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date: 18 January 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This chapter concludes and summarizes the Handbook's discussion of modernity.

Keywords: modernity, European, thought, theology

Modernity can be read in many different ways. Recently, the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has read modernity’s project in terms of the dominance of the left hemisphere activity of the human brain.1 While right hemisphere activity is closely associated with intuition, emotion, imagination, ambiguity, and believing, the left hemisphere is associated with reason, categorization, judgement, language, abstraction, and instrumentalization. It is a highly suggestive and much more subtle account of modernity than might appear from this all too brief sketch of its thesis. Nevertheless, the book points to the dangers of caricature that frequently beset synoptic accounts of modernity. Because this volume consists of a number of chapters by different authors and plots modernity thematically, then a rich and complex presentation of modernity and, in particular, the relationship between theology and modern thought, emerges. There is something highly consonant with modernity about this approach. In his extended ‘Dedication’ of Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, Adorno extols the appropriateness of the fragment as a literary genre for modern thought as opposed to the system, even the book:

the attempt to present aspects of our shared [Adorno and Horkheimer’s] philosophy from the standpoint of subjective experience, necessitates that the parts do not altogether satisfy the demands of the philosophy of which they are nevertheless a part. The disconnected and non-binding character of the form, the renunciation of explicit theoretical cohesion, are meant as one expression of this.2

The experience of modernity demands appropriate forms: in literature, the essay and the aphorism; in art, cinema and the photograph. While not indulging in the aphoristic, (p. 676) the essay form this volume adopts does share some continuity with its contents; if only because the Handbook as a genre requires it. As such, the book does much to make complex, and even discredit, characterizations of modernity in which the atomized individual is acclaimed above the corporate, reason above passion, mind above body, the instrumental above the ornamental, the mechanical above the organic, and the secular above the sacred. Modernity cannot be reduced to a set of hierarchically organised binarisms. That does indeed place a question mark at the end of Bruno Latour’s polemic (mentioned in our Introduction) We Have Never Been Modern. But, in its turn, this raises even more profound questions about both ‘modernity’ as the characterization of a cultural epoch and the definition of cultural epochs as such.

The questions, put boldly, are: what is the degree of cohesion and distinctiveness necessary to characterize a cultural epoch and does ‘modernity’ display such a degree of cohesion and distinctiveness? In the Introduction we drew attention to the advent of discussion concerning both ‘modernities’ and ‘postmodernity’. As late arrivals, these discourses open up the question of the future or even the end of ‘modernity’ as an adequate characterization of contemporary culture. Several of the chapters in this volume allude to different geographical, cultural, and linguistic inflexions of the modern. Other chapters also foreground the way in which modern thinkers, theologians, and artists made explicit reference to the past in ways that emphasized some continuity between, say, Hellenism and Romanticism, and the revival of the Gothic. Any number of cultural historians, working on the boundaries of what have been named distinctive cultural epochs prior to the modernity, the mediaeval and the Renaissance, have likewise emphasized intellectual continuities, influences, retrievals, and repristinations that run counter to the cohesive unity necessary to name a distinctive cultural epoch.3

And yet…this is a period in which three revolutions took place (the French, the Industrial, and the Russian); two major world wars were waged; empires waxed and waned (Napoleon’s, the British, the Russian, and the American); colonies were seized and lost; cities were founded or considerably reshaped; a secularization of certain institutions and the public sphere more generally occurred; new technologies were invented; new scientific discoveries made; etc. Such events profoundly marked social experience and not just in Western Europe or fledgling North America. They fostered new philosophies and modes of thinking, new artistic movements, new forms of architecture and landscape, new figurations of the political, politics, and polity, new types of transport, and new opportunities for travel and communication. It is not difficult to point to what is new in modernities: the culture that produced Caravaggio and the culture that produced Cezanne are quite distinct in terms of the ways they thought about and experienced and constructed (p. 677) their worlds. There cannot have been one aspect of life from an earlier period that did not have to die or adapt to the new social and cultural conditions of the modern era.

Perhaps it is only when a tide has turned and the circulations of those social and cultural energies that gave rise to a specific epoch have petered out or changed dramatically that we can appreciate, looking backward, the cohesiveness and distinctiveness of a specific period. Certainly, there remain far too many identifications with the various plots and subplots of modernity for our present cultural situation to claim it is something unique and distinctive. All today’s multiculturalism, pluralism, glitz, glamour, internationalism, eclecticism, and hybridity are the late flowerings of modernity. But there are rumours of new currents that could see the end of the modernity and, therefore, provide historians with a space for looking back and assessing more clearly its cohesiveness and distinctiveness as a cultural era. Two are probably most prominent. The first concerns finance, particularly credit. One of the most decisive developments of modern capitalism came with the extensive employment of double-entry book‐keeping, from the early sixteenth century onwards, among the merchant class. This made possible the compilation of precise records of capital and outlay that facilitated calculations of expendable wealth that could be used for speculation and credit.4 Capitalism was the economic basis for modernity and all its failures (international warfare, genocide, deathcamps) and achievements. If capitalism were to collapse, and there are rumours today of the possibility of such a collapse, then it is likely that unprecedented levels of scarcity and austerity could inaugurate an epochal change. The second current is not unrelated to the first in so far as it announces a global shift of emphasis from the Atlantic to the Pacific seaboard. Modernity is a western cultural formation, however much its universal vision coincided with a burgeoning international relations that was economic, diplomatic, military, and cultural. Modernity’s cosmopolitanism coincided with nascent and developing globalism. Its early manifestations were European and later North American. Hence there is a high degree of accuracy in mapping modernity on to those nations who comprise NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). Since the end of the First World War, the United States has been the economic and military powerhouse behind an alliance with Europe that is both historical and cultural. But there are rumours that this is changing; that the Orient is in the ascendant and the Occident on the wane; that the economic and growing military power of China, India, and Japan will eclipse the strengths of Europe and the North America. Once more, such an axial shift in the structures of global power would inaugurate an epochal change.

For the moment, modernity, however diverse its manifestations and values, remains an unfinished project. This volume draws together some of the most prominent aspects of that project and some of its major voices, organizing them along specific key trajectories. In this way it offers a statement, not simple, not singular, but many-faceted; a statement nevertheless of not just about where we have been but also where (p. 678) we still are. The statement is orientated around two disciplines, theology and philosophy, and an interrelationship between them that goes back to ancient times. It is the interrelationship that is most fascinating. Individually they show the creative urge to think again, to start anew and to cast off the vestiges of any dogmatic slumbering. Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein have theological counterparts in Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Strauss, and Barth. At times both disciplines renounce metaphysics and at times they embrace it. At times both view anthropology as an enemy and at times they both view it as a friend. Frequently, they are fighting over the same terrain: epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, hermeneutics, and ontology. They draw together: Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Tillich, and Levinas. They draw apart: Marx, Heidegger, Sartre, and Barth. When they draw apart, it is notably the philosophers who inscribe the boundary. Theologically, the variety of confluence between both disciplines is as rich and complex as modernity itself. The chapters in the volume emphasize the variety of that confluence in cultural and geographical contexts, which evolve over almost four hundred years. Is there a lesson each can learn from this? Possibly only that they share too much in common in their pursuit of truth to ever be entirely free of each other. Even the current fashion of new atheism remains an appeal to the theisms and their histories which it rejects. The unfinished project of modernity, then, will require also the continuation of the relations between these two disciplines. There is also the unfinished project of the modern university at the heart of these issues, with its exaggerated distinctions between disciplines. The latter are especially significant and problematic for a discipline like theology. And it is possibly here that a further change will make itself evident. For under the secularization thesis, the discipline of philosophy took the cultural lead and theology was demoted; but under conditions in late modernity in which religion is once more coming to the fore as an important public phenomenon, then perhaps, it is the discipline of theology that will once more take the cultural lead. Tempus edax rerum? Possibly. Time has certainly been central to modernity’s understanding of itself as concerned with the modo, the present.

Nicholas Adams

George Pattison

Graham Ward


(1) (2010). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. (New Haven: Yale University Press).

(2) Theodor Adorno (1974). Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso), 18.

(3) As only one example, see Suzannah Biernoff (2002). Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) who points to a continuity between the work of the mediaeval Franciscan, Roger Bacon, and the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Scholars of Descartes have also been concerned to distinguish between the work of Descartes himself (which is not nearly as dualistic as it first appears) and the Cartesians.

(4) See Mary Poovey (1998). A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), ch. 2, 29–91.