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Theory and Society

, Volume 42, Issue 3, pp 241–259 | Cite as

Inventing the axial age: the origins and uses of a historical concept

  • John D. Boy
  • John Torpey
Article

Abstract

The concept of the axial age, initially proposed by the philosopher Karl Jaspers to refer to a period in the first millennium BCE that saw the rise of major religious and philosophical figures and ideas throughout Eurasia, has gained an established position in a number of fields, including historical sociology, cultural sociology, and the sociology of religion. We explore whether the notion of an “axial age” has historical and intellectual cogency, or whether the authors who use the label of a more free-floating “axiality” to connote varied “breakthroughs” in human experience may have a more compelling case. Throughout, we draw attention to ways in which uses of the axial age concept in contemporary social science vary in these and other respects. In the conclusion, we reflect on the value of the concept and its current uses and their utility in making sense of human experience.

Keywords

History of social thought Civilizations Axial Age Axiality Religion Historical sociology Cultural sociology 

Notes

Acknowledgments

We want to thank Bjørn Thomassen and Theory and Society Editor Martin Jay, as well as participants of the New York Area Seminar in Intellectual and Cultural History for comments on a previous draft of this article.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Doctoral Program in SociologyThe Graduate Center, City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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