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Modernity

There is general agreement that “modernity” began centuries ago with the rise of natural science, the growing importance of the individual, and the growing dominance of capitalism. Are we seeing the end of modernity? Or are we at the beginning of a successor era – post-modern, post-industrial, whatever? The on-the-ground experienced reality is that we're living through a period of deep and sweeping change.

I think back to my youth in Cleveland, 60 or more years ago. The world had just emerged from World War II. The economy was booming. Gasoline was 25¢ per gallon. A solid middle-class house could be had for less than $25,000. But more importantly, the world was a certain place. The US was clearly a white, hetrosexual, Christian nation. Not everyone was happy with their place in that world, but everyone knew the place they were expected to occupy.

On a personal note, I remember one Christmas vividly. My father participated, with enthusiasm, in annual Christmas parties. Driving home, he was well under the weather. Our neighborhood cop saw his condition, … and drove him home. At the time this was not seen as all that exceptional, but can you imagine anything like that happening today? One positive consequence is that my father became a teetotaler, and remained one for the rest of his life.

The explanations that have been offered vary widely. Our world have become increasingly secular. The scientific, objective view of the world takes clear precedence over lived experience in and of the world. Our sense of belonging is less and less connected to specific places – we no longer have deep geographic roots. Personal rights are used to trump almost all other concerns. Greed is seen as good.

We all experience this on an immediate, personal level. There are also some clear, external causes for concern. Climate change seems increasingly important. Water shortages are becoming more wide-spread. We seem to push at the boundaries of what our physical world can tolerate. And the economies of the developed world have entered a most unsettled time. It's no longer clear that a house in the suburbs, an automobile, and 2.5 children will be the reward for the diligent wage earner. The middle class is under threat.

It's against these sweeping changes that many of us are led to ask questions about the meaning of life, and the meaning of our lives.

To learn more:

  • The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology has an interesting three page entry by Gerard Delanty on Modernity. This is clearly a sociologist's view of the subject.
  • Charles Taylor delivered the 1991 CBC Massey Lectures on The Malaise of Modernity. His first chapter on the "Three Malaises" nicely sets the stage. Taylor is one of the most respected Canadian philosophers.
  • Stephen Toulman's Cosmopolis – The Hidden Agenda of Modernity provides a different perspective. His first chapter (“Backing into the Millenium”) introduces his view.
  • Wikipedia provides a useful overview on Modernity, albeit with the defused and somewhat unfocused perspective that comes with open source editing.
  • For those who are really interested in digging into the subject, Anthony Giddens' 1990 The Consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, provides an extended treatment of the subject. Chapter i

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