eli5: What is modernity?


I’m having trouble understanding what modernity and postmodernism mean and are. Based on the amount I understand about them, postmodernism sounds egoic with some truth to it, and modernity sounds like it has falsehoods but some truth to it.

When I try to understand what they are, I feel like I’m hearing a stereotypical feminine English person talking like the guy from The School of Life, Jordan Peterson, or Stephen Fry in that one A Bit of Fry & Laurie sketch that parodies it.

In: 0

Modernity is a cultural and historical period starting in the late 18th century, characterized by reason, science, and individualism. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernity that critiques its assumptions and values and emphasizes individual perspectives and experiences. Both have strengths and weaknesses and are important to understand for a broader perspective on cultural and historical development.

I don’t think these things should be understood as definitive sources of “truth” that supercede prior movements and try to replace them.

They are “modes of inquiry,” and can be seen casually in some ways as fads, or fashions.

If you are a plain-talking straight-dealing individual, I’m not surprised that you have trouble with this– this is not a “you” thing. One of the philosophers who coined “postmodernism,” Fredric Jameson, has been (facetiously) awarded prizes for being the [worst writer in the English language.](http://www.denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm)

Just to pause for a bit, your question refers to “modernity” which is a similar sounding word to “modernist.” However, “modernity” is a little different from the “modernist” movement that was prominent starting around maybe 1920 or so.

There are a few places on the web that boil down postmodernism to a series of bullet points that contrast with modernism– seek those out.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, we had the Scientific Revolution. This was the period of Newton, Copernicus, etc. During this period, we saw advances in the physical sciences, mathematics, and biology and the development of what you and I would recognize as the scientific method. Basically during this time we learned that there were “rules” to the way the physical world worked, that these rules could be discovered by us, and that those rules could be used to make reliable predictions about the future.

In the 18th century, we had the Enlightenment. During this period, thinkers took the lessons of the Scientific Revolution, that the Universe is governed by reliable, knowable rules, and applied that philosophy to what we would call the social sciences: politics, economics, etc. This is the foundational idea of Modernist philosophies: Human society is governed by universal rules, and history is just the working out of these rules over time in a continuous and inevitable march of progress.

Post-Modernism rejects this Modernist idea. According to them, there are no universal rules for society. Instead, the rules are constantly being renegotiated by societies in response to their particular set of circumstances, and the driving force behind this renegotiation is the attempts of differing groups to gain and maintain power within a particular society.