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What is Modernity?

January 2nd, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in History

I am writing a short 3-part series on modernity, postmodernity, and why I am disillusioned by secularism and progress.  By no means do I mean for this to be exhaustive. In fact, in this post I will just mention one major characteristic of modernity, and I will not mention the other 999 things.

Since I’m reviewing Swanson’ book Apostate, I need to do this, so I have a few posts to reference back.

Modernity is harder to define than postmodernity. Scholars even disagree on when it began and if it has ever ended. Some people separate the Age of Reason from modernity while others combine those two periods as all just modernity. Some people say that we still operate in modernity while others say we are in postmodernity. While mostly incidental, this variation affects how we might define modernity. <–In fairness, the books I’ve read say modernity began in the mid 16th century until the presentish, so the dates aren’t so wishy washy in my discipline.

I hesitate to write this post because modernity becomes vague when we define it through a 300 year lens. It’s unfortunate; however, I can’t really define postmodernism correctly (if that’s possible -haha) unless I first establish what it was that postmodernism critiqued.

So in short, this is a part of modernity that the postmodern philosophers later critiqued. It is not, however, more than a fraction of modernity.

Modernity is loosely a unified or “totalizing” system of knowledge, language, and grand narratives (to name a few) that has been constructed through history in order to reach new horizons.

I should elaborate.

Modernity is an awareness that we are temporal people who are going to die. So the solution is to take control of the earth. Initially, modernity was an optimistic project. Nietzsche thought we could will ourselves joy. Marx thought that by eliminating class struggle our lives could become peaceful. Technology produced this optimistic vision that people could create an ideal future, hence progress.

For this reason, the university created new departments, such as psychology, and society created better mental health programs.

Modernity opened the world to science, and educated people against superstition. <–obviously this existed before modernity, but universal education and better technology accelerated this.

Modernity freed the west of slavery because of secular human rights. <–this took time, but we got there.

Modernity brought great transportation and technology never yet known to man.

Modernity created the frontier.

Early modernity gave us a place in society and gave us a level of certainty about where to place ourselves.

Early modernity rests on the notion that there is a reality out there that we not only grounded upon, but also even more importantly, it rests on the assumption that we can know this reality through science and knowledge. We call this foundationalism. The totalizing, whole picture of reality can be grasped by evidence (the scientific method) or through Reason – that leads to the truth. Of course, this was followed by serious critiques of reason long before postmodernism came on the scene (David Hume and Immanuel Kant, for example); however, people in general had much more certainty in what we now consider constructed knowledge systems. <–There was, of course, much debate among intellectuals on what those systems should be; nevertheless, modernity still created a faith in democracy for the Americans, and that somehow we would, and could, progress until we created an ideal standard of living.

Thus during modernity people create this very totalizing, holistic view of reality. Essentially early modernity says that there is a pure form of knowledge, language, history, etc, and so, therefore, this is so holistic that all narratives and pieces of reality somehow fit under the big umbrellas. In other words, the grand narratives explain all reality. For example, for Freud sexual desire explains everything we do. For Karl Marx class struggle explains it all. Therefore, by identifying the grand narratives, modernity could create a better world. These grand metanarratives made European modernity so, so powerful because they subsumed all smaller narratives.

We see the results of this powerful narrative even to this today. Although Europe colonized the entire world, and although this is now recognized as wrong, the western standard of living is still often seen as the most ideal standard of living both by the westerners themselves (I live in Canada, and I am often told that Canada is better than certain other countries although not as quite as good as Scandinavia specifically because Canada is secular and progressive) and additionally by formally colonized countries who themselves want the western lifestyle (<–not universally, but in Laos the people would revere me for being American even after an American landmine exploded and killed school children). This is because the modern narrative is so powerful, and because modernity really works.

Modernity promised progress and created this image that human rights is universal, that knowledge is universal, and that we could will anything, including better health, better mental health, better relationships, better technology, and better world peace.  Modernity is the “of course” way of life. Modernity presents the pure form of knowledge, reality, and history, and thus, of course, everything should look this way and behave this way, and anything else is prehistoric, barbaric, inferior, or developing.  Of course, modernity itself expanded. We see human rights  in early modernity (“all men are created equal”), but only in late modernity has this opened to gays.

However, this does not mean that inside modernity everything ran smoothly. Obviously modernity saw violence, war, and discrimination. It began to operate on relativism because creating the best and biggest, and becoming the superman, requires fighting for one’s own story. As often stated, the self-determinate win. The key point, however, is that modernity was able to make the violence, war, and discrimination apart of the modern narrative. War somehow becaee necessary for human rights. Discrimination was justified because we needed authority because authority sustains the systems.

Of course, modernity changed faces significantly post world War II even if, as I would argue, we did not leave modernity. I’ll get to those shortcomings in the next post on postmodernity. I hope I am not coming across as completely pessimistic here. Modernity works. That’s why it has lasted 300 years.

For an easyish summary of modernity (aka, far easier than the postmoderns I will refer to in the next post), see the late historian George Grant’s lectures Time as History (free), or you can read the lectures in book form. Time, in these lectures, refers to that feeling of temporality or fate that drives man to master the earth for the sake of mastery. We call this time as history.

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  • https://questionablemotives.wordpress.com tildeb

    Just be careful to keep the same meaning for modernity as an adjective – allowing reality to arbitrate claims made about it and calling this product (tentative) ‘knowledge’ – and not pull a Sociology 101 trick and magically turn it into a noun, as a causal force. This is the mistake many students in the humanities and arts make.

    • Lana Hope

      Yea good point.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    Thanks Lana. I found this post very useful to me personally.

  • Omkara

    “Modernity is an awareness that we are temporal people who are going to die. So the solution is to take control of the earth. ”

    Taking control (dominion!) of the earth does not stop the process of death. And it never will.

    I always thought modernity was the industrial age and post-modernity is the post-industrial age.

    • Lana Hope

      You are right that modernity corresponds to the industrial age. The mindset of modernity certainly produced the industrial age, and certainly postmodernity came post-industrial. Yea, I totally agree. Nothing will ever stop the death process. I think what philosophers, such as Nietzshe, referred to was the growing agnosticism in the west that came out of the enlightenment, and this creates that feeling that this earth may be all we have. That’s why temporality is certainly a defining characteristic of modernity. Whereas say in ancient Greek culture history was seen as an unfolding of the divine in the now, and in the medieval period the story had a beginning, middle, and end. Time itself is never neutral and always functions some way, and time in modernity functions as history as George Grant says.

  • http://twitter.com/liter8media Christopher Hutton (@liter8media)

    When I saw you referring to the author George Grant”, I got super-scared that you were using this guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Grant_(author)

    Thankfully, you had a legitimate source.

    • Lana Hope

      Yea I’m vaguely familiar with the evangelical, but no, no, this George Grant is a scholar and historian. I would not call the other Grant not legitmate, but he is not a scholar of history.

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