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Historically, modernity denotes a change in numerous areas of life compared to tradition , caused by the industrial revolution , the Enlightenment and secularization . In the history of philosophy , the beginning of modernity coincides with the skepticism of the enlightenment thinkers ( Montaigne , Descartes , Spinoza ). As part of the modern era , the modern follows the early modern era and continues into the present.

Word history

An early evidence of the word in its Latin form modernus can be found in a circular from Pope Gelasius I from the 5th century, in which the expression stands for the time that the writer himself lived through.

Bernhard von Chartres (called Sylvestris, 1080–1167) uses the word in a similar sense, but more generally for contemporaneity, and describes the relationship between moderni and antiqui with regard to the sciences as a situation that he around 1120 in the parable of the dwarfs on the shoulders of Giant represents:

“We are dwarfs who sit on the shoulders of giants. We can see further than our ancestors and to that extent our knowledge is greater than theirs and yet we would be nothing if the sum of their knowledge did not show us the way. "

The Latin word modernus ('new, modern, present, today') comes from the Latin adverb modo ('just, just recently, recently'). Later borrowed from French ( modern and modern ), it appears in German as a foreign word since 1727 in the meaning of new as opposed to old, antique . Modernité is used as a noun by Chateaubriand for the first time in 1849 (in a derogatory sense) and in 1859 largely taken up by Charles Baudelaire . In German, Eugen Wolff first used the term modernism in 1886 to refer to " modern art ".

Ever since the term was introduced in Germany as part of naturalism , the meaning outlined in terms of its content has always been vague. In most cases, it was used to describe every newly emerging style or genre.

Today, the adjective modern is often used colloquially not in the above-mentioned meaning of a historical upheaval, but as a synonym for "fashionable", ie in the sense of " according to fashion ", and in the sense of "contemporary". The term modernity is often used synonymously with mere progressiveness or actuality . The word modernism, which can be seen as the formation of isms, denotes special phenomena in various subject areas.

Concept of modernity

The term modern is used in different meanings. Historically, it denotes the term of an epoch; in addition, certain styles are named in art, music, film and architecture, and modernism also stands for a concept of philosophy.

Modern as an era

In the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (1687), “modern” was still a counter-term to “ ancient ”. It was not until the 19th century that it became common to use the word modern to generally delimit the present from the past. In philosophy, modernity coincides with the Enlightenment . The most common term for modernity describes the period following the industrial revolution with all its social consequences such as urbanization, the working class, mass industry, etc. In a social, cultural and political context, this period is referred to as the Wilhelminian era , i.e. it points to decisive changes around 1900 and in the (initially not delimited) subsequent period. The popular modern term means roughly the same historical point in time and its subsequent time, but in relation to a spiritual sphere (philosophy, literature, arts). The modern age is therefore an intellectual epoch, at the same time and in mutual condition with the founding period.

According to some - controversial - theories, the epoch of modernity in this sense will be replaced by postmodernism in the mid to late 20th century (as opposed to the term posthistoire ), i.e. in a certain intellectual countercurrent in which there is a skepticism against modern concepts expresses ( counter-modern ). As a stylistic term one then uses the expression "classical modernism" for a closed age .

“At the same time, the time of the Weimar Republic stands at the critical point of intersection of epoch-making sociocultural innovations. It forms the climax of that classic modernism that began to unfold at the turn of the century. It was in it that the features of our contemporary world emerged, and that modern social policy, technology, natural science, human sciences and modern art, music, architecture and literature made a breakthrough. In almost 14 years almost all possibilities of modern existence have been played through. At the same time, classical modernism got into its crisis years. The general implementation was followed by problematization, withdrawal and collapse. "

- Detlev Peukert : The Weimar Republic. Crisis years of classical modernism, Frankfurt / M. 1987.

Other approaches also want to differentiate between a “first” and a second modernity . "Preparatory" stages of development of modernity, in which one suspects causes, are sometimes referred to as protomodern .

Beyond the common term ( see above ), depending on the context (culture / society, politics, ethnological space, art), the beginning of “the” modern age is set very differently: in terms of intellectual history with the Renaissance from around the 15th century, economically with the Industrialization in the middle of the 18th century, politically with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century (political modernity) and the nationalism of the early 19th century, in literary and art history as aesthetic modernity with the beginning, as style with the end of the 19th century Century. According to Jürgen Osterhammel , "the intellectual foundations of modernity [...] were laid in Europe during the early modern period , at the earliest in the age of Montaigne , at the latest in the Enlightenment ."

Modernism as a philosophical concept

The concept of modernity can also be understood as an open philosophical motto, where it is less about concrete dating in this or that respect, but about the question of how the essence of modernity is to be grasped and defined and which insights arise can be deduced from this.

Beginning of modernity

The term modern tends to go far beyond an epoch term - such as that of the Middle Ages . The historical onset of modernity is always a question of theoretical interests and foundations. This is characterized by a backdate that is difficult to contain. This corresponds more to the phenomenon of the “ end of antiquity ”, which can only be attached provisionally to key data (according to Erwin Panofsky ).

From an increasingly cultural studies - albeit limited, since Eurocentric - view, the onset of modernity is shifting backwards, with good reasons in each case. The suggested beginnings range from the collapse of real socialism and an “ end of history ” to the tremors caused by the First World War , the industrialization of the 19th century and - albeit more rarely - the beginning of modern times with humanism and the Reformation . Mostly, however, the beginning is set between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries - and thus dated with the transition from a feudal to a bourgeois model of society.

In a certain sense, in addition to overcoming the Middle Ages, modernity is also confronted with and demarcated from the modern age: after a rebirth of antiquity, after which the Renaissance is named, modernity is no longer based on historical models. This major turning point in thinking did not take place until the end of the Enlightenment and only became noticeable in the course of the 19th century. The upheaval shaped the mood that followed an aesthetic classicism in Sturm und Drang and in Romanticism . Even Goethe noticed revolutionary changes in politics and warfare when he said of the anti-revolutionary campaign in France after the cannonade of Valmy :

"A new epoch in world history is starting from here and today, and you can say that you were there."

In the years of the founding period , however, there was repeated recourse to ancient and medieval concepts ( historicism ) despite the social and economic optimism and upheaval . Therefore, in distinction to a political modernity and an aesthetic modernity, which follows as a reaction to historicism, today already classical modernity is settled much later.

“If later a sociology will ask itself what was the most tremendous historical change in man's external insertion into life, the one that most profoundly changed all of his life, it will surely always redraw the process that from this state to the present day, from the "grown" state of all forms of life in the rational organization - the process that represents the actual social revolution of the nineteenth century. "

End of modernity

The reflection on the shaking of traditional values is largely the core of all theories on modernity. Exceptions are, for example, concepts according to which change in tradition is an integral part of all human development, or which do not recognize development as such. Another characteristic of the concept of modernity, especially in contrast to postmodernism , is the replacement of tradition with new “promises” that specify a changed, but re-established catalog of values ​​or frame of reference. This point of view explains the concept of modernity as an untenable concept.

“What we call modernity - that is, the period between the European Enlightenment and the First World War - overloaded us with idealistic impositions and lured us with humanistic ideals. That is why we have an ambivalent attitude towards modernity today: it is both a utopia and a nightmare. That is why it is so difficult for us to confidently enter a new era. We have a weaning trauma of the ended modern age. "

- Norbert Bolz

Second modern and late modern

The sociologist Ulrich Beck popularized the term Second Modernism . His first book - Risk Society - was subtitled On the Way to Another Modern Age . As a theoretical term, Beck describes with Second Modernism the breakout from the categorical framework of industrial society with the associated nationally limited welfare state through a policy of globalization and opening up to world society .

Another approach to critically reflect on the concept of modernity is to detach it from the context of European history. Andreas Heuer distinguishes between the terms European modern and world modern. From a historical point of view, as opposed to a systematic sociological approach, Ulrich Beck's concept of the second modern would be linked more concretely to the various, sometimes ongoing processes of change of a world modern, which can no longer be understood one-sidedly from the historical emergence of European modernity. The changes outside of Europe - in Asia, Latin America, the Arab world and in Africa - can also be understood from the respective special historical developments. In addition to the same or similar developments in politics, society and culture, different forms of expression of modernity are developing there. From this arises the demand to open oneself up to these developments using the term world-modernity. “The openness of theoretical thinking and the turn to the stories and cultures outside Europe are more urgent today than ever. The end of a world shaped by the West and the beginning of a political pluralism with different societies shaped by culture and history, whose modernity can also be understood from our own developments, will have a lasting impact on the 21st century. "

These developments towards world modernity are also taking place within societies. According to Charles Taylor , all societies are “increasingly multicultural and at the same time more permeable. Both developments are taking place side by side. Permeability means that societies are more open to multinational migration; more and more people within these societies lead a life in the diaspora, whose center lies elsewhere. "Modern World, unlike the term postmodernism , which can be connected to the general concept of modernity, a more open formulation for developments worldwide. This would not mean modernity, as it is interpreted in Europe, a term that serves to capture a historical development in Europe that has already been completed.

For the cultural sociologist Andreas Reckwitz place in the late modernity a social structural change since the 1970s instead of is that the social logic of the general with processes of social rationalization loses its dominance in the social logic of the particular with processes of culturalisation and affect intensification.

Subject-specific provision

Literary studies

This is also reflected in literary modernism after the beginning of the 20th century, with experimentation with new literary techniques being in the foreground (see also experimental literature ) . Developments in the history of ideas such as Max Planck's quantum theory , Sigmund Freud's study The Interpretation of Dreams from 1900 and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity from 1905 also had an influence on this shaking of the traditional worldview . Thus, the experience of speech, a fragmented worldview, the relativization of views and a change of perspective are hallmarks in modern novels ( Franz Kafka , James Joyce ). Furthermore, the subjectification and psychologization of the experience of reality, the receding of the mediating narrative, aesthetic self-reflexivity and the reproduction of subjective perception and consciousness processes are characteristic. The representation of space and figures is often interrupted in perspective and the chronology of events is subordinated to the subjective perception of time. This is also reflected in the urban poetry.

Quite a few approaches relocate the beginning of literary modernism to the period of romanticism, as this anticipates early modern signs: rejection of the traditional poetics of antiquity , a new artist-work of art relationship, etc. However, the noun "modernity" becomes a general one A sense of modernity actually only became semantically virulent around 1890. The naturalists , expressionists and Viennese modernism as well as decadence are understood as modern movements . Baudelaire had already given a non-trivial explanation of modernity in 1863: modernity is the passing, the vanishing, the accidental, is half of art, the other half of which is the eternal and unchangeable.

Among the outstanding works of literary modernism are Rainer Maria Rilke's novel The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) and his poetry cycles Duineser Elegien (1923) and The Sonnets to Orpheus (1922), the novels and stories by Franz Kafka , Alfred Döblins Berlin Alexanderplatz ( 1929), Robert Musils The Man Without Qualities (1930–1952), Hermann Brochs Die Schlafwandler (1931–1932), Wolfgang Koeppens Tauben im Gras (1951), Marcel Prousts A la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927), TS Eliots The Waste Land (1922, Das wüsten Land) and Four Quartets (1944), Ezra Pounds Cantos (1917–1970). Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1923-1939). According to Encarta, all of these works have their own style that reflects in a specific way the fragmentation of worlds of experience and searches for new forms of expression.

Literary modernism is not limited to Europe, so from the end of the 19th century, according to Rubén Darío, modernismo formed the emancipated emergence of Latin American literature.

Art history

The Leipzig Reconciliation Church , an example of modern church building in Germany during the Weimar period

In terms of art history, this is the epoch that reached its climax in the 20th century in Europe with the revolutionary works of the Fauves , Cubists , Futurists , Vortizists , Expressionists and Avant-gardists , initially in painting, sculpture, new music and theater performances. Its end was forced in (Western) Europe by the seizure of power by the National Socialists in Germany (cf. degenerate art , degenerate music ). Few artists succeeded in further developing the aesthetics of modernism in the inner emigration . Many of the persecuted protagonists first fled to France, later to the United States and Israel, where the vast majority of the artistic and architectural (late) works of modernism were created in exile .

The term “aesthetic modernity” according to Theodor W. Adorno relates to the departure from the centuries-old canon , which began around 1800 with regard to formal principles such as perspective , rules of proportion , golden ratio and other image symmetries, for example by the painters Philipp Otto Runge or Caspar David Friedrich , and extends as a process over the following, partly also conservative phases in the sense of an aesthetic reinterpretation of earlier formalisms.

The term classic modern designates the diversity of avant-garde styles in the visual arts at the end of the Belle Époque and then into the middle of the 20th century (see Die Kunstismen ). Painters such as Henri Matisse , André Derain , Pablo Picasso , Georges Braque , Max Beckmann , Franz Marc , Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian are their typical representatives. In Russia, a Russian modernism is emerging , to which one counts - in addition to writers, composers or the ballet impresario Djagilew - Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky . The modern architecture includes a style complex, which architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright , Le Corbusier , Ludwig Mies van der Rohe , Ernst May , Konrad Wachsmann or Oscar Niemeyer be expected. The German Bauhaus has emerged as the cultural nucleus of modernity. In Austria, this is particularly true of the architect Adolf Loos and the architects and representatives of applied art who formed the Wiener Werkstätte .

While the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Fascists in Italy initially took up concepts of the modern age, at least in the fine arts and especially in architecture, the German National Socialists fought them largely as " degenerate ". Even Stalin was not a supporter of modernity; his preferences in art and architecture were socialist realism and classicism .


In music , the beginning of modernity can be dated to the 20th century. In this context one speaks of new music (Musica nova, Musica viva, contemporary music, avant-garde), but since this term was used for earlier epochs - Ars nova around 1320 ( music of the Middle Ages ), Ars nova around 1430 ( music Renaissance ), Musica nova around 1600 ( baroque music ), new music around 1750 ( gallant music , pre-classical ), new direction around 1820 ( romanticism ) - a differentiation seems to make sense. The concept of musical modernity would therefore be characterized by two essential features: on the one hand, a break with history that has never been so radically formulated in music history (from the abandonment of tonality in Schönberg to the complete abandonment of the entire traditional concept of music and work, for example in John Cage ) and, on the other hand, a previously unknown style pluralism . However, the latter also meant that the break was not as radical as postulated. Large parts of opera and concert practice, for example, remained virtually unaffected. The reasons given for the stylistic pluralism that also characterizes the 21st century are "the rich presence of one's own past, the expanded knowledge of the music of other peoples and the availability of music on record and tape". Accordingly, the musical modern is characterized by a juxtaposition of the tried and tested and the new (sounding) em, by a (ideally creative) coexistence.


In sociology , Ferdinand Tönnies equated modernity with modern times in his work Geist der Neuzeit 1935 and explained its essence with the fact that the mentality of " community " recedes and is superseded by the mentality of " society " (cf. Community and Society . 1887). The roots of a modernism understood in this way extend back to the Middle Ages . According to Tönnies, structural functionalism worked extensively to unite modernity with social differentiation . In The Best of All Worlds, the sociologist Gerhard Schulze describes the game of increase as a decisive characteristic of modernity.

It is seen as an advantage of these approaches that one can then analyze the "beginning of modernity" in z. B. Japan or China can speak without having spoken of “modernity” at the time. As mentioned above, this was not the case in Europe until around 1850.

Historically, the beginning of modernity is often placed on the French Revolution . This is how the American sociologist Daniel Bell sees the onset of modernity in 1789, others see the beginning of its gradual emergence in the following decades.

The following are considered essential elements of modernity:

In order to understand modernity, one must make it clear to oneself that all of these elements, which many of us take for granted today, were by no means and are by no means always and everywhere prevailing beliefs. Epochs can best be identified by what the people of this epoch accept as self-evident "truths" and basic convictions without asking. These self-evident changes change over time. Regarding the changes of self-evident see z. B. the paradigm theory of Thomas S. Kuhn .

In addition to the temporal dimension, the spatial limitations of modernity should also be considered. Even if modern influences can be found in all cultures today, the circular thinking that predominates in Asia, for example, is clearly opposed to the linear thinking of the western belief in progress that is conventional from the Bible . Likewise, different aspects of modernity have found their way into other cultures / countries to different degrees. A distinction is usually made here between cultural, technical, intellectual (sometimes also political and lifeworld) modernity. There is no consensus as to whether or to what extent these different aspects can exist separately from one another in the long term.

Modernity reached its cultural climax in Europe and North America in the period before and between the two world wars.

On the one hand, modernity has universalistic claim, which is expressed in particular in the universal declaration of human rights ; on the other hand, its practical feasibility depends on national and other demarcations and exclusions. The various nationalist tendencies of the 19th and 20th centuries are often viewed as opposed to modernity. This may apply to modern art as a concept of art. In the historical sense of the time, however, nationalism is an integral part of modernity, since it only appeared at this time.


Web links

Commons : Modern  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Modern  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Andreas Thiel: Epistolae Romanorum Pontificum genuinae et quae ad eos scriptae sunt a S. Hilaro usque ad Pelagium II. E. Peter, Braunsberg 1868, p. 389: "Quis enim aut leges principum aut patrum regulas aut admonitiones modernas dicat debere contemni, nisi qui impunitum sibi tantum aestimet transire commissum? "
  2. ^ Anne-Marie Bonnet: Modern Art, Contemporary Art: Challenge and Opportunity. Deubner Verlag for Art, Theory and Practice, Cologne 2004, p. 10, ISBN 978-3-937111-05-6 .
  3. Jürgen Osterhammel: The transformation of the world. A story of the 19th century. Munich 2009, p. 1282.
  4. ^ See for example Lothar Gall: Europe on the way to modernity 1850–1890. (= Oldenbourg floor plan of history. Volume 14). Oldenbourg, Munich 1989, ISBN 3-486-49772-3 .
  5. ^ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Poetic works. Volume 10: Phaedo. Essen 1999, ISBN 3-89350-448-6 , pp. 153-275.
  6. ^ Theodor W. Adorno : Aesthetic Theory. Edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, 13th edition. Frankfurt am Main 1970, 1995.
  7. Alfred Weber 1979/1910: The officials. In: Alfred Weber: Did we Germans fail after 1945?
  8. Norbert Bolz : Theory of fatigue - theory fatigue. June 9, 1997, Retrieved May 10, 2019 .
  9. Ulrich Beck: What is globalization . Edition Second Modernism, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1997.
  10. ^ Andreas Heuer: Carl Schmitt. The dialectic of modernity. From European to world modernity. Berlin: 2010, p. 91.
  11. ^ Charles Taylor: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Frankfurt am Main 2009, p. 49.
  12. Andreas Reckwitz: The Society of Singularities. On the structural change of modernity . Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2017, ISBN 978-3-518-58706-5 , pp. 17 .
  13. Claus Pias: The art of disappearing . In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . June 19, 1999, p. 28-31 ( online ).
  14. ^ Brigitte Pedde: Willi Baumeister 1889–1955. Creator from the unknown . epubli, Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-8442-6815-7 ( full text ( memento of August 17, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) [PDF; 11.9 MB ; accessed on May 10, 2019]).
  15. Sandro Bocola : The Art of Modernism. On the structure and dynamics of their development. From Goya to Beuys. Prestel, Munich / New York 1994, ISBN 3-7913-1889-6 . (New edition: Psychosozial-Verlag, Gießen / Lahn 2013, ISBN 978-3-8379-2215-8 .)
  16. dtv atlas on music. Volume 2, Munich 1985.
  17. Ho-fung Hung: Early Modernities and Contentious Politics in Mid-Qing China, c. 1740-1839 . In: International Sociology . tape 19 , no. 4 , 2004, p. 478-503 , doi : 10.1177 / 0268580904047368 .
  18. Bernhard J. Trautner: The intercultural dialogue under the pressure of the fundamentalism paradigm. In: Orient. Issue 36 (1995) 2, pp. 228-241. On-line. (No longer available online.) In: Orient. Archived from the original on November 14, 2012 ; Retrieved August 10, 2012 .
  19. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung: Progressive Thinking in Contemporary Islam. 2006, p. 13 full version. (PDF; 688 kB) Accessed August 10, 2012 .
  20. Peter Wagner: Sociology of Modernity. Freedom and discipline. Campus, 1995. Quoted from Irene Dölling : Gender contract and gender arrangements in the new federal states. In: Kulturation. Online journal for culture, science and politics. Retrieved November 28, 2009 (No. 13, 2/2009, Volume 32, ISSN  1610-8329 ).