Peter Osborne's Analysis of Modernity

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Give an account of the specific characteristics of ‘modern time’ as outlined by Peter Osborne.

The term modernity has become deeply contested in the last quarter of a century. The emergence of deconstruction as a hermeneutic tool of analysis inclined sociologists, historians and philosophers to prefer the concept of post-modernity as a designation of the present. Peter Osborne believes that there is little evidence that could plausibly justify this shift in terminology. He sets out to inquire into the philosophical dimensions of the term modernity and maintains that, once modernity is understood in its theoretical and conceptual complexity, the post-modern fails to display the necessary differentiating criteria that would make it a notion in its own right. At the heart of his investigation thus lies to reveal the inconsistencies in other thinker’s philosophical interpretation of modernity.

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The first chapter focuses on two interpretations in particular: Marshall Berman’s account of modernity and Perry Anderson’s critique of it.[1] Three aspect takes centre stage in Osborne’s analysis of modernity: modernity as a category of historical periodisation (1), modernity as a quality of social experience (2), and modernity as a project (3).[2] His thesis is that neither Marxism, as it animates Berman’s account of modernity, nor Anderson’s critique captures the peculiar characteristics of modernity as a concept of temporality. The essay will briefly recapitulate Osborne’s rendering of Anderson and Berman’s interpretation and then outline the semantic shifts that led to the conceptual ambiguity of the idea of modernity.

Osborne notes first of all the more mundane characteristics of modernity. Philosophers and ordinary people alike would identify the notion of modernity with a ‘distinct span of time’ that is ‘identifiable’ and suggests a particular form of periodisation.[3] This specific type of periodisation however already gives rise to some unsettling conceptual questions, amongst others what modernity in essence actually represents: a concept for understanding the present, or a form of social experience. He notes that modernity is suffused with different forms of time-consciousness and that the temporality of periodisation lies at the heart of the sociological discipline insofar it allows sociologists to engage in cross-temporal comparisons. In fact it is sociology that benefited most from the transformations in the notion of temporality which are somehow reflected in the notion of modernity. Osborne captures the basic dilemma of how to comprehend change in society through the lens of temporal structures:

‘…The problematic character of these assumptions (on the nature of the present) comes into view as soon as the issue of change within the present is raised otherwise than as an extrapolation of developmental tendencies built into the relationship between pre-given structural social types…’[4]

This problem marks the potential and limitations of sociological inquiry. Modernity is constant change within the present, but we can only understand it through the emergence and transformation of social structures. This may permit us to compare societies across the times but it feeds upon an obscure notion of modernity as an unproblematic form of temporality. What we loose through this sociological kaleidoscope of analysis is the certainty that the historical process is radically open. Osborne contends that Marxism as well as Postmodernism attempt to rectify this problem and that both fail to succeed. Let us now turn to his critique of Marxism first.

Osborne credits Marxism with a novel view of historical time. In a way, Marxism reconciles plausibly the concepts of change and temporality while preserving a notion of modernity as something distinctively different to all previous ages. At the core of Marxian analysis lies the modes of production, a starting point that is reminiscent of the sociological view. Osborne points however to the crucial difference between the two by noting that Marxism achieves the visionary fusion of constant change and modern times only at the expense of a historical determinism that undermines any sensible concept of history as an open and uncertain path. In this sense, Marxism fails even more than the sociological view of modernity to attune to the philosophical consequences of the dual characteristics of temporality in modernity: that is denotes a form of time-consciousness and at the same time functions as a periodising category that has inscribed in itself various types of temporality.

Berman’s answer to this problem that pervades Marxism as a historical analysis of societal change is, according to Osborne, to replace the historical project of communism with the notion of a radically open future. Osborne remarks caustically that such an act of simple replacement lacks any justification.[5]

Anderson’s critique of Berman then provides Osborne with a valuable counter-perspective. The crux of Anderson’s argument is that Berman’s account of modernity fails to acknowledge the differentiated forms of temporal experience that are implicit in modernism as a series of movements.[6] Osborne immediately points to the problem that such a critique would necessarily involve two different usages of modernity. On one hand, Anderson would argue from the perspective of modernity as a designation of a historical phenomenon, whereas on the other hand, he would need to use modernity as a category for the analysis of historical processes. This conceptual discrepancy however invalidates, so Osborne thinks, the potency of his critical remarks.[7]

What neither Berman nor Anderson consider is the dual nature of modernity as historical reality and as a concept capable of creating a ‘coherent whole’ through its periodising thrust.[8] He concludes that philosophers must recognise the nature of the ‘reflexivity of the historical experience’. He writes:

‘For there is something decidedly new about modernity as a category of historical periodisation: namely, that unlike other forms of epochal periodisation …, it is defined solely in terms of temporal determinants…’.[9]

The key to reconciling these different aspects of modernity is what Kosselleck would term a Begriffsgeschichte, a history of the concept. Mapping the semantic change that the concept of modernity undergoes can provide us with clues as to its complex philosophical conditions. So while neither Anderson nor Berman consider the ‘logic of modernity as a category of historical periodisation’ they fail to comprehend that modernity is not a chronological category (Adorno).[10]

Kosselleck’s interpretation of the emergence of the term Neue Zeit (new time) hints, so Osborne believes, at the structure of temporality that characterises modernity in contradistinction to other forms of temporality in pre-modern times. The critical intervention occurred with the claim of the Enlightenment that the new times were marked by recognition of autonomous reason. Modernity thus acquired a sense of something qualitatively new. It provided for the first time in history a ‘conceptual space for abstract temporality of qualitative newness’.[11]

While modernity could now be understood as a form of social experience, it also was seen as something that happened and continues to happen. While the latter was hinted at already in the process of the accumulation of capital as conceptualised in Marx’s critique of capitalism, the former aspect of modernity now unfolded into two dimensions: firstly, the experience of contemporaneity, and secondly, the experience of ‘register[ing] this contemporaneity in terms of a qualitatively new, self-transcending temporality.’[12] Osborne notes that this

‘…is achieved through the abstraction of the logical structure of the process of change from its concrete historical determinants – an abstraction which parallels that at work in the development of money as a store of value.’[13]

This would now complete Osborne’s alternative interpretation of the relationship between temporality and modernity. As he summarily remarks: ‘Modernity is permanent transition. Modernity has no fixed, objective referent.’[14] In a critical addendum he analyses Habermas and Foucault’s notion of modernity and concludes that both fail to distance themselves from the project of constructing improbable ‘universal histories with cosmopolitan intent’.[15]

Modernity as Osborne outlines it in his critical review of various thinkers is inexorably tied in with the notion of progress that falsely allows the ‘projection of people’s present as other people’s future.’[16] He thus closes the circle in returning to the fallacy of the sociological account of modernity, one that has exaggerates universalising discourses of progress. Consequently, the idea of decline has no purchasing power in these philosophically erroneous notions of modernity.


Peter Osborne. The Politics of Time. Modernity and Avant-Garde. London and New York: Verso 1995

Perry Anderson. Modernity and Revolution, in A Zone of Engagement, London and New York: Verso 1992

____. The Notion of Bourgeois Revolution, in English Questions, London and New York: Verso 1992

Marshall Berman. All that is Solid melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London and New York, 1983



[1] Marshall Berman. All that is Solid melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London and New York, 1983; Perry Anderson. Modernity and Revolution, in A Zone of Engagement, London and New York: Verso 1992; Perry Anderson. The Notion of Bourgeois Revolution, in English Questions, London and New York: Verso 1992; Peter Osborne. The Politics of Time. Modernity and Avant-Garde. London and New York: Verso 1995

[2] Osborne, Politics, p.5.

[3] Osborne, Politics, p.1.

[4] Osborne, Politics, p.2.

[5] Osborne, Politics, p5.

[6] Osborne, Politics, p.7.

[7] Osborne, Politics, p.7.

[8] Osborne, Politics, p.6 and passim.

[9] Osborne, Politics, p.8.

[10] Osborne, Politics, p.8.

[11] Osborne, Politics, p.11.

[12] Osborne, Politics, p.14.

[13] Osborne, Politics, p.14.

[14] Osborne, Politics, p.14.

[15] Osborne, Politics, p.16.

[16] Osborne, Politics, p.17.


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