What are the main ideas of the book Modernity:  An Unfinished Project?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jurgen Habermas is a big fan of modernity and is the primary scholar to discount the postmodernists (who Habermas believes have become too cynical).  Habermas still believes that a utopia is possible within modernity as "the child of the enlightenment." 

Because modernity has its roots deep within realism and democracy, Habermas believes this utopian idea of modernity is still "an unfinished project."  Obviously, this means it has not been achieved to this day.  Schooled in the Frankfurt School of Social Thought, Habermas was a basic fan of Marx, but believed that Marx's views had to be radically changed in order to make them truly modern and liveable.

In light of this, Habermas creates two important theories:  The Theory of Communicative Action and Theory of Rationalization of System and Life-world.When components of both are able to live together in harmony, a modern utopia can be reached. 

Contemporary problems cannot be solved by system learning to function better. Rather, impulses from the life-world must be able to enter into the self-steering of functional systems. This would constitute important steps towards the creation of mutually enriching life-world and system.

Habermas believes that we don't need to destroy our current economic and administrative systems to do this.  And, yet, this remains only in the future (as modernity has not been achieved as of yet).

sean475 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The two main ideas in Modernity: An Unfinished Project are

  1. Modernism and
  2. Postmodernism.

The exact definitions of these terms are almost impossible to state precisely—they're more of a zeitgeist, or attitude, than something concrete. However, modernism is largely the thought that humanity is moving on an objectively correct course and that the powers of the intellect and reason are responsible for this. With the benefits of hindsight, historians and philosophers tend to say that the modern period, Modernity, came from the scientific progress that began in the Enlightenment and that Modernity ended with World War I. Postmodernism, on the other hand, address the existential doubts that humanity is on the right course. Those doubts came from the two World Wars and the seemingly stagnant status of the human race.

Jurgen Habermas is a contemporary thinker who has associated with many postmodernist thinkers in the Frankfurt School. However, Habermas disagrees with them and thinks that the doubts and the cynicism of postmodernism are preemptive: Modernism still hasn't run its course and still can be useful for the betterment of human society.

rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Habermas believed that the project of modernity was not yet complete. “Modernity” refers to the tendency of society towards individualism, technological progress, and urbanization; politically it finds expression in nation-state and representative democracy. Habermas saw modernity as an outgrowth or development of the Enlightenment; consistent with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, Habermas saw modernity as enabling a rational critique of the ethics of specific cultures. This position puts him in opposition to post-modernism, which deprecated rational discourse in favor of pastiche and the arbitrary nature of language. Unlike the postmodernists, Habermas believed in the ability of social institutions to organize society in rational ways that would benefit the greater good. In this sense, the “unfinished” project of modernity was to continue a rational social critique that would iteratively improve society.

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