Modernity is a term of art used in the humanities and social sciences to designate both a historical period (the modern era), as well as the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices that arose in post-medieval Europe and have developed since, in various ways and at various times, around the world. 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, 15â€"36).

As a historical category, modernity refers to a period marked by a questioning or rejection of tradition; the prioritization of individualism, freedom and formal equality; faith in inevitable social, scientific and technological progress and human perfectibility; rationalization and professionalization; a movement from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism and the market economy; industrialization, urbanization and secularization; the development of the nation-state and its constituent institutions (e.g. representative democracy, public education, modern bureaucracy) and forms of surveillance (Foucault 1995, 170â€"77). Some writers have suggested there is more than one possible modernity, given the unsettled nature of the term and of history itself.

Charles Baudelaire is credited with coining the term "modernity" (modernité) in his 1864 essay "The Painter of Modern Life," to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility art has to capture that experience. In this sense, it 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, 32â€"59).

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 as diverse as Marxism, existentialism, modern art and the formal establishment of social science. 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, 15â€"36).


The term "modern" (Latin modernus from modo, "just now") dates from the 5th century, originally distinguishing the Christian era from the Pagan era. In the 6th century AD, Cassiodorus appears to have been the first writer to use "modern" (modernus) regularly to refer to his own age (O'Donnell 1979, 235 n9). However, the word entered general usage only in the 17th-century quarrel of the Ancients and the Modernsâ€"debating: "Is Modern culture superior to Classical (Græcoâ€"Roman) culture?"â€"a literary and artistic quarrel within the Académie française in the early 1690s.

In these usages, "modernity" denoted the renunciation of the recent past, favouring a new beginning, and a re-interpretation of historical origin. The distinction between "modernity" and "modern" did not arise until the 19th century (Delanty 2007).

A related word in English which conveys a similar meaning is model, as in someone who exhibits fashion. Likewise, modernity can be considered the fashion of societies, cultures, and civilizations, which is constantly being brought "up to date", that is, forced by the flow of time to refashion itself.

Phases of modernity

Modernity has been associated with cultural and intellectual movements of 1436â€"1789 and extending to the 1970s or later (Toulmin 1992, 3â€"5).

According to one of Marshall Berman (1982, 16â€"17), modernity is periodized into three conventional phases (dubbed "Early," "Classical," and "Late," respectively, by Peter Osborne (1992, 25)):

  • Early modernity: 1500â€"1789 (or 1453â€"1789 in traditional historiography)
  • Classical modernity: 1789â€"1900 (corresponding to the long 19th century (1789â€"1914) in Hobsbawm's scheme)
  • Late modernity: 1900â€"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/1990sâ€"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).

Defining modernity


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 law-makers 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 [1739], intro.), rejecting some aspects of the approach of Hobbes.

Modernist republicanism openly influenced the foundation of republics during the Dutch Revolt (1568â€"1609) (Bock, Skinner, and Viroli 1990, chapt. 10,12), English Civil War (1642â€"1651) (Rahe 2006, chapt. 1), American Revolution (1775â€"1783) (Rahe 2006, chapt. 6â€"11), and the French Revolution (1789â€"1799) (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 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 our 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

...a shorthand term for modern society, or industrial civilization. Portrayed in more detail, it is associated with (1) a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention; (2) a complex of economic institutions, especially industrial production and a market economy; (3) a certain range of political institutions, including the nation-state and mass democracy. Largely as a result of these characteristics, modernity is vastly more dynamic than any previous type of social order. It is a societyâ€"more technically, a complex of institutionsâ€"which, unlike any preceding culture, lives in the future, rather than the past (Giddens 1998, 94).

Culturally and philosophically

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).

For Marx, what was the basis of modernity was the emergence of capitalism and the revolutionary bourgeoisie, which led to an unprecedented expansion of productive forces and to the creation of the world market. Durkheim tackled modernity from a different angle by following the ideas of Saint-Simon about the industrial system. Although the starting point is the same as Marx, feudal society, Durkheim emphasizes far less the rising of the bourgeoisie as a new revolutionary class and very seldom refers to capitalism as the new mode of production implemented by it. The fundamental impulse to modernity is rather industrialism accompanied by the new scientific forces. In the work of Max Weber, modernity is closely associated with the processes of rationalization and disenchantment of the world. (Larraín 2000, 13)

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 rationalizationâ€"as progress for the sake of progressâ€"may in many cases have what critical theory says is a negative and dehumanising effect on modern society. (Adorno 1973,; Bauman 2000)

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant. (Adorno 1973, 210)

What prompts so many commentators to speak of the 'end of history', of post-modernity, 'second modernity' and 'surmodernity', or otherwise to articulate the intuition of a radical change in the arrangement of human cohabitation and in social conditions under which life-politics is nowadays conducted, is the fact that the long effort to accelerate the speed of movement has presently reached its 'natural limit'. Power can move with the speed of the electronic signal - and so the time required for the movement of its essential ingredients has been reduced to instantaneity. For all practical purposes, power has become truly exterritorial, no longer bound, or even slowed down, by the resistance of space (the advent of cellular telephones may well serve as a symbolic 'last blow' delivered to the dependency on space: even the access to a telephone market is unnecessary for a command to be given and seen through to its effect. (Bauman 2000, 10)

Consequent to debate about economic globalization, the comparative analysis of civilisations, 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, 66â€"67, 66â€"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, 13â€"14 13â€"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 experimental based approach to science, which sought no knowledge of formal or final causes, and was therefore materialist, like the ancient philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus. 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 after 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 [1751]; 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 â€" 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).

Modernity defined

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 underlining circumstances presented by the modern world
  • Increased competitiveness amongst people in the society (survival of the fittest) as the jungle rule sets in.

See also

Content notes


Further reading

  • Adem, Seifudein. 2004. "Decolonizing Modernity: Ibn-Khaldun and Modern Historiography." In Islam: Past, Present and Future, International Seminar on Islamic Thought Proceedings, edited by Ahmad Sunawari Long, Jaffary Awang, and Kamaruddin Salleh, 570â€"87. Salangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: Department of Theology and Philosophy, Faculty of Islamic Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
  • Arendt, Hannah. 1958. "The Origins Of Totalitarianism" Cleavland: World Publishing Co. ISBN 0-8052-4225-2
  • Buci-Glucksmann, Christine. 1994. Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications. ISBN 0-8039-8975-X (cloth) ISBN 0-8039-8976-8 (pbk)
  • Carroll, Michael Thomas. 2000. Popular Modernity in America: Experience, Technology, Mythohistory. SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-4713-8 (hc) ISBN 0-7914-4714-6 (pbk)
  • Corchia, Luca. 2008. "Il concetto di modernità in Jürgen Habermas. Un indice ragionato." The Lab's Quarterly/Il Trimestrale del Laboratorio 2:396ff. ISSN 2035-5548.
  • Crouch, Christopher. 2000. "Modernism in Art Design and Architecture," New York: St. Martins Press. ISBN 0-312-21830-3 (cloth) ISBN 0-312-21832-X (pbk)
  • Davies, Oliver. 2004. "The Theological Aesthetics". In The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, edited by Edward T. Oakes and David Moss, 131â€"42. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-89147-7.
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 2003. Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities, 2 vols. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
  • Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar (ed.). 2001. Alternative Modernities. A Millennial Quartet Book. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2703-1 (cloth); ISBN 0-8223-2714-7 (pbk)
  • Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-1762-1 (cloth); ISBN 0-8047-1891-1 (pbk); Cambridge, UK: Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell, Oxford. ISBN 0-7456-0793-4
  • Horváth, Ágnes, 2013. Modernism and Charisma. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781137277855 (cloth)
  • Jarzombek, Mark. 2000. The Psychologizing of Modernity: Art, Architecture, History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kolakowsi, Leszek. 1990. Modernity on Endless Trial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-45045-7
  • Kopić, Mario. Sekstant. Belgrade: Službeni glasnik. ISBN 978-86-519-0449-6
  • Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern, translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-94838-6 (hb) ISBN 0-674-94839-4 (pbk.)
  • Perreau-Saussine, Emile. 2005. "Les libéraux face aux révolutions: 1688, 1789, 1917, 1933" PDF (457 KB). Commentaire no. 109 (Spring): 181â€"93.
  • Regilme, Salvador Santino F. Jr.. 2012. "Social Discipline, Democracy, and Modernity: Are They All Uniquely ‘European’?". Hamburg Review of Social Sciences. Volume 6, Issue 3 & Volume 7, Issue 1. 94-117

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