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):
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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10 December 2011
If you search the collected works of Shakespeare online for “world” you get 589 hits; if you search for “globe” you get a paltry 10 hits, although these hits include one of my favorite passages from The Tempest:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Also from The Tempest is this perhaps even more famous line, in which Miranda evokes the world, not the globe:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
For Shakespeare, it would seem, the worldhood of the world is very much that of the world rather than that of the globe.
I was mildly surprised by these lopsided Shakespearean results — I think I had in mind that Shakespeare’s theater was called The Globe — though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, since “world” is simply a much more frequently used word in English than “globe.” But that may be changing.
Today it is becoming increasingly common to speak in terms of that which is “global,” and especially in terms of “globalization,” which latter has already become a term that evokes an emotional response in many. Does this shift in language reveal anything important, so it is merely a shift between synonyms as a concession to fashionable language?
Language simpliciter has, I think, played a role in this shift. One simply would not say, “worldization” as one would readily say, for example, “globalization.” The fact that we need a word to express an historical process of institutions being adopted worldwide says something about our time. What does it say? It says that we are what I call a Stage I civilization, such that the geographical borders that once separated us and allowed for isolated pockets of human beings who did not know about each other have been reduced or eliminated by transportation technologies that are the result of industrial-technological civilization.
In regard to “global,” the term is neutral and even, we could say, secular, whereas to describe anything as “worldly” carries a definite connotation, and the connotation that it carries increasingly appears to belong to another era.
This linguistic shift is quite recent, taking place only in the past few decades. In the early twentieth century, when it was in vogue for philosophers to discuss socialism, it was usually discussed in the context of world government. At that time, no one spoke of global government. Bertrand Russell, for example, was a great advocate of world government in the first half of the twentieth century. Most people know about Russell’s socialist phase and his world government writings from the 1920s and 1930s, but Russell was so committed to the idea that he had another stage of thought immediately following the Second World War, at which time he argued that the US should use its monopoly on atomic weapons to establish a world government under threat of force. An echo of the early twentieth century concern for world government survives in the conspiracy community, which has all but monopolized the phrase “new world order” to describe a world government foisted upon the peoples of the earth (and especially the peoples of the US) against the will.
Recently when I was reading Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism Vol. 3: The Perspective of the World, I noticed in the Foreword Braudel’s discussion of “world time.” In a note Braudel notes that the French title of the volume was Le Temps du Monde and that the expression “world time” was derived from Wolfram Eberhard’s Conquerors and Rulers: Social Forces in Medieval China. Here is what Braudel says of world time:
“World time then might be said to concentrate above all on a kind of superstructure of world history: it represents a crowning achievement, created and supported by forces at work underneath it, although in turn its weight has an effect upon the base. Depending on place and time, this two-way exchange, from the bottom upwards and from the top down, has varied in importance. But even in advanced countries, socially and economically speaking, world time has never accounted for the whole of human existence.”
Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, Volume 3: The Perspective of the World, Foreword, p. 18
It is fascinating that Braudel here makes use of the Marxist terminology of base and superstructure, though he applies these ideas to time. This suggests interesting possibilities and I know of no one who has further developed this idea. It is equally fascinating to me that Braudel mentions the two-way exchange between base and superstructure, which sounds very close to the temporal relationships that I have posited as characterizing ecological temporality. But formulating this exchange in terms of “bottom up” and “top down” this suggests to me constructive and non-constructive approaches, which roughly approximate the bottom up and top down perspectives. So there is a lot to think about in this short quote from Braudel.
In any case, Braudel expresses himself in terms of world time, not global time. Braudel belonged to an earlier generation, and I suspect that the terminology of world time is formulated by analogy with prevalent ideas of world government.
In Karl Jaspers The Origin and Goal of History, which predates Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism by more than twenty years, putting in right in mid-century, we find Jaspers struggling toward a formulation of world history, and world history would obviously be a function of world time.
Of course, people have been talking about world history for a long time, at least since the Enlightenment, when humanity began to know itself not only as a spatial whole but also as a temporal whole. Jaspers took this a step further. A consequence of Jaspers’ attempt to elucidate his philosophical conception of world history was his formulation of the idea of an Axial Age. I have discussed Jasper’s Axial Age on several occasions (for example, The Next Axial Age and Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm) and the idea of an Axial Age has passed into popular thought and is known to many.
What Jaspers was trying to express in terms of an Axial Age was a shift in human history that was genuinely global. Previous conceptions of “Ages” of human history had always been specific to one culture or one civilization; Jaspers sought a conception of an Age that embraced all humanity, and while Braudel does not mention Jaspers in his discussion of world time, one could justifiably understand Braudel’s efforts as a practical application to historiography of Jasper’s conception of world history.
The terminology that is emerging from the shift from world to globe highlights global change as a process. Earlier conceptions focused on semi-static periodizations. A truly temporal understanding of history will see things in terms of processes, so this is a development that I find to be valuable. I have, after all, expressed my understanding of strategic trends shaping the future in terms of pastoralization, extraterrestrialization, singularization, and so forth.
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29 May 2011
In Axial Crisis of Axial Fulfillment? I discussed Michael Wood’s exposition of the Axial Age in his television series Legacy: The Origins of Civilization. In that post I contrasted Wood’s characterization of the Axial Age as a crisis with my characterization of the Axial Age as the mythological fulfillment of a mature demographic paradigm, and then suggested a crisis and a fulfillment can be one and the same thing.
One of the obvious ways in which the maturation of a social paradigm frequently issues in a social crisis is because a mature social paradigm often results in a relative degree of satiation, if not comfort, for the bulk of the population of a given demographic paradigm. Once people become relatively comfortable, they become confident, and once people become confident they seek out challenges, but it is the very nature of a mature social paradigm that the great challenge of that social paradigm has already been met. Thus, as a result, a large number of people will ask for the first time, “Is this all there is?” “Is there nothing more to life?”
There is a wonderful passage from Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality that expresses this sociological truism with particular philosophical poignancy:
“The social history of mankind exhibits great organizations in their alternating functions of conditions for progress, and as contrivances for stunting humanity. The history of the Mediterranean lands, and of western Europe, is the history of the blessing and the curse of political organizations, of religious organizations, of schemes of thought, of social agencies for large purposes. The moment of dominance, prayed for, worked for, sacrificed for, by generations of the noblest spirits, marks the turning point where the blessing passes into the curse. Some new principle of refreshment is required. The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society.”
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition by Griffin and Sherburne, The Free Press, 1978, Part V, Chapter I, section III, p. 339
Whitehead’s formulation in terms of, “The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society,” immediately puts me in mind of ecological resilience. Previously in Self-Dissimilarity I quoted The Resilience Stability Tradeoff: Drawing Analogies between River Flood Management and Macroeconomic Management by Ashwin Parameswaran, in which he quoted this formulation of resiliency:
“…when the range of natural variation in a system is reduced, the system loses resilience.That is, a system in which natural levels of variation have been reduced through command-and-control activities will be less resilient than an unaltered system when subsequently faced with external perturbations.”
Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” represents a thorough-going organic conception of the world, and it is easy to see that organicism is a perennial mode of philosophical thought, usually found in contrast to mechanism. I now see that this tradition of organicism is the forerunner to ecological thought. Stated conversely, ecological thought is the latest manifestation of organicism.
The Mario Bunge Dictionary of Philosophy and the venerable Runes Dictionary of Philosophy both define organicism as a position between the polar opposites of mechanism and vitalism, but we need not even consult any such sources to understand what is meant by “organic,” since our untutored intuition is probably a better guide as to what is organic and how it differs from the mechanistic. In fact, we construct our definitions in the attempt (however imperfect) to capture the intuitive sense of “organic.”
Whitehead’s philosophy is also constructed around the idea of the organic, and the organic organization of things, just as recent ecological thought is constructed around the attempt to capture the nature of the organic. It is of the nature of complex adaptive systems to always elude our attempts to pin them down. If they weren’t complex we would have figured them out some time ago, and if they weren’t adaptive, we would have had them reduced to some predictable algorithm.
Organicism represents a perennial mode of thought, a perennial idea that recurs throughout the human attempt to understand the world, and which will continue to recur. Mechanism is similarly perennial.
Ecological thought represents the current embodiment of organicism. With my exposition of ecological temporality I have the nucleus of what could be an organic philosophy of history, but I can’t yet see my way clear to an illuminating formation. I will have to continue to think about this.
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24 January 2011
Among the many television documentaries hosted by Micheal Wood is the series Legacy: The Origins of Civilization that recounts the particular characteristics of distinct traditions of civilization as it separately emerged in Mesopotamia, India, China, Egypt, Central America, and Western Europe. Last night I was watching the episode about India and was reminded of Wood’s account of the Axial Age (which he called the “Axis Age” in the video). Here is what Wood says:
“The period of the Buddha’s lifetime from the sixth to the fifth century BC, has been called the Axis Age because so many of the great thinkers in world history were alive at the same time — the Buddha and Mahavira in India; Pythagoras and the early Greek philosophers; the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah; Confucius, Lao-tzu, and the Taoists in China; and even, some have thought, Zoroaster in Persia. It’s extraordinary to think that many of those people could actually have met each other. It suggests that the ancient world which had emerged from the first civilizations of Iraq and Egypt, China and India was undergoing a crisis of spirit but also a crisis of opportunity. Fundamental questions were being asked about the nature of God, about the meaningfulness of life on Earth, and about the basis of the authority for kings and states. And at the heart of that the question which still plagues governments even today in the United States and the Soviet Union — how do you persuade your citizens to act as moral beings? How do you you persuade them to be good? The different ways in which those civilizations attempted to come to terms with these questions still shape them and us today.”
I find it troubling that Wood did not say that the fundamental questions included how citizens could persuade their governments to act as moral beings, to persuade them to be good, but I will leave that aside at present.
Wood’s perspective seems to constitute a very different assessment of the Axial Age than I have suggested in several posts. I have argued that axialization is a process that occurs in mature civilizations when the ordinary business of life has been provided for by the economic system that emerges from the civilizational paradigm in question, so that resources are available for the higher productions of civilization, which in the case of axialization is the expression of the idea intrinsic to a given civilization in a mythological form that makes that idea vividly present and accessible to all individuals within that tradition of civilization.
Michael Wood says that it is a crisis that precipitates axialization, and not the fulfillment of the potential of a civilization, as I have suggested. However, these two conceptions of the advent of axialization are not necessarily in conflict. A society can experience a crisis as a consequence of affluence. This is, in fact, one of the leitmotivs of our time. It is a familiar topic of comment that our industrialized civilization and consumer-driven capitalism has made us so wealthy, so comfortable, so affluent, and so jaded that we have lost touch with the authentic and genuine dimensions of human life.
It could be argued that a given civilizational paradigm, once having attained to maturity and therefore able to address the ordinary day-to-day needs of its people, past that point passes over a threshold and becomes involved in both supplying and creating novel wants that lie above and beyond the basic needs of mere survival. I have noted in previous posts that axialization (since I consider this not a one-time event in the history of the world, but something that occurs within any civilizational paradigm given time to mature) took place very late in the nomadic paradigm, and relatively late in the agricultural paradigm. I also speculated that axialization, if it occurs within the industrialized paradigm, will come sooner than it came to nomadism or agriculturalism.
The very fact of a social system coming to a maturity that allows it to address itself to previously non-existent wants creates a spiral of escalating desires that virtually guarantees a perception of relative deprivation. Even under social conditions in which everyone’s (basic) needs are being met and everyone is equally enjoying a gradually improving standard of living, the creation of novel wants and their novel modes of satisfaction produces a growing gap between perceptions of entitlement and actual circumstances of life.
Under such conditions, the full maturation of an economic system predicated upon the assumptions and presuppositions of a particular way of life rooted in a particular demographic paradigm (nomadic, agricultural, industrial) is more likely to produce a crisis of affluence than not. It is another matter to hold that axialization is a response to this crisis of affluence; one could just as well maintain that axialization and a crisis of affluence have the same source, and the crisis and axialization are parallel yet separate developments that follow from the maturity of social institutions.
It is one of the peculiarities of the industrialized paradigm that it has produced abundance and affluence before achieving mature institutions of industrialized society. At the same time, the flood of consumer goods has exacerbated the calculus of relative deprivation. Perhaps this difference from historical precedent will have consequences for the axialization of the industrial paradigm. I will have to think about this more before I can better understand the forces at play and their likely interaction.
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15 December 2010
In the schematic division of Integral History that I have been formulating in a series of posts, I have posited a tripartite historical periodization based primarily on demographic trends: the nomadic paradigm, in which the greater part of human beings are hunter-gatherers, the agricultural paradigm, in which the greater part of human beings are subsistence farmers, and the industrial paradigm, in which the greater part of human beings are workers in industry. This schema can be further extended with prehuman prehistory coming before the nomadic paradigm, and with extraterrestrialization as a possibility following the industrial paradigm. Further future developments are to be expected it the fullness of time, but I will not discuss this any more at present.
While I have posted many thoughts about the character of life under the agricultural paradigm and the industrial paradigm, I have posted very little about life during the nomadic paradigm, though this is where humanity got its start and was the basis of everything that followed. At the earliest edge of the nomadic paradigm, human history emerges seamlessly from natural history, and I have devoted some posts to this transitional period, such as The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History, inter alia. At the trailing end of the nomadic paradigm, hunter-gatherers make the transition either into settled agriculturalism or nomadic pastoralism. Both developments represent a rationalization of the food supply for human societies. In between these two integral transitions that bookend the nomadic paradigm, which constitutes a period of at least 120,000 years and at most a period of five million years (depending upon where you would like to begin in prehuman prehistory), societies of the nomadic paradigm experienced their own forms of development unique to this integral division.
In another post, The Next Axial Age, I introduced the term axialization to denote that process that civilizations experience when they reach a given level of maturity such that the institutions intrinsic to the civilization in question can produce the definitive mythological synthesis that expresses the central idea of the civilization in question. (Note also that in The Incommensurability of Civilizations I have suggested that distinct civilizations are based upon essentially different ideas.) In The Next Axial Age I suggested that the axialization of the agricultural paradigm did not occur until that paradigm was perhaps ten thousand years old (depending upon when you fix the date of the advent of the Neolithic agricultural revolution), which demonstrates both how long it took for the agricultural paradigm to mature, and how mature a division of integral history must become before it can produce an account of itself.
If we drop the implied requirement of discussing this question in terms of civilizations we can extrapolate this reasoning backward through time, and in doing so we can immediately see the axialization of the nomadic paradigm. The Axial Age of our hunter-gatherer ancestors prior to the advent of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution is to be found in the great age of cave art that flourished in Western Europe during the last Ice Age (more specifically, during the Quaternary glaciation). The earliest known cave art, in the Grotte de Chauvet, may be 32,000 years old. The dates are in some dispute, and some suggest later dates that would correspond to the Gravettian culture between 28,000 and 22,000 years ago. Prior to the Gravettian culture was the Aurignacian culture, which was sufficiently sophisticated to produce such artifacts as The Lion Man sculpture.
At this point in the argument we need not be more specific; both the Gravettian culture and the Aurignacian culture predated the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, and both represent semi-sedentary peoples on the cusp of agriculturalization and settled life. But they weren’t quite settled yet, and it is to be expected that their culture continued to be rooted in the traditions of hunter-gatherer nomadism. However, it is significant that these cultures are on the cusp of agriculturalization and settlement, because it demonstrates how late these development came under the nomadic paradigm. But the axialization of the nomadic paradigm did eventually occur, as we see in the great galleries of cave art in what is now France and Spain. This art is the mythological expression of the age.
It must be noted that, even in comparison to the relatively late axialization of the agricultural paradigm, the axialization of the nomadic paradigm was even later. This could be explained by distinguishing between relative and absolute degrees of the maturity of human institutions. If you like, we could formulate the same idea in terms of the “progress” of human institutions, but “progress” is a word that arouses suspicions. In any case, there is on the one hand the maturation of institutions specific to a particular integral paradigm, and on the other hand there is the maturation of human institutions independent of any paradigm. In the long history of our species, we can identify and separate both kinds of institutions: those almost entirely embedded within a division of integral history, and those that transcend the divisions of integral history. The former I will call the relative maturation of institutions, while the latter I will call the absolute maturation of institutions.
Because of the slow rate of the progress of absolute maturity of human institutions, it too a long time for the elements to emerge that would make the axialization of the nomadic period possible. It happened late, and it happened just before the whole nomadic way of life was superseded by the agricultural paradigm. The axialization of the agricultural paradigm took perhaps ten thousand years, which is a long time in human terms, but it happened much more rapidly than the axialization of the nomadic paradigm. This I assume to be the case because a great deal of the absolute maturation of human institutions had already taken place, and all that was needed was the relative maturation of institutions specific to the agricultural paradigm.
In The Next Axial Age I suggested that the axialization of the industrial paradigm is still a few hundred years away. I continue to be of this view, but even if the axialization of the industrial paradigm occurs five hundred years from now, it will have occurred only some seven hundred years after the advent of industrialization, which is far shorter — shorter by an order of magnitude — than the axialization of the agricultural paradigm. The axialization of the agricultural paradigm almost certainly took longer then seven thousand years; the axialization of the industrial paradigm will almost certainly take less then seven hundred years, hence an order of magnitude of difference. On this basis, and on the basis of the the idea of the absolute maturation of human institutions independent of integral transitions, I further suggest that if extraterrestrialization emerges as the next major division of integral history, that the axialization of extraterrestrialization will occur an order of magnitude sooner than that of the axialization of the industrial paradigm. Furthermore, and for the same reasons, if something else emerges as the next major division of integral history, if anything else is possible (and I believe this to be the case), that the axialization of this unknown paradigm of future human life will similarly occur an order of magnitude sooner than that which preceded it.
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6 December 2010
The first great age of Western philosophy — the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — occurred in the aftermath of war. I don’t think that this has been sufficiently appreciated. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was not the Athens that saw the foundations of the Parthenon laid, not the Athens of Pericles, not the Athens that transformed the Delian League into an Athenian empire, and not the confident (if not overweening) Athens that allowed itself to become involved in the Peloponnesian War. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was a defeated Athens, an Athens that had witnessed catastrophic escalation and radicalization, had been ravaged by a plague, and was administered by a puppet government installed by the Spartans.
The Peloponnesian War was the World War of classical antiquity. There were many wars in antiquity, and many wars before the Peloponnesian War, but there was never before anything like the Peloponnesian War, when almost all the city-states of Hellas were forced to take sides in a brutal conflict that lasted almost thirty years (and more than fifty years if we count the First Peloponnesian War and the Thirty Years’ Peace). If there had been such things as nation-states in classical antiquity, the Peloponnesian War would have been the great example of a civil war. As it was, the Greeks knew that the Peloponnesian War turned Greek against Greek and father against son.
I have had occasion in other posts to quote some of the famous passages in Thucydides that describe the radicalization and brutalization that occurred as a result of the war, and since only longer extracts can do justice to the topic, I won’t repeat them here. Those of us who lived in the twentieth century know enough about radicalization and brutalization that we have some understanding of what happens to societies when war becomes a way of life. If you’re interested, you can read about the Corcyrean Revolution in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and you can read Thucydides’ descriptions of Athens and Sparta in Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective. Better yet, get yourself a copy of The History of the Peloponnesian War and read the whole thing.
What interests me today is the way that this great conflict shaped Western intellectual history. Before the Peloponnesian War Athens in particular and the Greeks in general were already famous for their philosophers and philosophical schools, but we note that this philosophy was largely cosmological and metaphysical. Thales said that the world was made of water, and Democritus said that there were only atoms whirling around in a void. This sort of thought, if carried on today, would be science, but in classical antiquity there was as yet no distinction between science and philosophy. One might even say that the distinction between science and philosophy begins, or at least has its roots, in the intellectual shift that happened during the Peloponnesian War.
The Golden Age of Athens had its philosophers, but it was much more famous for its poets and playwrights, its art and architecture, and its famous statesmen like Pericles. This was a vigorous culture that produced great monuments of building and literature that still astonish us today. It is thrilling even today to read Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and to hear the hero contemptuously tell Hermes, “Tell your master Zeus that I hate and despise him.” Prometheus not only gave us fire, he also gave us the omertà. We Westerners recognize ourselves in this immediately; our rebelliousness is not the least of our Hellenism.
But Hellenism has a long history, and after the Peloponnesian War we do not see this confident, outward-directed energy, or the kind of overflowing vitality that made Greece (Hellas) the wonder of the world. What we do see is domestic comedy, like the New Comedy of Menander, and the emergence of moral philosophy. Socrates is the most important figure here. While Plato’s Socratic dialogues have their share of metaphysics and epistemology, the central concern is moral. The Republic is devoted to an inquiry into justice. The paradigmatic philosophical question for Socrates and Plato was, “Can virtue be taught?”
It is easy to understand, once we see this great age of philosophy in historical context, that the Greeks probably did a lot of soul-searching in the aftermath of the war. One form that this soul-searching took was explicit philosophical inquiry into virtue and justice, as we find in Socrates and Plato. The radicalization and homicidal fury that Thucydides described, while it is all-too-real in the moment, cannot last. Tempers run high in war, but eventually the war ends, tempers cool, even if bitterness remains, and thoughtful men reflect on their deeds and misdeeds. Perhaps they even say to themselves as Nietzsche said, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.”
In several posts I have written about what some historians call the Axial Age, in which the world’s great mythological traditions had their origins and formative years. The Axial Age of Greece was the heroic age, even before the Golden Age of Athens. The formation of axial age mythology was, in a sense, the intellectual background to the Peloponnesian War, and following the ravages of the world, a novel and different kind of intellectual activity emerges. As I have suggested that civilizations undergo a process that we may call axialization once they reach a certain stage of maturity, we can also posit a process of philosophicalization when this mature form of civilization reaps the wind after having sown the whirlwind in mythological enthusiasm.
We find ourselves today in the aftermath of war — the aftermath of the Cold War. The Cold War was a long conflict fought on many fronts, through several proxy wars, between ideological enemies. Despite being a long contest, of the sort from which we do not expect a clear winner to emerge, in fact it was settled decisively in favor of one of the agents to the conflict. All of these things the Cold War has in common with the Peloponnesian War: its length, the many proxy wars fought by allies putatively aligned with one side or the other, the clear ideological difference between traditionalist Sparta and democratic Athens, and the decisive outcome.
We think in the aftermath of the Cold War as the Greeks thought in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, in terms of the structural influences that our civilization brings to bear on us. If we were to produce another Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, it might all be worth it.
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17 November 2010
It is interesting to reflect on the peculiar character of civilization in Western Europe after the decisive shift to historical modernity, which we can locate in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, yet before the decisive (and transformative) emergence of industrialization. Roughly speaking, the period of European history from 1500 to 1800 represents a unique transitional stage in the history of civilization.
I touched upon this indirectly in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, which was an inquiry into possible alternative forms of industrialization that did not happen. But there is a sense in which these alternatives did happen, but continuing economic and technological development made it possible for industrialization to fully overtake modernism so that the two appeared to be two aspects of a single social development, whereas they are in fact isolatable and distinct historical processes.
Modernism without industrialism comprises the emergence of science in its modern form in the work of Galileo, and even the triumphs of Newton, the emergence of modern philosophy in the work of Descartes, the emergence of nation-states as the primary form of socio-political organization, and developments like the British agricultural revolution — the name of Jethro Tull may not be as familiar as that of Newton and Descartes, but his contributions to civilization ought to be reckoned on a similar level.
As noted above, the scientific revolution preceded the industrial revolution, and indeed made the latter possible. One could interpret the British agricultural revolution as a dress rehearsal for the industrial revolution, as it involved the systematic application of scientific methods to agriculture, resulting in increased agricultural production that in turn resulted in more and better quality food for many people in England. It was this abundance of food for all that made possible the ploughman’s lunch.
As another exercise in a counter-factual thought experiment (as in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution), we might similarly imagine the scientific revolution being brought to other areas of life (other than agriculture) but without the peculiar developments specific to the industrial revolution — mass production, the factory system, the mobility of labor, the dissolution of traditional social institutions and so forth. There is a sense in which this did happen in some places, but it happened in parallel with the industrial revolution, and thus was overshadowed by the more far-reaching effects of industrialization.
There is also a sense in which modernism without industrialism still emerges from time to time. In those regions of the world in which industrialism has been imported, where industrialization has not emerged from the indigenous economy, we find circumstances not unlike the transitional conditions of modernism without industrialism in Europe immediately prior to the industrial revolution. One will find a few sporadic traces of industrialism, but not anything like the wrenching social changes which, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:
“The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”
Remember this line the next time you hear someone complain about the inability of small businesses to compete with the cheap prices of Wal-Mart: the Industrial Revolution remains an on-going process, and now it is our own “Chinese walls” that are being battered down. The period of European civilization that constitutes modernism without industrialism is a world in which this observation of Marx and Engels is not true; we know that in our time it is true, and is becoming more true as industrialized civilization continues to develop.
If imported industrialism eventually takes root in an economy in which it is not indigenous, it can in time approximate the kind of industrial development we find in places where it has emerged from the indigenous economy. Thus the order of industrialization can vary in different circumstances, but it is likely that there are some orders of industrialization that are more efficient and more effective than others. That is to say, there is the possibility that there is an optimal form of industrialization. If we could go back and do it over again, we would probably do a better job at it, but the industrial revolution is a unique one-time event in the life of a society. Other societies even now are being transformed or will be transformed by industrialization, but they cannot (for obvious reasons) learn our lessons; they must learn these lessons for themselves.
Once again we are forced to recognize the lack of intelligent institutions of our society, institutions that would adapt and develop to meet changing circumstances. While we cannot do the Industrial Revolution over again, we can look forward to future wrenching social changes. Intelligent institutions would require a great deal of time to craft, but in all honesty we probably have a great deal of time before our next wrenching social transformation (unless communicants of the Technological Singularity cult are not as deluded as they appear to be), so that a truly civilized undertaking for a society today would be to formulate intelligent institutions for itself that will serve its interests in the long term future. I suspect this is too dull a proposal to count as a “vision” for the future, but it would be a worthwhile undertaking.
I have formulated a couple of fairly concrete proposals of events that may loom in our future, and which may transform societies around the world (and off the world). The “events” (such as they are) that I have in mind are extraterrestrialization and the next Axial Age. Extraterrestrialization, which would be the transition of the bulk of the human species off world, would constitute a social, political, industrial, and economic transformation of society. The next Axial Age, which would be a period in the spiritual development of humanity in which our mythological institutions would finally catch up with industrialization and provide us with a mythology equal and adequate to industrial society, would constitute a social, cultural, and spiritual transformation of society.
These events — extraterrestrialization and axialization (as it were) — are of a very different character, but both have the potential to have profound and far-reaching influence upon the way ordinary people live their day-to-day lives. They are also likely to lie hundreds of years in the future, and that gives us plenty of time to formulate intelligent institutions that would help us make the transition — with a minimum of violence and bloodshed — to the changed socio-political conditions that would be occasioned by these historical developments.
The Industrial Revolution would have truly done its work, and we could count ourselves as a mature civilization, if we could apply our scientific knowledge to a systematic reform of our institutions making them intelligent institutions that could prepare the way for a peaceful future, even if that future means that the historical viability of civilization can only be secured by the result of civilization being so transformed that it would be no longer recognizable as what we think of as civilization. A mature civilization would be able to look at its other and see not barbarism, but heretofore unrecognized civilization.
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24 September 2010
Lately I’ve run across several blog posts that discuss the place of narrative in human life and human experience. For example, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage both in Pick Your Metaphor With Care and Azar Gat on Narrative Building discussed the place of narrative in human cognition. Other blogs of intellectual substance have also recently visited this topic, though I can’t pull exact references out of my memory. The theme of narrative is also prominent in contemporary analytical philosophy of mind as well as in psychotherapy, in which latter discipline narrative therapy is becoming a hot topic.
One of the sources of this growing interest in the role of narrative in thought and experiences is Walter Fisher’s book, Human communication as a narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1987). I haven’t had a chance to study this work yet, but I know it by reputation; it has been very influential.
In this work, Fisher contrasts what he calls the “Rational World Paradigm” with the “Narrative Paradigm.” These two conceptions of human communication are laid out as follows:
• Rational World Paradigm:
• People are essentially rational.
• People make decisions based on arguments.
• The communicative situation determines the course of our argument.
• Rationality is determined by how much we know and how well we argue.
• The world is a set of logical puzzles that we can solve through rational analysis.
• Narrative Paradigm:
• People are essentially storytellers.
• People make decisions based on good reasons.
• History, biography, culture, and character determine what we consider good reasons.
• Narrative rationality is determined by the coherence and fidelity of our stories.
• The world is a set of stories from which we choose, and constantly re-create, our lives.
There is a lot that could be said regarding these two conceptions of communication. I will limit myself to only a few comments. What Fisher calls the Rational World Paradigm strikes me as a straw man erected for the purpose of being knocked down. Even the most steadfast rationalists that I know, even if they believe that human beings ought to abide by something like a rational world paradigm, know that human beings do not in fact act (or think) according to such a paradigm. The only other comment I will make, and this will lead me to the main item of interest of today’s post, is that, once we begin to think of human communication in terms of paradigms such as these two laid out by Fisher, it is not too difficult to think of other paradigms by which human beings do in fact communicate, or which have been entertained as ideals of communication even if not acted upon in practical matters of fact.
In this spirit then, I would like to introduce what I call the Totemic Paradigm. I am calling it this because I have been reading Claude Lévi-Strauss of late. However, Lévi-Strauss bears no responsibility for the use to which I have put his ideas in the following (that is to say, if you can even recognize these ideas in what follows). Without further ado, then, the Totemic Paradigm:
• Totemic Paradigm:
• People are essentially mythological bricoleurs.
• People make decisions based on their emotional response to symbols.
• The existential situation of an individual and a community determines the effective use of a symbol in mythology.
• Rationality is irrelevant; it is the potency and efficacy of our symbols that counts.
• The world is a set of myths that emerge from the particular life of a particular people in a particular landscape.
Any regular readers of this forum will notice the presence of some themes to which I return repeatedly, such as my continually expressed interest in the way that an intellectual milieu grows organically out of the life of a people, and the life of a people grows organically out of the landscape in which they must make (or have chosen to make) a life for themselves.
I hope that the careful reader will also note that I have made no attempt to incorporate Fisher’s concern with the fluidity of self and our freedom in creating and re-creating ourselves. This is a distinctly modern conception, and it is almost totality absent in traditional societies. What I hope to capture in this Totemic Paradigm is the Weltanschauung of traditional societies, fully in the grip of what Nietzsche called the “morality of mores.” (In German: “die Sittlichkeit der Sitte”, also translated as the “morality of custom.” If you’re nor familiar with this conception, I encourage you to read Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.)
The careful reader will also discern here the influence of Joseph Campbell, whom I have many times referenced in this forum. I’ve been listening to his lectures again. I never tire of them. It was one of Campbell’s concerns to point out (many times) that despite the positivism and empiricism of our age, that there are modern myths, and often we do do not even know what myth we are living by. Campbell also emphasized that if traditional myths (most of which grew out of axial societies, again, fully in the grip of the morality of mores) no longer speak to us, no longer affect us directly, that new mythologies must and will arise that do speak to us in an immediate and visceral way. If you respond to a myth as a myth, it retains its vitality; if the myth must be “explained” to you, and even then it leaves you cold, it doesn’t really matter how much it is honored in the breach; it has, in fact, become a dead letter, and we can only pretend that it continues to mean something to us.
If, as I have stated in the last item under the Totemic Paradigm, “The world is a set of myths that emerge from the particular life a particular people in a particular landscape,” then we obviously must ask what kind of myths and symbols have emerged and are emerging from the landscape of industrialized society, which is the world in which we live today. I have attempted some initial formulations of this problem in several posts, including Ritual and Myth in Modernity, Class Consciousness and Mythology, and Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization. These efforts, however, are only the merest sketch of a large topic, and much remains to be done. I will return to this again, fate willing.
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16 August 2010
Distinguishing between appearance and reality is the classic project of Western metaphysics. It is also the basis of all schemes of demarcation. The best known demarcation scheme of (relatively) contemporary thought is Karl Popper’s demarcation criterion for science: a scientific theory can be falsified; a non-scientific theory that may appear scientific is shown to be non-scientific by the lack of any clear method of falsification. In other words, if there is no possible way to show that a theory can be false, that theory is not scientific.
Popper’s demarcation criterion is illuminating, but a fine-grained account brings out a lot of problematic cases. Most demarcation schemas are like this — they enjoy a prima facie plausibility, and when we first hear them it is like an “Aha!” moment, but, as they say, the devil is in the details, and when we descend from the momentarily illuminating intuition to the messy details of the world, the illumination begins to flicker and become uncertain, more like a candle flame in the wind than the blinding insight it seemed to be at first.
Historical periodization is a demarcation of time. Or, in other terms, historical periodization is a temporal formulation of a demarcation schema. The simplest temporal demarcation is what we may call a binary demarcation: we choose a point in the continuum of time and divide all of history into before this point and after this point. The traditional demarcation between prehistory and history in the strict sense (based on written records) is like this: the event in question is the invention of systems of writing (or something conceptually similar to writing that preserves human records through some material embodiment), so that all history may be divided between before writing and after writing.
Binary historical periodizations are useful, but their usefulness is limited. Most historical periodizations involve a sequence of periods, one following another in the two dimensional continuum of time. The traditional tripartite distinction in Western history between classical antiquity, the middle ages, and modernity is like this. My division of integral history into nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism is also like this.
As variables are added to the calculus of demarcation — that is to say, if we go beyond the two dimensional continuum of time and recognize other factors of dimensions of historical periodization — temporal demarcation increases by orders of magnitude and would ultimately culminate in a totalistic schema of classification. This, too, is a classic project of Western metaphysics. The contemporary informal idiom of philosophy formulates this is terms of “the furniture of the universe” or even “carving nature at the joints” (if you’re an analytical philosopher), or it invokes a “Latourian litany” of diverse constituents that variously make up the world (if you’re an object oriented ontologist).
All of this may sound a bit abstract and abstruse, but it has very practical consequences for our thinking, and how we think has very practical consequences for how we act. In short, it matters how we carve up history, for we are historical beings, and we act historically. In fact, we have so thoroughly become historical beings that “being in the moment” has become a challenge and a difficulty for us, and it is more and more an experience that is confined to mystics who are able, through strenuous application of cognitive exercises, attain to that state of perfect presentness that was once the universal condition of humanity before the emergence of historical consciousness.
A few days ago when I wrote about The Next Axial Age, I wrote the following:
The Axial Age represents the flourishing intellectual maturity of the institutions of agricultural civilization, that is to say, this is the first time in the history of agricultural civilization that its institutions passed a critical threshold beyond which such non-naturalistic developments in civilization became possible, and once they became possible they were rapidly realized in many diverse cultures and civilizations.
Immediately upon finishing this exposition of The Next Axial Age I realized that one could theorize that Jaspers’ Axial Age is the flourishing of agricultural civilization or that it is the flourishing of settled civilization. The latter, settled civilization, is still with us; the former, agricultural civilization, has all but disappeared from the earth.
If Jaspers’ Axial Age is the flourishing of settled civilization, then it is still relevant to us today, and it is incumbent upon us to fulfill the promise of the Axial Age. If, on the other hand, Jaspers’ Axial Age is the flourishing of agricultural civilization, then it has already been eclipsed by later historical events and the mythological imperative that falls to us is not to fulfill the promise of the Axial Age but to transcend it and to replace it with a new promise — the axialization of industrialized civilization. These two distinct courses of action would result in two very different civilizations of the future, and that is at least one reason it matters how we divide history with our temporal demarcations.
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11 August 2010
It is rare for a philosopher to have much influence over the popular mind, although it does happen occasionally. I have previously mentioned how Kuhn’s conception of a paradigm shift has been widely adopted (Philosophy of Science in the FT). Another rare borrowing is the idea of an “Axial Age.” This goes back to Karl Jaspers book, The Origin and Goal of History, although the same idea and even the same term was introduced about the same time by Louis Mumford.
Jaspers is a genuine philosopher (I mentioned him a few days ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65) and thus commands our respect. (And, yes, if you’re wondering, there are fake philosophers who command the approbation of the public but who have few if any genuine ideas of their own.) Since the idea of an Axial Age comes out of Jaspers, and is not merely a manifestation of popular intellectuals, it is worth considering in some detail.
Jasper’s idea of an Axial Age is that of an axis of world history, and not only of western history. This he finds in a period that he characterizes as, “a spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C.” And Jaspers goes on to say that, “It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, we we know him today, came into being.” Jaspers cites the presence of Confucius, Lao-tse, the Buddha, the writing of the Upanishads, Zarathustra, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Greek philosophers as empirical evidence of such an Axial Age.
I have written many posts dealing with historical periodization, and my own attempt to frame a naturalistic historical periodization that I call integral history both builds upon and transcends the traditional periodizations of western history. In this, I also aspire to defining axes of world history, although I do not see a single axis as does Jaspers, but several (which, of course, is why I referred to them as “axes”). So as I see Jasper’s Axial Age it falls entirely within the agricultural period of human civilization. In this sense, like my post mentioning the English Civil War and its ideological ramifications (The Agricultural Paradigm), we see that an enormously important age of human history, with all its changes and transformations, nevertheless lies entirely within, and is therefore at least in part constituted by, the institutions of agricultural civilization.
Since I have called attention to this on several occasions — that is to say, I have called attention to periods of great intellectual ferment that do not seem to have been triggered by demographic or economic transformations that define how the bulk of human beings live in a given age (and which I therefore take as an adequate basis for a naturalistic conception of history) — I might as well give it a name, so I can refer to it again in the future. Therefore I will call such periods or transitions between periods intra-civilizational axes. I might also call them intra-integral axes, intra-integral shifts, or even intra-integral civilizational axes (or shifts), but I fear I may lose what few readers I have if I stretch it that far. So we will leave it at that for the time being.
I do not deny that there was an Axial Age, and that it was crucial to the intellectual and spiritual development of human beings, but it isn’t a naturalistic phenomenon, and therefore doesn’t constitute what I have been calling an integral shift. And I think that Jaspers (as well as many of his defenders) would agree with me that the Axial Age was a non-naturalistic historical phenomenon and that indeed its non-naturalism is the very point. So in this respect I can make common cause with those who conceive history very differently from the way in which I do.
Bear with me for a digression. I have a habit of what may be called “binge scholarship,” by which I mean that I tend to completely immerse myself in a particular intellectual milieu for a period of time until I become sated and “come up for air,” as it were. I mentioned just such a binge of listening to Joseph Campbell lectures (in Class Consciousness and Mythology), and this resulted in several posts. I have recently returned to Joseph Campbell and am listening again to what has become my favorite set of lectures, Man and Myth. Of the Campbell lectures I have heard, these are the most dense with ideas and therefore provide the greatest degree of intellectual stimulation.
As I have re-listened to Campbell’s Man and Myth lectures over the past few days I am reminded of the emphasis that Campbell placed on the fact that the western tradition placed an emphasis upon the historicity of mythological events, and subsequent developments in science have called this historicity into question, which has also called the mythology into question. Campbell has also on many occasions discussed the need for myths that speak to the contemporary mind. I don’t think that he put it this way, but what he is saying is that we need to respond to a myth viscerally or it isn’t really a myth; a myth has lost its power as a myth if it no longer affects us immediately.
Campbell is such a great speaker that when he is giving an exposition of an ancient myth it is easy to believe that he is himself a true believer, and the implicit message some people take away from his books and lectures is a reactionary one: that we need to go back to the great myths, which are all, I will point out, myths of the Axial Age. In this, he is like Nietzsche, who often made such a convincing case for his adversaries that many took Nietzsche to be advocating precisely the doctrines he was criticizing. Walter Kaufmann has pointed this out in several of his books.
If you listen to Campbell closely, however, and listen to a lot of what he had to say (not being content with a few quotes and fragments that happen to agree with what you want to hear) it is obvious that he is a true believer in no one mythology, but in the role of mythology in human life generally speaking. I think this is what tripped up Walter Kaufmann in his estimation of Campbell, as well as a great many more lesser minds.
Campbell’s repeated statements to the effect of the need for modern myths for a modern age belies any reactionary interpretation of his works, and I am myself personally very sympathetic to this claim that Campbell makes. There are many incipient myths of contemporary industrialized civilization, but they remain amorphic, not fully formed, and are not yet prepared to take the full weight of an existential crisis, to be that which sustains ordinary men and women in their hour of need, except for a very few (non-representative) individuals.
Thinking about this aspect of Campbell’s thought at the same time as I was thinking about Jaspers’ Axial Age, I began framing these two ideas within the context of my own recent work. As I noted above, I see the Axial Age as an intra-civilizational axis that is entirely contained within the agricultural paradigm. I think that the case could be made, even though the Axial Age appears relatively late in the agricultural paradigm, that agricultural civilization had to develop to a given degree of sophistication, stability, and institutional complexity before such an intellectual and spiritual turning point could develop in this context. And this is what I think happened.
The Axial Age represents the flourishing intellectual maturity of the institutions of agricultural civilization, that is to say, this is the first time in the history of agricultural civilization that its institutions passed a critical threshold beyond which such non-naturalistic developments in civilization became possible, and once they became possible they were rapidly realized in many diverse cultures and civilizations. In this sense, the religious traditions of the Axial Age are fully a product and a consequence of agricultural civilization, and are specific to it. This accounts for the progressive decline (except when fanned by reactionary fervor) of these traditions in industrialized civilization. We can argue as much as we like about the future of mythology and religion (or even the future of an illusion, as Freud would have it), but the fact of the matter, as Campbell has repeatedly pointed out, is that many if not most of the mythologies of the Axial Age no longer speak to people on a visceral level. Mass man continues to render his respect to these traditions, but they do not move him as they did in the past — specifically, in the pre-industrial past.
Everything takes time, and it will take time for an authentic and genuine mythology of the industrial age to emerge. I have several times argued that industrialized civilization has sought a modus vivendi in two forms of social consensus that have failed, and that the social discontent, anomie, and drift that we see today is the consequence of industrialized civilization groping toward a third social consensus that it has not yet found (Social Consensus in Industrialized Society). Even if industrialized civilization does settle upon a third social consensus, there is no guarantee that this will be a lasting social consensus, if indeed there can be any lasting social consensus in industrialized civilization. However, I predict that if and when such a modus vivendi emerges within industrialized civilization, and the institutions of industrialized civilization can then come to maturity within a stable social context, that it will be then, and only then, that the next axial age can occur. And the next axial age will be an intellectual flourishing of industrialized civilization that will create mature, authentic, and genuine spiritual traditions specific to industrialized civilization.
All of this, as I said, takes time. Of course, things today happen very quickly. T. Greer’s vision of a growth revolution makes this clear. In an age of exponential growth things happen very quickly indeed, and we have seen things happen very quickly in our own lifetimes. But some historical processes still take time. It required perhaps 8,000 or more years for the slow development of agricultural civilization to experience its intellectual efflorescence in the Axial Age identified by Jaspers. I do not think that it will take civilization of the industrial age even a thousand years to develop to a similar degree of institutional maturity, but I do think that it will take several hundred years, and that we are not quite there yet. The next axial age is coming, but we cannot deliver ourselves of the prophecy, and say as Christ said, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” (Mark 9:1 KJV) While this is the message of the singulartarians, my message is that many generations will pass before the next axial age comes with power.
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