What Is Modernity?

Man imagines himself free from fear when there is no longer anything unknown.
— Adorno and Horkheimer
What is modernity?  Whether conceived as a category of historical periodization, an aesthetic concept, or a form of social experience, modernity is arguably predicated on a notion of time and history.  Insofar as the term “modernity” refers to the quality or character of being “modern,” it entails a judgment concerning a subject’s time and place in history.  Modernity, to borrow a term from Husserl, is a form of time consciousness: it expresses a specific relation to time, where the sense of being modern is predicated on a concept of the “now” as breaking free from the bonds of tradition and premodern belief systems.  But just as it refers to a certain consciousness of time, a sense of “newness” about the present, modernity embodies also a system of knowledge about the world.  To be modern implies a manner of apprehending the world such that its present possibilities and element of change are seized upon toward fuller development.  It is in this way that the classical tradition of philosophical Enlightenment—from Locke, Kant, Hegel, to Marx, to name only a few—understood modern man not only as an individual in and of the present, but, more importantly, as an enlightened individual whose powers of reason confer upon him the moral duty to make use of all his rational abilities toward self-betterment and the improvement of society as a whole.  Briefly put, modernity refers to an historical consciousness that directs itself toward the realization of universal reason and progress.  We will trace the emergence of this understanding of modernity as historical consciousness in the philosophy of history of Kant and Marx before drawing on Arendt and Koselleck’s critiques of the concept of historical progress. As we shall see, the historical consciousness of modernity assumes many different guises: from the philosopher-historian in Kant’s universal history, the proletarian revolutionary subject in Marx, to the figure of the Enlightenment critic in Koselleck and Arendt.  The differences between these historical consciousnesses or “subjects” of modernity will be shown to be symptomatic and representative of the kinds of knowledge and political subjectivity modernity at once makes and does not make possible.
To trace the genealogy of modernity is to find at its core the tradition of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European philosophical history.  The term “philosophy of history” did not exist prior to the eighteenth century.  It appeared first in Voltaire’s 1765 La philosophie de l’histoire, where he sought to outline the principles of historical causality that enabled one to account for the underlying rational process subtending the movement of world history.  Thus, when Kant publicized his motto of Enlightenment in 1784—”Have courage to use your own reason!”—the project for building a philosophical history had already given birth to a veritable generation of European thinkers from Montesquieu to Comte in France, to Herder and Mendelssohn in Germany.  What united them together as philosophers of history was their argument that the long march of history is driven by the development of reason (Vernunft) which, when viewed in the longue durée, brought Europe out of medievalism and into the age of Enlightenment.  It was not until Kant, however, that this philosophical conception of history as rational process obtained a more explicitly political meaning.
Kant exemplifies the Enlightenment position that regards philosophy as giving rational systematicity to human thought and action.  But Kant also saw in philosophical history the possibility of apprehending mankind’s moral perfection.  Kant argues that when history is viewed under what he calls the cosmopolitan point of view (weltbürgerliche Absicht), one is able to apprehend the final purpose of mankind (Endzweck des Menschengeschlechts).  (For a fuller treatment of Kant’s philosophy of history, see my post on Kant’s cosmpolitanism.) This final purpose is what Kant describes as the institution of a world federation of states united to secure perpetual peace between nations.  According to Kant, it is through philosophy that one is able to furnish this cosmopolitan point of view that makes intelligible the universal aim of history.  Philosophy, in other words, is the source of historical meaning, whose task it is to articulate this cosmopolitan purpose shaping the whole of human history, without which it would seem altogether to be devoid of sense and meaning.[1]
It would appear, then, that the philosopher emerges as the most able historian.  Insofar as the philosopher comports his critical gaze toward the past with the purpose of sussing out its barely perceptible meaning, he is the historian par excellence.  We might even say that the philosopher embodies the original sense of history, from the Greek historia, which means to see or to observe.  Here, the philosopher becomes the eyewitness, the one who has seen, but one who does not simply produce a chronicle of events but rather gives form to their rational unity and internal coherence.  This, then, is the unique capacity of the philosopher as historian:  the philosopher connects the past to an idea of the universal, which elevates human events from their contingent contexts and particularistic interests; the philosopher, in turn, synthesizes and assembles them so as to reveal their world-historical import.  What I want to suggest here is that this is precisely the historical consciousness that Kant identifies as the exclusive preserve of the philosopher-historian, one whose ethos sees the “now” not as fleeting or accidental but as made meaningful by its link to a rational past and a progressive future to come.  As Kant argues, though less forcefully so than later would Hegel, it is the philosopher-historian alone who can abstract from the manifold heap of seemingly disconnected and haphazard events a  single narrative of world history.  Hannah Arendt would later remark that Kant’s philosopher-historian supposes “that once you look at history in its entirety (im Grossen), rather than at single events…everything suddenly makes sense, because there is always at least a story to tell” (“The Concept of History, 82).  It can be said that this, at the very least, is the wager of Kant’s philosophy of history, and the affect produced by it is the consoling hope that from the abyss of the past an all-encompassing meaning can nevertheless be had.  For Kant this hope is linked to freedom because it emancipates man from ignorance by vanquishing the unknown with a notion of history with a final purpose.
Kant thus represents an historical consciousness of modernity that views the past as being shaped by the universal aims of reason.  In the “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim” (1784), which contains Kant’s primary statement of his philosophy of history, Kant sets out to articulate the a priori concept, the guiding thread (Leitfaden), by which human history is to disclose its higher meaning.  This higher meaning, as alluded to above, is what Kant calls cosmopolitanism, which he submits as the regulative ideal guiding the entire movement of history.  In this sense, cosmopolitanism is the normative horizon of human progress. It is that which governs the realm of human affairs toward the gradual realization of what Kant considers as the perfect civil union of mankind.  In so doing, Kant produces an image (Bild) of the final end of history, which visualizes cosmopolitanism as the ultimate intention of mankind, whose realization it is the duty of each individual to work toward in order to achieve the full development (Bildung) of his race.[2]  Accordingly, the philosopher-historian’s task is to draw out this Bild of enlightened humanity, that is, to articulate the possibility of the coming institution of a cosmopolitan civil order united to maximize the universal progress and freedom of mankind.
In submitting cosmopolitanism as the normative horizon of history, Kant presents history as the collective result of the free actions of men.  But as Hegel would soon after argue, Kant’s philosophical history remained merely a formal idea, to which Hegel’s own philosophical history would serve as a corrective by presenting a concept of world history as the unfolding of world spirit intending toward the progressive concretion of the ideal state.[3]  (See my post on Hegel’s philosophy of history.)  Sixty years after Kant’s “Idea,” and twenty-five years after Hegel’s first lectures on world history, Marx overturns a whole generation of German philosophical history by declaring in 1845 his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in so many ways; the point, however, is to change it.”  With this thesis, Marx ushers in a new expression of historical necessity.  As he does in The German Ideology, Marx, writing against the Young Hegelians, aimed to reinterpret history not as the work of contemplation (reason) but as the objective product of the living activity of men (labor). Marx thus jettisons the philosopher-historian whom, as we suggested above, Kant had valorized, by upholding instead the proletarian subject as the genuine bearer of world history.  As a result, not only do the idealist forms of contemplation acquire more concrete actuality in accordance to the Marxian premise that life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life, but, as we shall see, the definite laws of the movement of history is thrust vigorously into the foreground. [4]
From these preliminary remarks we can begin to understand how Marx submitted history as a kind of causality and teleology.  Generally speaking, Marx’s philosophy of history comprehends the history of human affairs from the standpoint of human action.  “The writing of history,” Marx asserts, must always begin with “the action of men” (The German Ideology, 42).  Arguing that history is the history of an “active-life process” (The German Ideology, 48), Marx regards nineteenth-century Europe as culminating in the formation of two universal classes—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—whose opposing class interests dramatically set in motion the dialectic between the forces and relations of production that will eventually lead to the class war induced by capitalism’s crisis.[5]  Indeed, it is precisely with this prognosticative insight that Marx and Engels make their famous call for worldwide revolution — Working men of all countries, unite!
For Marx, the proletarian class constituted the universal class of history.  He assigned the proletariat with the world-historical task of “appropriat[ing] the totality of productive forces,” which is provided by the historical occasion of capitalism’s crisis.  What the proletariat needed to do was to simply recognize as his rightful call—rightful because it is an historically sanctioned duty—to overthrow the bourgeois social order.[6]  We might therefore say that the emergence of the proletariat signals for Marx the awakening of a new historical consciousness.  Modernity produces a radical historical consciousness, whose most developed form, critical and practical, Marx argues, consists in the revolutionary vision that calls for nothing less than the total negation of the existing world order.  What Marx therefore saw as the defining mark of the modern era was the revolutionary epoch it at once adumbrates and makes possible.   In this view, the sense of being modern becomes rooted in the epochal quality of the moment, such that he who bears the critical intuition that sees underneath the surface of things the ferment of historical revolution is the real vanguard of modernity.  For Marx, this is no one other than the proletariat himself.
Crucial to Marx’s conception of the proletariat as a universal class is his materialist conception of history.  Arguing against a view of history as a mere object of contemplation, Marx presents history as the concrete end-product arising out of human sensuous living activity (Tätigkeit).  Philosophically, it is an understanding of the human as an historical agent who can actualize itself in the very process of making the objective world in which he lives.[7]  But Marx’s analysis also presents itself as a “scientific” investigation into the underlying, albeit largely unconscious, laws governing the succession of one mode of production to the next.  In the “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx characterizes the entire spectrum of human history in the following way:  “the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society” (426).  This is Marx’s progressive view of history, itself a materialist inversion of Hegel’s stages of world history, what later commentators call Marx’s economic determinism.  Accordingly, Marx’s historical teleology presents an evolutionary account of capitalist development: a world made after capital’s own image in which revolution would arise as a rational, inevitable outcome of economic and technological progress.[8]
From the foregoing analysis, what is expressed in Kant and Marx, above all else, is thus a concept of history as a rational process whose movement outlines a progressive future-horizon against which mankind develops. What is foregrounded here is the way in which progress becomes both the desideratum and cornerstone of their future-oriented philosophy of history.  In Kant, progress assumes the form of a cosmopolitan condition grounded in the defense of peace and freedom; in Marx, it is the abolishment of class differences in the revolutionary transition to communism that inheres in the historical development of capital.  To this extent, we can say that Kant and Marx both offer a distinctly utopian conception of historical progress.  It is utopic not in the sense of a mere reflection of how things could be otherwise but rather utopic in the strongest possible sense of the word: as a concept constructed out of the future, progress inspires an historical consciousness that threatens to overturn the objective conditions of reality precisely by grasping the immediate present not as a fleeting moment but as bearing within it the imminent possibility of radical transformation.  In a word, the conviction of progress entails a desire for historical rupture.  It is exactly in this way that we can begin to understand Kant and Marx’s progressive philosophical history as arising out of conditions of crisis and obtaining the force of critique.
Reinhart Koselleck and Hannah Arendt characterize the relation of progress and critique as producing the intellectual contexts within which the political genesis of the modern age emerged.  In their analysis, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophies of history, which we’ve taken Kant and Marx to be exemplary, constitute not only an important juncture in the history of ideas but, indeed, in the very formation of European political history.  Philosophical history, as Koselleck argues, played an influential, albeit circumspect, role in the ideological preparation for the French Revolution.  At the heart of this movement lay the Enlightenment concept of progress (Fortschritt), which produced an image of the future which the bourgeois intellectual elite deployed to negate the Absolutist order.  Such a concept of progress implied the emancipation of historical time not only from the eschatological Christian worldview but, more importantly, from the apodictic time of the sovereign.  It replaced the temporality of salvation and subjection with the temporality of infinite progress.  This transformation is what Arendt formulates as the secularization of historical time[9] and what Koselleck describes as the temporalization (Verzeitlichung) of history.[10]  Schematically put, progress transformed time into historical time in two primary ways: firstly, chronological time becomes historical when it is linked to a concept of history as process (Arendt); secondly, the flow of time acquires meaningful shape when its laws of motion are shown as tending toward a final purpose, whose form is precisely what Enlightenment thinkers called progress (Koselleck).  The implications of this transformation proved monumental as the idea of mankind’s progress unfurled as the rallying banner against the ancien régime.
From this perspective, we can understand, for instance, how Kant’s characterization of the Enlightenment as the age of man’s self-consciousness appears as a thinly veiled critique of the Absolutist idea of sovereignty.  Kant’s motto of the Enlightenment (“Have courage to make use of your own reason!”) encourages individuals to claim for themselves their moral and political autonomy.  As such, the motto is an injunction for every man to call into question any social order that seeks to install the rule of law exclusively onto a single sovereign being.  This was Kant’s contribution to the bourgeois assault against the Absolutist regime, whose treatises on reason aimed to make citizens enlightened.  But to become enlightened meant not only the intellectual ennoblement of individuals; it meant, above all, their politicization.  As Koselleck writes, enlightened thinkers called upon citizens “to perfect themselves morally to [the] extent that [it] will permit them to know, and let every man know for himself, what is good and what is evil.  Each one thus becomes a judge who knows, on grounds of his enlightenment, that he is authorized to try whatever heteronomous definitions contradict his moral autonomy” (Critique and Crisis, 11).  Here, we should note, too, echoes of Hegel’s concept of world history as the court of judgment (Weltgericht).
What is thus introduced is the idea of the critic as an agent of historical change.  The critic’s historical consciousness becomes fortified by the self-jurisdiction of his morally sanctioned freedom.  But the critic armed himself not only with this sense of self-authorship but also with a new concept of the public (Öffentlichkeit) as a realm subject to rational critique.  The critic called into question the Absolutist system that had sought painstakingly to circumscribe the public by insisting on the separation of politics from morality, a separation that instituted and secured Absolutist sovereignty.  As a consequence, Enlightenment critics broke down the public-private split by enjoining citizens to cultivate what Koselleck calls their “moral inner space.”  The expansion of this inner space meant that moral development no longer became a private task but, indeed, the political-public duty of each citizen: “what the Enlightenment brought about, then, was the distinction between man and subject being no longer understood.  Publicly, man was to realize himself as a human being, with the resulting decay of the Absolutist State” (Critique and Crisis, 39).
Arendt presents these developments as culminating in the rise of the public as a political and politicizing space.  Such a notion of the public was made possible by a worldview that, according to Arendt, bore two crucial concepts: history as process and world as realm of human activity.  These two concepts politicized the social insofar as they yielded an understanding of the world as fabricated by the powers of what in The Human Condition she calls man as homo faber.[11]  How?  When history is viewed as a process it becomes possible to understand history as the product of, and thus always open to, the actions of man. What otherwise appears as mere temporal succession is given meaningful shape by man’s purposive acts.  This means that historical time does not move blindly or mechanically.  It is always mediated by the teleological causality of man. Arendt illustrates this idea of historical time as being exposed to, and transformed by, human action through the geometric metaphor of a line cutting through a circle: the life of man, Arendt writes, “move[s] along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.”  What Arendt suggests here is that in the very constitution of historical time lies an originary exposure to human action: time flows, but it is interrupted and transformed by the “cuts” of human activity.
We might ask, what remains after the cut?  What falls away after the piercing through?  Arendt’s metaphor figures man as encircled by a world that holds him over, but also as freed by his own intentional acts.  The act is a decisive intervention—a cut, an injury.  But it is also the name of the desire we call history.  In this sense, the residues that remain are the pieces that our philosopher-historian gathers, the critic discerns, and what the proletarian worker exerts over and over again until they become something more, something otherwise.  This, then, is the spirit of philosophical modernity, the defining ethos of its historical consciousness: that man arises not only of world—he makes world.

[1] This anxiety about meaninglessness, or one might even say non-knowledge, can be discerned when Kant speaks of the “melancholy haphazardness” (trostlose Ungefähr) of historical events when treated in isolation.  Kant argues that without a concept of teleology, everything would appear as “purposeless play.”  What matters for us here is that the mode of necessity to which Kant lays out as the First Proposition of his “Idea” appeals explicitly to a principle of development.  Thus, Kant’s First Proposition states: “All natural predispositions of a creature are determined sometime to develop themselves completely and purposively” (8:18).  A similar expression can be found in the teleological doctrine of nature articulated in The Critique of Judgment: “An organized product of nature is that in which everything is an end and reciprocally a means as well.  Nothing in it is in vain, purposeless, or to be ascribed to a blind mechanism of nature” (5:376).
[2] This idea is most explicitly articulated in the Eighth Proposition, wherein Kant writes: “One can regard the history of the human species in the large as the completion of a hidden plan of nature to bring about an inwardly and, to this end, also an externally perfect state constitution, as the only condition in which it can fully develop (entwickeln) all its predispositions (Anlagen) in humanity” (8:27).
[3] In a footnote to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel rebukes Kant’s idealism in the following way:  “Kant has brought back into philosophy the dialectical triplicity which is the essential form of Science.  But neither he nor his successors have been able to give it life.  They have treated it as an inert schema, and have applied it to the most heterogeneous materials, sometimes grossly empirical, sometimes categorial and notional.  Such applications are as void of deep sense as are the category-headings of ordinary chatter” (The Phenomenology of Spirit, n. 50, 501).
[4] As Marx writes: “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises…Life is [thus] not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (The German Ideology, 47).
[5] In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels portray the relation of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as a fierce dialectic of universal competition:  “But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians.  In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed—a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital” (61).
[6] “Only the proletarians of the present day,” Marx writes, “are in a position to achieve a complete and no longer restricted self-activity, which consists in the appropriation of a totality of productive forces and in the thus postulated development of a totality of capacities” (The German Ideology, 92-93).
[7] As Marx writes: “Consciousness is…from the very beginning a social product”; accordingly, “the sensuous world [is] the total living sensuous activity of the individuals composing it” (The German Ideology, 51, 64).
[8] The important point to make here, however, is that this teleology of history is not a mechanical determinism but is based on the self-recursive teleology of labor, such that the various stages of modes of production belie historically specific conditions of social formation and struggle.
[9] On the secularization of historical time, Arendt writes, “now, for the first time, the history of mankind reaches back into an infinite past to which we can add at will and into which we can inquire further as it stretches ahead into an infinite future.  This twofold infinity of past and future eliminates all notions of beginning and end, establishing mankind in a potential earthly immortality.  What at first glance looks like a Christianization of world history in fact eliminates all religious time-speculations from secular history” (“The Concept of History,” 68).
[10] So pervasive was the concept of progress that “[t]he naturalistic basis [of time] vanished, and progress became the prime category in which a transnatural, historically immanent definition of time first found expression” (Futures Past, 37).
[11] Arendt counterposes the idea of the world as created by labor (animal laborans) with world as created by work (homo faber).  Arendt writes: “The man-made world of things, the human artifice erected by homo faber, becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will ednure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only insomuch as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption and the sheer utility of objects produced for use” (The Human Condition, 173).
This entry was published on March 3, 2013 at 6:59 AM and is filed under Critical Theory, Essays, Philosophy of History, Time and Temporality. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “What Is Modernity?

  1. Writing a paper on the relationship between Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”, Foucault’s “What is Revolution?” and Arendt’s “What is Freedom?” and your essay gave me great insight into the relationship between historical consciousness and modern action. Thanks

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