Modernity, a topic in the humanities and social sciences, is both a historical period (the modern era), as well as the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices that arose in the wake of the Renaissance—in the "Age of Reason" of 17th-century thought and the 18th-century "Enlightenment". Some commentators consider the era of modernity to have ended by 1930, with World War II in 1945, or the 1980s or 1990s; the following era is called postmodernity. The term "contemporary history" is also used to refer to the post-1945 timeframe, without assigning it to either the modern or postmodern era. (Thus "modern" may be used as a name of a particular era in the past, as opposed to meaning "the current era".)
Depending on the field, "modernity" may refer to different time periods or qualities. In historiography, the 17th and 18th centuries are usually described as early modern, while the long 19th century corresponds to "modern history" proper. While it includes a wide range of interrelated historical processes and cultural phenomena (from fashion to modern warfare), it can also refer to the subjective or existential experience of the conditions they produce, and their ongoing impact on human culture, institutions, and politics (Berman 2010, 15–36).
As an analytical concept and normative ideal, modernity is closely linked to the ethos of philosophical and aesthetic modernism; political and intellectual currents that intersect with the Enlightenment; and subsequent developments such as existentialism, modern art, the formal establishment of social science, and contemporaneous antithetical developments such as Marxism. It also encompasses the social relations associated with the rise of capitalism, and shifts in attitudes associated with secularisation and post-industrial life (Berman 2010, 15–36).
In the view of Michel Foucault (1975) (classified as a proponent of postmodernism though he himself rejected the "postmodernism" label, considering his work as "a critical history of modernity"—see, e.g., Call 2002, 65), "modernity" as a historical category is marked by developments such as a questioning or rejection of tradition; the prioritization of individualism, freedom and formal equality; faith in inevitable social, scientific and technological progress, rationalization and professionalization, a movement from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism and the market economy, industrialization, urbanization and secularisation, the development of the nation-state, representative democracy, public education (etc.) (Foucault 1977, 170–77).
In the context of art history, "modernity" (modernité) has a more limited sense, "modern art" covering the period of c. 1860–1970. Use of the term in this sense is attributed to Charles Baudelaire, who in his 1864 essay "The Painter of Modern Life", designated the "fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis", and the responsibility art has to capture that experience. In this sense, the term refers to "a particular relationship to time, one characterized by intense historical discontinuity or rupture, openness to the novelty of the future, and a heightened sensitivity to what is unique about the present" (Kompridis 2006, 32–59).
The Late Latin adjective modernus, a derivation from the adverb modo "presently, just now", is attested from the 5th century, at first in the context of distinguishing the Christian era from the pagan era. In the 6th century, Cassiodorus appears to have been the first writer to use modernus "modern" regularly to refer to his own age (O'Donnell 1979, 235 n9). The terms antiquus and modernus were used in a chronological sense in the Carolingian era. For example, a magister modernus referred to a contemporary scholar, as opposed to old authorities such as Benedict of Nursia. In early medieval usage, modernus referred to authorities younger than pagan antiquity and the early church fathers, but not necessarily to the present day, and could include authors several centuries old, from about the time of Bede, i.e. referring to the time after the foundation of the Order of Saint Benedict and/or the fall of the Western Roman Empire (Hartmann 1974, passim).
The Latin adjective was adopted in Middle French, as moderne, by the 15th century, and hence, in the early Tudor period, into Early Modern English. The early modern word meant "now existing", or "pertaining to the present times", not necessarily with a positive connotation. Shakespeare uses modern in the sense of "every-day, ordinary, commonplace".
The word entered wide usage in the context of the late 17th-century quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns within the Académie française, debating the question of "Is Modern culture superior to Classical (Græco–Roman) culture?" In the context of this debate, the "ancients" (anciens) and "moderns" (modernes) were proponents of opposing views, the former believing that contemporary writers could do no better than imitate the genius of classical antiquity, while the latter, first with Charles Perrault (1687), proposed that more than a mere "Renaissance" of ancient achievements, the "Age of Reason" had gone beyond what had been possible in the classical period. The term modernity, first coined in the 1620s, in this context assumed the implication of a historical epoch following the Renaissance, in which the achievements of antiquity were surpassed (Delanty 2007).
Modernity has been associated with cultural and intellectual movements of 1436–1789 and extending to the 1970s or later (Toulmin 1992, 3–5).
According to Marshall Berman (1982, 16–17), modernity is periodized into three conventional phases (dubbed "Early," "Classical," and "Late," respectively, by Peter Osborne (1992, 25)):
- Early modernity: 1500–1789 (or 1453–1789 in traditional historiography)
- Classical modernity: 1789–1900 (corresponding to the long 19th century (1789–1914) in Hobsbawm's scheme)
- Late modernity: 1900–1989
In the second phase Berman draws upon the growth of modern technologies such as the newspaper, telegraph and other forms of mass media. There was a great shift into modernization in the name of industrial capitalism. Finally in the third phase, modernist arts and individual creativity marked the beginning of a new modernist age as it combats oppressive politics, economics as well as other social forces including mass media (Laughey 2007, 30).
Some authors, such as Lyotard and Baudrillard, believe that modernity ended in the mid- or late 20th century and thus have defined a period subsequent to modernity, namely Postmodernity (1930s/1950s/1990s–present). Other theorists, however, regard the period from the late 20th century to the present as merely another phase of modernity; Zygmunt Bauman (1989) calls this phase "liquid" modernity, Giddens (1998) labels it "high" modernity (see High modernism).
Politically, modernity's earliest phase starts with Niccolò Machiavelli's works which openly rejected the medieval and Aristotelian style of analyzing politics by comparison with ideas about how things should be, in favour of realistic analysis of how things really are. He also proposed that an aim of politics is to control one's own chance or fortune, and that relying upon providence actually leads to evil. Machiavelli argued, for example, that violent divisions within political communities are unavoidable, but can also be a source of strength which lawmakers and leaders should account for and even encourage in some ways (Strauss 1987).
Machiavelli's recommendations were sometimes influential upon kings and princes, but eventually came to be seen as favoring free republics over monarchies (Rahe 2006, 1). Machiavelli in turn influenced Francis Bacon (Kennington 2004, chapt. 4), Marchamont Needham (Rahe 2006, chapt. 1), James Harrington (Rahe 2006, chapt. 1), John Milton (Bock, Skinner, and Viroli 1990, chapt. 11), David Hume (Rahe 2006, chapt. 4), and many others (Strauss 1958).
Important modern political doctrines which stem from the new Machiavellian realism include Mandeville's influential proposal that "Private Vices by the dextrous Management of a skilful Politician may be turned into Publick Benefits" (the last sentence of his Fable of the Bees), and also the doctrine of a constitutional "separation of powers" in government, first clearly proposed by Montesquieu. Both these principles are enshrined within the constitutions of most modern democracies. It has been observed that while Machiavelli's realism saw a value to war and political violence, his lasting influence has been "tamed" so that useful conflict was deliberately converted as much as possible to formalized political struggles and the economic "conflict" encouraged between free, private enterprises (Rahe 2006, chapt. 5; Mansfield 1989).
Starting with Thomas Hobbes, attempts were made to use the methods of the new modern physical sciences, as proposed by Bacon and Descartes, applied to humanity and politics (Berns 1987). Notable attempts to improve upon the methodological approach of Hobbes include those of John Locke (Goldwin 1987), Spinoza (Rosen 1987), Giambattista Vico (1984, xli), and Rousseau (1997, part 1). David Hume made what he considered to be the first proper attempt at trying to apply Bacon's scientific method to political subjects (Hume & 1896 , intro.), rejecting some aspects of the approach of Hobbes.
Modernist republicanism openly influenced the foundation of republics during the Dutch Revolt (1568–1609) (Bock, Skinner, and Viroli 1990, chapt. 10,12), English Civil War (1642–1651) (Rahe 2006, chapt. 1), American Revolution (1775–1783) (Rahe 2006, chapt. 6–11), the French Revolution (1789–1799), and the Haitian revolution (1791–1804). (Orwin and Tarcov 1997, chapt. 8).
A second phase of modernist political thinking begins with Rousseau, who questioned the natural rationality and sociality of humanity and proposed that human nature was much more malleable than had been previously thought. By this logic, what makes a good political system or a good man is completely dependent upon the chance path a whole people has taken over history. This thought influenced the political (and aesthetic) thinking of Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke and others and led to a critical review of modernist politics. On the conservative side, Burke argued that this understanding encouraged caution and avoidance of radical change. However more ambitious movements also developed from this insight into human culture, initially Romanticism and Historicism, and eventually both the Communism of Karl Marx, and the modern forms of nationalism inspired by the French Revolution, including, in one extreme, the German Nazi movement (Orwin and Tarcov 1997, chapt. 4).
On the other hand, the notion of modernity has been contested also due to its Euro-centric underpinnings. This is further aggravated by the re-emergence of non-Western powers. Yet, the contestations about modernity are also linked with Western notions of democracy, social discipline, and development (Regilme 2012, 96).
In sociology, a discipline that arose in direct response to the social problems of "modernity" (Harriss 2000, 325), the term most generally refers to the social conditions, processes, and discourses consequent to the Age of Enlightenment. In the most basic terms, Anthony Giddens describes modernity as
Other writers have criticized such definitions as just being a listing of factors. They argue that modernity, contingently understood as marked by an ontological formation in dominance, needs to be defined much more fundamentally in terms of different ways of being.
This means that modernity overlays earlier formations of traditional and customary life without necessarily replacing them.
The era of modernity is characterised socially by industrialisation and the division of labour and philosophically by "the loss of certainty, and the realization that certainty can never be established, once and for all" (Delanty 2007). With new social and philosophical conditions arose fundamental new challenges. Various 19th-century intellectuals, from Auguste Comte to Karl Marx to Sigmund Freud, attempted to offer scientific and/or political ideologies in the wake of secularisation. Modernity may be described as the "age of ideology." (Calinescu 1987, 2006).
Critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Zygmunt Bauman propose that modernity or industrialization represents a departure from the central tenets of the Enlightenment and towards nefarious processes of alienation, such as commodity fetishism and the Holocaust (Adorno 1973,; Bauman 1989). Contemporary sociological critical theory presents the concept of "rationalization" in even more negative terms than those Weber originally defined. Processes of rationalization—as progress for the sake of progress—may in many cases have what critical theory says is a negative and dehumanising effect on modern society. (Adorno 1973,; Bauman 2000)
Consequent to debate about economic globalization, the comparative analysis of civilizations, and the post-colonial perspective of "alternative modernities," Shmuel Eisenstadt introduced the concept of "multiple modernities" (Eisenstadt 2003; see also Delanty 2007). Modernity as a "plural condition" is the central concept of this sociologic approach and perspective, which broadens the definition of "modernity" from exclusively denoting Western European culture to a culturally relativistic definition, thereby: "Modernity is not Westernization, and its key processes and dynamics can be found in all societies" (Delanty 2007).
Modernity, or the Modern Age, is typically defined as a post-traditional, and post-medieval historical period (Heidegger 1938, 66–67, 66–67  ). Central to modernity is emancipation from religion, specifically the hegemony of Christianity, and the consequent secularization. Modern thought repudiates the Judeo-Christian belief in the Biblical God as a mere relic of superstitious ages (Fackenheim 1957, 272-73; Husserl 1931,). It all started with Descartes' revolutionary methodic doubt, which transformed the concept of truth in the concept of certainty, whose only guarantor is no longer God or the Church, but Man's subjective judgement (Alexander 1931, 484-85; Heidegger 1938,).
Theologians have tried to cope with their worry that Western modernism has brought the world to no longer being well-disposed towards Christianity (Kilby 2004, 262, 262  ; Davies 2004, 133, 133  ; Cassirer 1944, 13–14 13–14  ). Modernity aimed towards "a progressive force promising to liberate humankind from ignorance and irrationality" (Rosenau 1992, 5).
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and others developed a new approach to physics and astronomy which changed the way people came to think about many things. Copernicus presented new models of the solar system which no longer placed humanity's home, on Earth, in the centre. Kepler used mathematics to discuss physics and described regularities of nature this way. Galileo actually made his famous proof of uniform acceleration in freefall using mathematics (Kennington 2004, chapt. 1,4).
Francis Bacon, especially in his Novum Organum, argued for a new methodological approach. It was an experimental based approach to science, which sought no knowledge of formal or final causes. Yet, he was no materialist. He also talked of the two books of God, God's Word (Scripture) and God's work (nature) (Bacon 1828, 53). But he also added a theme that science should seek to control nature for the sake of humanity, and not seek to understand it just for the sake of understanding. In both these things he was influenced by Machiavelli's earlier criticism of medieval Scholasticism, and his proposal that leaders should aim to control their own fortune (Kennington 2004, chapt. 1,4).
Influenced both by Galileo's new physics and Bacon, René Descartes argued soon afterward that mathematics and geometry provided a model of how scientific knowledge could be built up in small steps. He also argued openly that human beings themselves could be understood as complex machines (Kennington 2004, chapt. 6).
Isaac Newton, influenced by Descartes, but also, like Bacon, a proponent of experimentation, provided the archetypal example of how both Cartesian mathematics, geometry and theoretical deduction on the one hand, and Baconian experimental observation and induction on the other hand, together could lead to great advances in the practical understanding of regularities in nature (d'Alembert & 2009 ; Henry 2004).
After modernist political thinking had already become widely known in France, Rousseau's re-examination of human nature led to a new criticism of the value of reasoning itself which in turn led to a new understanding of less rationalistic human activities, especially the arts. The initial influence was upon the movements known as German Idealism and Romanticism in the 18th and 19th century. Modern art therefore belongs only to the later phases of modernity (Orwinand Tarcov 1997, chapt. 2,4).
For this reason art history keeps the term "modernity" distinct from the terms Modern Age and Modernism – as a discrete "term applied to the cultural condition in which the seemingly absolute necessity of innovation becomes a primary fact of life, work, and thought". And modernity in art "is more than merely the state of being modern, or the opposition between old and new" (Smith 2009).
In the essay "The Painter of Modern Life" (1864), Charles Baudelaire gives a literary definition: "By modernity I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent" (Baudelaire 1964, 13).
Advancing technological innovation, affecting artistic technique and the means of manufacture, changed rapidly the possibilities of art and its status in a rapidly changing society. Photography challenged the place of the painter and painting. Architecture was transformed by the availability of steel for structures.
From theologian Thomas C. Oden's perspective, "modernity" is marked by "four fundamental values" (Hall 1990):
- "Moral relativism (which says that what is right is dictated by culture, social location, and situation)"
- "Autonomous individualism (which assumes that moral authority comes essentially from within)"
- "Narcissistic hedonism (which focuses on egocentric personal pleasure)"
- "Reductive naturalism (which reduces what is reliably known to what one can see, hear, and empirically investigate)"
Modernity rejects anything "old" and makes "novelty ... a criterion for truth." This results in a great "phobic response to anything antiquarian." In contrast, "classical Christian consciousness" resisted "novelty" (Hall 1990).
Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius X of the Roman Catholic Church claim that Modernism (in a particular definition of the Catholic Church) is a danger to the Christian faith. Pope Pius IX compiled a Syllabus of Errors published on December 8, 1864 to describe his objections to Modernism (Pius IX 1864). Pope Pius X further elaborated on the characteristics and consequences of Modernism, from his perspective, in an encyclical entitled "Pascendi dominici gregis" (Feeding the Lord's Flock) on September 8, 1907 (Pius X 1907). Pascendi Dominici Gregis states that the principles of Modernism, taken to a logical conclusion, lead to atheism. The Roman Catholic Church was serious enough about the threat of Modernism that it required all Roman Catholic clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors and seminary professors to swear an Oath Against Modernism (Pius X 1910) from 1910 until this directive was rescinded in 1967.
Of the available conceptual definitions in sociology, modernity is "marked and defined by an obsession with 'evidence'," visual culture, and personal visibility (Leppert 2004, 19). Generally, the large-scale social integration constituting modernity, involves the:
- increased movement of goods, capital, people, and information among formerly discrete populations, and consequent influence beyond the local area
- increased formal social organization of mobile populaces, development of "circuits" on which they and their influence travel, and societal standardization conducive to socio-economic mobility
- increased specialization of the segments of society, i.e., division of labor, and area inter-dependency
- increased level of excessive stratification in terms of social life of a modern man
- Increased state of dehumanisation, dehumanity, unionisation, as man became embittered about the negative turn of events which sprouted a growing fear.
- man became a victim of the underlying circumstances presented by the modern world
- Increased competitiveness amongst people in the society (survival of the fittest) as the jungle rule sets in.