The Origin and Goal of History

By Karl Jaspers, 1949

This is the book that popularized the phrase “Axial Age” to describe the period of cross-civilizational cultural creativity from 800-200BC–the age of Confucius, Buddha, the Upanishads, Zarathustra, the Hebrew prophets, Homer, and the Greek philosophers.  Jaspers regards the Axial Age as the most important time of human history so far, and that since then, mankind has mostly just been living off our Axial capital.  This may be about to change, however, as mankind is entering a new era of creativity which promises to give us—wait for it—socialism and world government.

Honestly, I’m baffled that Karl Jaspers is widely regarded as an intelligent person.  This book shows all of the marks of an unserious mind.  Jaspers simply regurgitates all of the catch-phrases and prejudices of postwar European liberalism.   He makes dubious statements without argument, and he seems oblivious to the tensions between his statements.  He claims his unity of history is “empirical”, when he means simply that it’s not tied to Christian revelation.  (As Hume pointed out, even the unity of a human mind is not empirical.)  He claims to admire the Axial Age whose main thrust was towards relating man to the totality of being through philosophy and religion, while at the same time rejecting this quest by claiming that philosophy and religion are more or less nonsense because only science gives real knowledge.  Of course, he doesn’t have the clarity of mind to say it this simply.  No, Jaspers encourages us to have faith, just not in anything in particular—that would be dogmatic.  Religious truths are only “true for us”, never objectively true.  To think your beliefs are “objectively” or “absolutely” true (i.e. to actually believe them) is to be a fanatic and to betray the true spirit of religion.

If Jaspers could think outside his liberal clichés for an instant, he might realize that he has confused different things.  Since the confusions are so common, I’ll elaborate.  All truth claims are objective truth claims—even truth claims about one’s beliefs or feelings.  The claim “absolute truth claims are bad” is self-contradictory, because it is itself an absolute truth claim.  If a statement P is meaningful, then the law of contradiction applies:  if P is true, not-P is false, and vice versa.  You can’t think P is true without thinking that those who believe not-P are in error.  If this is intolerant, than thinking itself is intolerant.  Most of the confusion hinges on the word “absolute”.  It’s not clear how “P is true” and “P is absolutely true” differ, so that the latter should be particularly objectionable.  I might understand if it meant “exceptionless general statements are bad” (although even this is self-refuting), but the charge of dogmatism is usually leveled against people for holding beliefs in particulars like “Jesus rose from the dead” and “there is a God”.  Jaspers’ point seems to hinge on the partiality and cultural embedding of each revelation, but these are not obstacles to objective truth.  A statement may be true—absolutely and objectively—without being the complete and whole truth. (e.g. I may know the mass of a rock but not its composition.  I don’t know the whole truth about the rock, but what I know is absolutely, objectively true.)  A statement may be, and of course always is, expressed using a particular language and cultural imagery.  But although not everyone will be equipped to understand the statement, it may still be objectively true—true “for everyone”.  Any functional language has this property, that it references pre-linguistic realities.  All of this is, or should be, obvious.  Karl Jaspers has obviously lost his faith.  He thinks Jesus’ body was eaten by worms and maggots.  Fine.  But he shouldn’t assault the rules of logic in order to hide his apostasy from himself.

4 Responses

  1. […] Karl Jaspers famously pointed to the age of the Upanishads, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, and the Hebrew prophets as the “Axial Age” when all the world’s great civilizations made a leap in spirituality.  This Axial Age gave men for the first time a true sense of God’s transcendence from the world.  It left some work undone, however, in that it didn’t leave an intellectual framework for understanding how God could be both immanent in the world and yet transcend it.  This was left for what I think of as the second or minor Axial Age, when, under pressure from gnostics and pantheists, the great world civilizations were forced to articulate their understanding of how God relates to the world.  Zhu Xi was not only the Chinese equivalent of Thomas Aquinas; he lived at almost the same time.  Go back one more century, and we are in the lifetime of Ibn Sina, one of the greatest of theistic philosophers, who plays a similar role in Muslim thought.  Interestingly, all three–Zhu Xi, Aquinas, and Ibn Sina–were, basically Aristotelians.  Aristotle is the philosopher of choice for social, sacramental religions.  At around the same time, Gregory Palamas confronted the relationship between God and creation in the context of mystical experience, and his writings would become a foundation of modern Eastern Orthodox thought.  Finally, in India, the Bhakti movement would temper Hinduism’s monistic tendencies with an emphasis on interpersonal devotion to a deity.  Ramanuja lived in the eleventh century. […]

  2. this put down of Jaspers belongs in National Review-usual reactionary and reflexive invocation of “liberal cliches” Since when did Hume think there was a “unity of the human mind” -how about a “bundle of perceptions” and no stable entity “the self”; he was a skeptic. Axial Age may be imperfect but it is very useful idea-the major breakthroughs in different civilizations set the stage for future developments. No time here to go into them. But the reviewers nit picking pedantry and logical “sillies”are nothing compared the nerve it takes to say Jaspers was not a serious thinker! His existential subjectivism is btw NOT relativism-as if he were Protagorean liberal”-Neither is the reviewer a serious thinker-except perhaps to Fox News viewers.

  3. While I appreciate this critique of Jasper and without having read his “Origin and Goal of History” in its entirety (much to my chagrin), I do find a problem with the claim that objective truths can be known “as such.” We are all subjective beings and we cannot escape our limitations with regards to time, space and personality (which includes genetics) and lends a uniqueness to our experiences. Because objective truths can only be KNOWN subjectively -in other words through the fact of our subjectivity- we cannot claim any truth to be unconditional. This does NOT mean that we cannot know truth with a small “t.” Religion makes the mistake of ignoring this subjectivity which inexorably leads it to dualism and secular society makes the mistake of claiming that objective truth cannot be known to some degree which leads it to relativism. One might ask, “How can we know objective truths subjectively? Isn’t that a paradox?” In a word, yes. We live in constant paradox. Interestingly, an epistemology of self -or how we know ourselves- is a paradox. I know myself but not completely. This is why such a high regard is given to self-reflection. Sometimes my own motives are not known without it.

  4. One has not to buy every word of Jaspers post-war subjectivist liberalism, to appreciate his thoughts on the Axial Age.
    Maybe Cassirer and later on Voegelin did a better job in expressing the fundamental changes of god-human-relationships occuring in that period, but Jaspers definitely coined the fancier term and for that alone is to be honored.

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