Modernity; What is it and who made it?

This blog post is among the winners of the Department of Comparative Literatures’s 2020-2021 Blog Award for the module 6ABA0013 ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies’. Congratulations to Gloria Luz Pajares Tamayo for winning the award!

Britannica defines modernity as “the self-definition of a generation about its own technological innovation, governance, and socioeconomics”. Let’s break down what it means and how its formed. Modernity is the time period we are currently living in. Defining modernity can be difficult but in this instance we are defining it in relation to the enlightenment.

Modernity is defined by secularism and the move towards rational thought. It’s characterised by philosophical advancement and a scientific approach to making sense of the world. The development of medicine, technology, and social structures that dominate our society are all results of this shift. There are two main theories for the formation of modernity, diffusionism and co-constitution.


This model has modernity beginning and developing in one area, then being spread to the rest of the world over time. The place of origin for Modernity in this model is Europe. This creates a centre of origin and establishes a birth place for modernity.

The consequence of a diffusion model is that it ignores and erases philosophical thought and development in other countries. By claiming one point of origin where everything else comes from, it dismisses any room for the independently constructed mechanisms of modernity in the non-European world.

Due to the association of modernity with intelligence and civilisation, it also enforces narratives of white supremacy and racism. Existing within the implication that Europe is inherently more advanced and thus superior to the rest of the world. This has been used to justify colonialism and the cultural genocide of invaded people, with the reasoning that their lives were being improved by the influence of European modernity and civilisation.

This also leads to the creation of a binary based system and world view. It separates the world into the West and non-West.

Examples of Diffusionism

The Enlightenment begins to take place in 17th Century Europe. Reason, religion, nature and God are important subjects that are developed and spread throughout Europe. This results in a shift away from religious explanations for the world and origins and towards rationality and science. Preoccupation with finding the origin and ‘true’ nature of things defines the enlightenment and diffusionism. Empires spread their ideas to these colonies and enforced their own religions and systems of belief. These countries and cultures which had different systems of belief are influenced

by modern ideas and begin to develop like the West. But because modernity did not begin in Non-Western countries, they will always be behind, trying to catch up to the West.


This model opposes diffusionism. In co-constituted modernity, philosophical, technological and scientific enlightenment happened in various places around the same time period. Due to the oncoming globalisation of the world, the ability to travel and share information, different ideas and schools of thought were influenced by each other. These cross-cultural influences aided different cultures to enter modernity because of their interactions with one another.

This model has no centre or source for modernity, no birth place. Modernity is formed through interaction between different schools of thought. So there is no way to use modernity as proof of superiority.

Examples of co-constitution

If the Enlightenment is an example of diffusionism, then what is the example for co-constitution? Sebastian Conrad’s model for Global Enlightenment says that modernity was not characterised by diffusionism but by permanent reinvention. Modernity is a result of many authors around the world interacting with one another’s work and philosophies, being influenced by each other and reinventing existing frameworks of understanding for their own specific purpose. A Non-Western author who developed ideas of modernity independently but simultaneously of Europe is Zera Yaqob, whose Hatata is a philosophical text which inquires into topics such as reasoning and harmony. In it, rationality is not opposed to religion or faith, instead they can interact and explain each other.

So who made modernity?

By looking at the two models for modernity formation it is evident that there are two answers to this question. In the case of diffusionism, Modernity was made by a group of European intellectuals during the Enlightenment period in the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, if we look at the co-constitution model then we get a different answer. In this case modernity was made from cross-cultural influences and so has no one definable creator. Modernity is a product of indirect collaboration.

Why does it matter?

Why does it matter what model we use? By moving away from the Eurocentric diffusionist model we are able to examine and discover texts in a new way. A deeper understanding of the formation of modernity can be found when we examine all agents who had a part in its creation.


Sebastian Conrad 2012, ‘Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique’. The American Historical Review, vol. 117, no. 4, pp. 999–1027.

Zära Yaḳob 1667, Hatäta (‘Inquiry’). Trans. Claude Sumner 1976, Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. II: The Treatise of Zara Yaecob and Walda Hewat, Text and Authorship. Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing Press.

Gloria Luz Pajares Tamayo is a Peruvian third year Comparative Literature student hoping to pursue a career in academia, with special interest in interrogating the ways in which pedagogy can contribute to pre-existing ethnocentric approaches to world literature despite an emphasis on decolonising the curriculum. They are currently most interested in texts which use the grotesque and the non-human to explore the repressed within society.

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