it here because it represents a very Romantic notion of Christ, one who is a
self-actualized hero. Christ projects himself by force of will outside of his
circumstances. By the power of his imagination he overcomes the wounding he receives
in his hands. Renqvist's vision of Christ is essentially a modernist one, in which
creed and religion have been reduced to a therapeutic desire for internal
expression. In this sense, Ordet is emblematic of the false solutions that
the modern self is left with.