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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsThe idea of modernity is central to the question of European identity. Both in everyday use and in the academic debate, many differing notions of modernity can be found. In the vox pop video, for example, we found rather different responses to the question, what is modernity? Now let us start with a brief working definition of modernity. We can define it as the questioning of authority and tradition in the spirit of progress in society and culture. This overarching notion would be accepted by most scholars. And idea of culture is something that is constructed, constructed in the domains of philosophy of art and of politics.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 secondsNow this, in turn, requires a worldview that is not static and an idea of knowledge as something under construction. Now modernity proper is that state in which the idea that culture and knowledge is something that can be constructed, has become the central premise of European culture. And modernity proper is preceded by a period in which the prerequisites for this notion arise, but do not yet dominate. Some people have brought it up, but not everybody has accepted it yet. Now this period, we call the pre-modern period. And as researchers, as scholars, we need the distinction between the pre-modern and the modern, because it helps us understand the possible new world view coexists and develops from the worldview it may replace.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 secondsThe pre-modern period is characterised by, firstly, the discovery of the Americas and 1492, secondly, the large scale implementation of the printing press, and lastly, the rise of towns in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. These key events induced developments in culture and philosophy that led to the French Revolution in 1789, generally considered the starting date of modernity proper. Now the discovery of the Americas can be seen as the start of the re-evaluation of the Western library. Of all the great authorities of yesteryear, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and their students failed to show the Americas on their world maps. What other knowledge were they lacking? Was not there authority fundamentally undermined?

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 secondsNow this key question, spawned by the discovery of a new continent, ignited the project to rewrite the world. And questioning the authority became a fundamental characteristic of European modernity in art, in philosophy, in politics. Political theorists, for example, rejected the notion of a monarchical authority imbued by God, calling for division of powers that would lead to the French Revolution. Artists rejected the authority of the classics, thus changing the form of art, exploring the expression of emotions in impressionism and expressionism of the representation of the unconscious in surrealism. And writers conceived of possible worlds that inspired city planners and engineers to well modernise. This week, we will study this fascinating process in its cultural literary and its social political dimension.

The modern and the pre-modern

In this video, Dr Konstantin Mierau discusses the modern and the period that came before it, the pre-modern.

Modernity, Dr Mierau states, is ‘the questioning of authority and tradition in the spirit of progress in society and culture.’ It requires the idea that culture is not static, but can be constructed: things can and will change.

The pre-modern period is characterised by the rise of towns and cities in medieval Europe, the invention of the printing press and the ‘discovery’ of the Americas in 1492. Knowledge was being pooled together in urban centres, where bigger groups of people lived together. They were able to spread their ideas faster and further due to the printing press. But, perhaps most importantly, the discovery of new land required a rethinking of their entire worldview: why weren’t the Americas on ancient maps? This started the project to rewrite the world.

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European Culture and Politics

University of Groningen

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