So, clearly, a progression of thought has occurred to bring mankind to the brand of reality that Berman endorses; however, he seems unable to clearly delineate or characterize what this progression has been on a historical level. Doubtlessly, he is successful in pointing out some early examples of modernist thought and expression, and that such points-of-view culminated in social changes -- the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution -- but specifically what the boundaries are between his three different stages of modernity remains exceedingly vague. This may seem like an arbitrary objection to Berman's argument, but it is meaningful because his attempt to place modernism into a historical context demands that the abstract aspects of his dialectical system be grounded in physical events. If the reader is to believe that the individual social actor behaves in a way that balances the overarching power of society, then there should be some concrete guidelines for how, precisely, this was done in the past; and additionally, how such processes were different than how they will be occur in the future.
The events of history have certainly changed and progressed in certain directions. If one is prepared to define specific ages for how history has run its course, then it is necessary that the distinctions between ages be clearly illustrated. Berman asserts that this progression should be mirrored by modernist thought and social interpretation; therefore, his three stages of modernity must also be evident in world history. Yet, he defines his ages in a highly questionable manner:
In the first phase, which goes roughly from the start of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth, people are just beginning to experience modern life; they hardly know what has hit them.... Our second phase begins with the great revolutionary wave of the 1790's.... In the twentieth century, our third and final phase, the process of modernization expands to take in virtually the whole world, and the developing world culture of modernism achieves spectacular triumphs in art and thought." (Berman, 16-17).
The aspect of these distinctions that is perhaps the most troubling is the overly Eurocentric line of attack that Berman takes. It would be ridiculous to suggest that the reverberations of the social and political theory that went into the French Revolution were strongly felt across the globe -- only across western society. Many cultures to this day are aligned such that even the ideas of liberty and social justice as the early modernists conceived them cannot possibly hold the same meaning or influence. Since this is true, the very idea of Berman's third age seems unsubstantiated; it is very doubtful that the foundations of western society's modernity have spread themselves across the entire planet. Ultimately, the historical realities of Berman's distinctions between the ages of modernity are tentative at best.
Finally, Berman brings his discussion to the current condition of society and humanity in general. He maintains that his broad dialectical framework holds; yet, he never seems able to escape the notion that the oppressive mechanisms of society, far from being universal and conceptual, could in fact be the expression of individualistic interpretations of the modern world -- not just consequences of them. In short, individual greed and lust for power, it could be argued, not only guide human history, but guide human philosophy and art as well. It may be possible, taking an entirely negative view of mankind, that history is merely an extension of each person's attempted grab for power over other people and not, as Berman suggests, an extension of each person's attempt to understand reality.
Overall, Berman's attempt to blanket the philosophical, artistic, and historic facets of human history under a broad dialectical system is hindered by the numerous requirements placed upon justifying such an expansive position. He is most successful in establishing that human reflection and social resistance is a perpetual process typical of modernity. Berman's historical investigation yields some vague patterns, but fails to establish modernist thought as the major driving factor in history.
Berman, Marshall. All that is Solid Melts into Air. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Jimenez-Munoz, Gladys M. "Review Essay: All that is Solid Melts into Air." A New African Journal of Culture, Politics and Consciousness, vol. 1, issue 1, 2002.
Marx, Karl. Communist Manifesto. New York: Labor News Company, 1933.
McGreal, Ian P. Great Thinkers of the Western World. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.