Contact Courses Professional Study Aids Glossaries Key Links Purpose      


Complexity, Controversy, and Characteristics


Francisco de Goya (Spanish, 1746-1823)
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797-98)

A.  Introduction to the Question: What is Modernity?

The concept, and corresponding phenomenon, of modernity is complex and controversial. Regarding the former, its semantic scope includes philosophical, historical, social, political, economic, literary and aesthetic dimensions. Consequently, it constitutes a broad cultural category accessible to diverse disciplinary and interdisciplinary forms of inquiry. Its close association with several related concepts such as Enlightenment, modernism, and modernization further complicates the conceptual complexity of modernity. However, a systematic clarification of its multidimensional complexity is not a necessary precondition for delineating the defining characteristics typically attributed to modernity. Accordingly, section B below provides a profile of modernity in terms of these general characteristics.

In addition, the controversial question of the crisis or legitimacy of modernity has polarized Continental philosophy, and European culture generally, from the time of Hegel (early nineteenth century) up to our historical present. In the nineteenth century Hegel, Kierkegaard and  Nietzsche, among others, critically diagnosed the various problems of modernity and proposed constructive countermeasures. These three seminal critics of modernity will provide a historical framework for understanding the emergence of existentialism in the early twentieth century. Turning to the contemporary philosophical climate, a highly qualified yet vigorous defense of the legitimacy of modernity has been advanced by such prominent philosophers a Jürgen Habermas, Hans Blumenberg and Richard Rorty. In contrast, it has been sharply criticized from a modified pre-modern perspective (Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Alasdair MacIntyre) and from a broadly construed postmodern perspective (Jean-Francois Lyotard, Gianni Vattimo, Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard).

B.  A Profile of Modernity: General Characteristics

1. Rejection of ancient cultural, literary and aesthetic models in favor of the superiority of modern models. (Compare the famous late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Quarrelle des anciens et des modernes)

2. The emergence of an epochal self-consciousness and self-confidence characterized by a belief in the progress and improvability of mankind.

3. The establishment of a bourgeois society and social life characterized by liberal democratic institutions, free market economy, a dominant middle class, and private property. (Capitalism, the modern nation state, political and legal egalitarianism, etc.)

4. Philosophical and scientific claims for superiority and enlightened maturity of critical reason over historical tradition, ecclesiastical authority, ancestral devotion, classical culture and prescientific superstition.

5. The emergence of modern humanism characterized by autonomous self-assertion, scientific naturalism, technological mastery of nature, the demystification of human nature and nature generally, the liberation of theoretical curiosity, liberal optimism about progress and the secularization of culture.

6. Philosophical, social, political and legal insistence on the autonomy, self-determination, rational independence, and natural rights of all individuals (especially the right of freedom).

7. Modernization by means of technological and industrial developments and its consequent effects upon societies, customs, and individuals.

8. A social, political, and philosophical emphasis upon the autonomous individual in contrast to communal identity.