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I frequently come across these three terms, but I haven't been able to find a source that explains the difference between all three of them precisely.

Here's what I think I know now:

  • The early modern period is roughly around the 1500s - 1800s. It begins with European exploration and ends around the period of the French Revolution.

  • The late modern period follows the early modern period and ends around World War 2.

Now, here's where I'm lost:

1) Is the modern period defined by both the early modern period and late modern period?

2) How does "post modern" period fit into to the picture? It should logically follow the late modern period, but some sources refer to this period as the "modern era" as well. Which doesn't make sense to me because it's not the "modern era", it's "post modern".

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up vote 9 down vote accepted


This is a cultural rather than a historical science term. It refers to the contemporary line of reasoning which can be also called ultra-relativism, i.e., not just that any statement's veracity is relative, but its meaning is relative as well.

Modern et al

I think this terminology went like this:

  1. Pre-modern: 1500-1800
  2. Modern: 1800-WW2
  3. Contemporary: post-WW2

This terminology made sense until the fall of the Berlin Wall, but now, I think, the following division makes more sense:

  1. Pre-modern: 1500-1800 (the groundwork for the Western domination is laid)
  2. Modern: 1800-1910 (the West dominates the modern-looking world)
  3. WW: 1910-1945 (the West's domination crumbles as it wars itself)
  4. Cold War: 1945-1990 (the West is now divided along the ideological rather than purely national lines)
  5. Contemporary: 1990-now (many interrelated issues seems critical now, but we will know which were truly important only when this period ends)

The bottom line

If you make 4 typos in the word "milk", you could get the word "beer" instead. People feel free to redefine the terms they use to their hearts' content.

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This makes sense. So does "modernity" refer to 1800-WW2 or (pre-modern + modern + contemporary)? – linstantnoodles Dec 16 '13 at 19:08
I am afraid that you will have to infer it from the context, but my guess is that it covers the last 2 centuries – sds Dec 16 '13 at 19:13
In other words, modern can mean anything that the person writing it intended it to mean. There's no precise definition accepted by 100%. – DVK Dec 23 '13 at 15:47
Well, here in Russia modern is traditionally counted to 1917, so roughly to WWI, in other cases to the beginning of the XX century. I never heard it being extended to WWII. – Anixx Dec 24 '13 at 12:35

Apples & oranges.

I don't think there are official, or even conventional definitions for any of these terms; they vary depending on context. If you're talking to a paleontologist, the definition of the modern era will be very different from the defintions used by a historian specializing in "Democracy" or "women's rights", or whatever.

"postmodern" isn't - at least in my opinion - a term with a solid meaning in history. Postmodernism has a meaning in art and in philosophy, but not AFAIK in history. A friend of mine has suggested the postmodern drinking game where every player attempts to define "postmodern". Everyone takes a drink unless any two definitions match. He proposes this because it is the only way of terminating any discussion about what postmodern means. (and the process of terminating the discussion is far more enjoyable than the discussion) The best definition I've ever read is in Perl the first postmodern programming language

Rule of thumb?

  • Pre-modern is the believe that I'm right and you're wrong.

  • modern is the belief that I'm right and that when I've explained myself to you sufficiently, you'll realize that you agree with me.

  • postmodern is the belief that we're both right, and that if we spend enough time talking about that, we'll never get anything done, so the best course of action is to ignore the problem. (and according to the rules above, unless you agree with me, we're both obliged to drink a shot now.)

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In dutch it's a lot easier: 1500-1800 is the nieuwe tijd, wich translates to new time, and 1800 to now is the hedendaagse periode, wich translates to contemporary period. I've never heard of a distinction for the period after world war II.

I can maybe help you with the first question though: we define the start of the early modern period by events like the fall of Byzantium in 1453, the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the same period and the discovery of America by Columbus. The end is mainly defined by the french and the American revolution, and the fall of Napoleon.

I have heard of the postmodern period before but never in history classes, just behavior sciences (in high school). I just did a quick google and it seems almost all results are about literature, architecture and culture in general. I think it is rarely used in history.

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Ha! Being half Dutch, I am wondering what the period specifically 1568 to 1648 is called? – Pieter Geerkens Dec 14 '13 at 20:31
Interesting. That's much easier to understand. I'm guessing "postmodern" is used to denote the cultural movement during the late modern/contemporary period? If so, then what's modernism? – linstantnoodles Dec 14 '13 at 21:14
@linstantnoodles modernism as i understand it is the post WWII feeling that from now on everything could only get better, it's linked to a prosperous period when wages kept getting higher and science would be the solution of everything. Postmodernism (at least in philosophy, i don't know anything about architecture or literature) is the reaction to that which mainly emphasized the relativity of scientific truth, but it has taken some extreme anti-scientific viewing points. – Jeroen K Dec 14 '13 at 21:54
@PieterGeerkens Specifically for the dutch it's called the Eighty Years war (tachtigjarige oorlog). For Europe in general you could call it the period of the military revolution en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_revolution – Jeroen K Dec 14 '13 at 21:58
@JeroenK: Thank you. I once knew that, but had forgotten it. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 15 '13 at 14:41

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