A Note on the Use of the Term "Modern"

As we begin to reflect on our present time, it immediately becomes apparent that some confusion may arise over the use of the terms "modern," "Modern World," "Modern Epoch," etc. In its most literal sense, "modern" means simply "current." Because the realities and experiences we are considering are the stuff of life "today," they are generally understood to be the constituent factors of the "modern world," in contrast to "the old days" before ipods and computers, airplanes and televisions, electricity and indoor plumbing. When we speak of the "Modern Epoch"--especially when we declare that it is coming to an end--we are using the term "modern" in a different sense. This sense is philosophical and historical: "modernity," as an identifying term for an historical epoch, did not simply identify the present as it was at the time; it exalted the present as a point on a univocally understood line of irreversible historical progress. The "modern" mentality that has ceased to dominate our view of the world and ourselves is a mentality that asserted that the present time was necessarily an improvement over the past, and that the future promised a continually positive evolution of the world through human reason's ever more powerful mastery over nature. In this sense, the high point of the epoch defined by the modern mentality was the 18th and 19th centuries, during which the dominant influence in the world was the western man of the Enlightment, laying the foundations of a global civilization founded on conquest and colonization, and the development of human reason's capacity to understand and harness the forces of the natural world.