On modernity as a concept (second part)

This is the second part of the dialogue about the concept of modernity that the HERA research group “East Asian Uses of the European Pasts” started some months ago.

PB: I agree with Leigh’s and Martin’s arguments in the first part of our dialogue: we cannot and actually should not drop the concept of “modernity” from our vocabulary. First, every time we point out that there is something new in the present, we may use all the paraphrases we want, but what should prevent us from just calling “modern” this new thing? Second, in the last centuries many people have used the label “modernity” to make political claims, and the fact that they have used it in this normative way seems to be itself a modern phenomenon. However, precisely for these reasons, I would still limit the use of this word to its basic meaning of “in the present”. Let me explain what I mean by that.

There have been, in my opinion, two different definitions of modernity: the typological and the historical one. In the typological meaning, “modernity” has been associated to a set of defining features. When something conveys those defining features, or eventually some of them, then it is “modern”; when it doesn’t, then it is “traditional.” Scholars disagree on what those features are. But even among those who agree on a single list, a second problem arises: how many of those features are necessary to be classified as “modern”? What if some features are present and others not? We often face this problem when we study East Asia. For the example, was the Song dynasty “modern” because it developed commerce, cities, currency, etc.? Or was it “traditional” because it did not develop capitalism as we know it? Was it maybe 75% modern and 25% traditional? If we follow a typological definition of modernity, we end up raising these sorts of questions. And these questions are the basis of the Weberian-type negative comparisons (such as “according to my Western Europe-based ideal-type, only Protestant ethic could develop modern capitalism; and since the non-Protestant world did not have Protestant ethic…” )

The historical definition of modernity is different. In this case, “modernity” only means that new things have emerged in the recent history of humanity; we conventionally take some important reference points, meaningful social or institutional processes, and we use “modern” to qualify things that appeared afterwards. If we follow this approach, we cannot do the history of “modernity” in general, because the present world consists of more and less recent things, of thousand year-old forms of exchange like trade and very recent technologies like internet. But we can certainly do the history of modern things or events: it would be the history of those things whose history started after the reference points we adopt for the sake of periodization.

In this second definition, “modernity” just means “in the present;” or, to be more precise than in my last intervention, it is the chronological container of the major processes that have shaped the present world. We can sometimes give precise dates for the beginning of some of the phenomena that characterize this “present,” but in most cases we can only identify localized processes which are longer or shorter, connected or disconnected, and which do not have a precise starting point. This “modernity” can therefore be defined in historical terms: it is the name we give to what should be a chronologically open period, with different starting points. Can we also define it in typological terms? I don’t think so; if we could, that would mean that we already know the end of the story. To give an example: we know that capitalism (not just commerce) or the nation-state have changed the economic and political landscape of humanity in the last two centuries; but we also know two things: first, that capitalism and the nation-state don’t look like what they were in the early nineteenth century; second, we know that they can still evolve into something that might look completely different from what we now know from them—and since they can still change, they cannot be turned into the ideal-typical features of a “modernity” whose face has so radically changed in the last centuries.

In this sense, I think we should avoid a typological definition of modernity. But I feel we cannot escape a historical definition of modernity—which would just mean “the present,” or more precisely the indefinite beginning of the forces that keep on transforming today’s historical landscape. What do you think?

DM: Overall, I agree it is difficult to junk the terminology: it is just too firmly rooted for that, even if for mostly misguided reasons. But the definitional tussles have always seemed to me somewhat futile and exhausting. So in this respect I am very fond of Ian Hacking’s recommendation to not ask for a definition but to ask what the point is. I believe it is a helpful recommendation for a historian in particular, for asking for the point is inevitably a question with a historical and contextual dimension to it: establish the context, understand the situation, learn the actor’s vocabulary and thereby try to understand the motivations and intentions …

But from that perspective, I think it is impossible to simply limit the reference of “modern” to “more or less recent and present”. Not because I am convinced that modernity’s correct definition includes normative typology, but because it is impossible to ignore that, historically, it has been deployed precisely with the intention and purpose to make normative claims and draw sharp typological distinctions. And in that deployment, the reference has not been at all necessarily recent past and present.

Consider, say, Benjamin Constant’s famous distinction between what he self-consciously called “the liberty of the ancients and the moderns”. This was not only a “more recent and advanced” version of liberty as opposed to an “antiquated and obsolete” one.  In his Principes de politique applicable a tous les gouvernements (1810), for example, he fixed the “modern” characteristic in the following way:

“The outlook of the Athenian traders was like the outlook of ours [i.e., modern]. . .  Trade had created circulation between them. They understood the use of bills of exchange. From this, because it is all connected, flowed a vast softening in manners, more indulgence toward women, more hospitality to strangers, and an exceeding love of individual freedom. In Sparta, says Xenophon, citizens run when the magistrate calls them. In Athens a rich man would be in despair if anyone thought he was subservient to the magistrate.”

Hence, he concludes, “the completely modern character of the Athenians” (my emphasis) which “has not been remarked on enough”.

This is of course a familiar move that will serve many a wishful reconstruction of muddy, chaotic, ambivalent past data into a neat linear narrative of a history of the rise of the “western civilisation” with a cradle in Pericles’ Athens.

So while I suppose none of us would consider debates over whether the Song dynasty (or for that matter, Pericles’ Athens) was “traditional” or “modern” (or “early modern”) worth expending much of our own time and intellectual energy, as historians of discourse about the past (uses-of-the-past-wise) we can probably ill afford to ignore these moves, which have structured so much of the intellectual landscape of the last two centuries.

Of course, I am aware that with that we relegate “modernity” to the sphere of critical historian’s interest even while many of our own contemporaries happily and quite innocently continue using it to make further normative distinctions, articulate sincere aspirations and set up further future goals. That would probably be seen by many as a somewhat cynical stance to take. But critical intellectual historiography is probably always just one slippery bridge across from professionally enshrined cynicism.


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