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what is axial about the axial age?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2005

robert n. bellah
university of california, berkeley []
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the idea of an axial age in the mid-first millennium b.c. has a long history but was crystallized by karl jaspers in his 1949 book the meaning and goal of history. since then, voegelin, eisenstadt and many others have contributed to clarifying the four cases of axial “breakthrough”, to use jaspers's term, namely ancient israel, greece, india, and china. a number of significant background conditions — economic, social, and political — have been identified that indicate dramatic social change all across the old world, but there is no clear indication of the causal relation of these changes to the emergence of strikingly new cultural-religious formations. this article uses categories derived from the work of merlin donald to argue that in all four cases “theoretic” culture was applied to the reformulation of basic cultural premises, though “mimetic” and “narrative” traditions that had been central in older civilizations continued to be significant, but reformulated in the light of the new theoretic understandings. the four cases, however, are far from homogeneous. they show such differences between them that we can speak of “multiple axialities”, as we have come to speak of “multiple modernities”.

Research Article
2005 archives européennes de sociology

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the research on which this article is based was supported in part by the john templeton foundation.