Modernity typically refers to a post-traditional, post-medieval historical period, one marked by the move from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism, industrialization, secularization, rationalization, the nation-state and its constituent institutions and forms of surveillance (Barker 2005, 444). Conceptually, modernity relates to the modern era and to modernism, but forms a distinct concept. Whereas the Enlightenment invokes a specific movement in Western philosophy, modernity tends to refer only to the social relations associated with the rise of capitalism. Modernity may also refer to tendencies in intellectual culture, particularly the movements intertwined with secularisation and post-industrial life, such as Marxism, existentialism, and the formal establishment of social science. In context, modernity has been associated with cultural and intellectual movements of 1436—1789 and extending to the 1970s or later (Toulmin 1992, 3–5).


Related terms

The term "modern" (Latin modernus from modo, "just now") dates from the 5th century, originally distinguishing the Christian era from the Pagan era, yet the word entered general usage only in the 17th-century quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns — debating: "Is Modern culture superior to Classical (Græco–Roman) culture?" — a literary and artistic quarrel within the Académie française in the early 1690s.

In these[which?] 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).

Phases of modernity

According to one of Marshall Berman's books (Berman 1983,[page needed]), 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

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, consider the period from the late 20th century to present to be merely another phase of modernity; this phase is called "Liquid" modernity by Bauman or "High" modernity by Giddens (see: Descriptions of postmodernity).

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, p. 1). Machiavelli in turn influenced Francis Bacon (Kennington 2004, chpt. 4), Marchamont Needham (Rahe 2006, chpt. 1), Harrington (Rahe 2006, chapt. 1), John Milton (Bock, Skinner & 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 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 (1568–1609) (Bock, Skinner & Viroli 1990, chpt. 10,12), English Civil War (1642–1651) (Rahe 2006, chpt. 1), American Revolution (1775–1783) (Rahe 2006, chpt. 6–11), and the French Revolution (1789–1799) (Orwin & Tarcov 1997, chpt. 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 & Tarcov 1997, chpt. 4).


Cover of the original German edition of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

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 society—more technically, a complex of institutions—which, unlike any preceding culture, lives in the future, rather than the past (Giddens 1998, 94).

Modernity aimed towards "a progressive force promising to liberate humankind from ignorance and irrationality" (Rosenau 1992, 5). With new social and philosophical conditions, however, arose fundamental new challenges. 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). Central to this loss of certainty is the loss of religion. 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."[citation needed]

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 processess of rationalization and disenchantment of the world. (Jorge Larraín 2000, 13)

Critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Zygmunt Bauman propose that modernity 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.[citation needed]

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" (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).


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, chpt. 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 of Machiavelli's earlier criticism of medieval Scholasticism, and his proposal that leaders should aim to control their own fortune (Kennington 2004, chpt. 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, chpt. 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. (Orwin & Tarcov 1997, chpt. 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.

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 organisation 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

See also


  • 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, 570–87. Salangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: Department of Theology and Philosophy, Faculty of Islamic Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Negative Dialectics, translated by E.B. Ashton. London: Routledge. (Originally published as Negative Dialektik, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1966)
  • d'Alembert, Jean Le Rond. 2009 [1751]. "Preliminary Discourse", The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, translated by Richard N. Schwab and Walter . Ann Arbor: Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library. (Accessed 19 December 2010)
  • Barker, Chris. 2005. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage. ISBN 0-7619-4156-8
  • Baudelaire, Charles. 1964. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon Press.
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press.; Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0745606857 (Polity, cloth); ISBN 0745609309 (Polity, 1991 pbk), ISBN 0801487196 (Cornell, cloth), ISBN 080142397X (Cornell, pbk).
  • Berman, Marshall. 1983. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London:[Full citation needed]
  • Berns, Laurence. 1987. "Thomas Hobbes". In History of Political Philosophy, third edition, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, 369–420. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bock, Gisela, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli. 1990. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Ideas in Context. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521383765
  • Delanty, Gerard. 2007. "Modernity." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer. 11 vols. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1405124334
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 2003. Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities, 2 vols. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
  • Giddens, Anthony. 1998. Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804735689 (cloth) ISBN 0804735697 (pbk.)
  • Goldwin, Robert. 1987. "John Locke". In History of Political Philosophy, third edition, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, 476–512. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226777081 (cloth); 0226777103 (pbk).
  • Harriss, John. 2000. "The Second Great Transformation? Capitalism at the End of the Twentieth Century." In Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, revised edition, edited by Tim Allen and Alan Thomas, 325–42. Oxford and New York: Open University in association with Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198776268
  • Henry, John. 2004. "Science and the Coming of Enlightenment" in The Enlightenment World, edited by Martin Fitzpatrick et al..
  • Hume, David. 1896 [1739]. A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by Sir K. C. B. Lewis Amherst Selby Bigg. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Kennington, Richard. 2004. On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy, edited by Pamela Kraus and Frank Hunt. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books. ISBN 073910814X (cloth); ISBN 0739108158 (pbk).
  • Larraín, Jorge. 2000. "Identity and Modernity in Latin America". Cambridge, UK: Polity; Malden, MA: Blackwell. ISBN 0745626238 (cloth); ISBN 0745626246 (pbk).
  • Leppert, Richard. 2004. "The Social Discipline of Listening." In Aural Cultures, edited by Jim Drobnick, 19–35. Toronto: YYZ Books; Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery Editions. ISBN 0920397808
  • Mandeville, Bernard. The Fable of the Bees.
  • Mansfield, Harvey (1989), Taming the Prince, The Johns Hopkins University Press 
  • Norris, Christopher. 1995. "Modernism." In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, 583. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198661320
  • Orwin, Clifford, and Nathan Tarcov. 1997. The Legacy of Rousseau. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226638553 (cloth); ISBN 0226638561 (pbk).
  • Osborne, Peter. 1992. "Modernity Is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological, Category: Notes on the Dialectics of Differential Historical Time". In Postmodernism and the Re-reading of Modernity, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen. Essex Symposia, Literature, Politics, Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 071903745X.
  • Rahe, Paul A. 2006. Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521851879.
  • Rosen, Stanley. 1987. "Benedict Spinoza". In History of Political Philosophy, third edition, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, 456–475. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Rosenau, Pauline Marie. 1992. Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691086192 (cloth) ISBN 0691023476 (pbk).
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  • Saul, John Ralston. 1992. Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. New York: Free Press; Maxwell Macmillan International. ISBN 0029277256
  • Smith, Terry. “Modernity”. Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. (Subscription access, accessed September 21, 2009).
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  • Toulmin, Stephen Edelston. 1990. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029326311 Paperback reprint 1992, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-80838-6
  • Vico, Giambattista. 1984. The New Science of Giambattista Vico: Unabridged Translation of the Third Edition (1744), with the Addition of "Practic of the New Science, edited by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Cornell Paperbacks. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801492653 (pbk).

Further reading

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