What is meant by the phrase 'The normative content of modernity'? Is it a valid notion?

Authors Avatar








The Western definition of modernity as inspired by certain Judeo-Christian realities has prompted questions whether or not modernity is a Western project and this has in turn lead to intense debate about the moral character of the project and also raised questions whether its normative content may have been different if it had not taken place in Europe.  This essay will first describe the project of modernity highlighting its main themes and how it is claimed to have replaced the ‘dark ages’ of traditional, feudal society with a new social order.  Using the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant and Rousseau, the essay will elaborate on how these themes helped invent the modern Western notions of human rights and individual equality and put them on a secular and universal, as opposed to religious sectarian basis.  As the essay explores  the nature, limits, and validity of modernity as a western project, it will then focus on the ideas and arguments put across by Habermas and Foucault because they are representative of the modernist and postmodernist arguments in the current debate about the normative content of modernity, a debate that dominates contemporary social theory.  While Habermas calls for a return to the Enlightenment project (the unfinished project of modernity) in which society progresses by and through the principles of reason and rationality, Foucault argues that the Enlightenment paved the way for the sciences of modernity or the sciences of man; that is the sciences of discipline, of govermentality, of surveillance, of domination.  Evidence used to support arguments in the essay is mainly grounded in critical philosophical theory and therefore in-depth analysis is not possible.

The Enlightenment began in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe out of the desire to assert and foster individual freedom.  It was an alternative to the authoritarian constraints of monarchies and church hierarchies. The characteristics of the project are: scepticism towards the doctrines of the church, individualism, a belief in science and the experimental method, the use of reason, that education could be a catalyst of social change and the demand for political representation.  Since reason is a universal force and not limited to any particular culture or to a special geniuses, all human beings can rationally participate in the broad general discussion concerning all topics, and especially politics. Rationalism is the view that reason, as opposed to, say, sense experience, divine revelation, or reliance on institutional authority, plays a dominant role in our attempt to gain knowledge.  Although the term ‘rationalism’ is always used to cover a range of views, the Enlightenment scholars used it to mean general confidence in the powers of the human intellect, in opposition to faith and blind acceptance of institutional authority, as a source of knowledge. The Enlightenment’s main social and political consequence in Europe was the French Revolution. The Enlightenment can therefore be understood as a culmination of the move away from the authority and dogmatism of the medieval and the awaking of modernity.


One key feature of the Enlightenment was the refashioning of religion.  While many Enlightenment thinkers mention God, they most often mean the force of good rather than the biblical Lord.  Many of the writers were Deists, which meant that they believed that a great force had fashioned the world and then left it to us to discover its perfection and model ourselves upon the basic structures of goodness by which we are blessed.  These basic structures could be identified and understood by reason, another gift provided us in our creation.  Just as Sir Isaac Newton could discover the basic laws of physics that revealed the structure of matter in motion, thinkers in diverse fields, it was hoped, could discover the fundamental structures of other disciplines such as politics, psychology and poetry, to help us understand how things were truly meant to be.  Nature itself was understood to be governed by fix laws that mans reason could discover.  The faith in the Enlightenment was that everything in creation was regulated by reason and that God had done so good a job of construction that the laws of nature and the laws of the mind were the same. All that was needed to unravel the deepest mystery of nature was the application of reason in a concerted and logical programmatic way. (Stephen Zelnic) ( )

Join now!

The idea of a ‘social contract’ is another important feature of the Enlightenment. The central concept in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought is ‘liberty’ and most of his works deal with the mechanisms through which humans are forced to give up their liberty.  .   This issue which Rousseau confronted most of his life is summed up in the first sentence of his most famous work, The Social Contract:

“Man is born free but everywhere in chains.” (Rousseau (1762), 1973: 165).

At the foundation of his thought on government and authority is the idea of the ‘social contract’ in government and ...

This is a preview of the whole essay