The Axial Age

Using the Concept as an Interface Between Converging Debates in Sociology, Religious Studies, Cognitive Science and Philosophical Anthropology

Research will focus firstly on the flaws of Jaspers' original concept, such as its essentialism, its teleological/metaphysical conception of mind, thesis of mutual independence of the axial cultures, condescending understanding of the non-axial cultures etc. Conceptual and empirical resources such as action theory, cognitive science of embodiment, historical and comparative research on cultural exchange and philosophical anthropology of articulation will be employed in order to amend and restructure the concept in an interdisciplinary way. Secondly, the emphasis will be on the internal, inferential structure of the amended concept. Here, the project will deal with the topic of the "discovery of transcendence", with its key relationship to the questions of contingency and embodiment and with the mutual interdependency between the tentative formation of explanatory general concepts on the one hand and empirical research on the other. The third focus will be on the consequences of this anthropologically enriched interpretational concept of the "axial age" for the basic conceptual structure, which underlies the group's comprehensive research program. This pertains for example to the concept of "religion", used in the singular and plural and employed with varying emphasis on its extensional and intensional aspects. Equally important is the typology of religious exchange processes, which may be supplemented and backed up by connecting it to anthropological questions. Topic number four will be the impact of the axial age on the emergence of modernity. How are the axial age and the so-called "Sattelzeit" (Koselleck) related? And what about the relationship between the axial discovery of transcendence and the emergence of "secular" concepts of society and private life? These important questions will be helpful to deepen and contextualize the amended version of the "axial age" concept.

In constant dialogue with empirical research on examples of axial cultures and with the evolutionary anthropology of cultural development, the following heuristic intuitions will be examined and rectified: 1. Any sophisticated understanding of the way in which the great patterns of religious traditions emerge und develop requires broad contextualization, for which the anthropology of expressivity, informed by the cognitive sciences, can provide an adequate framework 2. For this task, the interpretation scheme "axial age", embedded into the context of action theory, is indispensable, because it enables us to understand how the contingency of historical developments is interconnected with - on the historical time-scale - invariant structures of anthropology. 3. The point of utmost importance for understanding the dynamics of religious exchange between the axial cultures is the internal relationship between the experiences of transcendence and contingency. 4. This pertains to the conceptual structure of the concept "religion" as well. Its emergence and current usage can only be elucidated when seen in the context of the "Sattelzeit" with its focus on the reflection of historical contingency. 5. In the processes of religious exchange between the axial cultures, historical contingency and its reflective articulation interact in an intricate manner. This interaction can be conceptually analyzed starting with the metaphor of "Traditionsgeflechte". In this vein, an attractive alternative to both essentialism and total avoidance of unifying concepts would appear possible.


Affiliated Person

Affiliated Persons


Prof. Dr. Matthias Jung

Individual Researcher