History of Modernity Research Paper

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In the social sciences, the term ‘modernity’—or modernite, modernita, Moderne—in this form has been employed only very recently. Publications with this title have flourished only during the last two decades of the twentieth century. However, the sociological use of ‘modernity’ could draw on earlier concepts with the same root, in particular ‘modern society’ and ‘modernization,’ key terms in sociological work from the 1960s and 1970s drawing on related usage from certainly the nineteenth century onwards. It is therefore against the background of the broader meaning of the term ‘modern’ that the more recent usage of ‘modernity’ in the social sciences needs to be understood.

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The social sciences of the early post-Second World War decades—often also known under the selfawarded label ‘modern social sciences’—worked with the assumption that contemporary Western societies had emerged from earlier social configurations by way of a profound rupture. This rupture, although it could stretch over long periods and occurred in different societies at different points in time, regularly brought about a new set of institutions, most importantly a market-based economy, a democratic polity, and autonomous knowledge-producing institutions developing empirical-analytical sciences. Once such ‘modern society’ was established, a superior form of social organization was reached that contained all it needed to adapt successfully to changing circumstances. Thus, there would be no further major social transformation.

During the 1980s, it was exactly this key conviction of the modern social sciences that was challenged by the idea of ‘post-modernity,’ often understood as the assertion that Western societies had recently turned into an entirely new form of social configurations, based on novel forms of social bond. As such, the assertion was most prominently made in Lyotard’s (1979) ‘report on knowledge’ titled The Postmodern Condition, but as a hypothesis of an ongoing major social transformation it has guided much sociological research since. In the course of the ensuing debate, further assumptions of the ‘modern social sciences’ and of their diagnosis of the contemporary social world were questioned. The term ‘modernity’ entered into the social sciences in response to such questioning.

1. The Advent of Modernity as a Rupture in Historical Consciousness

In its derivation from Latin, ‘modern’ is first of all a temporal term. It refers to the present—to be modern means to be within one’s own time—and it implies a rather strong distinction of this present from the past. There are, however, three distinct ways of relating the present to the past by use of this term. First, most neutrally, ‘modern’ could refer to just what happens to be present: in this sense it would mean nothing else but ‘contemporary.’ Second, ‘modern’ could be used to deplore the loss of the greatness of the past. Such usage was common until, and including, the Renaissance. Third, the arrival of the ‘modern’ could be seen as an accomplishment, an overcoming of the limitations of the past.

In this latter form, the term was made prominent in La querelle des anciens et des modernes in the seventeenth century. From then onwards, most of the uses of the term have retained such strong temporal implication, the later concept of ‘modern society’ being a key example. Drawing such distinction between eras, however, also demands specification as to how they differ, that is, a conceptualization of what is modern. Such conceptualization regularly transcends historical time, and thus invites analyses that go beyond the initial preference for the present over the past. In other words, the term inevitably carries a double connotation; it is always both philosophical and empirical, or both substantive and temporal (Yack 1997), or both conceptual and historical (Wagner 2001).

The temporal, historical dimension has been in the focus of recent historiography of concepts. Historians of ideas and concepts have increasingly identified the period between the middle of the eighteenth and the middle of the nineteenth century as the one during which conceptual change in social and political language occurred in such a way in Europe that the horizon of the future was seen as open (Koselleck 1979). Despite the fact that strong distinctions between the past and the present were also made earlier, it is in this period that the rupture in historical consciousness was so profound that it appeared legitimate to see this period as the onset of modernity. This important finding, which has given rise to considerable further research and debate, has two profound implications for social science research on modernity.

First, it suggests that the social sciences co-emerged with modernity. Thus, on the one hand, modernity is the condition for the social sciences, as the reflexive knowledge of the human social world, to emerge and exist. On the other hand, it has become precisely the objective and task of the social sciences to conceptualize and analyze ‘modernity’ as a historical social formation. In the first meaning, modernity refers to a philosophical, in particular an epistemological condition. In the second meaning, it refers to a historical, empirical instance. Often, social science has been connected to modernity in terms of a correspondence of a form of knowledge to a sociopolitical reality, namely Western, ‘modern’ societies since the 1800s. Because of this co-emergence, however, it may be more appropriate to see social science as a specific way of interpreting a socio-historical experience, with which it is entangled. Or, to put it the other way round, social science, as manifold as it may often appear, may have occupied but a rather limited space among the available possibilities to theorize modernity. This suspicion has been confirmed in recent debates, as shall be shown below.

Second, while the historiography of concepts identified a significant shift in conceptual language, this finding on its own is insufficient to support the general claim that this period also marks the onset of ‘modern society,’ that is, of a whole new range of modern social practices and institutions. Sociologists of ‘modern society’ thus found themselves in the dilemma of having on the one hand to claim a historical break with ‘traditional society,’ but having on the other hand difficulties in empirically identifying such clearcut breaks. Thus, spatio-temporal reference points were created and employed in various combinations. First of all, the idea of the emergence of ‘modern society’ has often referred straightforwardly to the ‘history of the West.’ No comparable major transformations were long identified in other parts of the world (but see Eisenstadt 1986 and now Daedalus 1998, 2000). More specifically, it has referred to the history of Europe, and from some time onwards also of North America. Modern social life then begins at the earliest in the midto late fifteenth century with the Renaissance, the invention of movable type and the voyages of discovery. At the latest, it starts in the early twentieth century with modernism in the arts and in architecture and with the new form of self-inspection provided by psychoanalysis. In between, economic modernity is said to begin with the market revolution and the industrial revolution, and political modernity has its take-off with the revolutions in America and France in the late eighteenth century. Scientific and philosophical revolutions towards modernity can be variously dated along this temporal line—from Cartesian rationalism and experimental method to the finde-siecle critique of science and metaphysics and to the theory of relativity (see, e.g., Toulmin 1990).

2. Modernity as an Era and a Set of Institutions

However one looks at this range of dates, a considerable tension between any historical description of a rupture and conceptual understandings of modernity comes immediately to the fore. The conceptual imagery of a ‘modern society’ characterized by a marketbased economy, a democratic polity, and autonomous knowledge-producing institutions developing empirical-analytical sciences sits in an uneasy relation to these historical dates. Were one to insist that the full set of those institutions needs to exist before a society can be called modern, social modernity would be limited to a relatively small part of the globe during only a part of the twentieth century.

This tension between conceptuality and historicity was resolved by introducing an evolutionary logic in societal development. Based on the assumption of a societally effective voluntarism of human action, realms of social life were considered to have gradually separated from one another according to social functions. Religion, politics, the economy, and the arts all emerged as separate spheres in a series of historical breaks—known as the scientific, industrial, democratic revolutions, etc.—that follows a logic of differentiation (Parsons 1964, Alexander 1978). A sequence of otherwise contingent ruptures can thus be read as a history of progress, and the era of modernity emerges by an unfolding from very incomplete beginnings. In this view, indeed, modern society came to full fruition only in the US of the post-Second World War era, but ‘modernization’ processes were moving towards that telos for a long time, and continued to do so in other parts of the world.

In conceptual terms, this perspective on modern social life aimed at combining an emphasis on free human action with the achievement of greater mastery over the natural and social world. The differentiation of functions and their separate institutionalization was seen as both enhancing human freedom and as increasing the range of action. Thus, it provided a sociologized version of the Enlightenment combination of freedom and reason, or of subjectivity and rationality (e.g., Touraine 1992). Without this double concept being explicated in most of the sociological literature on ‘modern society,’ it nevertheless can be identified at the root of this conceptualization of modernity. At the same time, it certainly drew on what may be called the self-understanding of historical modernizers. Proponents of what came to be known as the scientific, industrial, and democratic revolutions saw themselves acting in the name of freedom, and they also saw the new institutions they were calling for as providing greater benefits than the old ones.

3. The Interpretative Approach to Modernity

The reference to autonomy and mastery has indeed more recently been explicitly used to conceptualize modernity beyond the sociology of modern societies from the 1960s and 1970s (Castoriadis 1990, Arnason 1989, Wagner 1994). Following Castoriadis, modernity can be considered as a situation in which the reference to autonomy and mastery provides for a double ‘imaginary signification’ of social life. By this term, Castoriadis refers to what more conventionally would be called a generally held belief or an ‘interpretative pattern’ (Arnason 1989). More precisely, the two components of this signification are the idea of the autonomy of the human being as the knowing and acting subject, on the one hand, and on the other, the idea of the rationality of the world, that is its principled intelligibility. Conceptually, therefore, modernity refers to a situation in which human beings do not accept any external guarantors, that is guarantors that they do not themselves posit, of their knowledge, of their political orders, or of their selfhood.

The difference between this interpretative approach to modernity and former sociological analyses is as follows. The sociology of modern society sought to derive a particular institutional structure from this double imaginary signification. Thus, the social sciences during the nineteenth and twentieth century were often inclined to consider a historically specific interpretation of a problematique as a general trait of modernity. Sociology, for instance, tended to conflate the historical form of the European nation state with the solution to, as it was often called, the problem of social order, which was expressed in the concept ‘society’ (Smelser 1997, Chap. 3).

When assuming, however, that a modern set of institutions can be derived from the imaginary signification of modernity, it is overlooked that the two elements of this signification are ambivalent each one on its own and tension-ridden between them. Therefore, the recent rethinking takes such tensions to open an interpretative space that is consistent with a variety of institutional forms. The relation between autonomy and mastery institutes an interpretative space that is to be specifically filled in each sociohistoric situation through struggles over the situation-grounded appropriate meaning. Theoretically, at least, there is always a plurality and diversity of interpretations of this space (see Skirbekk 1993).

On this broad basis, alternative possibilities to conceptualize modern social life and to analyze varieties of its institutional forms have been proposed in more recent debates. Before moving to discuss them, the historical critiques of the self-understanding of modernity, and much of the social science that accompanied it, need to be explored as parts of such interpretative struggle over modernity.

4. The Grand Critiques of Modernity

A series of major critical inquiries into the dynamics of modernity was elaborated successively from the middle of the nineteenth century up until the 1930s. Their characteristics as grand critiques reside in the fact that they identified basic problems in the practices of modernity, but did not abandon the commitment to modernity as a consequence. They all problematize, although in very different ways, the tension between the unleashing of the modern dynamics of freedom and rational mastery, on the one hand, and its, often unintended, collective outcome in the form of major societal institutions. As such, they provided critical interpretations of the imaginary signification of modernity, and some of the authors partly anticipated the more recent insight that modernity is characterized by a space of interpretative possibilities.

The first of these critiques was the critique of political economy as developed mainly by Karl Marx. In contrast to some of the conservative critics of capitalism, such as the German historical economists who flatly denounced its rationalist individualism, Marx basically adhered to the Enlightenment tradition of individual autonomy. His ideal was ‘the free association of free human beings.’ In the workings of the ‘free’ market in capitalism, however, he discovered a societal effect of human economic interaction that asserted itself ‘behind the backs’ of the actors.

In an economy based on market exchange and forced sale of labor power, relations between human beings would turn into relations between things, because they were mediated by commodities. Driven by laws of abstract value, markets would transform phenomena with a use value into commodities, the sole important criterion of which was the monetary value against which they could be exchanged. The result of such fetishization of products and money and of the reification of social relations would be the alienation of human beings from their own products, from other human beings and from themselves. In such an alienated condition, the possibility for autonomy and sovereignty of the economic actors would be completely eradicated, though these actors would indeed constantly reproduce these conditions by their own action.

The second grand critique was the critique of largescale organization and bureaucracy, as analyzed most prominently by Robert Michels and Max Weber. With a view to the enhancement of rational mastery of the world, it postulated the tendency for the formation of stratified bodies with hierarchical chains of command and generalized, abstract rules of action. In the context of a universal-suffrage polity and welfare state, that is in ‘large’ societies in which all individuals had to be included on a formal, that is, legally equal, basis in all major regulations, such ‘iron cages’ had emerged as state apparatuses, big industrial enterprises, and mass parties and would spread further in all realms of social life. While such institutions in fact enhanced the reach of human action generally, they limited it to the application of the rules, inside the cage so to say, at the same time.

In these terms, a variant of a critique of conceptions of rationality is the critique of modern philosophy and science, the third grand critique. Weber, too, was aware of the great loss the ‘disenchantment of the world’ in rational domination entailed, still he understood his own social science in rational and valueneutral terms, as he thought no other approach could prevail under conditions of modernity. In contrast, radical and explicit critiques of science were put forward by others in very different forms. In idealist Lebensphilosophie the elaboration of a nonscientistic approach to science was attempted as well as, differently, in early twentieth-century ‘Western’ Marxism, that is by Max Horkheimer and the early Frankfurt School. In some respects, pragmatism in the US can also be ranged under the critiques of science in as much as a new linkage of philosophy, anthropology and social science was proposed against the unfounded separation of spheres of knowledge in the disciplinary sciences. Such linkage would also bring the sciences back to a concern for the fundamental issues of the contemporary social world.

It was in pragmatism in particular—and in Europe in Durkheim’s sociology—that a link between moral philosophy, social science, and politics was maintained, or rather recreated with a view to responding to the contemporary problems of societal restructuring. This link gave rise to the fourth critique, the critique of morality. The problem may be schematically reconstructed as follows. The development of modern society entailed the risk of moral impoverishment, mainly due to two phenomena. The inevitable decline of unquestioned faith eroded a source that could provide foundations for moral behavior. And if it is true that recurring face-to-face interaction is the basis for the solidarity-supporting insight in the human likeness of the other, such kind of interaction would be decreasingly relevant in mass societies integrated on the scale of a nation. The two questions that arise are, first, how to ground ethics at all, when no foundational criteria are universally accepted, and, second, how to develop adequate standards for morality, when social relations are predominantly ‘thin’ and at the same time widely extended in space and time, that is, to relatively distant others (see now Boltanski 1993). The requirements for ethics have been raised, while the likelihood to agree on any ethics at all may have diminished, in such a view. Again, it is the achievement of reflexively questioning any imposed standards of morality that may subvert the possibility of any standard at all.

Synthetically, then, an argumentative figure emerged as follows. In the historical development of modernity as ‘liberal’ society, the self-produced emergence of overarching structures, such as capitalism and the market, organization and bureaucracy, modern philosophy and science, and the division of labor, is identified. These structures work on the individual subjects and their possibilities for self-realization—up to the threat of self-cancellation of modernity. The more generalized modern practices will become, the more they themselves may undermine the realizability of modernity as a historical project.

5. Modernity as an Ethos and an Experience

The sociological interpretations of modernity provided by these critiques identified the tension between the modern orientations towards autonomy and towards mastery. But they tended to resolve this tension in a rather unambivalent way, namely as the institutionalization of autonomy inevitably leading to forms of mastery that would subject the ‘free’ human beings. Alienation, atomization, commodification, bureaucratization, and instrumental rationalization would assert themselves as absolutely dominant trends leading to the emergence of ‘one-dimensional man’ and ‘one-dimensional society’ (Herbert Marcuse). While this interpretation had some persuasive power, in particular during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, in its totalizing way of reasoning it underestimated the persistence of the ambivalence of modernity and the possible resurgence of the quest for autonomy. Towards the end of the twentieth century, sociological diagnosis of the present indeed shifted back to an emphasis on individualization, rather than atomization, and reflexivity, rather than rationality (e.g., Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck, Alain Touraine). Although such recent analyses of modernity tend to employ the terminology of a new era (in response to the challenge of ‘postmodernity’), they indeed draw implicitly on a different concept of modernity altogether. A common view of the history of social life in Europe holds that a ‘culture of modernity’ spread gradually since the 1500s. This ‘is a culture which is individualist …: it prizes autonomy; it gives an important place to self-exploration; and its visions of the good life involve personal commitment’ (Taylor 1989, p. 305). Such an emphasis on individuality and individualization is quite alien both to the more formalized ‘modern’ discourses of the individual as in rational choice theory or in liberal political philosophy and to the totalizing critiques of modernity.

In European intellectual and cultural history, there has long been very little connection between these two views of modernity and its inhabitants. Given their interest in institutions and their stability, political philosophy, and social theory proceeded predominantly by presupposition and showed little interest in actual human beings, who tend to be taken into account only as disturbances the more they enter the public scene. In literature and the arts, in contrast, the experience of modernity was in the center and, as an experience, it concerned in the first place the singular human being (Berman 1982). Foucault’s lecture ‘What is Enlightenment?’ very succinctly distinguished between those two readings of modernity. Modernity as an attitude and experience demands the exploration of one’s self, the task of separating out, ‘from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do or think’ (Foucault 1984, p. 46). It is counter-posed to modernity as an epoch and a set of institutions, which demands obedience to agreed-upon rules. At least in some writers, like Lyotard, the idea of post-modernity was inspired by such a return to what had been a modern self-understanding since at least the Enlightenment, and much less by the idea of a new era ‘after’ modernity.

6. Varieties of Modernity

The analysis of contemporary Western societies has long been based on the idea that those societies emerged through some rupture with the past. In this sense, the social sciences have long theorized ‘modernity,’ as the attempt to grasp the specificity of the present, even though the term has been used only rather recently. The dominant strand in the social sciences has aimed at capturing this specificity by structural-institutional analysis. The modern institutions are here seen as the embodiments of the modern promise of freedom and reason. Against and beyond this dominant strand, three different conceptualizations of modernity have been proposed. In parallel to the history of the ‘modern social sciences,’ the critiques of modernity have provided an alternative institutional analysis, emphasizing the undermining of the promise of autonomy in and through the workings of the modern institutions.

Both of these views recently have been considered too limited in their approach, namely in committing themselves to an overly specific understanding of modernity. The research and theory on ‘modernity’ that explicitly uses this term is by and large characterized by this insight, having emerged during the past quarter of a century. The interpretative approach to modernity has demonstrated the breadth of possible interpretations of what is commonly understood as the basic self-understanding, or imaginary signification, of modernity. The conception of modernity as an ethos and an experience has underlined the normative and agential features of modernity. In the former sense, it emphasizes the lack of any given foundations and the possibility to push the ‘project of modernity’ ever further. In the latter sense, it accentuates creativity and openness. In both ways, the experiential understanding complements the interpretative approach by underlining the large, potentially infinite, variety of interpretations of modernity. At the same time, however, it raises the stakes for an analysis of settings of modernity as entire societal configurations.

In attempts to combine these insights without, though, abandoning the objective of analyzing spatiotemporally extended configurations, research interest in what may be called the cultures of modernity has recently increased (Friese and Wagner 2000). Such research investigates the variety of sociohistorical interpretations of the double imaginary signification of modernity and the resources such interpretations draw on and mobilize. Within Western Europe already (e.g., between France and Germany) or within the more broadly defined ‘West’ (e.g., between Europe and the US), those resources are much richer and much more varied than earlier research has been able to identify (see Lamont and Thevenot 2000, Zimmermann et al. 1999). Both richness and variety increase considerably further as soon as one focuses on the so-called non-Western societies. Research in the ‘varieties of modernity’ or ‘multiple modernities,’ aims at analyzing such wider, present, and past, plurality of interpretations of the modern signification (Arnason 1998, Eisenstadt 1998). Such sociologies of modernity break with any reasoning that associates modernization unequivocally with Westernization. Without disregarding the problem of the ‘specificity of the West,’ that is, the Weberian problematique, interest is accordingly revived in the comparativehistorical study of societal configurations.


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