Sunteți pe pagina 1din 5

VIEWPOINT

A WORKING DEFINITION OF
"MODERNITY"?

A negative preliminary remark needs to be made: any attempt to


formulate "modernity" simply in terms of some sort of increased
"rationality", whether in economics or politics or religion, meets
what are probably insurmountable difficulties. The case of late imperial China is the one with which I am most familiar.2 It does not
seem that early "modern" Europe (to revert to a chronology-based
usage of the term for a moment) had any demonstrably decisive
superiority vis-a-vis eighteenth-century China as regards rationality
1
L. Kolakowski, "Modernity on Endless Trial", Encounter, lxvi (Mar. 1986), pp.
8-12. On p. 9 he says, "[W]e have no clear idea what modernity is", and on p. 10 he
tries to connect it with "our contemporary and widespread . . . discontent of civilisation". There is no serious attempt at a working definition.
2
On the Chinese economy, see M. Elvin, "Why China Failed to Create an
Endogenous Industrial Capitalism: A Critique of Max Weber's Explanation", Theory
and Society, xiii (1984). On politics, see T. Metzger, The Internal Organization of the
Ch'ingBureaucracy (Cambridge, Mass., 1973). On religion, see, interahos, T. Metzger,
Escape from Predicament: Neo-Confucianism and China's Evohing Political Culture
(New York, 1977).

Downloaded from http://past.oxfordjournals.org/ at Leiden University on August 3, 2016

Reading a recent essay by Kolakowski called "Modernity on Endless


Trial" alerted me to the realization that Europocentric historians still
seem to find the concept of "modernity" elusive.1 For a historian
whose work focuses on an area outside Europe (in my case, mainly
China), the term can be given a fairly clear and definite sense, even
if, like most historians' terms, it is hazy at the edges. It would be
interesting to know how this non-European perception appears to
colleagues who possess a much more refined knowledge of European
history than I do. The practical advantages of the definition offered
below are (1) that it is not based on chronology, and so escapes the
confusion caused by continuous updating (or, in other words, the
pressures to treat what is "more recent" as thereby "more modern"),
and (2) that it enables one to see societies as varying combinations of
"modern" and "non-modern" elements, sometimes mutually supportive, sometimes mutually indifferent, and sometimes mutually hostile.
In this view, of course, neither present-day Western Europe nor
present-day North America emerges as wholly "modern".

210

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 113

3
Thus Robert Bellah, Tokugawa Religion: The Vaiuet of Pre-Industrial Japan
(Glencoe, 111., 1957), p. 19, argues that "the Meiji period . . . was a culmination of
and intensification of the central values rather than a rejection of them". Among these
values were a strong concern with gaining political power over others (p. 37) and an
emphasis on practical performance (p. 14). This fits in neatly with the definition
offered in the next paragraph of the text, and provides part of the explanation as to
why Japan adapted so quickly to "modernity". See also the essays in Marius Jansen
(ed.),Changwg Japanese Attitudes towards Modernization (Princeton, 1%5), esp. Albert
Craig's "Science and Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan".
4
Laurence Picken, of Jesus College, Cambridge, once compared Western orchestral
music, with its precise scores, standardized pitches, and its conductor, to the blueprints, standardized parts and managing director of a modern factory, and contrasted
it with the "artisanal" quality of most non-Western musics. I hope I have remembered
Picken correctly after a lapse of some thirty years. He should not be held responsible
for the exact phrasing of this observation.
5
W. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society since A.D.
1000 (Oxford, 1983) suggests the extent to which the modern European world was
born out of a many-sided competition for military domination that eventually involved,
and conditioned, whole societies, and was characterized by a far-reaching rationality
of means. As he says of Wallenstein and DeWitte (p. 121), "[w]hat worked was all
they cared about". The exaltation of competition, whether between individuals or
states or systems, is something apostles of modernity tend to have in common, whatever
their other differences.

Downloaded from http://past.oxfordjournals.org/ at Leiden University on August 3, 2016

in these three domains. (Mischief might even have fun arguing the
opposite: competitive civil-service examinations, fastidious control of
the environment in the areas of irrigated farming, no stopping work
on Sundays, a comparatively this-worldly, rational elite ethos, and
so forth.) Science is the one exception. The same point could probably
be made with regard to Tokugawa Japan, albeit with somewhat
different emphases,3 and possibly other areas as well. Furthermore,
the suggested definition is based on a specification of ends, not a
characterization of means; and applying the idea of "rationality"
to ends, apart from the aspect of internal consistency, is at best
problematic.
From a non-European point of view, what impresses above all
about "modern" Europe is its ability to create power. This even
applies, at the level of impressions, to its music.4 As afirstapproximation let us therefore define "modernity" as a complex of more or less
effectively realized concerns with power. The complex contains at
least the following three components: (1) Power over other human
beings, whether states, groups or individuals, according to the level
of the system under consideration.5 (2) Practical power over nature
in terms of the capacity for economic production. (3) Intellectual
power over nature in the form of the capacity for prediction, and more generally - of an accurate and compactly expressed understand-

A WORKING DEFINITION OF "MODERNITY"?

211

6
Prediction is a fairly objective standard. "Understanding" can cause trouble if one
accepts that, in some ultimate sense, there is no criterion allowing one to prefer one
paradigm to another. See Thomas Kuhn, TTie Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd
edn. (Chicago, 1970), p. 74, where he maintains that "[t]here is no standard higher
than the assent of the relevant community". Stephen Toulmin has noted, in Foresight
and Understanding: An Enquiry into the Aims of Science (London, 1961), pp. 24, 32,
that many powerful theories yield no verifiable predictions (Darwin's theory on the
origin of species through variation and natural selection being a case in point), and
thus prediction on its own is an inadequate criterion. One way out, suggested by an
idea due to Wen-yuan Qian (unpublished MS.), would be to see "power" in science
as being broadly indicated by capacity to include, within an integrated framework,
more and more variables (such as position, long-term time, short-term time, mass,
electric/magnetic charge, temperature, and so on). In the terms of the alternative
definition of "power" proposed in the next paragraph of the text, namely "the capacity
to change the structure of systems", one might also relate the onset of "modernity"
in science to the appearance of the sequence of successor paradigms self-consciously
superseding their predecessors, a concept made famous by Kuhn, Structure ofSaennfic
Revolutions, pp. 12, 52, 77, 84-5.
7
Thus Simon Kuznets, Modem Economic Growth: Rate, Structure and Spread (New
Haven, 1966), p. 9, emphasizes that "[t]he epochal innovation that distinguishes the
modern economic epoch is the extended application of science to problems of economic
production".
A striking example, because its deleterious effect on popular welfare is so evident,
is the destruction by the Maoist Red Guards of the seeds and samples in Chinese
agricultural research stations during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a time
when the intellectuals (known as "stinking elements") were subjected to extensive,
and often violent, maltreatment, ultimately because they were feared as a source of
political criticism.

Downloaded from http://past.oxfordjournals.org/ at Leiden University on August 3, 2016

ing. The single-mindedness with which each of these three goals is


pursued is only limited (apart from the intervention of "non-modern"
motivations) by their mutual interdependence. Modern economic
growth depends on science, for example, 7 while the relative hypertrophy of political control over thought and culture can imperil the social
and intellectual creativity required for science, and probably other,
less immediately evident, social adaptations. 8
This first approximation has considerable suggestive value. In so
far as "power" is thought of as "a capacity to direct energy" it can
be applied both literally, as in the case of the eighteenth-century
thermodynamic revolution that discovered how to turn heat (undirected energy) partially into usable work (directed energy), and
somewhat metaphorically, as in the cases of the more effective military
power and internal administrative control, and the increased output
per person of goods and services, that are characteristic symptoms of
modernity. But is it possible to be at least a little more precise? A
case might be made in favour of defining "power" for our present
purposes as "the capacity to change the structure of systems". Although uncomfortably abstract, this formulation has the advantages of

212

PAST AND PRESENT

NUMBER 113

Lastly, let us sketch some of the other implications of this approach


to the semantics of "modernity". (1) It is largely value-free. For
example, it implies no particular position as to the "modernity" or
otherwise of representative democracy, but merely suggests that one
should ask empirically in any given case how far such an institution
meets, or indirectly contributes to meeting, the criteria set out above.
(2) It respects ambiguities that in fact exist. In the terms used here
there is nothing, for example, that would indicate that a commitment
to personal freedom (in all or any of the complex meanings of that
term) is a characteristically modern goal. It would merely note that,
for example, the police - who are a characteristically modern institution - under some circumstances defend it and under others diminish
it. (3) It evokes the moral emptiness of modernity. If it is a concern
See M. Elvin, "The Double Disavowal: The Attitudes of Radical Thinkers to the
Chinese Tradition" (paper presented to the second Sino-European conference, Oxford,
1985, and forthcoming in the proceedings edited by Y. M. Shaw).

Downloaded from http://past.oxfordjournals.org/ at Leiden University on August 3, 2016

(1) differentiating "power" in this context from statically maintained


domination (2) allowing for both the destructive and constructive
aspects of "modernity", and (3) including the intellectual world,
which may be thought of, for this purpose, as a complex of abstract
systems.
Since concerns with the various forms of power sketched above
exist to some extent in societies normally thought of as "pre-modern",
we may define a society as a whole as "modern" when the powercomplex, as a whole, is clearly dominant over other ends. (And,
perhaps one should add, enjoying some measure of successful implementation.) The complex can coexist with a wide, but not an unlimited, range of other values. (Thus Japan does not have to become
identical to the present-day West to be ranked as comparably "modern".) Such coexistence may be in fact essential, as one may suspect
that, for most people, undiluted modernity is psychologically unbearable. (And this, in a way, is one of the points that Kolakowski
makes in his essay.) Pursuing this line of thought, it becomes quite
unparadoxical to argue that, in general, the transition to "modernity"
is more easily and effectively achieved when there is a degree of mutual
support between some continuing "traditional" cultural values and
those that we have defined as being specifically "modern"; and,
conversely, that an uncompromising antagonism to the "non-modern" may be in many respects counter-productive. In China, for
example, the modernizing radicals attacked tradition with a nihilistic
savagery that may have made adaptation less rather than more easy.9

A WORKING DEFINITION OF "MODERNITY"?

213

St. Antony's College, Oxford

Mark Etvin

10
So long as planners, private and public, use current interest rates (around 15 per
cent) and the compound-interest formula to compare present and future values, it is
evident that only under the most extraordinary circumstances will the time-span of an
equal trade-off between the two even begin to approach that of a single human life.
In ordinary circumstances, success-indicators are of course calculated for managers,
in capitalist and socialist enterprises alike, on the basis of a year's to a few years' results
and in an organizational unit of account that may often not match closely with the
social and economic impact of what it is doing. But this is a different topic.

Downloaded from http://past.oxfordjournals.org/ at Leiden University on August 3, 2016

with various forms of power, then power for what? The question has
to be left open. (4) It implies no fixed position as regards social
evolution (let alone the question-begging notion of "progress"), although the recent past suggests that at least the short-term competitive
power of predominantly "modern" societies, and modes of behaviour
and thought, is close to irresistible. It is equally evident that one
should be cautious about its long-term future. Apart from the psychological discontents touched on above, it is clear that in "modern"
societies as presently constituted there is a developing contradiction
between the operational units of time used by "modern" institutions
such as firms and state bureaucracies (five to fifteen years at the
maximum in most cases10) and the operational units of time implied
by a growing number of "modern" technologies (from decades to
centuries, particularly as regards environmental contamination, resource depletion, and so forth). It is an interesting question whether
or not a radical lengthening in the operational time-units of presentday institutions would, or would not, require and/or cause a change
in their essential nature.
We should, I think, rest content with the relatively limited goal
proposed here, namely trying to characterize a transition that, for
those societies that have gone through it, occurred in a relatively
short period when seen in the sweep of world history. I have offered
an East Asian perspective on the question, but whether it will seem
to others, with different points of view, a clarification or a distortion
I am unsure. As the Chinese proverb has it, "One throws a brick,
hoping for a jade in return".