"The Axial Age and its Consequences for Subsequent History and the Present"
Conference July, 3-5 2008 in Erfurt
Our conference will deal with the Axial Age and its consequences for all later history including the present. In terms of Merlin Donald's scheme of cultural evolution, the axial age is the time when the mimetic and mythic culture that had provided the cultural tools for humans since early in the Paleolithc (mimetic) and the emergence of language (120,000-100,000 BP) was finally joined by theoretic culture, that erupted quite dramatically in four sites in Eurasia in the second half of the first millennium BC: Israel, Greece, China and India. Elements of theoretic culture are older in narrow fields, such as calendar making and metal technology, but only in the axial age did theoretic culture take on central significance. It should be noted that it was then that the very beginnings of what we can call natural science appeared, at least in Greece, China, and India. But the major significance of the axial age is the appearance of axial culture in spiritual and ethical life, not entirely unrelated to the beginnings of natural science, but still involving a reformulation of mimetic and mythic culture rather than an abandonment of them. In important respects we could go so far as to say the axial age is the beginning of modernity. Most of the positive achievements of modernity have involved efforts to put in practice ideals that had emerged already in the axial age. Bjorn Wittrock has spoken of the "promissory notes" issued in the axial age that still have been only partially redeemed in the present age. So the axial age, of great scholarly interest in itself, is still very much on the agenda of unfolding history. Samuel P. Huntington's widely influential thesis about "the clash of civilizations" as a major contemporary problem is only intelligible in terms of the axial age when the roots of each of the supposedly clashing civilizations are to be found. My proposal involves the funding of a conference of world-class scholars concerned with the axial age, but also with its consequences up to the present, most of whom are engaged in research agenda that would be greatly enriched by the cross-fertilization provided by this conference.
The proposed conference differs from earlier conferences on the axial age and the books resulting from them in two respects: 1) We will not necessarily be inviting people who specialize in one of the cases, unless they also have a significantly larger perspective. In general we want a conference whose members have a very broad historical understanding, both in time and space, and the capacity to ask the big questions, even to figure out what they are. 2) Taking a page from Jaspers's original book on the axial age, we are interested in comparing the original axial age, first millennium BC, to our own age. Jaspers noted that ours is also a time of great social and cultural change and disruption and the expressed need for new common understandings, this time not just in particular regions, but in the world as a whole. So we will be inviting people who have a deep interest in modernity, particularly its normative aspects, as well as a broad historical background. Three very well known scholars exemplify the kind of person we have in mind: Shmuel Eisenstadt (who, after Jaspers, has done the most to make the axial age a topic of wide interest but who has also written a great deal on "multiple modernities"), Jürgen Habermas, and Charles Taylor, all of whom have agreed to attend the conference.
In preparation for the discussion and conference papers, Bellah's Introduction to the Axial Age and his chapters on Ancient Israel, Ancient Greece, Ancient China, and Ancient India from his work in progress on religious evolution will be distributed to participants in advance. Though reading them is not mandatory (each chapter is rather long), they could give some common reference point for the initial discussion. We would also like to distribute drafts of the conference papers in advance. Some major questions that we would like to address are:
What were some of the tensions and conflicts evident in the axial transition in the several cases and what can we learn from them for our understanding of our present situation? In each case an appreciation of the particular history and cultural tradition had to be reconciled, however uneasily, with the aspiration for religious and ethical understandings that would be universally human, aspirations that were formulated for the first time in that period. We cannot assume that the universal aspirations were "good" and the particularistic concerns "bad." Human culture always needs "a local habitation and a place." The question is, how were these tensions resolved, fruitfully or unfruitfully, and how can our understanding of this early emergence of the problem help us understand it in its present forms?
Through the course of history since the axial age there have been tensions between the transcendental and mundane orders, the spokespersons for the religious and ethical traditions and the holders of political and economic power. What can we learn from these perennial tensions for our understanding of their contemporary forms?
Are there today examples of a common language for global moral discourse that would be intelligible and persuasive for people from a variety of cultural and religious traditions? If so, what do such examples reveal about the relationship of such a language to the rational discourse privileged by the Western Enlightenment, on the one hand, and to the mythico-poetic languages of the major world religions on the other? Does science provide any form of discourse that would be helpful with this problem?
The conference will consider how to follow up concerns raised in the conference with possible research agendas. The conference will allow the participants to share their own current research and thus see to what extent they overlap with those of others and what collaborative work might make sense. It will also provide the occasion for setting up a communication network that would help the participants to keep in touch after the conference and also to find links with others whose work may be taking a similar direction.