The renaissance of axial time origins

To understand the radical change of cultural universals from exclusion to inclusion, we should go back to the origins of all those forms of cultural identity which have made up their specific features by introducing universals. There is a specific term to characterize these origins: that of axial time. We owe the term to the philosophy of history by Karl Jaspers. According to Jaspers the so-called “world civilizations” developed their traditional quality in an axial time.6 Different cultures have different axial times, but in a universally valid historical perspective these axial times together mean an important step, a threshold, in the cultural evolution of humankind.

In the very roots of this very beginning we can find a potential for the solution of the problems of our time. The solution is the deeply rooted universalism in cultural identity. In an unchanged, traditional way it is, of course, not the solution, but the problem. The solution cannot be found against it, but within it and according to it, namely within its historical development. Axial times are no timeless origins of a metaphysical status across all temporal changes. What has originated in this very past has become a matter of temporality, of historicity. It essentially is open for change and development. According to this historicity it is not a utopian question to ask for a new approach and practical treatment of traditionally deeply rooted cultural universalisms, which still are powerful elements of cultural identity today.

This universalism should be reshaped, reformed from an exclusive into an inclusive one. What we need for the intercultural discourse of today is a renaissance of axial times by which the original universalism is kept up and changed at the same time. This should not be a rupture, but a transformation of one’s own traditions. It should not be a high threshold, but an open door for a topical approach: It is a transformation which can be characterized as a new axial time, which goes along with the topical globalization process and answers its challenges of cultural identity.

One of the most important universals in cultural identity is the idea of humankind. With this idea the social dimension of identity is generalized so that it includes all others as long as they all share the basic features of humanity. It took a long historical process to be a human being with the essential quality of self-awareness and self-esteem. Humankind has enlarged the scope of identity empirically and deepened its normative quality. To be a human being now is loaded with widespread historical experiences and with normative elements shared by all other human beings.

Cultures can be called humanistic if they assume a highly normative quality for being human. Humanism has played an important role in the Western tradition, and as to China, everybody who has ever had a look into the Lun Yii knows, that “humanness” (ren) plays a decisive role in Confucius’ attempt to develop a system of normative regulations for social and political life. In the Jewish tradition we find a proverb signifying humanism: Who rescues one human being, rescues humankind. A similar proverb can be found in the Muslim tradition. The Koran says:

If somebody kills a man, it should be considered as if he had killed mankind in general, and if somebody preserves the life of a human being, it should be considered as if he had preserved the life of mankind.

In Africa we find a Zulu-proverb of a similar meaning: Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a human being is a human being by the otherness of other human beings).8 And in numerous other cultures we can find similar sayings.

These universalistic elements in different cultures like humankind and humanity are manifest in different forms and expressions: They express the same idea in a different way thus signifying the very peculiarity of cultural identity. If one stresses this universal element within the cultural peculiarity of one’s own culture one can indicate a chance of looking at the otherness of the others in a non-ethnocentric, in an equitable and balanced way. The others share the same normative quality of being a human being one has something in common with them, which, in turn, is important for one’s own self-esteem.

Here lies an important chance for respect and recognition in the interrelationship between self and others. But it is only a chance. This chance will be missed if one simply identifies one’s own peculiarity with the quality of being a human. In this case the others are not as human as oneself. And therefore, one can treat them in a different and, of course, more negative way than the people to whom one belongs.

This double morality is a cultural phenomenon all over the world and in all times. But if one relates one’s own peculiarity to the universalistic and general element of humanness as a fundamental sense criterion of one’s own culture in a more reflected way, then the difference of the others can be realized as a different manifestation of the same humanness, which is inscribed into the features of one’s own identity.

This is the point of my argumentation. When I characterize the present-day situation in a globalizing process as a new axial time, I mean that we should use this chance of the different cultural traditions of conceptualizing humanity as a chance of respect and recognition. Traditionally the normative power of humanity very often served as an element of discriminating the others by ascribing the higher standards of humanity to one’s own people and only a lower one to the otherness of the others. In extreme cases otherness could even be defined as being non-human. An impressive example is the Nazi-ideology, which robbed the Jews of the quality of human beings. Such a devaluation of the others by denying their humanness is still effective in topical controversies about identity. A black South African intellectual, e.g., did it by comparing the Afrikaans-speaking white males in his country with baboons and bonobos.9

An ethnocentric use of the general concept of humankind in identity formation can be called a limited humanism or - more critical - an inverted or inhuman humanism. In respect to this limitation the universal historical perspective within which these universalistic concepts of humankind get their temporal dimension can be called an unfulfilled development. It is on us today, to take a decisive step forward: to conceptualize the idea of humankind in such a way that being human can be historically perceived as manifest in different forms of human life. This difference is not an unlimited variety. The limits of this variety and the limits of recognition and respect are exactly there where the others do not share this universalistic element and do not realize it in a different, but comparable way, that is, by developing their specific mental strategies of respect and recognition.

In the light of such a historical perspective, intercultural communication achieves the dynamics of a new axial time. These dynamics may grant an exchange of possibilities and potentials of conceptualizing the general normative quality of a human being. This will apply to every member of the human species in a different way under different circumstances and historical presuppositions.

It is on me to present the Western options for such a communication and I am waiting for the non-Western answers, proposals, criticisms, comments, and maybe for some consent.


  • 1 Assmann: Collective Memory and Cultural Identity, 1995.
  • 2 Chakrabarti: Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, 2000; Lal: Provincializing the West: World History from the Perspective of Indian History, 2003.
  • 3 For example, Galtung: Six Cosmologies: An Impressionistic Presentation, 1996.
  • 4 An example is Huang: Salient Features of Chinese Historical Thinking, 2004; cf. Riisen: A Comment on Professor Huang’s “Salient Features of Chinese Historical Thinking”, 2005.
  • 5 I have concretized such a strategy of intercultural comparison in respect to historical thinking in the following article: Riisen: Some Theoretical Approaches to Intercultural Comparison of Historiography, 1996.
  • 6 Jaspers: The Origin and Goal of History, 1976; Eisenstadt (Ed.): Kulturen der Achsenzeit, Vol. I—III, 1987-1992; Eisenstadt (Ed.): The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations, 1986; Arnason; Eisenstadt; Wittrock (Eds.): Axial Civilisations and World History, 2005.
  • 7 Koran Sura 5, Verse 33.
  • 8 Shutte: Philosophy for Africa, 1993, p. 19.
  • 9 Makgoba: Wrath of Dethroned White Males, 2005, p. 23.
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