Axial Age

Karl Jaspers’ Axial Age compressed for additional impact:

Laozi (Lao Tse, 6th-4th century BC)
Kongzi (Confucius, 551–479 BC)
Li Kui (455-395 BC)
Mozi (470–c.391 BC)
Yang Zhu (440–360 BC)
Mahavira (599–527 BC)
Gautama Buddha (c.563-483 BC)
Upanishads (from 6th century BC)
Thales (of Miletus, c.624–546 BC)
Anaximenes (of Miletus, 585-528 BC)
Pythagoras (of Samos, c.570–495 BC)
Heraclitus (of Ephesus c.535–475 BC)
Aeschylus (c.525-455 BC)
Anaxagoras (c.510–428 BC)
Parmenides (of Elea, early 5th century BC)
Socrates (c.469–399 BC)
Thucydides (c.460–395 BC)
Democritus (c.460–370 BC)

I realize that everyone knows this … but what the …?

September 23, 2013admin 31 Comments »
FILED UNDER :Cosmos

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31 Responses to this entry

  • Thales Says:

    Breakdown of the bicameral mind complete. The age of Consciousness had begun. New frontier, new challenges.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Jaynes’ time-slot seems even soggier than Jaspers’ — and (confession of ignorance) is there an account of why this (or THE) event should happen simultaneously, across the whole Eurasian landmass?

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    Thales Reply:

    The breakdown was memetic and largely due to cross-cultural influences. So it stands to reason this would happen over the span of a few generations all across the continent.

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    admin Reply:

    The hard simultaneity of it seems to stress that explanation. (In which direction are you seeing the memetic flow running?)

    Thales Reply:

    I’m putting Assyria in the epicenter of the supernova.

    (That works for the Near East and all points west. I’ll admit I haven’t punched down deep enough into the Far East to speak with conviction there (a more scholarly analysis would also include study of trade routes). Also, the language is inscrutable; translators cannot help but write themselves into translations ( a serious problem even with ancient Indo-European writing.))

    bob sykes Reply:

    Jaspers specifically denied cross-cultural influences claiming there was no evidence for them.

    Has evidence since been found?

    spandrell Reply:

    Yup I’m obsessed with this theory too.

    The chinese character for idea is sound+heart.

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 23rd, 2013 at 3:38 pm Reply | Quote
  • Puzzle Pirate (@PuzzlePirate) Says:

    couple thoughts:

    1.) Although we aren’t aware of any contact between them, because of the Fog of History (like the Fog of War), we don’t know for certain this wasn’t the case.

    2.) Similar enough underlying genotypes produce similar outcomes / parallel lines of thought and action.

    3.) This was a message from Outside.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    On number three, a Chinese colleague responded to the quandary tonight: “Obviously it’s something to do with aliens.”

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    Thales Reply:

    Sometimes an explanation is just too simple

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    Alrenous Reply:

    I’m betting on 1). Notice that Thales is the oldest. I’m firmly convinced he’s responsible for all the Grecians. The question is whether BC communication tech can transmit a message from Miletus to lower Asia within fifty years or so.

    The earliest Upanishads are outliers, though. Unless they’re not really philosophical, like the rest, I can’t account for them. Still, that’s much less of a crazy coincidence.

    Regarding 2), there’s also parallel technological development. If say 900-800 BC something increased communication or population density, then it could have travelled around the world, matured, and had time to increase the effective density of innovation-class minds. As the royal society shows us, two such minds is nice but two minds that are talking to each other is great.

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 23rd, 2013 at 4:32 pm Reply | Quote
  • Lesser Bull Says:

    I don’t embrace the hypothesis, but some kind of New-Agey series of ages with different spiritual underpinnings would resolve a number of historical puzzles. Principally this one and the matter of fact way in which ancient chronicles report the activity and appearance of gods.

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 23rd, 2013 at 6:16 pm Reply | Quote
  • fake_username Says:

    Eschewing the philosophical content of these thinkers momentarily, it seems obvious to me that a structural explanation is most apt. During this time and in all these places there was a recent emergence or intensification of what is now considered ancient warfare (the ‘Warring States’ period) among larger political entities such as pre-states and city-states (Thucydides, anyone?). Reading any of these thinkers individually, it becomes clear that much of the material is either explicitly or implicitly a response to the warfare, especially in the case of China. That there are similarities among them might only suggest that humans are generally biologically predisposed towards a set of particular concepts and ideas under such circumstances because they translate into behavior or policy that mitigates the impacts of war at least marginally.

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    David Reply:

    Of interest from phys.org: Math explains history: Simulation accurately captures the evolution of ancient complex societies. That’s some Hari Seldon shit there. If (if) it works for the past , why not the future, predictively?

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    fake_username Reply:

    That’s a fascinating article! You pose an interesting question, but I’m unsure how decisively one may answer. If warfare is responsible for the emergence of social complexity — Francis Fukuyama in his new book talks about this, and Victoria Hui’s recent book deals with this development in ancient China — it was still precipitated, as another here said, by the onset of agriculture. The new technological paradigm was necessary for this unparalleled transition, and I would posit that the recent information and computer technology revolution may usher in a new age where warfare no longer is necessary to propel further institutional differentiation and social complexity. We may have reached a point where technology can advance sans external selection forces. Of course, you could also be right, but given the existence of nuclear weapons such conflict might yield opposite result and we blow ourselves to hell!

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    C. Y. Chen Reply:

    This makes the most sense to me, along with the development of coinage. The “Hundred Schools of Thought” in China rose as a result of this.

    One of these was Agriculturalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculturalism), which seems to be a pretty early manifestation of leftist thought.

    I’m not well-read enough in this to know whether or not similar philosophies arose in the other contemporaneous civilisations, though. If they did, maybe the saner philosophies just won out overall, albeit with certain syncretic elements (as in the case of Agriculturalism with other schools of thought). I doubt that any society espousing stuff like Agriculturalism is going to survive too long, after all.

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    fake_username Reply:

    I like that you mention coinage. Traditional functionalist approaches attempt to explain the emergence of complexity, both institutions and thought, as a result of things such as population density and processes from within a given population. I’ve always had a problem with the the underlying logic and the notion that through unspecified feedback mechanisms complexity could emerge from internal processes. However, it seems very plausible to me that external mechanisms among populations could be the explanation. One is warfare between groups, carried over from when humans were roving bands, that necessitates innovation. Another external factor is also economic activity between groups, based on principles of reciprocal altruism, that require innovations such as communications technology that ease the allocation of goods that people biologically crave.

    This could carry over to thought. Of the hundred schools of thought, agriculturalism is one that died out rather quickly and undoubtedly because of its inability to translate into behavior that maximizes chances of survival or inclusive fitness. During this time so ideas were generated to alleviate the chaos, and I totally agree with you certain ones had less applicability and therefore died out. There was sort of dialectic at work, it seems, but obviously Marx was mistaken on the side that prove superior. Interesting thoughts.

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 23rd, 2013 at 9:29 pm Reply | Quote
  • Doug Says:

    Simple explanation: The technology of 500 BC reached a point that allowed for significantly greater human activity devoted to philosophy and abstract thought. Agricultural productivity reached the point where not every human being had to devote their lives to caloric sustenance. Military technology reached the point where reasonably secure, centralized states could protect delicate philosophers from marauding barbarians. Better writing systems allowed for the preservation and distribution of abstract ideas. Ergo an increase in the supply of thinkers to enough density to sustain discussion and debate, combined with a lot of low-hanging intellectual fruit.

    The synchronization across the different civilizations is easily explainable by technology diffusion. No major dense civilized zone of Eurasia ever lagged behind by more than a few centuries at most. Thus it would be reasonable to assume that when China develops the technology stack to support Lao Tze, that Greece should get Socrates within a century or two. Mysticism not required.

    [Reply]

    nydwracu Reply:

    Didn’t agriculture allow this much earlier? Eridu had already risen and fallen by 2000 BC. They had people to write down their epics and king-lists, but didn’t produce a known Thales.

    Crop thing, maybe? Nutritional advances allowing for dramatic IQ rise?

    [Reply]

    Scharlach Reply:

    I think you need to look at the bios of some of these thinkers, mate.

    [Reply]

    Doug Reply:

    @nydwaracu,

    Agriculture was much more advanced circa 500 BC then 2000 BC. Since pre-industrial man was basically stuck in a Malthusian trap, historical populations are highly correlated with agricultural productivity (see: Clark, Farewell to Alms). World population is about 30 million in 2000 BC then rises to 400 million by 0 AD (with the fastest rise occurring in the last half millennium, exactly when we see the intellectual boom). Granted some of this rise is due to the spread of agriculture, but population increased at a furious clip in already farming Mesopotamia, Mediterranean, China, etc. For example even in early farming Egypt we see the population double from 2000 BC to 500 BC.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3rd_millennium_BC
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_millennium_BC
    http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/people/index.html

    @Scharlach,

    I would contend that looking at the bios of individuals is a “noisy” way to understand intellectual history. Most thinkers are not inherently “special.” That is to say you often see ideas arising almost simultaneously among disparate thinkers once the underlying foundations are in place. Even with towering figure, like Albert Einstein, progress would have slowed a few years at most.

    That being said are you referring to anyone in particular. Almost all of the thinkers in the above list came out of the core regions of highly developed civilizations with (for the time) advanced agricultural technology, political structures and writing systems.

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 23rd, 2013 at 11:25 pm Reply | Quote
  • WTT Says:

    One could also add Ajita of the Cārvāka to that list, at about 600 BC. I’m not sure if they were the first organized, explicitly atheist and anti-metaphysical school of thought (likely not, I assume,) but as far as I can tell, they are the earliest-recorded we have now. In any case, currents of naturalism, materialism, physicalism, and realism that were evident throughout the Indo-European and Asian world seem most clearly embodied in their doctrines.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Thanks, I was hoping for some further thickening out (and knew the Indus civilization sample was especially weak). There’s much more to be added to the Chinese list. too.

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 23rd, 2013 at 11:38 pm Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    Beyond the simultaneity problem, there’s the vexing strangeness of the comparatively tiny population of the mid-1st millennium BC producing upwards of 50% of all the original thought in human history within 300 years.

    [Reply]

    Puzzle Pirate (@PuzzlePirate) Reply:

    Which makes me think there was some kind of selective pressure for high I.Q.. Good question would be: what?

    [Reply]

    spandrell Reply:

    Hard to not be original when you’re the first.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    But that doesn’t help with the question why the first of (a massive chunk of ) everything happens at the same time.

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    Orlandu84 Reply:

    Two thoughts come to my mind upon reading your rejoinder. First, we assume that the “axial age” was the first. The ancients had libraries that we do not have due to their being lost. Now, I am not attempting to suggest aliens or divine intervention. I am suggesting that there may have been texts that the axial age rediscovered and applied in their own time. This explanation, however, posits a thing that we have no evidence for or against so that it is not very satisfactory.

    Second, consider the axial age in terms of engineering in the stead of intellectual. When different engineers are faced with the same engineering problems, they tend to create the same solutions. Also, most solutions as options are realized quite quickly. Accordingly, it is not shocking to me that in a few centuries a group of urban civilizations develop the basics of how to survive as urban civilizations. What does surprise me is that civilization survived the last collapse with as much continuity as it has. In other words that we remember Thales et al at all is the truly striking aspect to me.

    fake_username Reply:

    All of these regions were confronted with the disorganization and chaos inherent in the balkanized world of competing political entities they inhabited, which was an arrangement that had hitherto been nonexistent because groups hadn’t yet discovered agriculture, civilizations were relatively uncontested, or the population of individual groups wasn’t yet dense enough to necessitate fighting between proximate groups. The simultaneity of such circumstances suggests that the evolution of nascent, competing states is an inevitable stage of political development. The simultaneity of thought denotes the imperative to develop philosophies designed to assist in the formation of political stability. That these various regions birthed similar patterns of thoughts under similar circumstances reveals simply that humans may have a set of hardwired set of responses to particular predicaments in a way similar that there’s a universe grammar coded in the brain. It makes sense because there are only so many ideas that could logically result in stability, and only a subset among those that would actually prove successful in that aim. China consolidated in the Qin empire as a result, and it’s argued convincingly that the same would have happened in Europe were it not for an inhibiting geography. To take this to its logical conclusion, this theory would suggest that further consolidation is an inevitability and that eventually humanity will coalesce into what Nick Bostrom calls a “singleton”.

    That’s my hypothesis, anyway.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    For anyone invested in the catalytic importance of competition, the Singleton outcome is the ultimate calamity (but that’s another topic).

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 24th, 2013 at 12:30 am Reply | Quote
  • fnord of the lies Says:

    Beckwith suggests the Axial Age was an echo of the ideas of preceding Central Eurasian Indo-European groups, who at least had contact with, and in some cases assimilated/were assimilated by, cultures at both ends of the continent.

    I haven’t read Beckwith’s book, but Razib’s review is interesting (http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2009/09/whos-barbarian-now-empires-of-silk-road.php)

    [Reply]

    Posted on September 27th, 2013 at 8:12 am Reply | Quote

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