What is meant by the phrase ‘The normative content of modernity’?

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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.

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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) (http://oll.temple.edu/ih/IH52/Enlightenment/Enlightenment )

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 authority are a mutual contract between the authorities and the governed: this contract implies that the governed agree to be ruled only so that their rights, property and happiness are protected by their rulers. The social contract describes the relationship of man and society. Rousseau considers that:

“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect the whole common force…This is the fundamental problem of which the social contract provides the solution” (Rousseau (1762), 1973: 174).

He adds that:

“There is but one law which from its nature needs unanimous consent. This is the social compact: for civil association this is the most voluntary of all acts”

Rousseau continues to say this about civilised society:

“The citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break any of them” (Rousseau (1762), 1973: 249-250).

If any form of government does not properly see to the rights, liberty and equality of everyone, that government has broken the social contract that lies at the heart of political authority. Once the social contract is broken, the governed will be free to choose new rulers. This idea would become the primary animating force in the Declaration of Independence. Freedom and equality are the most important notions in Rousseau’s writings. He is obsessed with the fact that we are born free and equal yet corrupted by society in such a way that we pursue useless things.

The quest for individual freedom is another important feature of the Enlightenment. In order to achieve personal freedom, thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, a rationalist philosopher, proposed that one’s individual identity should be the self -construction of a rational, autonomous self (rather than drawing identity from the whole community). Kant explains in ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?'(1784), that;

“Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Self-incurred is this inability if its cause lies not in the lack of understanding but rather in the lack of the resolution and the courage to use it without the guidance of another. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! is the motto of enlightenment” (Schmidt (ed), 1996: 58).

Immaturity is mankind’s incompetence to have direction for oneself. In other words, enlightenment is the progress of a society through the free activity of rational thought and scholarly critique. For mankind to progress, people had to develop their powers of reason and leave behind their reliance on emotion and superstitious beliefs. Kant eradicated the last traces of the medieval worldview from modern philosophy, joined the key ideas of earlier rationalism and empiricism into powerful model of the subjective origins of the fundamental principles of both science and morality and laid the foundation for much in the philosophy of the nineteenth and twentieth century (Routledge Encyclopaedia, 2000).

Kant was therefore thoroughly in sympathy with the aims of the French Revolution which enunciated the famous Declaration of Rights of Man and of the citizen, declaring equality of all before the law on the basis of natural rights. The basis of the legitimacy of this, in Kant’s view is that reason (considered as a capacity, though not necessarily as an active skill) is the possession of all human beings by nature; that is in virtue of their being born with the constitution characteristic of the species. For it is by reason that we can agree, Kant holds, that a maxim like the one about breaking promises when convenient consistently be willed to be universal.

Modernity, though it began in Europe, has affected every nation in the West and, to some degree, all the nations of the world.

In the early period of modernity, the project of rational inquiry was bound with notions of humanism and the project of emancipation-the assumption that reason, human happiness and freedom go hand in hand. This assumption is obvious in Kant’s essays. However, both political and ideologies and the project of modernity developed throughout the modern period, continually increasing in complexity and sophistication as the initial naivet� of the Enlightenment slowly evaporated and strong elements of auto-critique emerged. Quite recently (50 yrs ago), the question of the Enlightenment has been open intensely and has once again entered into scholarly and political discussions.

There have been criticisms from a variety of philosophical and political perspectives, the blindness, naivet� and inconsistencies of what they term “the project of enlightenment”. James Schmidt (1996) can trace what went wrong in three broad lines of argument, originating in different responses to the relationship between Enlightenment and the French Revolution. “The first…is concerned with the relationship between reason, authority and tradition. The second… focuses on the disturbing affinity between reason, terror and domination. The third… seeks to liberate the ideal of enlightenment from all associations with the French Revolution.” (Schmidt, 1996: 26). It is important to note that all the Enlightenment critics are still in agreement that there is something sinister about the light it casts.

This is where we meet Michel Foucault. Foucault was influenced by Nietzsche’s new Enlightenment doctrines. He is also sometimes known as Nietzsche’s most faithful disciple. From his very first work, Foucault sought to demonstrate how every victory of the Enlightenment was also a triumph of new and insidious form of domination.

According to Foucault, innovative relationships of domination were established over man the start of the nineteenth century, with the creation of new human sciences such as biology, sociology, political economy and psychology which set man up as both the subject of knowledge (the knower) and the object to be known. For the first time this knowledge penetrated further into the individual and so did power via the concept of ‘norm’, ‘deviant’, the notions of pathology health and so forth. Foucault is highly relativist. For him objective truth is necessarily a myth and all exclusive proclamations of truth are unjustifiable and therefore all attempts to implement such truths are coercive acts of domination (Foucault, 1980).

According to Hornsey (1996), Foucault talks about the need to instigate a ‘new politics of truth. Modern politics has centred on defence of the truth against falsity. Critically for Foucault, any attempt to formulate truth or knowledge can inherently result in domination and oppression. Consequently the trajectory of the will-to-truth that developed during modernity is revealed, somewhat ironically, as a progressive expansion of domination into new domain. Foucault continues to say that “it’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power…but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural. Within which it operates at the present time”. Hornsey then cites Foucault’s famous remark “we need to cut the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” to emphasise his point (Hornsey, 1996).

Habermas’s work, Cannon (2001: xii) points out “comprises an attempt to renew critical theory by reconnecting the conditions for its possibility with the normative principles that emerge from modernity”. Habermas then develops a more nuanced account of modernity’s “normative content” (Marcus, 1972, cited in Cannon, 2001).

Habermas contends that modernity poses for us a task that must still be completed. His two-volume The Theory of Communicative Action (1981, (original)) is a major contribution to social theory, in which he locates the origins of the various political, economic and cultural crises confronting modern society in a one-sided process of rationalisation steered more by the media of money and administrative power than by forms of collective decision making based on consensually grounded norms and values (Routledge Encyclopaedia, 2000).

Habermas is, probably rightly, perplexed by Foucault’s attack on modernity and especially the normative content. In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987), Habermas advances criticisms against Foucault. He insists that in order to provide an adequate account of inter-subjective relations, it is necessary to posit a conception of the subject (the decentred subject) that transcends the specificity of the agent locked within some given context. The goal of Habermas’s theory of communicative action is that of:

“clarifying the presuppositions of the rationality of processes of reaching understanding, which may be presumed to be universal because they are unavoidable” (Habermas, 1985: 196).

In his Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Habermas develops his intersubjective approach on modernity using the concept of ‘communicative rationality’.

In regard to Foucault (1977), Habermas accuses him of ‘criptonormativity’ and ‘irrationality’.

According to Tate (1999), Habermas (1987) has followed his Enlightenment predecessors, argued that modernity can be understood not only as a historical epoch, but also a normative project embodying define goals of rationalisation, democratisation and emancipation. Habermas, (1989) situates the roots of this modern project in the Enlightenment when he states that:

“The project of modernity formulated in the 18th century by the philosophers of the Enlightenment consisted in their efforts to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their logic. At the same time, this project intended to release the cognitive potentials of each of these domains from their esoteric forms. The Enlightenment philosophers wanted to utilise this accumulation of specialised culture for the enrichment of everyday life-that is to say, for the rational organisation of everyday life”. (Habermas, 1989).

Tate (1999) observes that because Habermas is committed to modernity as an “unfinished project” of emancipation, he must reject the postmodern claim that modernity is either historically surpassed or morally discredited. In particular, Tate adds, he must refute the post modern “reversal” of the modern project’s normative claims, where postmodernist argue that its emancipatory promises, emanating from the Enlightenment, yield coercive outcomes. Habermas does this by providing two criticisms of the postmodern critique of modernity-its homogenous concept of Enlightenment reason and the performative contradiction it encounters once it rejects reason as a source of evaluation.

Habermas defends modernity as an “unfinished project” by defending its Enlightenment legacy. Specifically, his insistence on a prescriptive model of reason that can separate coercive from emancipatory forms of modernisation leads him to distinguish reason in terms of its communicative and instrumental uses. For Habermas, the “unfinished project of modernity” is to extend the claims of the lifeworld to hold the systematic processes of state and economy democratically accountable. This is done by extending the range over which communicative forms of rationality can replace instrumental rationality in determining outcomes. Habermas therefore draws a normative distinction between different types of modernisation within modernity. Habermas claims that critiques of Enlightenment fail because they lose sense of direction.

Although Foucault is accused of reducing history to an intellectual process, in response, he has only one thing to say to historians:

“You may continue to explain history as you have always done. But be careful: If you look very closely, if you can peel away the banalities, you will notice that there is more to explain than you thought; there are crooked contours that you haven’t spotted” (www.foucault.info/ ).

Critics of Foucault’s notion of power, as developed in Discipline and Punishment (1977) and History of Sexualities (1976) centre their critique on Foucault’s questioning of modernity’s normative values. Many of Foucault’s leading critics ask how his obviously politically engaged writings can claim to no normative values of their own. Does Foucault aspire to normative neutrality when describing a power system he clearly opposes and assumes needs drastic transformation? This surely is not possible. Again, there is no ideology critique where there is no distinction between right and wrong which is Foucault’s stance.

Foucault’s error lies in confusing the provisional normative statements for dogmatic once and he fails to see that universal values can be products not only of power or ideology but also consensual, rational, free choices and consequently unlike most postmodernist thinkers, he fails to provide normative grounds for critic and positive ideals. Despite the fact that “everywhere Foucault looked he found ‘a complicity between the Enlightenment and domination… at times Foucault took up the banner of the Enlightenment” (Schmidt, 1996: 27). In the last decade of his life, he reflected again on Kant’s 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment?” In his final years, however, Foucault employed normative terms such as liberty and autonomy and completely shifted his ground to accommodate this criticism.

According to Schmidt (1996) there is at least still one thinker who never lost sight of the peculiar connection between speech and the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, argues Cannon (2001), “Habermas is also reliant on a ‘transcendental’ notion of ‘damaged intersubjectivity’…As a consequence, Habermas fails to bridge the gulf between an ‘other-worldly’ and a ‘this-worldly’ version of critical theory” (2001: xii) and in doing so he fails to ground critical theory in the normative contents of modernity. Cannon continues to argue that “In this respect, modernity merely realises the transhistorical form of ‘ethical life inherent within language oriented to mutual understanding” (2001: xiii). In other words while Habermas claims to be defending the normative content of modernity, he is actually defending the normative content of ‘speech oriented towards mutual understanding’ which Cannon strongly believes is pre-modern.

In conclusion, it important to observe that the Habermas versus Foucault debate is not only huge but still continues regardless of the fact that Foucault died in 1984. It is also important to observe that what Foucault and Habermas’s disagreement over the character of modernity reveals, however, the inherently subjective character of the modernity/postmodernity debate. Both Foucault and Habermas have moved against postmodernism’s relegation of modernity to the past by defending modernity’s present status. For Foucault and other discontents of modernity, Kant’s fundamental conception of rationality, autonomy and freedom has been hallmarked by a historical period in Western European and American society characterised by imperialism, the hegemony of dominant groups over other groups excluded from wealth, political power, and often basic human respect.


Cannon, B (2001) Rethinking the Normative Content of Critical Theory, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Foucault, M (1977) Discipline and Punish; the Birth of Prison, London: Routledge.

Flyvbjerg, B (1998) Habermas and Foucault: Thinkers for Civil Society? In British Journal of Sociology Jun98, vol. 49, Issue 2.

Habermas, J (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action Vol. I and II, Boston: Beacon.

Habermas, J (1987) The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hornsey, R (1996) Postmodern Critiques: Foucault, Lyotard and Modern Political ideologies in Journal of Political Ideologies, Oct96, Vol. 1 Issue 3.

Kant, I ([1784] 1970) “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment’?” in Kant: Political Writings, Reiss, H (ed) Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I ([1785] 1987) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, New York: Prometheus Books.

Rousseau, J.J ([1762] 1973) The Social Contract, Everyman.

Schmidt, J (ed) (1996) What is Enlightenment: eighteen century answers and twentieth century questions, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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