The affirmation of modernity and its main characteristics relies mainly on the following: the two great 18th Century revolutions; the industrial revolution and the French revolution; the creation of modern national states and the rationalisation of power following anonymous bureaucratic procedures; the development of a marked economy based on the division of labour; the social valorisation of individual autonomy; the universalised importance of values; urbanisation and the spreading of metropolitan lifestyles; secularisation and the masses’ progressive participation in political and social life in European society; the development of science as a self-legitimising form of knowledge compared to religion; the withdrawal to a individual’s private sphere of all that is sacred and religious; and the simultaneous decline of religion’s public role.
From a philosophical point of view, modernity coincides at least partly with enlightenment, hence according to the well-know words of Immanuel Kant, with “man’s abandoning a state of minority”. In opposing tradition, religion, and all forms of imposed authority, modernity lays claim to complete autonomy regards to the past and a constant openness as far as the future is concerned. The ideas of a break with the past, of a crisis, or continuous change, are constitutive parts of its self-representation. In spite of this, modernity’s real autonomy compared to the past and to metaphysical and religious schools of thought has been debated at length, and is still debated.
When, according to authors such as Blumenberg, the final sense of modernity relies on its full autonomy with regards to the past, according to others it continues to be parasite-like as far as a number of great religious and metaphysical categories are concerned. Some of the greatest and most characteristic modern visions of history, such as those expressed by Hegel and Marx for example, appear to be nothing more than the secularisation, hence the translation into mundane terms, of religious concepts of the times.
In this sense, the innovative element of modernity would only be a partial one and a façade. More recently the debate on modernity has concentrated more on its future than its genesis. The end if the great ideologies and of the world that appeared after World War II in fact, according to some, inaugurated a fully “post-modern” situation, favourably seen by many as the mark of the abandonment of falsely universalistic structures of modernity.