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The purpose of this paper is (A) clarification of the uses of the words 'modern' and 'modernity', and (B) a neutral description or analysis of the thought-cum-value system which has evolved in the West during the last three centuries, and which may be called the temper of the modern age or the spirit of modernity.

(A) The words 'modern' or 'modernity' may be used at least in the following ways:

(a) The pure chronological use. According to this the 20th century is more modern than the 19th, and today more modern than yesterday, independently of all qualitative considerations.
(b) The literal use. According to this anything, which is in the mode or fashion at present, is modern independently of its desirability or otherwise. The literal use is similar to but not identical with the chronological use.
(c) The pure evaluative use or the mixed evaluative use, the latter containing an implied description of specifiable qualities, as in the statement 'Nehru had a very modern outlook'.
(d) The concrete descriptive use in relation either to (i) an attitude of mind or (ii) a system of ideas or values judged as modern relative to our time scale.

For obvious reasons I shall use the word 'modernity' in this paper in the descriptive sense; firstly, in the sense of an attitude of mind, and secondly, in the second part, in the sense of the system of ideas and values that have gradually evolved in the West since the Renaissance. I shall avoid the temptation of evaluating this modern spirit, though I must confess that it has profound appeal for me.

The word 'modernism' was first used in the present sense in the last decade of the 19th century by conservative Catholic circles and had a pejorative undertone. It referred to the rising liberal movement within a section of Protestant Christianity. 'Modernism' thus got closely linked up with the universe of religion. Though never restricted to the purely religious sphere, the word 'modernism' is generally referred to religious modernism or the modern conception of Christianity. The word 'modernity' is more general than 'modernism'.

Broadly speaking, modernity, in the generic attitudinal sense, means a predilection or favorable attitude towards recent or contemporary rather than traditional values in the different spheres of life. Since, however, being recent or contemporary is relative to the temporal position of the observer, the concrete modernity of today recedes into the antiquity of yesterday. Concrete modernity’s are thus spatiotemporal, while modernity in the generic attitudinal sense may be said to be eternal, since it is not relative to the position of the observer.

Modernity in the generic attitudinal sense may be divided into (a) either imitative or creative, (b) either reactive or responsive.

Imitative modernity may appropriately be termed 'fashionism’ and is at bottom a kind of static 'inverted traditionalism'. Creative modernity, on the other hand, is not mere involvement with or fascination for the present, but reflects deep concern with the future.

'Reactive modernity' is a more or less sharp and superficial reaction to a situational novelty or challenge. 'Responsive modernity', on the other hand, is an authentic response to the ever-changing human situation that demands creative awareness rather than mechanical adaptation. Reactive modernity may prove as futile or barren as static traditionalism. It is not the fascination for the modern or the ancient or the medieval, but the creative quest of value, the ceaseless search for the better, rather than contentment with the good, which is the fountainhead of all progress.


Every epoch or society has a unique cultural configuration or gestalt. This configuration consists of (a) a conceptual framework or system, which is employed as the frame of reference and unification by the overwhelming majority of the people of that epoch or society. This conceptual system is woven on the warp and woof of a number of basic concepts; (b) a distinctive value system; (c) a distinctive artistic or aesthetic sensibility. A full understanding of the culture of an epoch or society requires the understanding of all the above three dimensions of culture – cognitive, ethical and aesthetic – in their dynamic interaction.

Every society has also its own socio-economic structure, including laws, customs, diverse associations and institutions. Marx did pioneering work in showing the impact of the socio-economic structure upon the cultural gestalt of a society, that is, its philosophy, ethics, religion and art. The elements of truth in his approach are undeniable, though he underestimated the plastic role of the society's traditional thought-cum-value system in its life as a social organism. The role-played by the sentiment of nationalism in Western Europe, and the role being played now by nationalism in the current Sino-Soviet dispute, or that by religious sentiments in the socio-political affairs of present-day India, are serious reminders of the qualifications that must be made in classical Marxian theory.

I shall now enumerate and briefly elucidate the basic concepts as well as the values of Western modernity, that is, the modern western cultural gestalt.

The basic concepts are as follows:

1. Natural or Intra-cosmic Causation

2. Empirical Explanation

3. Universal Evolution

4. Social Causation

5. Relativism

6. Dimensional Integration

The above concepts are not exhaustive, though, I believe, they constitute the core of the Western conceptual framework. There is nothing rigid about this scheme, since the basic concepts can be separated or combined according to one's choice and sense of aesthetic elegance. Thus, for example, one could posit Naturalism and Universal Causation separately as two basic concepts instead of combining them into the concept of ‘Natural or intra-cosmic Causation', as I have done. The interplay of these concepts generates the worldview, and their analysis helps to crystallize this worldview or total perspective.

1.  Natural or intra-cosmic causation: This concept is the foundation of the modern conceptual framework. It implies that every event has a cause located within the total system of events rather than outside the system, and that this total system is an interrelated cosmos having stable patterns of events. This concept does not entail any particular monistic theory of causation constructed on the basis of particular models; say the model of mechanistic physics, quantum mechanics, biological evolution, or human teleological action, etc. All monistic theories result from our being gripped by a particular model. The implication of the concept is merely that the causes of events are to be located in the event-nexus rather than in some trans-nexus, or, in other words, in a supernatural or super-cosmic nexus. This directly suggests the second concept of empirical explanation.

2.  Empirical explanation: This concept is the logical completion or progression of the first.   If natural causation be universally operative, then knowledge of the interconnections between events becomes no less essential than the mere description of discreet events. Complete knowledge is not merely description but description plus explanation or descriptive explanation. Apart from this intellectual value, explanation is the basis of all control or regulation of events. Control over events presupposes a prior explanatory framework of events. Now if this framework be such that preferred explanations cannot be checked empirically in accordance with clear and previously agreed rules, then they cannot serve as reliable guides to successful human control over events. This does not imply: either that there are no other types of explanation or rather modes of interpretation of human experience; or, that even if they be, they are inferior, useless or invalid in principle. Indeed the poetic, metaphysical, religious and mythical interpretations have their own functions and logic, and the model of empirical or scientific explanation is only one of the modes of unifying or organizing human experience into meaningful patterns. Nevertheless the emphasis upon empirical explanation, that is, explanations that axe testable through sense perception, is the peculiar and the most striking feature of the modern temper. It was this that fostered the growth of quantitative methods and of observation under controlled conditions, which in turn fostered the contemporary technological society.  More than two thousand years ago metaphysical interpretation had displaced magic, myth and ritualistic religion from their dominant place in thought of the cultivated minds. In the modern age metaphysical interpretation has itself been pushed into the background due to the dominant position and prestige gradually acquired by scientific or empirical explanation.

3.  Universal evolution: This concept posits variability in the heart of all things. The accumulation of minute variations is the means both of growth and development as well as of decline and destruction. The concept of evolution implies that change is inevitable, and that reality is a dynamic, living and growing cosmos, rather than a static or completed Divine Artifact, or an accidental product of the blind dance of atoms.

The conception of evolution combined the theories of chance occurrences and of purposive creation. Both these theories and worldviews are evoked by different features of the universe. The conceptions of Divine Creation and of chance configuration resulted from a selective rather than a comprehensive concern with the diverse features of the universe. The concept of evolution attempted to interpret the totality of these features in accordance with the principle of economy of assumptions.

To begin with, evolution was applied to organic life. But gradually the concept acquired universal applicability. This brings us to the fourth concept of social causation.

4. Social causation: This concept was implicit in the wider concept of natural or intra-cosmic causation, assuming that the word 'natural' is used not in opposition to 'social', but in the sense of 'intra-cosmic' as opposed to 'extra-cosmic'. But this concept was made explicit only in the last century, when social phenomena came to be viewed, as much subject to laws as were physical phenomena. Marx has undoubtedly given a powerful impetus to sociology through his concept of historical or sociological materialism. But social causes are highly complex and the contemporary multi-dimensional approach to social causation is definitely an improvement upon the simpler mono-dimensional approach adopted by Marx.

5. Relativism: This is being used in a very wide sense, which would include positivism and Kant's 'phenomenalism’, no less than Einstein's conception of relativity. The implication of this concept is that pure formal logic or mathematics apart, all knowledge is relative to the knower and all evaluation relative to the evaluator, just as perception is relative to the human perceptual apparatus. Hence metaphysics, no less than physics, would not provide any access to ultimate reality but only operate with ideas and concepts relative to human understanding. The realization that metaphysics is after all tainted with relativity, even as physics at a different level, led to disenchantment with metaphysics and played a crucial role in the rapid development of the natural and social sciences in the post Hegelian Western world. Somehow the grip or fascination of 'Absolutism' waned, not only in the sphere of knowledge, but in other spheres of human life as well, for example, religion, morality, language, art, etcetera. The 20th century even led to 'relativity' in the sphere of mathematics in the sense of the creation of non-Euclidean geometries and n-dimensions, etcetera.

6.  Dimensional integration: This concept implies that reality is sufficiently complex for any one set of concepts or any mono-dimensional approach to be adequate to a multi-dimensional reality. We must always avoid the fallacy of reductive or abstractive simplism while describing or explaining things. Human disagreement is very largely the function of mono-dimensional perspectives. Their critical and systematic reintegration dissolves all avoidable and unnecessary controversy and directs the human mind to really fruitful lines of enquiry. It leads to a sense of release or deliverance from the clash of partial perspectives. It leads to an ironic instead of a polemic approach, and thereby to conceptual salvation. This intellectual peace promotes the growth of all the different dimensions or conceptual systems in the spirit of 'epistemic co-existence' and co-operation, that is, dimensional integration. Thus this concept supplements the concept of epistemic relativity, and the two in fact are jointly responsible for the rapid growth of positively verifiable and quantitative sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I now turn to the basic values of Western modernity. The following list is again illustrative rather than exhaustive. But I believe it includes the core values.

1. Life-affirmation or this-worldliness

2. Affluence

3. Humanistic love and dignity or the individual

4. Spiritual autonomy

5. Polymorphous equality

6. Dynamism

7. Ceaseless creativity of values

1. Life-affirmation or this-worldliness: This does not mean hedonism or the pursuit of pleasure, though happiness is one of the elements of life-affirmation. This does not exclude belief in life after death. All that this value implies is that this life is important and must be lived as the good life for its own sake and not merely as a preparation for salvation in the hereafter. The emphasis is on the fullness of life and self-realization rather than on renunciation and salvation. This may be called the typical Greco-Roman ethos, as distinct from the Judeo-Christian ethos found in medieval Western Europe.

2. Affluence: This implies giving high importance to the external conditions or socio-economic soil of man's growth and activities. It may be called the typical American ethos, which is only a development of the West European value of decent living'. Affluence is not necessarily connected with life-affirmation, but life-affirmation tends to generate affluence through technological progress.

3. Humanistic love and dignity of the individual: Humanistic love is love and respect for the human essence or the person as such independently of the various accidents of his birth, like religion, race, region, language or status etc. The dignity of the individual is a corollary of humanistic love. This love transcends the loyalty to fragmentary groups like the tribe, nation, or church, though it is not incompatible with sincere patriotism or a sense of emotional identification with an ideological group.

Democracy as a way of life and as a political form or institution is a corollary of the dignity of the individual.

4. Spiritual autonomy: This value is closely related to the dignity of the individual. It means that the individual must be inwardly free or self-legislative. His commitment must be to his own higher self or the God within him rather than to any external Authority. The conception of the sovereignty of the people is nothing but individual spiritual autonomy writ large. This inner freedom again is not incompatible with religious belief as such, though obviously it is incompatible with all authoritarian religious systems.

5.  Polymorphous equality: This is a very recent extension of the value of humanistic love and dignity of the individual. It may be said to be a new dimension added to the merely political equality of voting (or the maxim of one man, one vote) as posited by classical democracy. It means that equality must be polymorphous or multi-dimensional rather than mono-dimensional, that is, confined to a particular area of life. Thus, there should be equality of opportunity in every walk of life for every individual irrespective of sex, as far as is humanly possible. The ultimate criterion or essence of social justice is seen to lie precisely in the degree of equality of opportunity generated in society. Equality of opportunity must not be confused with literal or bare equality. It is not incompatible with gradations in status, power or wealth. All that it entails is that such gradation should be earned and not inherited. They should be the reward of individual effort under conditions of polymorphous equality, rather than the antecedent gifts of the accidents of birth. It will be seen that no traditional religion has practiced or even preached such polymorphous equality, though some religions have given greater importance to equality, than have others. Socialism is itself partly a means to the realization of the equality of opportunity.

6. Dynamism: This value is a corollary of the theoretical concepts of natural and social causation. Since reality is Becoming rather than Being, malleable rather than immutable, it calls for the ethic of action rather than of resignation. Not only must nature be controlled, but disease, poverty and other social evils must be abolished through planned and systematic effort. Moral value inheres not in the life of contemplation or in Being but in the life of action or Becoming.

7. Ceaseless creativity of values: By virtue of spiritual autonomy inherited values must be conserved, as well as new ones should be created by man. A dynamic, self-critical and perennially open value system is desired in place of a closed and static one. This implies that values grow, and that our insight into them matures and new levels or dimensions emerge even in the case of basic values like love, justice, equality, etc.  Thus no particular value system can be accepted as final.


The word 'contemporary' has a purely temporal reference, while 'modernity' may be used in the temporal as well as descriptive or qualitative contexts. In the literal sense anything modern, that is, in the mode is also contemporary, since to be in the mode implies to be in the mode now. But in the descriptive or qualitative sense, what is modern may deviate from what is contemporary. This distinction is important since there is some danger of confusing contemporaneity with modernity. For example, no description of the contemporary human condition can ignore features like rootlessness, crisis of values, basic insecurity or anxiety etcetera. But they cannot be said ipso facto to be an integral part of the system of concepts and values that constitute modernity. They remain the disvalues of contemporary society even though in the long run they may prove to be the harbingers of higher values.


On the basis of the above concepts and values we may construct a scale of modernity and can measure the degrees of the modernity of a person, society or epoch. The advantage of such a scale lies in the consideration that the concept of modernity is not simple or atomic, but complex and multi-dimensional. Consequently, an individual or society may be modern in one respect or facet, and medieval or ancient in some other, or more modern in some and less modern in other respects. Moreover, these concepts and values are not the unique features of the modern age in the chronological sense. With the help of this scale of modernity we can make a more accurate and concrete assessment of the qualitative modernity of cultures or societies, irrespective of their chronological or temporal modernity.

When we judge an epoch or society as being modernistic or medieval, we obviously refer to its dominant or preponderant character. There is no implication of the total absence of concepts and values contrary to the dominant thought-cum-value system.


The catalytic agent of modernity is science and technology. Let us illustrate this thesis by briefly examining the modernist features of philosophy, religion, literature, and art, etcetera.

Philosophy: The most significant feature of modern philosophy is its meta-philosophical concern with the problem of its own nature and function in the age of science. Existentialism and linguistic analysis are both responses to the impact of science, like Pragmatism in the 19th century and Kant's Critical Philosophy in the 18th. The modern temper of philosophy is due to the impact of the rapid growth of science on account of the application of a clear-cut scientific method. This led not only to uniform conclusions among widely separated scientists, but also   to the growth of technology with all its attendant material benefits. In sharp contrast with this, philosophical controversies showed neither any sign of solution, nor any prospect of tangible gains. This inevitably prompted the philosophers to examine the nature of philosophical disagreement and of language etc., rather than persist in penetrating into the nature of ultimate reality etcetera. In other words, the theory of disagreement, as the new version of the theory of knowledge, took precedence over the theory of reality.

Religion:  Let us see the impact of science and technology on religion. Firstly, the progressive shrinking of social space-time is transforming the static mono-cultural societies of the past into dynamic multi-cultural societies. These later inevitably generate doubt and skepticism regarding traditional concepts and values, and regarding the conformist attitude in general. This in turn fosters growth of the religion of spirit as distinguished from the religion of fear and submission to an external authority. Secondly, the conquest of disease, poverty, unwanted births, and the control of nature in general has profoundly altered the traditional conceptions of God and His relationship with the created world. Belief in God is increasingly becoming belief in the ultimate supremacy of value over disvalue, or the conservation of values, or a value-nisus embedded in the heart of things or constituting their essence etc. In other words, where abstract or theoretical philosophy failed to rationalize the popular theories or beliefs about God, the concrete changes in the wake of science and technology are succeeding in philosophizing the traditional conceptions of the nature of God or the Supreme Being.

Art and Literature: The impact of science and technology upon art and literature may not be apparent, but it is very profound in the ultimate analysis. The invention of the camera was a crucial factor in the decline in Europe of reproductive painting as an art form. The scientific and philosophical theories of perception facilitated the emergence of impressionistic painting. Contemporary architecture is inseparable from steel. The short story and short drama are again children of the age of speed and rush hours. Even our contemporary conception of the ideal feminine physique, that is, slimness, would not have emerged so readily without the advent of contraception. The literary and artistic sensibility of our age has numerous and unsuspected points of contact with its science and technology.

What is Modernity?
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.