Re-historicizing the Axial Age

Nador u. 11
Hanak Room
Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - 11:00am
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Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - 11:00am to 12:40pm

RSP Special Seminar on the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of CEU and the CEU History Department:

Speaker: Johann Arnason, La Trobe University, Melbourne / Charles University, Prague

Topic: Comparative History of Civilizations

Johann P. Arnason is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University, Melbourne, where he taught from 1975 to 2003, and visiting professor at the Faculty of Human Studies, Charles University, Prague. He has been visiting professor in Paris and Leipzig, and a fellow of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies in Uppsala. His research interests centre on historical sociology, with particular emphasis on the comparative analysis of civilizations. Publications include Civilizations in Dispute (2003) Axial Civilizations and World History (co-edited with S.N.Eisenstadt and Björn Wittrock, 2004), The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (edited with Kurt Raaflaub, 2010).

Re-historicizing the Axial Age

Recent debates on the Axial Age have mostly taken off from S.N. Eisenstadt’s seminal analysis. His interpretation of the axial phenomenon centred on a fundamental change to the structure of world-views: a radical divide between transcendental and mundane orders of reality, which opened the way for new modes of legitimizing social power as well as new ways of protest against established forms of rule. This emphasis on a common denominator led in due course to the conclusion that a model of “axiality”, referring to a set of cultural orientations defined in very abstract terms, was more important than the chronological perspective of the Axial Age, and that we should therefore refer to “axial civilizations” rather than “civilizations of the Axial Age.” This has, however, led to a loss of historical content, and the approach proposed here would reverse the course: there are good reasons to maintain the focus on the Axial Age, defined roughly as the period from the eighth to the fourth/third century BCE (Jaspers’s longer chronology), and to see it as a time of extraordinarily significant transformations in several civilizational centres. The search for a definitive common denominator seems premature; at this stage, we need more comparative analysis of the relevant cases, and a better understanding of their interrelations.