Inventing the Axial Age: The Outtakes

At long last, my article with John Torpey, “Inventing the Axial Age: The Origins and Uses of a Historical Concept,” has been published in Theory and Society. It has been in the making for a number of years, and as inevitably happens in the course of such a project, a lot of material didn’t make it into the final version. Things that at first seemed interesting enough for their own section became paragraphs, only to be relegated to footnotes, and ultimately even these were deleted in an effort to comply with word limits. Luckily, there are no word limits online, so here are a few brief outtakes from the paper that may still have some value to somebody out there. Maybe the days spent digging through musty books at the New York Public Library weren’t for naught.

Outtake 1: On the Publication History of Origin and Goal

The debate around the axial age is strongly influenced by Karl Jaspers’s 1949 book, The Origin and Goal of History. For the paper I looked into its publication history, and here is some of the detail that did not make it into the final version.

Although the book was distributed with a slight delay for the German market by Piper in Munich, Jaspers’s usual publishing outlet since 1947, it was first published by the Zurich-based publisher Artemis. Artemis also published Jaspers’ Die Schuldfrage in 1946. The publishing house was founded in 1943 during the boom years of publishing in Switzerland. Switzerland provided some German intellectuals with an ersatz public sphere in the immediate postwar “Stunde Null” setting, when book publishing and other basic requirements of public discourse were curtailed by Germany’s division into occupation zones. Artemis was headed by Friedrich Witz, who positioned Artemis as a conservative publishing house with a classical orientation and a focus on “European culture.” Its conservative orientation became clear when Witz turned down offers to publish Malraux and Brecht for political reasons. In 1947, Artemis began publishing the collected works of Goethe to coincide with the year of his two-hundredth birthday in 1949. Jaspers’s 1948 book Our Future and Goethe was published in this series. Artemis had trouble with exporting books to Germany, though, leading Jaspers, who wanted to be able to influence the German public, to prefer the Munich-based publishing house Piper.1

Outtake 2: Hans Freyer’s “Explosion”

There are a number of early writers who took up Jaspers’s concept that did not make it into our paper, mostly because their contributions have not had much of an impact on the subsequent literature. One particularly fascinating one was by the most prominent sociologists of Nazi Germany, the conservative German sociologist Hans Freyer. In his engagement with the axial age thesis, the concept of transcendence — which only appears a handful of times in the crucial sections of Origin and Goal — becomes the main takeaway from Jaspers’s account. This presages many later readings of the work. Freyer’s account of transcendence is by far the strongest of all who interpret the axial age in these terms. In a chapter of his book on cultural sociology, Schwelle der Zeiten (“Threshold of Ages”), devoted to the idea of axial transformation, Freyer explicitly argues against a sociological interpretation of the axial age that would reduce it to an “ethicization” or “spiritualization.” Rather, the path human history took following the Jewish prophets is “a true explosion in the substance of life, if an inaudible one.”2 In Freyer’s understanding, the axial transformation is a process at the level of being itself and thus evidence of “the transcendent God.” That’s not something you hear a lot of sociologists claim these days.

Outtake 3: The Simmelian Dimension

The American sociologist Donald Levine argued in 2004 that Jaspers, in developing the idea of the axial age, likely drew on Simmel’s 1918 Lebensanschauung (only recently translated into English).3 Here Simmel uses the concept of “axial turning” (Achsendrehung) to refer to the process whereby ideas ascend from the plane of life and gain influence over life, giving it form. This concept also appears in a number of his other works, including his study Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the “Fragment on Love.” More recently, Hans Joas, citing Levine, has also suggested a Simmelian influence on Jaspers.4 Neither Levine or Joas seem to know about an earlier contribution that points in the same direction. In 1972, Leo Franke (who appears to be an independent scholar) published an essay in a renowned West German philosophy journal arguing that Jaspers’s axial transformation corresponds with what Simmel called the “turn toward the idea” (Wendung zur Idee) in his Lebensanschauung.5 Franke goes on to argue, pace Freyer and others, that the axial age is not really all about transcendence, but that it should rather be understood in more immanent terms.


  1. Jürg Zbinden, Sternstunden oder verpasste Chancen: Zur Geschichte des Schweizer Buchhandels 1943—1952 (Zurich: Chronos, 1995), 171—214.  

  2. Hans Freyer, Schwelle der Zeiten: Beiträge zur Soziologie der Kultur (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1965), 139. 

  3. Donald Levine, “Note on the Concept of Axial Turning in Human History” in Rethinking Civilizational Analysis, edited by Saïd Arjomand and Ed Teryakian (London: Sage, 2004). 

  4. Hans Joas, “The Axial Age Debate as Religious Discourse” in The Axial Age and Its Consequences, edited by Robert Bellah and Hans Joas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 9—10. 

  5. Leo Franke, “Die Achsenzeit als Wendung zur Idee: K. Jaspers und G. Simmel.” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 26 (1972).