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. BoyEmail author
  • John Torpey


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.


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



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.


  1. Alexander, J. C. (2003). The meanings of social life: A cultural sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Armstrong, K. (1993). A history of God: The 4000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  3. Armstrong, K. (2006). The great transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  4. Arnason, J. P., Eisenstadt, S. N., & Wittrock, B. (Eds.). (2005). Axial civilizations and world history. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  5. Assmann, A. (1989). Jaspers’ Achsenzeit, oder Schwierigkeiten mit der Zentralperspektive der Geschichte. In D. Harth (Ed.), Karl Jaspers: Denken zwischen Wissenschaft, Politik und Philosophie. Stuttgart: Metzler.Google Scholar
  6. Assmann, J. (1990). Ma‘at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten. Munich: C. H. Beck.Google Scholar
  7. Assmann, J. (2012). Cultural memory and the myth of the axial age. In R. N. Bellah & H. Joas (Eds.), The axial age and its consequences (pp. 366–407). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bellah, R. N. (1964). Religious evolution. American Sociological Review, 29(3), 358–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bellah, R. N. (2005). What is axial about the axial age? European Journal of Sociology, 46(1), 69–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bellah, R. N. (2011). Religion in human evolution: From the Paleolithic to the axial age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Benda, J., Bernanos, G., Jaspers, K., Spender, S., Guéhenno, J., Flora, F., et al. (1946). L'esprit Européen. Neuchâtel: Éditions de la Baconnière.Google Scholar
  12. Breuer, S. (1994). Kulturen der Achsenzeit: Leistung und Grenzen eines geschichtsphilosophischen Konzepts. Saeculum: Jahrbuch für Universalgeschichte, 45(1), 1–33.Google Scholar
  13. Burke, E., III. (1993). Introduction: Marshall G. S. Hodgson and world history. In M. G. S. Hodgson (Ed.), Rethinking world history: Essays on Europe, Islam, and world history (pp. ix–xxi). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Collins, R. (1998). The sociology of philosophies: A global theory of intellectual change. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Curtin, P. (1997). Africa and global patterns of migration. In G. Wang (Ed.), Global history and migrations (pp. 63–94). Boulder: Westview.Google Scholar
  17. Eisenstadt, S. N. (1982). The axial age: the emergence of transcendental visions and the rise of clerics. European Journal of Sociology, 23(2), 294–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Eisenstadt, S. N. (Ed.). (1986). The origins and diversity of axial age civilizations. Albany: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  19. Eisenstadt, S. N. (Ed.) (1987 [1986]). Kulturen der Achsenzeit I: Ihre Ursprünge und ihre Vielfalt. Translated by R. Achlama and G. Schalit. 2 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  20. Eisenstadt, S. N. (Ed.) (1992). Kulturen der Achsenzeit II: Ihre institutionelle und kulturelle Dynamik. Translated by R. Achlama. 3 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  21. Eisenstadt, S. N. (1993 [1963]). The political systems of empires. 2nd ed. New Brunswick: Transaction.Google Scholar
  22. Eisenstadt, S. N. (1999). Multiple modernities in an age of globalization. The Canadian Journal of Sociology, 24(2), 283–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Eisenstadt, S. N. (2000). Multiple modernities. Daedalus, 129(1), 1–29.Google Scholar
  24. Eisenstadt, S. N. (2003). Some comparative indications about the dynamics of historical axial and non-axial civilizations. (pp. 457–488) In idem., Comparative civilizations and multiple modernities, vol. 1. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  25. Engster, H. (1983). Poesie der Achsenzeit: Der Ursprung der Skaldik im gesellschaftlichen Wandel der Wikingerzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Lang.Google Scholar
  26. Fikentscher, W. (1975). Methoden des Rechts in vergleichender Darstellung. Tübingen: Mohr.Google Scholar
  27. Furet, F. (1981). Interpreting the French revolution. Translated by E. Forster. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Giesen, B. (1998). Intellectuals and the German nation: Collective identity in an axial age. Translated by N. Levis and A. Weisz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Graubard, S. R. (1975). Preface to the issue “Wisdom, revelation, and doubt: perspectives on the first millennium B.C”. Daedalus, 104(2), v–vi.Google Scholar
  30. Green, W. A. (1992). Periodization in European and world history. Journal of World History, 3(1), 13–53.Google Scholar
  31. Grousset, R., Barth, K., Maydieu, R. P., Masson-Oursel, P., Leroy, M., Lefebvre, H., et al. (1949). Pour un nouvel humanisme. Neuchâtel: Éditions de la Baconnière.Google Scholar
  32. Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the evolution of society. Translated by T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.Google Scholar
  33. Habermas, J. (1985). Philosophical–political profiles. Translated by F. G. Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  34. Hodgson, M. G. S. (1963). The interrelations of societies in history. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5(2), 227–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Huntington, S. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  36. Jaspers, K. (1947). Vom europäischen Geist: Vortrag gehalten bei den Recontres Internationales de Genève. Munich: Piper.Google Scholar
  37. Jaspers, K. (1953 [1949]). The origin and goal of history. Translated by M. Bullock. London: Routledge & Paul.Google Scholar
  38. Jaspers, K. (1989). Karl Jaspers on Max Weber. Translated by R. J. Whelan. New York: Paragon House.Google Scholar
  39. Jaspers, K. (2000 [1947]). The question of German guilt. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Fordham University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Johnson, L. T. (2011). Five questions for Robert Bellah. The Immanent Frame, December 7. Online at
  41. Köhler, O. (1950). Das Bild der Menschheitsgeschichte bei Karl Jaspers. Saeculum: Jahrbuch für Universalgeschichte, 1(4), 477–486.Google Scholar
  42. Lukács, G. (1981 [1954]). The destruction of reason. Translated by P. Palmer. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press.Google Scholar
  43. Masuzawa, T. (2005). The invention of world religions: Or, how European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McNeill, W. (1963). The rise of the west. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  45. Morris, I. (2010). Why the west rules—for now: The patterns of history, and what they reveal about the future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.Google Scholar
  46. Mumford, L. (1956). The transformations of man. New York: Harper & Brothers.Google Scholar
  47. Peiser, B. J. (1993). Das dunkle Zeitalter Olympias: kritische Untersuchungen der historischen, archäologischen und naturgeschichtlichen Probleme der griechischen Achsenzeit am Beispiel der antiken Olympischen Spiele. Frankfurt am Main: Lang.Google Scholar
  48. Plott, J. C. (1977). Global history of philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.Google Scholar
  49. Puiggrós, R. (1966). Los orígenes de la filosofía. Buenos Aires: J. Alvares.Google Scholar
  50. Ram, U. (1995). The changing agenda of Israeli sociology: Theory, ideology, and identity. Albany: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  51. Ritter, J. (Ed.). (1971). Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie. 11 vols. Vol. 1. Basel: Schwabe.Google Scholar
  52. Roetz, H. (1993 [1992]). Confucian ethics of the axial age: A reconstruction under the aspect of the breakthrough toward postconventional thinking. Translated by the author. Albany: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  53. Runciman, W. G. (2009). The theory of cultural and social selection. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Scheibelreiter, G. (1999). Die barbarische Gesellschaft: Mentalitätsgeschichte der europäischen Achsenzeit, 5.–8. Jahrhundert. Darmstadt: Primus.Google Scholar
  55. Scheit, H. (2000). “Achsenzeit” – ein (fast) vergessenes Modell für eine Wendezeit. In P. Segl (Ed.), Zeitenwenden – Wendezeiten. Von der Achsenzeit bis zum Fall der Mauer. Dettelbach: Röll.Google Scholar
  56. Schulin, E. (Ed.). (1974). Universalgeschichte. Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch.Google Scholar
  57. Schulze, H. (1995). Staat und Nation in der europäischen Geschichte. Munich: C. H. Beck.Google Scholar
  58. Seligman, A. B. (Ed.). (1989). Order and transcendence: The role of utopias and the dynamics of civilization. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  59. Shils, E. (1965). Charisma, order, and status. American Sociological Review, 30(2), 199–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. SSRC Committee on Historiography. (1946). Theory and practice in historical study. New York: Social Science Research Council.Google Scholar
  61. Thomassen, B. (2010). Anthropology, multiple modernities and the axial age debate. Anthropological Theory, 10(4), 321–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Voegelin, E. (1957). Order and history, vol. 2: The world of the Polis. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.Google Scholar
  63. Voegelin, E. (1974). Order and history, vol. 4: The ecumenic age. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Voegelin, E. (2000). Collected works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 11: Published essays, 1953–1965. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.Google Scholar
  65. Weber, A. (1935). Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie. Leiden: Sijthoff.Google Scholar
  66. Weber, M. (1978 [1921–1922]). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Translated by E. Fischoff et al. Edited by G. Roth and C. Wittich. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  67. Weber, M. (1998). The agrarian sociology of ancient civilizations. Translated by R. I. Frank. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  68. Wolpert, S. (2000). A new history of India (6th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  69. Zoltai, D. (1985). Lukács and the Recontres Internationales of Geneva. The New Hungarian Quarterly, 26(98), 68–76.Google Scholar

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

Personalised recommendations