Karl Jaspers on the ‘axial’ view of history

Eric asked:

On p 112 of Monty Python and Philosophy Stephen Erikson says that a goal-oriented view of human purpose is an ‘axial’ view and the term was coined by Karl Jaspers. Is this correct and can you elaborate?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The term ‘axial’ can readily be understood in terms of some phenomenon rotating about its axis, like the spokes of a wheel turning on the nub. Thus Jaspers (Origin and Goals of History) points to Christ as the axis on which the Christian world revolves, but adds the caveat that “Christianity is one faith, it is not the faith”. Most probably he got this from Hegel, who wrote in his Philosophy of History that “Christ comprises the axis on which the world turns. It is from there to the present moment that History has moved.” Jaspers felt this was too narrow an angle, since it restricts itself to one particular community of faith. But a truly universal conception of history must step outside this frame and embrace all cultures, all faiths, all of mankind. Hence his search for an axis that is common to mankind, which he located in the millennium prior to Christ’s appearance and promptly labelled “Axial Era”.

This is the era during which human creativity went through a phase of unprecedented evolution in China, India and Europe that was to have indelible consequences for the future of this half of the globe. In particular, Jaspers claims, it was during this phase (roughly 800-500 BC) that the tools for universal communication and understanding were forged. Unfortunately Jaspers always had the grand sweep before his eyes (mirrored in his style and manner of thinking and writing), so that a detailed rationale must not be expected of him. Yet the term “Axial Era” is highly suggestive in itself and was subsequently adopted by many historians for purposes frankly not stemming from Jaspers’ usage. It could be said that Jaspers did not have empirical history in mind at all, but rather more his conception of humanity as a whole, which (as many critics claimed) he simply projected into antiquity as one form of explaining certain social-historical phenomena as culminating in, and others emerging from, the “axial” juncture.

But, you ask, is it correct? I can’t answer this as you leave it unclear whether your question relates to Jaspers as the source of the term or to Jaspers’ conception of history. The answer to both is “yes”; but there is of course another angle to it, which is Erikson’s claim that it refers to the goal-oriented view of human purpose. Strictly regarded, this would need at least a small book in response. But I content myself with a few hints on how to approach it.

Humans are ipso facto goal-oriented creatures. But the ‘rock-bottom’ aspect of this is subsistence and survival; therefore an unknown “axial era” must have occurred at some time during the Pleistocene when humans first began to add ‘quality of life’ to mere subsistence. If we settle on the acquisition of language for this era, then we have a new ‘constant’ in operation that divides hominid history into before and after. Similarly Sumerian culture shows evidence of an “axial era” having transpired in its prehistory, for which a suggestive clue is the endurance of H. sapiens across the Glünz glaciation that swallowed up the rest of the whole hominid stock. Then, for reasons good enough for the purpose, we can take Jaspers’ axis on board. Further, we should have no trouble adding the age of maritime exploration by Europeans in the 15th century and the industrial revolution, which both led to the earth becoming a ‘global village’.

All such games with axial perspectives need of course to take care that they are truly dealing with ‘constants’, specifically: Was the perspective before more or less universally shared; and was the perspective after also of this kind? If the answer is “yes”, then we are well enough equipped to speak of an “axial era” as a moment in time, when the world (not just one tribe or one empire) was in the grip of a rotation in perspectives that ultimately translates into a good rationale for the goal-orientation of all humans affected by it.

One thought on “Karl Jaspers on the ‘axial’ view of history

  1. Thanks Jurgen. It is a fascinating subject. What I meant by ‘is it correct?’ is just the definitional aspect – ie. the philosophical meaning of ‘axial’ as I hadnt come across it before. Is the purpose- driven view similar or different from the teleological view? Am I correct in thinking that in evolutionary biology any whiff of a ‘purpose’ to which organisms are striving is anathama (to biologists)? If the axial view is different from the teleological view (which I suspect it is!) then I can understand much of what you say. I think Karen Armstrong wrote about the flourishing of spiritual knowledge from 500BC – 50CE – how Socrates-Plato-Aristotle-Buddha-Jesus all presented their teaching over a few hundred years.

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