Through collaborative research and dialogue, the Center on Modernity in Transition examines the intellectual foundations of modern society and explores their possible transformation. To advance this goal, we pursue four interrelated lines of endeavor:
- We articulate the conceptual core of a research program, animated by the idea of modernity as an age of transition towards a future world society. These efforts are conveyed through a series of interrelated short texts. For example, see ‘The Narrative of Modernity’ below.
- We support a variety of research projects—both theoretical and empirical—that engage different aspects of our conceptual framework. The research generated by these projects is published in established academic outlets, as well as disseminated in spaces of public and intellectual discourse.
- We partner with universities and research organizations to convene speaker series, seminars, conferences, workshops, and symposia that address topics of shared interest. For example, see ‘The Liberal Imaginary and Beyond’, the current speaker series co-sponsored with Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics and New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge.
- We accompany students and early career researchers to participate in our research endeavors. These efforts involve forming active working groups, developing short courses for delivery during winter and summer periods, and contributing to and delivering innovative courses in university settings
The Narrative of Modernity
During the last five centuries, a series of profound and interconnected transformations have steadily gripped the collective life of humankind. The precise features and results of these transformations have and continue to vary throughout the world. Their continuities and structural similarities have nevertheless inspired many people to describe the period in which they emerged as a new civilizational epoch, known familiarly as ‘modernity’.
Many thinkers have sought to illumine the significance of the ongoing processes of modern transformation by locating them within a broader story of collective enlightenment, one in which a handful of essential revolutions—humanistic, scientific, industrial, and democratic—have begun to propel humanity out of the enduring slumber of superstition, dogma, and oppression, into a new era of ever-expanding knowledge, prosperity, rational organization, and peace. Proponents of this narrative acknowledge that most people do not yet fully enjoy the finest fruits of modernity. They, nevertheless, present certain impressive features of contemporary Western societies, such as their commitment to political freedom, their technical achievements, and their material wealth, as signs of the universal benefits that all peoples should eventually enjoy.
Even within the West, challenges to the enlightenment narrative of modernity abound. One set of voices, for example, roots phenomena such as genocide, totalitarian oppression, and environmental degradation in the veneration of power and disembodied rationalism that animates so many modern ideologies and social configurations. Another reasserts the value of long marginalized perspectives against what are considered to be the reprehensibly totalizing ambitions of modern Western civilization. These critical perspectives rightly challenge the tendency to equate progress with the universal adoption of modern Western norms. They also productively encourage spaces within which alternative social configurations can be meaningfully pursued. Such criticisms nevertheless tend to rely implicitly upon established enlightenment ideas, such as the primacy of freedom, the coercive nature of authority, or the impossibility of religious-metaphysical consensus. Unable, then, to articulate a positive vision of modernity that avoids the parameters of enlightenment thought, critics of the enlightenment narrative tend to rely increasingly upon the merely negating strategies of deconstructivism and critique.
For those who have considered not only the contents of the multiple civilizational configurations that animate the world today, but also their complex and mutually productive interactions, the proposed choice between Western triumphalism and endless deconstructionism must appear woefully inadequate—more a reflection of the limitations that characterize the intellectual discourses of the West than an accurate reading of reality. Yet, because of an almost instinctual contemporary aversion to constructive meta-narrative thought, no conceptually robust alternative has emerged. Despite the ubiquity of countervailing aspirations, then, the leading intellectual discourses of the day tend to remain, if not explicitly polarized, then at least internally obscured, by the dialectic between the enlightenment narrative of modernity and its critical, deconstructive counterparts.
In striving to move beyond this long-standing dialectic, we find it useful to re-frame the central transformations of modernity as a series of expanding fissures within an age-old form of civilization, one that was long sustained by the mutually reinforcing powers of cosmopolitan empire and transcendental religion. Having been steadily challenged for centuries, this old regime of civilization, as one might describe it, finally collapsed during the first half of the twentieth century. With varying degrees of success, a series of successor ideologies, including liberal internationalism, communism, fascism, and ethno-nationalism, have subsequently struggled to elaborate principles upon which a new and more adequate world order could be built. The trajectory of current affairs nevertheless suggests that even the most robust of these twentieth-century ideologies, namely, that of liberal internationalism, cannot on its own successfully facilitate the balanced and coherent integration of humankind. Instead, it seems more plausible to approach the transformative energies that have been associated with modernity as part of a broader, transitional process that must eventually generate a framework of civilization that is more fit for a global age.
The efforts of COMIT to elaborate this idea of modernity as an age of transition must address two significant challenges. The first concerns the implicit reliance of many categories of social and historical analysis upon not only the enlightenment narrative of modernity and its critical counterpart, but also upon a kind of reductive, materialistic vision of reality that limits the possibilities of human civilization. Hence, a main task that the Center faces is that of gradually articulating new concepts that offer an alternative to the prevailing materialist framework. A second dilemma stems from the fact that the precise contents of an emergent world order inevitably eludes our collective powers of imagination at this early stage. How, then, can one think meaningfully about what lies ahead without either embracing some kind of hubristically programmatic utopianism or simply articulating a vague, mythic pining for something more?
One strategy that COMIT adopts in order to address these sources of obscurity is to gradually enrich its understanding of modernity as an age of transition by elaborating the implications of a series of fresh heuristic metaphors. This strategy is informed by the observation that the enlightenment narrative itself is sustained by a series of powerful images which, if not taken literally, clearly shape the deepest intuitions of the age. Indeed, the very term ‘enlightenment’ constitutes one such image, suggesting ideas of inner inspiration and of banishing obscurity and illusion. Other images have also been used to shape thought about specific features of modern social existence—for example, the model of atomic interaction or the metaphor of the jungle.
One of the images that we find it useful to deploy when approaching modernity as an age of transition is that of adolescence. For individuals, the period of adolescence is marked by the rapid development of adult-like powers and capabilities. A mature framework within which to orient these new powers is, nevertheless, often lacking. The adolescent must therefore struggle to simultaneously throw off certain outworn features of its childhood life while allowing others to evolve into patterns that meet the still obscure requirements of adulthood. Viewing the divergent, and often bewildering, trends in contemporary society through this lens helps to illumine the uncertainty and upheavals of the present age, as humanity struggles to channel its surging energies and myriad cultural legacies toward the creation of a more well-founded and stably enduring form of global civilization.
Another image that helps to illuminate the requirements of global integration is that of the human body. Within the body, the association of individual cells allows an extraordinarily diversity of organs and tissues to emerge. This organic diversity is, however, sustained by an overarching unity of purpose that renders its operations complementary and mutually beneficial. It is, additionally, only via the maintenance of organic integrity over time that all the latent powers of the person can emerge. This image helps to clarify the interdependent reciprocity that must eventually come to inform the relational fabric of global civilization, as well as how the establishment of such patterns of complementarity will allow the highest possibilities of human nature to collectively unfold.
COMIT strives to carry out its work of re-describing modernity as an age of transition in the light of these and other stimulating metaphors. In this regard, one of the more concrete lines of inquiry that we pursue is that of articulating how the so-called founding revolutions of modernity can be re-situated within a broader vision of civilizational transition. Much of the relevant empirical work is already being pursued by the growing number of historians and social analysts who examine modernity through a global-interactional lens. The associated conceptual work has not yet been as vigorously developed. Hence, a main aim of the COMIT’s research cluster on the narrative of modernity is to provide a setting within which this conceptual labor can be pursued.
A second, albeit related, line of inquiry elaborates the implications of the Center’s core conviction that the world civilization of the future must be grounded in a recognition of the oneness and interdependence of humankind, albeit without reflecting the universalization of any particular population’s way of life, Western or otherwise. How might such an organically integrated world civilization be expected to emerge? What lessons can be drawn from the past, as well as from various trajectories of social transformation taking place throughout the world today, whether at the level of local community or more broadly? Here, the Center is particularly interested in considering the pattern of accelerating globalization, particularly as it plays out via an ongoing and interactive interplay of integrative and disintegrative forces. The Center is also interested in efforts to think through the kind of conceptual and discursive frameworks that should emerge at the global level in order for expanding segments of humanity to gradually clarify for themselves the realities and requirements of collective integration.