**RELATED TERMS: Critical thinking; Humanism; Modernism; Avant-Garde Movements; Design History; Design Practice and Functionalism; **

The notion of ‘modernity’ may be taken as an example of a narrative environment, more specifically a framing narrative, which concerns a particular historical narrative woven into the material and geographical environments of Western Europe and the USA at a particular moment in time, beginning in the mid-18th century but accelerating during the 19th century.

As well as being useful in the design of specific narrative environments, modernity may also be useful for contextualising and orienting narrative environment design as a situated practice within the development of design practices since the 18th century. Modernity may be especially useful when considered alongside such related terms as modernism, the avant-garde and post-modernism; and when taking into account the ways in which everyday life and everyday experience (Dasein) is conceived within these frames.

Dallmayr (1989: 378-379) writes that the Renaissance and Reformation, along with the discovery of the ‘New World’, heralded a break with the classical and mediaeval past. However, the notion of a distinctly ‘modern’ period emerged only slowly in the aftermath of these events. Habermas suggests that Hegel was the first philosopher to develop a clear conception of modernity. Together with his philosophical precursors, Hegel situated the core of modernity in the principle of subjectivity, which carried for him the connotations of individualism, critical-rational competence and autonomy of action. While accepting the principle of subjectivity, Hegel also recognised both its emancipatory potential and its ambivalence, i.e. that it is both a world of progress and of alienated spirit.

While referring initially to a European and American socio-historical experience, the processes with which modernity is interwoven and co-arises, such as migration, urbanisation, industrialisation, technologisation and bureaucratisation, may be of relevance to other countries at other times, who thereby experience modernisation and modernity in their own distinct ways.

In socio-political terms, between 1840 and 1845, Lefebvre (1995: 170) argues, Marx found need of a concept of modernity, a concept which is primarily, but not exclusively, political. It defines a form of the state that is elevated above society. However, also important for Marx is the relation this form of state has with everyday life and with social practice in general: it separates everyday life, taken as private life, from social life and political life.

In academic terms, John Protevi (1999) states that modernity’ s temporal range depends on which academic discipline is being discussed. What can safely be said is that it concerns post-1600 Europe at the earliest, i.e. the post-Renaissance period, in the Northern European version. Whatever the causes, the years after 1750 saw various governmental and cultural changes accompany and accelerate these economic changes, in “mutual presupposition”.

Habermas (1997: 39) writes that, “Anyone who, like Adorno, conceives of ‘modernity’ as beginning around 1850 is perceiving it through the eyes of Baudelaire and avant-garde art.”

Modern thought, as summarised by Protevi (1999), can be characterised as an admixture of:

1. Humanism: the human being is the source of meaning and value; the value of nature is its utility to humans; and the development of human potential is the highest goal of politics.

2. Individualism: the individual is both ethically and intellectually prior to society; humans have rights governments must acknowledge in limiting government action; and intellectual progress, and hence techno-economic progress, is made by leaps of genius.

3. Rationalism: the natural human faculty of theoretical and practical reason moves from universal principles to particular applications; while remaining antithetical to power, which is centralised and repressive.

4. Secular moralism: human reason alone can allow moral actions and moral society, if freed from the superstition and prejudice of religious dogmatism.

5. Progressivism. human history is progressive: people in the modern age are more humane and moral than in previous ages, because of the public use of reason in governmental rationality.

There are many different views on modernity. For Habermas, for example, the goal of modernity is the attainment of a fully democratic society. Modernity is to him, therefore, an ‘unfinished project’ which must be pursued if that potential is to be released (Terry, 1997).

For any particular narrative environment design, it may be relevant to decide, depending on the character of the design in question, how it is situated in relation to the issues raised by modernity:

Is it assumed, like Habermas, that the goal of modernity remains an unfinished project, towards which the design contributes?

Alternatively, does the design operate under the sign of neo-avant-gardism or post-modernity, i.e. incorporating a degree of scepticism and a critical attitude towards the grand narratives of progress, in both the scientific-technic-epistemic realm (wholly integrated or systematised knowledge) and the political-ontological realm (complete human emancipation and salvation)?

Or does it seek to move beyond the problematics of modernity and engage in considerations of the post-human, new materialism, and materialist feminism, opening up a new terrain that displaces the teleological and productivist orientation of modernity?

However, whichever direction one chooses, as Derridean deconstruction shows, one cannot simply make a complete break with modernity and its problematiques.


Dallmayr, F. (1989). The discourse of modernity: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger (and Habermas). Praxis International, 8 (4), 377–406.

Habermas, J. (1996). Modernity: An unfinished project. In: Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical essays on the philosophical discourse of modernity, edited by M. P. d’Entreves and S. Benhabib. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 38–55.

Lefebvre, H. (1995). Introduction to modernity: twelve preludes, September 1959-May 1961. London, UK: Verso.

Protevi, J. (1999). Some remarks on Modernity and Post-modernism and/or Post-structuralism [Webpage]. Available at: [Accessed 24 September 2013].

Terry, P. (1997). Habermas and education: knowledge, communication, discourse. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 5 (3), pp.269–279. Available at: [Accessed 4 March 2014].