The Modern, Modernity, Modernism and the Postmodern

This essay attempts to delineate in very broad strokes the differences between the following terms: the ‘modern’, modernity, modernism and the postmodern. There is no unanimity or consensus among the scholars dealing with this cluster of concepts as to what they refer to or their exact meaning. There is a dispute about the origins and the genealogy of these terms. In the following I shall aim to discuss some of these controversies without, for all that, having any pretension of offering any guidelines or instructions as how to go about resolving such disputes.

A peek at history

“Don’t believe a word of it!” These are the words of Stephen Toulmin (Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity). Toulmin is narrating the standard story of modernity and how his generation of the 30s and 40s was infatuated by it, felt elevated and happy to have been born and be part of this great story and the cluster of ideas associated with the event of modernity. For Toulmin’s generation modernity represented not only something that was good for the Westerners but, and here we see some of the modernity’s totalitarian and colonial tendencies hidden under the thick veil of ideals of reason and progress, they also hoped that the whole world would soon join in their march of championing the same ideals.

Toulmin’s generation believed that modernity already by 1600 A.D. had reached a certain stage of prosperity and material comfort, and its defining characteristics were the development of trade, the growth of cities and the invention of printed books which greatly facilitated the spread of literacy among the lay people. A secular culture, one of the defining marks of modernity, was finally emerging from the dark background of the Middle Ages and its religious driven regime. With the rise of the modern secular culture people began to feel the need for more personal freedom, they started to question the Church’s until then undisputed authority over the lay world, and with Descartes and Galileo Galilee they started to, innocently at first, not only to doubt the dogmas of Christianity but also to judge them as inadequate or ill fitted with the new horizon that was being founded by the new science.

Toulmin speaks of a revolution of the sort: an intellectual revolution launched by the two great figures of the 17th century, namely Descartes and Galileo. This revolution had two aspects, two defining moments which announced the birth of a new time. The first moment was its scientific character which lead to prominent innovations in the fields of physics and astronomy. Its second defining moment came in philosophy, the emergence of the modern subjective philosophy accompanied by a new method. Galileo and Descartes’ invention belong approximately to the same moment in history, they emerged roughly at the same time, 1630.

It is the 17th century that is regarded, in the standard parlance of the historians of science and philosophy, as the defining moment of the birth of Modernity, with its insistence on rationality and the rejection of tradition and superstition. The 17th century is seen as the century of emancipation from the tutelage of theology, the century of the new beginnings. ‘By the year 1630, the Holy Roman Empire was an empty shell of an institution: from now on, European politics focused single-mindedly on act of sovereign Nation States’ (Toulmin, p. 15). Although the contours of the Nation States, by the 1630, were not as yet clearly delimited, since they took their definitive form only after 1660, Toulmin, and a host of other writers coupled with the belief of his generation held the account to be true. In fact, Toulmin clearly states that up until 1950, and probably until now, the authenticity of this historical narrative was rarely, if ever, questioned.

But what is wrong with this account that Toulmin considers ‘one-sided, over-optimistic and veered into self-congratulation’ (p. 16)? Here is Toulmin’s answer in a nutshell:

“The received view took it for granted that the political, economic, social and intellectual condition of Western Europe radically improved from 1600 on, in ways that encouraged the development of new political institutions, and more rational methods of inquiry. This assumption is increasingly open to challenge… Far from the years 1605-1650 being prosperous or comfortable, they are now seen as having been among the most uncomfortable, and even frantic, years in all-European history. Instead of regarding Modern Science and Philosophy as the products of leisure, therefore, we will do better to torn the received view upside down, and treat them as responses to a contemporary crisis” (p.16).

To support his claim Toulmin cites the example of Nicholaus Copernicus in the 1530s and 1540s who did not suffer the rigid persecution by the Church as Galileo was persecuted a hundred years later. So the real beginning of Modernity then is not the 17th century but the century prior to it, i.e. the 16th. The 17th century was a century of crisis and economic depression, of the Thirty Years’ War. The prosperity of the 16th century saw an abrupt ending in the 17th century, with the exception of Hoolan. Spain lost its command over the South Atlantic, France was hit by the Great Plague (1630-32, 1647-49). England was hit by ‘a series of cool, wet summers’ which had considerable effect in decreasing the growth of food productions. The religious surveillance became more severe than it was previously. It even saw the narrowing of the horizon of expectations since a general belief in the ‘End of the Wold’ took over. The scope of Aristotelian conception of rationality was substituted for that of Plato which limited the scope of rationality to ‘theoretical arguments that achieve a quasi-geometrical certainty or necessity’ (p.20).

All in all the standard view that modernity began in the 17th century is historically inaccurate and in need of revision.

The ‘modern’ and Modernity

It is not always easy to draw a fine line of distinction between the ‘modern’ and modernity. These are notions which cover a range of norms, dispositions, attitudes, historical epochs, distinct forms of knowledge, (political, social…) conditions, experiences and even anachronistic forms. They thus belong to that order of words which we intuitively feel that we know a lot about until we are asked about their precise meanings. The field and the range of their semantic meanings can be widened or narrowed depending on the intention and purpose of their use and the context where they are put into use. The result is often a synonymous and interchangeable use.

In this article the term ‘modern’ is used to denote a group of ideas, thoughts and ideals that belong to, and originated with the rise of modernity: the historical epoch that began in the 16/17th century in Europe and which today is often associated with capitalism, as another name for modernity. The ‘modern’ thus stands for a certain project consisting of a set of ideas, which we will enumerate below, and which was thought to belong distinctly to a period in history known as modernity use these terms synonymously.

I shall use the word modernity in two rather distinct senses, which I hope, however vaguely, corresponds to the distinction between the ‘modern’ and modernity. In the first sense I connect modernity to the variables such as industrialization, urbanization, bureaucratization, rationalization, secularization, the triple division of the power of the state, modern political systems and the like. In the second sense, modernity is understood, in a certain Habermasian vein, normatively and special emphasis is put on (not necessarily communicative or intersubjective) reason and rationality, moral universalism, human rights and those highly valued cultural traits such as religious tolerance, individualism, etc.

Probably the best way to conceptualize and make sense of the project of modernity is to contrast it with the pre-modern (the Middle Ages) forms and conditions of knowledge, habitualized modes of existence and the worldview. The Middle Ages was a time where humans lived in a state of utter dependency and relation to the Creator, their God. The individual identified her/himself with the collective (the Church, the clan, the family) to which s/he belonged. S/he was a part of a larger world which was under constant surveillance of God, and where religion and the clerics played a prominent role in hierarchically arranging and organizing inter-human relations. The future lay in the past and the truth was objective.

Charles Taylor has written of the moral order of both pre-and modern times. Taylor stresses how Protestantism, Descartes, Grotius and Locke (among others) all produced philosophies in which nature was evacuated of intrinsic meaning and value, becoming instead an object to be subordinated to human rationality, will, and desire. This occurred in the very same movement of thought which constituted the human subject as the privileged creator of meaning and value in an otherwise inert natural world. The instrumentalization of nature and the privileging of the subject become two of the key sources of that sense of selfhood which Taylor sees as distinguishing the long modern period from its antecedents. He identifies and singles out two important types of premodern moral order before being taken over and displaced or marginalized by the moral order of modernity. ‘One is the idea of the Law of a people, which has governed this people since time out of mind and which, in a sense, defines it as a people’ and the other ‘is organized around a notion of a hierarchy in society that expresses and corresponds to a hierarchy in the cosmos’ . The premodern moral order and the hierarchal complementarity imagery that sustained it ‘was the principle on which people’s lives effectively operated, all the way from the kingdom to the city to the diocese to the parish to the clan and to the family’ . Moreover, this ideal order was not perceived as human invention. On the contrary it was perceived as ‘designed by God, an order in which everything coheres according to God’s purposes’ .

In contrast to this premodern imagery the modern imagery constituted a break with and radical displacement of the premodern (moral or otherwise) order. If in the premodern imagery and the horizon of meaning the world was symbolized as a book (to be read), in the modern imagery the world became a machine, (whereas in the postmodern condition it becomes a theatre). If the premodern capital was Rome, the modern capital is, what else, Paris, (whereas the postmodern capital becomes Los Angeles). The locomotive stands for the ultimate symbol of the modern and modernity.

In contrast to the premodern static, repetitive and circular understanding and the recurrence of the same, the modern condition is one of mobility: progress is one of its defining moments and characteristics. Science and reason are the organs through which the modern imagery perpetuates itself continually. If the premodern conducted and directed itself to the past, and the postmodern to the present, the modern looked at the future. The moderns believe that there are identifiable scientific laws which govern the world-machine. We not only learn from the world but we also control it. Knowledge thus is a form of power. Tradition ceased to have that aura of authority which it had enjoyed for the premoderns. In fact the modern condition can be understood more effectively as the break from tradition and its patterns of control. The modern imagery is defined by belief that the individual can influence and control (the pervasive theme in the brutal destruction of the environment) his or her own destiny. The organization of the society is done instrumentally involving no relation to anything higher. Modernity as an epoch was indeed without precedent.

To have a clearer understanding of what the modern and modernity entail we shall mention some of its defining characteristics which set it apart from other historical epochs and social imageries. Among its defining features we may include

1) the belief in truth and method
2) the belief in progress
3) the belief in freedom, and, last but not least,
4) the belief in the last instances.

The first characteristic can be obviously directly related to Descartes’ philosophy. The possibility of believing in Truth is connected to the discovery of a method, a set of normative rules that guide the search for foundational truths. These truths are not given by God from outside human reason but originate from within it; hence the subjective turn in philosophy in both its ramifications: empiricism and rationalism. The senses or reason respectively become the last instances for judging the truth of certain propositions. The method also makes possible the disclosure of the truth and the removal of the false masks and prejudices, superstitions, conventional thinking, false consciousness, etc. The discovery of scientific methods consequently gave rise to the belief in historical progress of humanity from lower, primitive to higher, civilized forms of conduct and rational organization of society. The belief in progress is therefore closely related to the disenchantment of the religious worldview and the process of secularization. Modernity with its pronouncement of the Death of God makes it inherently impossible to turn back to religious answers of human predicament. Individualism becomes the predominant philosophy-ideology of Modernity. The human subject finds herself thrown into the world she did not choose but discovered that it can be controlled and developed, that we are not only passively constituted objects of the historical forces beside our control but can, and should, take control over ourselves and thus become subjects of our own fate and history. One is reminded here of Kant’s famous Aude sapere: dare to know, have the courage, the audacity to know.

In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Michel Foucault has disputed the understanding of modernity as an epoch, or as a set of features characteristic of an epoch which then can be compared to a naïve and archaic premodernity and a troubling postmodernity. Foucault chooses instead to see modernity as an “attitude”. By “attitude” he means ‘a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task’ . According to Foucault, then, although modernity resulted from a series of disparate historical factors that began to determine one another in a process of non teleological but accelerating change and development constitutive of modern societies and selves, ‘a break with tradition, a feeling of novelty, of vertigo in the face of the passing moment’ or in the words of Baudelaire, whose conception of modernity Foucault adopts, ‘the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent’, still he thinks that the distinctive feature of modernity ‘lies in adopting a certain attitude with respect to this movement; and this deliberate, difficult attitude consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the present, nor behind it, but within it’.

What interests me in this conception of modernity is that Foucault blurs the contours of the distinction between the ‘modern’ and modernity. Modernity as an ethos then cannot be adequately framed within the trajectory we have been following so far. I also mention Foucault in this context because I think that his understanding of modernity as an attitude although different from Bauman’s understanding, is also in other respects close to it: namely that modern culture is a garden culture. By which he means something analogous to an attitude: Holocaust could not have happened before the advent of modernity. Of course Bauman relies on and stresses the Weberian theme of bureaucratization and rationalization, but this can also be subsumed under the metaphor of the ‘garden culture’. Bauman couldn’t have been clearer than when he wrote:

‘Modern genocide, like modern culture in general, is a gardener’s job. It is just one of many chores that people who treat society as a garden need to undertake. If garden design defines its weeds, there are weeds wherever there is garden. And weeds are to be exterminated. Weeding out is a creative, not a destructive activity. It does not differ in kind from other activities which combine in the construction and sustenance of the perfect garden. All visions of society-as-garden define parts of the social habitat as human weeds. Like all other weeds, they must be segregated, contained, prevented from spreading, removed and kept outside the society boundaries; if all these means prove insufficient, they must be killed’.

In order to sustain the garden metaphor of the modern culture one must have formed and developed an attitude, an ethos and a set of bureaucratic institutions whose function is to keep and preserve the conditions which sustain a certain mode of behaviour and a way of relating to the garden.


We saw that the clarification of the concepts of ‘det moderne’ and modernity were fraught with conceptual, historical, narrative difficulties. What is so distinct about modernism, then? How do we differentiate it from modernity?

Obviously modernism is an heir to the project of modernity and the Enlightenment: ‘without modernity and all its works, the modernists would be unthinkable. They wanted to serve modernity; it was not their fault that they had to impose themselves with their offer upon a reluctant or indifferent society’ . Modernism however cannot be understood without its other dimension, the double edged-relation to modernity as it is, namely as a revolt against modernity’s slow historical process. As a literary and artistic movement they reacted violently against the heritage of the bourgeois humanism and its values by subverting and negating the cultural heritage of traditional bourgeois society. This can clearly be seen from Georg Lukacs’ attack on modernism on mimetic grounds, taking it to task for failing to reflect adequately the ‘objective totality of reality’, ‘for failing to adhere to normal conditions of human life, for creating a sense of chaos in its depiction of the world, and for causing a perceptual crisis in the receiver’ . For Lukacs modernism represents society as a place of distortion by working against a dominant concept of the normal. Taking Kafka as an archetypal example, Lukacs unleashes his furious attack on modernists for portraying social reality as nightmare, angst-ridden, absurd, undermining its order, its dehumanization of art; for disembodying the individual from the social network and portraying him/her as existing independent of any social constellation, i.e. solitary human being. In one word, for its ‘anti-humanism’ and its elitism that attempted to transcend the mass culture.

Modernism is thus seen as being incompatible with the bourgeois society. It is seen as being obsessively concerned with the pathological, the explorations of the darker regions of the mind (Nietzsche, Freud). Modernist writing is seen as fostering and preoccupied with ‘alienation, fragmentation, break with tradition, isolation… [and] hatred of civilisation itself.

These being the general characteristics of modernism as seen by its critics we can now turn our attention to a more positive description of this artistic movement which originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to cover a series of reforming movements in art, architecture, music, literature during this period.

As all historians of modernism say, it is easier to exemplify than define modernism. Something akin to pornography, where every definition either leaves something out or includes too much or restricts and expand alternatively beyond what the all concerned parties would consent to. In this vein therefore Peter Guy offers no specific definition rather he offers a set of examples as to what is generally understood with modernism. ‘A poem by Arthur Rimbaud, a novel by Franz Kafka, a piano piece by Eric Satie, a play by Samuel Beckett, a painting – any painting – by Pablo Picasso, all offer trustworthy testimony to what we are attempting to identify’. Bauman has been more explicit in defining modernism as ‘the intellectual movement fed by disgust and impatience with the slothful, sluggish pace of change which modernity taught people to hope and promised to accomplish.’

This does not mean however that we cannot describe some of its main characteristics which differentiate it from other artistic movements. Gay himself has identified two major features as constitutive of what modernism is. First is the ‘lure of heresy that impelled their actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities’ and second, ‘a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny’. The lure of heresy is an expression of the attitude to escape the conventional patterns of writing, painting, building and composing. Ezra Pound’s slogan “Make it New” can stand as another description of what modernism is all about; experiencing with new and untried forms and simultaneously expressing the discontent with and abhorrence of the traditional bourgeois authority. Self-scrutiny on the other end of the spectrum gave a strong impetus to all modernist to explore the secrets of human nature, its interior in an unconventional manner (Hamsun’s Hunger or Edvard Munch’s The Scream, among many others –Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Joyce, Beckett, etc, are exemplary here).

The modern therefore is the horizon of modernism as a programme. Modernism is also connected with the scandal and the shocking. The more scandalous, upsetting and painful the discovered ‘truth’ was the better for the modernist. Social failure was a barometer of the artist’s progress. A modernist who causes no scandals, who does not attack the establishment will disappoint his public and himself. A modernist is almost by definition a lonely, disappointed wolf. But the disappointment is also willed and actively pursued. Routines and the social conventions were to be avoided at all costs. ‘All of them were imbued with pioneering spirit, all gazed at the extant state of the arts with disgust and aversion, all were critical about the role currently allotted to the arts in society, all derided the past and ridiculed the canons it cherished…’ ‘They construed such atrocious and contemptible people into a collective image of the bourgeois, labelled them philistines, decried them as vulgar, coarse, uncultured and dilettantish. They refused the so-constructed enemy the right to artistic judgement…’

It is not a surprise therefore that many of them felt deeply disappointed when the philistine bourgeois, ‘the compact majority’ (Ibsen), and the current establishment incorporated them in their literary and artistic canons. Edmond Duranty, who had referred to the Louvre museum as a ‘catacomb’, Camille Pissarro who baptized museums as ‘necropolises of art’ and the Italian Futurists, all of them wanted to destroy and demolish the museums and the libraries ‘those heavens of reactions’. Their motto was non-conformism.

The Postmodern

The postmodern is even more difficult to define. Does it constitute a radical break with modernism or is it a continuation, a revolt within modernism against certain forms of modernism and critique of the modern? ‘Does it have a revolutionary potential by virtue of its opposition to all forms of metanarratives… or is it simply the commercialization and domestication of modernism?’ Is postmodernism a style or a periodizing concept?

Various writers give conflicting definitions and interpretations of this phenomenon. Lyotard famously defined the postmodern condition as ‘the incredulity towards metanarratives’, where metanarratives stands for all forms of the modern projects, including such movements as the Enlightenment, Marxism, Freudianism, structuralism and positivist science. These projects and what they stood for, emancipation and the pursuit of progress have become obsolete. Bauman’s book Modernity and the Holocaust comes out as a radical critique of modernity for fostering murderous ideas and practices as exemplified in the horrible experience of the death camps and Holocaust. Frederic Jameson and David Harvey have identified postmodernity with ‘late capitalism’. Jameson in particular highlights a number of phenomena as distinctive marks of postmodernity, such as: ‘a new kind of superficiality’ or ‘depthlessness’, a rejection of the modernist ‘Utopian gesture’, the ‘waning of the effect’ where pastiche becomes a universal practice.

‘Postmodernism’ then ‘is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good’. Seyla Benhabib argues that postmodern critique of modernity is defined by three distinct moments: an anti-foundationalist conception of the subject and identity, the death of History and the death of Metaphysics defined as the search for objective Truth. Hebermas, as is well known, maintains that modernity is an unfinished project and that as a project it cannot be so lightly dispensed with.

Marshall Berman, the author of the famous book All that is solid melts into air (1982), in his article Why modernism still matters reads some of the distinct postmodern authors, painters and artists such as Maya Lin, Laurie Anderson, Les Levine, Anselm Kiefer and Salman Rushdie through a modernist lens, and concludes that they are all modernists whether they know it or not. Thus postmodernism from Berman’s modernist perspective is simply a variation on the same old theme, a continuation of modernism with other means. So despite their disparate backgrounds, work in different media, speak out of diverse temperaments and sensibilities, ‘they are alike, not only in the scope and seriousness of their work, but in their shared desire to reach across national, class, racial, religious and sexual boundaries’.

In contrast to Berman, Linda Hutcheon’s reading from a distinctly postmodern perspective has questioned the postulates of a number of writers, notably Ihab Hassan, for creating misleading parallel columns of either/or structure that place the characteristics of modernism next to their opposite characteristics of postmodernism (presence/absence, centring/dispersal, semantics/rhetoric, paradigm/syntagm, root/rhizome, signified/signifier, metaphor/metonymy, master code/idiolect, transcendence/immanence, etc). This suggests to Hutcheon a misleading and a false resolution of the unresolvable contradictions within postmodernism, which are not meant to be resolved ‘but rather to be held in ironic tension’. She also criticizes Jameson for offering no reasons to back up his claim that postmodernism is the dominant aesthetic of consumer society.

If postmodernism is not quite as radical as avant-garde was then what it is? ‘The postmodern needs to be understood through the paradox of the future anterior tense’ writes Lyotard. This means that ‘the artist and the writer work therefore without rules, in order to establish the rules of what will have been done’. Bauman on his part adds that ‘the work of the postmodern artist is a heroic effort to give voice to the ineffable, and a tangible shape to the invisible’.

Be that as it may, I would like to conclude with a quote from Hutcheon which, it seems to me, presents a rather lucid definition of postmodernism. She writes: postmodernism is the process of making the product; it is absence within presence, it is dispersal that needs centering in order to be dispersal; it is the idiolect that wants to be, but knows it cannot be, the master code; it is immanence denying yet yearning for transcendence. In other words, the postmodern partakes of a logic of “both/and”, not one of “either/or”. And, not surprisingly, those who privilege the modernist over the postmodernist also work in similar oppositional binary terms’.


About albphilosopher

"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge." B. Russell
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2 Responses to The Modern, Modernity, Modernism and the Postmodern

  1. Dawud says:

    This is a very interesting post, and first, I agree that the terms are similar, and even used interchangably. I also agree that there are two sides to ‘modernity’, the first being a technological and scientific one, and the second being (with respect to religion) a degenerative and revisionist one. As a ‘conservative’ and a Traditionalist, I have often criticized ‘modernism’ and incorporation of secularist ideas into religion, but in the past found it a bit difficult to assign a general definition.

    Thanks for this essay, as it has been helpful.

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