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.

Anaximander and his apeiron

Twaha asked:

Explain why Anaximander thought that the basic stuff of the earth is APEIRON.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Not of the earth, but of the cosmos — some difference!

At any rate, his teacher Thales had thrown out a challenge to rational thinking. Surely, he reasoned, there must be some underlying order in the prolixity of existing forms of the objects of the world. Perhaps an underlying substance they all share, or a substance so simple and flexible that it is part of everything (=arche). As you know, he proposed water as a candidate for such a role.

However, Anaximander discerned a logical flaw in this proposition.

Water, he said, is already a formed substance. We can see this when it seeks out cracks in metals and rocks, rather than blending with them. Accordingly it cannot be the underlying, absolutely basic stuff.

Continuing this train of thought led him onto the idea that the only kind of substance that might suit would have to be unformed. This is in fact the meaning of the word ‘apeiron’. Although often rendered as ‘limitless’, this is an ambiguous translation, as it insinuates ‘endless’, whereas its precise meaning comes from the negative of peras=outline (as in our word ‘perimeter’): hence apeiron denotes ‘formless’.

With this term, Anaximander created a problem, rather than solving one. The Apeiron is impossible to visualise. How can something exist that has no form? Isn’t it the same as saying ‘non-existent’?

Well, this is exactly the problem with which most of his successor ‘presocratic’ thinkers struggled with — down to Demokritos’ theory of atoms.


Curious asked:

I am thinking about time and time topics all my free time. But I don’t know what is time correctly. Can anybody help me?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I would want to ask you what you get out of thinking and reading on this subject matter ‘in all your free time’. You should know more about it than any of us! So I’m really puzzled: What do you expect to be told? I ask this because no-one could possibly give a definitive answer, let alone in a few short paragraphs — most of all because the question needs a background.

Thus a philosopher’s angle on it would conflict with the scientific; the religious angle with the agrarian; the cosmological angle with quantum mechanics; and on the business angle, time is money. One among these many notions seems conclusive to me; but I’m in no position to be definitive about it. It goes like this:

If we assume the universe to be spatially infinite, then it must be temporally infinite as well. Then any conception of time-per-se is automatically nullified, because every segment of time can only apply to whatever our object of study happens to be. On the largest perceivable scale, i.e. far away galaxies, we have a spatiotemporal ‘window’ to which we can arbitrarily attach the vocable ‘now’ because it lasts so long, and then subdivide it at our pleasure. On the smallest perceivable scale there is no ‘now’, because these events occur at speeds that are beyond our imagination, packing billions upon billions of our subdivisions into a single second on our conventional time scales. Somewhere in between these two, are the periodicities which affect us directly, from biorhythms to the patterns of seasons. These rhythms gave birth to our concepts of time in the first place. So time is nothing other than the enumeration on a clock face, of the rhythms of nature by which we are affected.

But this is arbitrary too, as shown by the conflict between the length of a second on our standard clocks and the definition of a second that has recourse to the steady vibrations of a caesium atom. This definition is so accurate, that our clock time has constantly to be re-adjusted, as they move out of synch with each other at alarming speeds!

In a word: ‘Time’ is not an independently existing ‘something’ or ‘process’. It’s a word that means whatever any group of humans using it, define it to be. As such it has utility; but we can hardly extrapolate from here to the universe in the expectation that it will nod obligingly in our direction.

Philosophical novels

Joshua asked:

I am a fan of what is known as philosophical novels; and have seen a lot of philosophical thinking in a lot of science fiction. I wonder: what is the relationship between literature and philosophy? Why are such novelists such as Fyordor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and such others regarded as philosophers, without real training in the craft?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

One could be cynical about this: When authentic philosophy begins to ebb and the shelves of academic exegesis outnumber them by ratios in the thousands, the hunt for new ideas might very well alight, here and there, on poets and novelists who have not previously been considered fit for discussions of ‘their’ philosophy. That’s one side of it. The other is, that the tradition of philosophical writing has never been averse to literary excellence. Plato’s dialogues and hundreds of imitations up to the days of Hume speak for it; and so do the literary masterpieces of such men as Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and others.

It is a ready-made invitation for novelists with this kind of inclination to produce dialogues infused with a philosophical spirit, even if the rigour of argumentation yields to the drama of their mise-en-scene. Consider the Grand Inquisitor episode and Ivan’s encounter with the devil in The Brothers Karamasov as well as the figure of Kirillov in The Demons: These sections thrive on philosophical ideas in that they bring issues of the utmost relevance to the human condition under the searchlight. Consider in the same light The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann, which is in one of its aspects a theatre piece where two conflicting intellectual powers (Naphtha and Settembrini) struggle for the soul of the naive hero Castorp, which is also deeply philosophical in its social and ethical context.

However, let’s not shove the crucial issue under the carpet, which is that neither of these writers was expounding ‘his philosophy’ this way, as (per contrast) Plato did. So there is a difference between ‘a philosophy’ which a philosopher might publish in literary form, and a novel, poem or play in which the author engages himself with philosophical ideas that are rarely (if ever) his own. It stands to reason, I think, that if we continually smear out this difference, we are not honouring men of literature (or science) who did not regard themselves as philosophers.

As for sci-fi, which used to be a favourite genre of mine, I have grown skeptical about its fitness for philosophy. It is not the genre as such, but simply its store of ideas which on the whole are so far removed from life that I have come to doubt that these writers and film-makers actually know what it is. But without life, there is nothing to philosophise about. (Nevertheless I give you leave to contradict me wholeheartedly, if you are so inclined).

Meaning of life

Ali asked:

A man can produce more than 70 millions of children in just 1 ejaculation. So many children & crowds of people can exist in the world if man decides to. How is it possible for billions of unwanted species to be given souls in a moment. Is god or life or anything waiting for men’s sexual intercourse to give them free souls?

Is there such a thing as soul or its injector (god) at all? If it is done by mere accidents therefore our lives is meaningless & worthless; If god gives souls whenever men get hard-ons, so it is based on men & men decide to produce men (so many souls too!) not the peeping god!

Enlighten me please! So much thanks & excuse the angry language of the questioner. No one has ever given a satisfying reply to the puzzled questioner!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I hope you are aware, Ali, that your question demands a history of all religions and philosophy on one page? Can’t be done; and in any case every answer can only reflect the prejudices of the writer. No-one ever had a solution to these problems that could be accepted by everyone as the whole truth and nothing but.

My point of view is that only one road leads to something near a relevant conception, which is trodden by philosophy and biology jointly. Obviously I must curtail it to a few paragraphs, but I hope you get something from them.

Humans are animals. If we are ensouled, then all animals must be ensouled. Evidently there are qualitative differences among the species, shown by the fact that only humans can express themselves in speech and thinking and possess a highly developed consciousness of selfhood.

But as all other life forms (including insects, plants, microbes) exhibit intentional forms of behaviour, it is likely that souls are the common property of all, again with qualitative differences. This implies that ensoulment is identical across all life forms, in fact a default definition of life.

The qualitative aspect results from individuation at or after birth. Its degree may be determined by the give and take with the habitat and the survival needs of species. Now this seems to be the real gist of your question — is a god needed to endow creatures with individuated souls?

I’m inclined to doubt it. Although there are many ontological proofs, not one of them succeeds in demonstrating the absolute necessity of such a being. As it happens, the scholastic thinker Ockham said 800 years ago: Don’t overload your theories with unnecessary hypotheses. Meaning: if any occurrence is repeatedly the same, there is no necessity for assuming that a creative act must be associated with each. Thus, to stay with animals: Life is transmitted from mother to child; there is never a ‘new’ life created in any birth, only a new body. After birth, the child acquires its individuation during the growth of what Kant calls ‘the unity of apperceptions’. In humans, the individuation is largely assisted by education. No god needed for this.

And so, finally: Where does value enter this picture? Is life just a meaningless accident? Questions like this point to the psychological need of humans to find value, which historically has been satisfied by our many religious doctrines. But the fact that there are so many, shows that ultimately none ever satisfied us completely. In our present scientific culture we make do with the idea of an ultimate cause. But a cause cannot confer value either. So we are stuck with the only possibility left over, which is that we ourselves are responsible for creating value and giving meaning to life.

How? I’ll repeat here a dictum that I’ve put into one of my books: That life is a privileged state of existence; and that self-reflexive consciousness adds a new vantage point from which to inject value and meaning into our existence. This should be understood in the context of an overwhelmingly lifeless universe, of which in every other respect it could be said that it makes no difference whether or not it exists. It is this privileged state of existence represented by living creatures that confers value and meaning; and as its (current) flag bearers, we humans have that opportunity and privilege to make something of it.

Time travel

Siobhan asked

What is the Philosophy of Time Travel?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This reminds me of a story, Siobhan, of many stories I’ve read from centuries, millennia ago — Orpheus in the Underworld, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, the Pharaohs — Cheating death, cheating time, flying through the air with magical animals, descending into the bowels of the past, tearing off the dark cloak from the future… so many dreams that will not die. Now we have science fiction to drape them — Science! Wow!

Yes, there have been philosophers too, in the middle ages, who propped up these dreams and stories with cast-iron logic, but we don’t believe them any more because we found that some terms in their syllogisms, called ‘common notions’, were not common any more when the power of the Church began to wane. Today we have science. Science delivers; we believe in it. Nevertheless, doubts creep in sometimes. Just how much science is there in science fiction? I suspect: very little; though a plethora of fancies that could be so construed on the basis of superficial similarities.

On my understanding, we owe our current conceptions of time and space to Einstein. His theory is called Relativity. It does not make provision for time travel; but is on the contrary, totally and absolutely inimical to it. So you see the problem: Relativity has to be proved wrong before one can philosophise about time travel. No philosopher would risk reputation and career on such a fool’s errant.

What about quantum theory? Don’t experimenters sometimes find particles veering off the straight and narrow path into the future to jump into the past? Well, that’s one reason why empirical physics and particle physics don’t get on, why we don’t have a ‘unified field theory’. This ‘maybe time travel’ might be nothing more than a limitation on our observational powers. But even if particles truly bounce into the past sometimes, they are not ‘things’ and therefore we can’t get a ride on them. It doesn’t stop fiction writers and movie makers, of course. Our imagination is fuelled by such fancies.

Coming to the end, you would not expect to be the first person to put a question of this nature to the panel. So let me finally point you to a more detailed rendering of the problems of time travel that I wrote in these pages a few years ago and is still accessible from the archives of Pathways. Happy reading!


Animals, humans and personal identity

Clara asked:

Can animals be considered persons?

What do philosophers supporting bodily continuity in terms of personal identity argue and how can I reject their arguments?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Clara, these are great questions, touching on the most fundamental issues that philosophy can deal with! However, in many ways both of them address the same underlying problem, and so I will deal with them together.

But I must begin with a caveat. Not all philosophers who wrote on these matters were au fait with biology. E.g. John Locke was a medico in an era of practically zero neurophysiological knowledge, so we must disqualify his pronouncements on two souls in one body and two bodies sharing a soul. Similarly some present day conjectures try to fit digital ideas onto living processes and let their fancies outrun biological capacities. I shall ignore them too.

The basics of this matter turn on the possession of language and a conceptual faculty. These two features enable human self-reflexivity, i.e. our consciousness of individuality and the ability to frame mental artefacts which we call ‘concepts’. Animals don’t have this capacity, even though all mammals (e.g. dogs, horses, apes, dolphins) possess a neocortex. This makes it doubtful whether or not they have a sense of individuality, or ‘personhood’. Many handlers of such animals believe it to be the case, as they feel that some forms of intimate communication between them is possible. However, there is no known method of clinching such arguments, in the main because animals have extremely limited resources of articulation.

On the other issue, matters are considerably more involved. The strongest arguments for the life-long persistence of personhood are Kant’s ‘Unity of Apperceptions’ and Schopenhauer’s ‘Principle of Individuation’. These and similar propositions can be questioned on the basis of pathological disruption of personality. E.g. someone may suffer coma, severe psychological trauma or complete memory loss and in some cases start a new life after the restoration of their personality. Whether these patients are identical with their former selves is perhaps debatable, but there are two main arguments against the supposition of a new identity.

The first is, that the notion of personhood is intrinsically ill-defined, as a five-year-old child is hardly a formed personality and must add character traits aplenty in their future life — in other words, personality is not a thing and cannot be pinned down to a single coherent phenomenology. Therefore loss or change of personality are undeniably possible.

The other objection is, that a person’s body and life form one indissoluble entity. The notion of personal identity is therefore bound up with the autonomy of living processes, in which all mental processes are included. Therefore a unique personhood is a subjective conscious self-reflectivity that can indeed change without annulling objective personhood.

In sum, the stronger battalions are on the side of the uniqueness and persistence of personhood in life. Disruption and change may alter its qualitative features, but not its intrinsic continuity. From a neurophysiological point of view, it can be said that much empirical evidence collected from brain damaged patients points to the brain’s capacity to restore its own integrity (in some cases despite catastrophic pathology), which seems to provide pretty conclusive evidence in favour of continuity.

Incidentally, the first empirical case study is the story of Phineas Gage, who survived a 4-foot-long iron rod being driven through his head. It changed his personality, but he remained the same ‘person’ for the 12 years of his post-trauma life. Look him up in the web!