What do historians mean by the term “axial age”?

Expert Answers
teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher who died in 1969, used the term "Axial Age" to describe a period that lasted from about the eighth to the third century BCE. He argued that during this time a variety of different cultures—Indian, Persian, Greek, and Chinese—all developed similar new ways of thinking. His first use of the term appeared in his 1949 book The Origin and Goal of History. In it, he grouped together thinkers ranging from Plato in Greece to Buddha in India to Isaiah in Israel. 

Karen Armstrong has breathed new life into the term with her more recent writings on the Axial Age. In her book The Great Transformation, she depicts the Axial Age unfolding in phases. There is an initial phase she calls "Ritual," that runs from about 900 to 800 BCE, followed by "Kenosis" (800-700 BCE), and "Suffering" from about 600-530 BCE. Other phases include "Empathy," a period from about 530-450 BCE and  "Empire," which runs from 300-220 BCE. The term Axial Age is controversial: some argue that 700 years is too long to constitute a single historical age. 

Armstrong also argues that the period from the Enlightenment onward constitutes a "Second Axial Age" that includes such figures as Newton and Einstein. 

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to historians, the term “axial age” was coined by a German philosopher called Karl Jaspers. Jaspers referred to the period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE as the axial age because a majority of the foundations that underlie present-day civilization were established during that period. Of significance is the fact that these developments occurred independently in four parts of the world, namely Greece, India, China, and the Middle East. Renowned philosophers and religious leaders from across the world conceptualized complimentary sets of knowledge. Such include Confucius from China, Buddha from India, Zarathustra from Iran, and Homer from Greece, among numerous others.

Prior to the axial age, human beings explained phenomena through myths and stories. However, after the human thought process underwent a transformation, man sought to establish the truth and asked himself deeper questions about his origin and existence. This led to the emergence of new wisdom across the aforementioned regions which historians now refer to as the axial age.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term "axial age" was coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers.  It is used to refer to the time period that lasted from 800 BC to 200 BC.  The axial age is said to be a time when important ideas sprang up (independently) in various places in the world.  These places included India, the West, and China.

The term "axial age" is most important to the history of religion and of philosophy.  During this time, the Buddhist religion arose, as did Zoroastrianism.  Confucius lived during this time in China and Socrates lived in Greece.  So this was a time when many important religious figures all lived.

krishna-agrawala | Student

Historians use the term axial age to a period in history from about 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. which has been characterized by development of progressive philosophical and religious thoughts in different parts of the world independently. While not all historians accept the concept of Axial age, those who do, hold that leading thinkers of the axial age had an axial or pivotal role in shaping philosophy and thinking around the world, and the humanity today also subsists on the philosophical and religious foundations laid in that period. The concept of axial age was first suggested by the German philosopher Karl Jasper.

jaffna | Student

Axial age which is is also known as axis age originated from the German word "Achsenzeit" and it was first formulated by Karl Jaspers, considered as the "paradigmatic personality". Jaspers found this term to distinguish other ages from the middle ages between 800 BC to 200 BC where laid the foundation of religious and philosophical culture. Most of the modern scholars and historians predict the other historical figures depending on this axial age

mkcapen1 | Student

The axial age is a time in mankind’s history when man began to conceive and develop theologies of religion and philosophy.  It is defined as a period from 800 B.C. to 200 B.C.  During this period mankind developed intellectually.  While initial concepts may have been vague, this was an era of enlightenment. 

Karl Jaspers, developed the theory and the term for the period.  The primary areas affected by the changes were India, China, Greece, and the Middle East. Mankind had finally come into an identity of self and had begun to determine how self fit in to the world he existed in.


Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question