Axialization and Institutionalization

15 March 2012


In several posts I have suggested a generalization of Karl Jaspers idea of an “Axial Age.” For Jaspers (and Lewis Mumford, and others who have followed them), the “Axial Age” was a unique period of human history in which peoples all over the world generated the religious and philosophical ideas that were to inform all subsequent civilization, and chronologically corresponded to the period from about the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. I call the generalization of the idea of a “Axial Age” “axialization,” which seeks to understand the processes of Jasper’s Axial Age as a general historical process that is not confined to the single instance Jaspers had in mind.

The posts I have written on this include (inter alia):

The Aftermath of War

The Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm

Abortive Paradigmata

Axial Crisis or Axial Fulfillment?

Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology

I have just realized that axialization as an historical process is closely tied to institutionalization as an historical process. In so far as axialization involves a period of unusual intellectual innovation, creativity, and originality in which new ideas and new traditions emerge, it is to be expected that later less creative ages will seek to formulate, elaborate, and establish these intellectual innovations of an Axial Age, and this latter process is institutionalization.

The great religious traditions of the world’s great divisions of civilizations that were the focus of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, I have previously observed, were all emergent from agricultural civilization, and, at least to a certain extent, reflect the concerns of agricultural civilization. In this spirit, I suggested that the the great cave paintings of the late Paleolithic in ice age Europe constituted an axialization of the nomadic paradigm of macro-history.

It now strikes me that not only were the great religious traditions of the world emergent from agricultural civilization, but all of these religions and all of their associated civilizations experienced both axialization and institutionalization under the agricultural paradigm. The institutions of organized religion that have largely served as the organizing principles of the associated civilizations were developed and formalized throughout the duration of agricultural civilization.

I suspect that, since the axialization of the nomadic period came so late in the human development of that period that this axialization never achieved institutionalization, both because the structures of nomadic life did not readily lend themselves to the establishment of institutions, and — just as importantly — because the macro-historical shift from nomadism to agriculturalism meant that the interest and focus of the greater bulk of the human population had shifted to other concerns with the emergence of settled agriculturalism. It is interesting to speculate what an institutionalization of nomadic axial ideas might have been, had settled civilization never emerged.

Agricultural civilization persisted for a period of time sufficient both for the axialization and institutionalization of the ideas implicit in this particular form of human life. Because the ideas implicit in agriculturalism received both axialization (an initial statement) and institutionalization (a definitive formulation), these ideas were not swept aside by the Industrial Revolution in the same way that the ideas implicit in the axialization of the Nomadic paradigm were swept away by agricultural civilization. The nomadic paradigm was swept away so completely by agricultural civilization that this entire epoch of human history was lost to us until it was recovered by the methods of scientific historiography. Throughout the agricultural paradigm, human beings knew nothing except the ideas of the agricultural paradigm. This gave agricultural civilization both a certain narrowness and a certain strength.

I speculated earlier that macro-history may exhibit a “speeding up” such that, while the axialization of the nomadic paradigm came very late in that very long-lasting paradigm, the axialization of the agricultural paradigm did not come nearly so late in the development of agriculturalism. Perhaps, I suggested, the axialization of the industrial paradigm will come even sooner in the relative history of that macro-historical division. But when I wrote that I was not counting on the fact that the institutionalization of the agricultural paradigm had given the axial ideas of agriculturalism a staying power beyond that macro-historical division itself.

Throughout most of the world today, agricultural civilization has been utterly swept away by the industrial revolution and ways of life have been radically change. Yet the ideas of agricultural civilization persist, and they persist partly because of their institutionalization and partly because nothing of commensurate scope and power has emerged to displace them.

Beyond the historical processes of axialization and institutionalization we may have to posit another stage — ossification — in which axial ideas are preserved beyond the macro-historical division that produced them. These ossified ideas serve a retrograde function in keeping human thought tied to a now-lapsed paradigm of human social interaction.

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5 Responses to “Axialization and Institutionalization”

  1. […] Geopolicratus suggests that populations with an agricultural heritage are more institutionalised than those with a nomad heritage. If so, then those with an agricultural heritage might well be more disposed to believe things that suggest that there is no free will, since the two kinds of lives call for quite different kinds of decision making. Plato’s Republic, anyone?  […]

  2. As a mathematician, I can’t help noticing that in the UK, at least, mathematics has been marginalised by modern culture, to the extent that it only seems valued for its computational aspects, whereas Arab and Asian cultures seem much more homely. I have seen studies (e.g. Nisbett) that plot this ‘deviance’, tending to confirm my experience.

    Perhaps the key feature of agricultural communities is that they led relatively stable lives, whereas nomad communities did not. Perhaps as the influence of such instabilities as the last war fades we all tend to take stability for granted. Perhaps we should not.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Dave,

      I agree that one of the key features of agricultural communities is their stability; in fact, I have recently taken to referring to “settled agriculturalism” in order to highlight this feature. That being said, the rate of change in agricultural societies is more rapid than that of nomadic societies, and the rate of change of industrialized societies is far greater than the rate of change in settled agricultural societies.

      This observation yields an interesting insight, and that is the divergence of stability and rapidity of change. Industrial-technological society experiences rapid change, but remains what it is and therefore has a certain “stability.”

      In any case, your point is well taken. People do tend to take stability for granted, and this, I believe, can definitely be a problem. In my book Political Economy of Globalization I called this “acculturation to absence of change.”

      You wrote that mathematics in the UK is marginalized by “modern culture,” but I think that it might be more accurate to say that mathematics (and not only in the UK) is marginalized by popular culture. Mathematics is more crucial than ever to industrial-technological civilization, but for the popular culture that is regurgitated from every media outlet it simply doesn’t exist. And it must be observed that this process is most advanced in the UK because the Industrial Revolution began in the UK, so that British society was the first society transformed by industrialization, and remains to this day the bellweather for the long term consequences of industrialization.

      But I do agree that industrial-technological society is in great danger of valuing mathematics only for its computational function. Similarly, I fear that logic has already become a ghetto of computer science. That idea that logic is an ancient tradition that has a long history before programming seems to be virtually non-existent today.

      For me personally, the most interesting thing about mathematics and logic is their long history of philosophical controversy, which shows us that even the most certain of our sciences are open-ended and repay study from a philosophical perspective.

      Best wishes,


  3. Perhaps this, from the reply above, is where the institution really serves a purpose, yes?

    This observation yields an interesting insight, and that is the divergence of stability and rapidity of change. Industrial-technological society experiences rapid change, but remains what it is and therefore has a certain “stability.”

    In any case, your point is well taken. People do tend to take stability for granted, and this, I believe, can definitely be a problem. In my book Political Economy of Globalization I called this “acculturation to absence of change.”

    Which is to say that the continuing existence of institutions gives one the illusion of social/societal/cultural stability even while upon inspection (disillusion, ruining the sacred truths) we might see OZ at work changing within in order to maintain order without (an order that will continue to serve OZ).

  4. […] Axialization and institutionalization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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