Definitions and Views of the Modern, Modernism, and Modernity

mod·ern adj.

1. Of or relating to recent times or the present: modern history.
2. Characteristic or expressive of recent times or the present; contemporary or up-to-date: a modern lifestyle; a modern way of thinking.
1. Of or relating to a recently developed or advanced style, technique, or technology: modern art; modern medicine.
2. Avant-garde; experimental.
3. often Modern Linguistics. Of, relating to, or being a living language or group of languages: Modern Italian; Modern Romance languages.


1. One who lives in modern times.
2. One who has modern ideas, standards, or beliefs.
3. Printing. Any of a variety of typefaces characterized by strongly contrasted heavy and thin parts.

moderne, from Old French, from Late Latin modernus, from Latin modo, in a certain manner, just now, from mod, ablative of modus, manner. See med- in Indo-European Roots.]modern·ly adv.
modern·ness n.

Word History: The word modern, first recorded in 1585 in the sense “of present or recent times,” has traveled through the centuries designating things that inevitably must become old-fashioned as the word itself goes on to the next modern thing. We have now invented the word postmodern, as if we could finally fix modern in time, but even postmodern (first recorded in 1949) will seem fusty in the end, perhaps sooner than modern will. Going back to Late Latin modernus, “modern,” which is derived from Latin modo in the sense “just now,” the English word modern (first recorded at the beginning of the 16th century) was not originally concerned with anything that could later be considered old-fashioned. It simply meant “being at this time, now existing,” an obsolete sense today. In the later 16th century, however, we begin to see the word contrasted with the word ancient and also used of technology in a way that is clearly related to our own modern way of using the word. Modern was being applied specifically to what pertained to present times and also to what was new and not old-fashioned. Thus in the 19th and 20th centuries the word could be used to designate a movement in art, modernism, which is now being followed by postmodernism.

modern adj

1: belonging to the modern era; since the Middle Ages; "modern art"; "modern furniture"; "modern history"; "totem poles are modern rather than prehistoric" [ant: nonmodern]

2: relating to a recently developed fashion or style; "their offices are in a modern skyscraper"; "tables in modernistic designs"; [syn: mod, modernistic]

3: characteristic of present-day art and music and literature and architecture

4: ahead of the times; "the advanced teaching methods"; "had advanced views on the subject"; "a forward-looking corporation"; "is British industry innovative enough?" [syn: advanced, forward-looking, innovative]

5: used of a living language; being the current stage in its development; "Modern English"; "New Hebrew is Israeli Hebrew" [syn: Modern, New] n

1: a contemporary person

2: a typeface (based on an 18th century design by Gianbattista Bodoni) distinguished by regular shape and hairline serifs and heavy downstrokes [syn: modern font, Bodoni, Bodoni font] [ant: old style]

Modernists, as I portray them, are at once at home in this world and at odds with it. They celebrate and identify with the triumphs of modern science, art, technology, economics, politics: with all the activities that enable mankind to do what the Bible said only God could do: to 'make all things new'. At the same time, however, they deplore modernization's betrayal of its own human promise. Modernists demand deeper and more radical rewards: modern men and women must become the subjects as well as the objects of modernization; they must learn to change the world that is changing them, and to make it their own. Modernists know this is possible: the fact that the world has changed so much is proof that it can change still more. They can, in a striking phrase of Hegel's, 'look the negative in the face and live with it' ... If everything must go, then let it go: modern people have the power to create a better world than the world they have lost.

Marshall Berman, "Why Modernism Still Matters" in Scott Lash & Jonathan Friedman, Modernity and Identity. Blackwell, 1992.

What is the Difference Between Modernism and Modernity?

The first and simplest way to define modernity and distinguish it from modernism is in terms of new technologies - on a mass scale for mass consumption. Modernity in real terms means new modes of transport (the automobile, bus, aeroplane, tractor and underground train); new media (film, photography, the X-ray, telephone, typewriter, tape recorder); new materials (reinforced concrete, stell, plate glass, ready-mixed oil paint, plastic, dyes and man-made fibres); new sources of power and energy (oil and petroleum, electricity, the internal combustion engine, diesel engine and steam turbine). All these technologies give rise to a qualitatively different experience of "being modern". The 20th century Western inhabitant speeds into totally new spheres - geographical, but also interpersonal, emotional, and cultural.

So...How does Modernism Fit Into All This?

This is a key question - and not easy to answer. Modernism isn't simply a knee-jerk reaction to modernity. It doesn't simply reflect, but also sets itself against, modernity.

Chris Rodrigues and Chris Garratt, Introducing Modernism. Totem Books, 2001.

The conception of the naked self, beyond institutions and roles, as the ens realissimum [the most real being, or the human being at its essence] of human being, is the very heart of modernity.

Peter Berger, quoted in David Kolb, The Critique of Pure Modernity. University of Chicago Press, 1986.

For Weber, the transition to modernity takes place largely through increased rationalization. Rationality denotes following a rule as opposed to acting on impulse or at random. Rationality means consistency in linking our thoughts or statements, creating the logical order of premise to conclusion. It also means consistency in linking our actions, creating the efficient order of means to end.


Weber thought that with growing liberation from the restraints of substantive rationality man might exercise increased freedom. Modernity might finally dispel the great illusions that there existed some one harmonious scheme of values. There are many gods to follow and no high god or supreme value to arbitrate among them. We choose our values, come in contact with one another, and work out the consequences. This free culture had the potential for a more varied and exciting world than any in history. But Weber was pessimistic. Modernity was more likely to become a gloomy bureaucratic state where administered uniformity severely limited freedom. People were likely to flee the modern necessity of choosing meaning and value, running back into the arms of religious or political monotheisms that provide a secure, naturally meaningful world. The growing bureaucracy would encourage uniformity because it made administration more efficient. There were no new continents to expand to, and life would be dominated by the great continental empires, not the variegated small nations. The future would belong to benevolent feudalism and welfare bureaucracies.


There is no obvious way to put the pieces back together. If we could return to tradition, we would have meaning and humane living but at the price of freedom and (for Weber) truthfulness. Modernity promises freedom and rationality but may give us deadening routine. It also forces us to choose, without any grounds for our choice, what values we will hold. Many current debates in the United States are cast in terms implicitly structured along the lines suggested by Weber.

Can we avoid the dilemma of rootless freedom versus oppressive tradition? If there were some way to question the ultimacy of the distinction between formal process and its content, there might be a way to envision other alternatives for modern man.

David Kolb, The Critique of Pure Modernity. University of Chicago Press, 1986.

What we mean by "modern" is that each process led to the emergence of certain distinctive features or social characteristics, and it is these features which, taken together, provide us with our definition of "modernity". In this sense, the term "modern" does not mean simply that the phenomenon is of recent origin. It carries a certain analytic and theoretical value, because it is related to a conceptual model. What are these defining features or characteristics of modern societies?

1. The dominance of secular forms of political power and authority and conceptions of sovereignty and legitimacy, operating within defined territorial boundaries, which are characteristic of the large, complex structures of the modern nation-state.

2. A monetarized exchange economy, based on the large-scale production and consumption of commodities for the market, extensive ownership of private property and the accumulation of capital on a systematic, long-term basis. (The economies of Eastern Europe communist states were an exception to some of these features, though they were based on the large-scale industrial production and consumption of goods.

3. The decline of the traditional social order, with its fixed social hierarchies and overlapping allegiances, and the appearance of a dynamic social and sexual division of labor. In modern capitalist societies, this was characterized by new class formations, and distinctive patriarchal relations between men and women.

4. The decline of the religious world-view typical of traditional societies and the rise of secular and materialistic culture, exhibiting those individualistic, rationalist, and instrumental impulses now so familiar to us.

There are two other aspects of our definition of modernity which should be loosely included under the rubric of "the cultural". The first refers to ways of producing and classifying knowledge. The emergence of modern societies was marked by the birth of a new intellectual and cognitive world, which gradually emerged with the Reformation, the Renaissance, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. This shift in Europe's intellectual and moral universe was dramatic, and as constitutive for the formation of modern soceities as early capitalism or the rise of the nation-state. Second, "Formations of Modernity" follows modern social analysis in the emphasis it gives to the construction of cultural and social identities as part of the formation process. By this we mean the construction of a sense of belonging which draws people together into an "imagined community" and the construction of symbolic boundaries which define who does not belong or is excluded from it. For many centuries, being "Christian" or "Catholic" was the only common identity shared by the peoples of Western Europe. "European" was an identity which only slowly emerged. So the formation of modern societies in Europe had to include the construction of the language, the images, and symbols which defined these societies as "communities" and set them apart, in their represented differences, from others.

Stuart Hall, Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies. Blackwell, 1996.

Modernity comes in as many variations as there are thinkers or journalists, yet all its definitions point, in one way or another, to the passage of time. The adjective 'modern' designates a new regime, an acceleration, a rupture, a revolution in time. When the word 'modern', 'modernization', or 'modernity' appears, we are defining, by contrast, an archaic and stable past. Furthermore, the word is always being thrown into the middle of a fight, in a quarrel where there are winners and losers, Ancients and Moderns. 'Modern' is thus doubly asymmetrical: it designates a break in the regular passage of time, and it designates a combat in which there are victors and vanquished. If so many of our contemporaries are reluctant to use this adjective today, if we qualify if with prepositions, it is because we feel less confident in our ability to maintain that double asymmetry: we can no longer point to time's irreversible arrow, nor can we award a prize to the winners. ...

Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press, 1994.