Hallmarks of Modernism: One Version


1. It is a world of
optimism toward human capabilities.

  • There is a faith in human reason as that which alone interprets the world,
  • There is a grand story that people tell to explain the situation we are in, the deliverance from that situation, and where we fit into the overall world picture. This story is called a "metanarrative".


2. In modernism,
the story that we tell about the world is not just a metaphor that we made up, but it is really true.

One result of regarding the metanarrative as true is that it legitimates certain things, and marginalizes others. It makes certain practices and beliefs acceptable, and others not. It defines what is true and what is not; what is good and what is not; what is right and what is not. And, in fact, it is the only thing that legitimates.

3. Modernity is the attempt to
master the world through this metanarrative. Previously, we were at the whim of the gods or of nature. In the modern age, it is not God's world, but our's. There is faith in our rationality. Because of our human capabilities, we have the potential to create our world for our own needs. So, the grand story that we tell about all reality is one which enables us to use the world for our own ends.

4. In modernity, there is a
belief in the integrity of the knower. In the Enlightenment, there was a new optimism toward human capabilities. Humanity did not have to rely on the authority of God for knowledge. We could find it ourselves. Not only that, but we could be the object of knowledge for ourselves. We could know ourselves as knowers. So, in the modern world, instead of relying on classical sources of meaning, such as God, we rely on the unity of our intellects.

The assumption is that we can know ourselves in the same scientific way that we can know the world around us. And, that knowledge of ourselves reveals a unified, intelligent self. So, the self is both unified and unifying.

5. There is a
shift in the modern age concerning the nature of values, as well. Classically, there were two kinds of value -- instrumental value and terminal value. Instrumental value is simply the value that something has to get something else for you. Money is valuable only because it brings other things. In itself it is not valuable. A terminal value, on the other hand, is the value for which everything else is done.

What this means in the classical (pre-modern) world is that an action is judged good or bad by its efficiency in reaching the terminal values. The terminal values themselves, however, are taken for granted. They are dictated by tradition.

Modernism changes this. In the modern world, not only are the instrumental values judged by their efficiency, but so are the terminal values. In the classical structure, the person lives by values that maximize what he takes to be the natural way to live. In the modern world, there is no natural way to live. The modern person chooses and defends the terminal values as well. There is relatively little defense of the ultimate tenets of a moral system in the Bible or in the Greek world, for instance, while there is all sorts of defense of ultimate moral norms in the modern age.

What this means is that our rationality has extended to the choice of our moral system.

6. It is important to note, then, that modernity sees itself as a
positive break with the past.

Science is a particularly apt example of this one. The thinkers of the Enlightenment saw themselves as doing something qualitatively different from the thinkers of the Middle Ages. Whatever they knew before was just opinion; now we have real knowledge, even if the result was identical to what happened before.

7. Classically, there was a close relationship between theory and practice. There were, of course, moral norms that people followed, but as in Plato's vision of the good city in the Republic, there was a close tie between the individual and his or her sense of purpose in the overall structure. Plato tells us of the ordering of the city based on the capabilities of its members. Each person derives some significance from the sense of fitting in to the structure.

In modernity,
the gap between the universal theory and the particular cases becomes much wider. In the modern age, people simply follow their own rational desires, and society will organize itself. Any sense of purpose comes from the rational person him- or herself, rather than from life experience. The theory which directs our action has become abstract, and our actions themselves are valuable or not, good or not, rational or not, only inasmuch as they match up with the abstract theory. Theory judges practice, practice does not judge theory.

8. The metanarrative in the modern world brings forth the promise of
universal emancipation. We recognize that we are not what we could be. The description of our problems differs between different theorists. Our problem could be that society and superstition has blinded us (Rousseau). It could be that we are alienated from the products of our labour, and the process of labour itself (Marx). It could be that our basic rights are being eroded (liberalism). The point is that each of these grand narratives has an answer to our problems. There is the possibility of the deliverance of everyone, if only we follow the theory properly.