Autonomy at the Vortex of Modernity

While it is difficult to give an exact definition of what modernity is, there are, nonetheless, certain aspects of the modern world that differ drastically from the pre-modern.  At the vortex of modernity is autonomy,

the capacity to be one’s own person, to live one’s life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one’s own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces.

The established thought within the pre-modern world was that morality was dictated by authorities and that obedience was required by individuals. The individual was considered to be ill suited to take upon the task of deciding what is morally right. A shift began to take place in the 17th and 18th century, that culminated in the works of Kant, in the idea that individuals are self-regulated beings that can decide morality based upon their own rationality. Kant called this ‘autonomy’ and it has become the standard way the we look at moral philosophy today.

The break from the pre-modern to the modern world is summarized by Kant in his essay What is Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.

Hegel echos this position:

The principle of the modern world is freedom of subjectivity

John Christman summarizes that:

In the western tradition, the view that individual autonomy is a basic moral and political value is very much a modern development. Putting moral weight on an individual’s ability to govern herself, independent of her place in a metaphysical order or her role in social structures and political institutions is very much the product of the Enlightenment humanism of which contemporary liberal political philosophy is an offshoot.

Islam, however, considers individuals as being bound in a covenant with God, a covenant made before one’s birth in this world and before one had the ability to do any rational inquiry. It seems faith is at odds with autonomy. Modernity thus engaged Islam in a lengthy endeavor to incorporate the modern autonomous self with the faith that the religion demands.

In order to understand how Muslims incorporated, or rejected, autonomy into their religious world views, it would be beneficial to understand how the concept of autonomy developed within the western tradition. This way we can contrast the two traditions to understand the role that autonomy has in each tradition. Something I hope to do on this blog.


  1. islamuthentic posted this