Monday, 3 December 2012

Are we living through a second Axial Age?

Was there ever an Axial age when great thinkers acting independently in Greece and Palestine and China and Iran and India revolutionized Human Society and invented a new form of consciousness?
No- but philology does record sudden explosions in meta-metaphoricity based preference falsification  across diverse literate cultures not all of which, unfortunately, were ever entirely purged from our collective memory by the rising up of 'slave' castes or nations, like the Gokturks or Teutons or, indeed, Tamils, who concentrated on important stuff- metallurgy, horse breeding, plain speaking and piety as opposed to self aggrandizing psilosophy & Credentialist chrematistics.
Yet here is a book- The Axial Age and Its Consequences, by Robert Bellah and Hans Joas, which makes the bold claim that 'intellectual sophistication itself was born worldwide during this critical time. Across Eurasia, a new self-reflective attitude toward human existence emerged, and with it an awakening to the concept of transcendence. From Axial Age thinkers we inherited a sense of the world as a place not just to experience but to investigate, envision, and alter through human thought and action'.

What does 'the concept of transcendence' mean? It's the notion that you can get a superior type of knowledge from thinking about the sort of stuff which other people are also thinking about but thinking about merely to some useful, productive or coherent end.  Bill Gates made a lot of money by thinking about computers and how to make them more useful. Like Gates, I too thought about computers but didn't make any money or come up with anything useful. But my transcendental theory of personal computing is far more intellectually sophisticated and self reflective than his. I am able to apodictically prove not only that the self-sodomy of the post Kristevan Chora is an emergent of virtuous stroking of the mouse such that, uniquely, all Iyengars are shown to be secretly adding garlic to their sambar and God talks to me through my neighbor's cat. Unlike Gates, who just experiences the world and gets invited to cool places whereas I've just been barred from even my local pub, I have a lot more time to investigate, envision and alter the World through my own human thoughts and actions. This is because I don't actually live on this World but just visit from time to investigate it before getting thrown out of the pub.

There is an obvious counter to my argument- viz. 'Vivek, you are a stupid drunken slob, not an intellectual. Only intellectuals get to have theories which can be considered as self- reflective or transcendent. Okay, even if you are or were a Professor, it's probably somewhere crap or in some real shite subject so just fuck off.'
The problem with this rebuttal is that it shows precisely why the Axial age availability cascade is nothing but a wank. Jaspers, and other such low brow fuckwits, fasten on pedagogic traditions and discover that from time to time they get up their own arses with transcendent shite. But wherever these shite 'intellectuals' have shown up, everybody thought and said they were worthless cunts. Aristophanes spots Socrates for a fuckwit straight off the bat. Herodotus locates the dawn of free political discourse in Iran when 'after slaughtering the Magi, the truth loving Persians' sat down to consider the proper way to order society. Israel had its moment of glory before its God became Transcendent and has been in continuous decline ever since. Confucian scholars in China helped their country most when consigned to 'oil basket graves' and, as for the Brahmin grammarians. their own Saints damn them for their 'dukring karane' because a good thought may be badly expressed but stupidity remains stupidity no matter how grammatically correct.

Since runaway Academic Credentialism is associated with Cliodynamic sclerosis, as is the hypertrophy of Transcendent Religiosity and self-reflective Narcissistic injury, some people, like Karen Armstrong, think we are living through a second Axial Age. Fortunately, enough young people are quitting school to get rich quick while plenty of post Docs are waiting tables and driving buses so- so long as College fees continue to rise faster than inflation- we've dodged that bullet at least for the time being.


FredR said...

"Since runaway Academic Credentialism is associated with Cliodynamic sclerosis, as is the hypertrophy of Transcendent Religiosity and self-reflective Narcissistic injury, some people, like Karen Armstrong, think we are living through a second Axial Age."


windwheel said...

How very kind! Incidentally, Cliodynamics itself- i.e a mathematical approach to History- is quite happy to jump on the second Axial age bandwagon. A Feminist philosopher those guys like is Prof. Barad, a genuine theoretical physicist who now says things like this- 'Meaning is not a property of individual words or groups of words but an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility. In its causal intra-activity, “part” of the world becomes determinately bounded and propertied in its emergent intelligibility to another “part” of the world. Discursive practices are boundary-making practices that have no finality in the ongoing dynamics of agential intra-activity.'
Which is fine, if some obstinate prejudice on the part of Science guys was preventing us 'intra-acting' with the Higgs boson and getting it to deliver pizza to me at midnight yesterday when I really wanted it, but sadly such is not the case. There's money in that sort of Science so you don't need Philosophy to remove a Scholarly Prejudice before that Science gets done because Industry can get what it wants from Academia by endowing Chairs.
Barad's 'agential realism' isn't useful because simple Paranoid hate-mongering is more effective than 'hauntology'; 'discursivity' isn't useful- since the conclusion it militates to is that your neighbor's cat really is talking to you, but you knew that already coz you're off your meds; nor is a theory of 'performativity' useful if all the performance does is put you to sleep and not even subliminally brainwash your wife or g.f to give you a blow job- like the way Musicals are supposed to do according to South Park.
Barad thinks 'agential separability' will solve the 'measurement problem'- but the truth is the money is coming from the guys who want workable quantum computers so, my guess is, what drives productive work in that area is the need to find a way to manage quantum decoherence- i.e. elide the measurement problem.
Ontology and Transcendence and so on may be stuff smart people discuss from time to time, to let off steam. But it isn't important. Otherwise, me listening to my neighbor's cat is just as good, if not better, than Barad solving equations.

FredR said...

I get the sense that your approach to metaphysics and philosophy in general isn't so different from the American Pragmatism (John Dewey, William James, Richard Rorty) I inhaled as a college student.

The cliodynamicist Peter Turchin's review of Bellah's book "Religion in Human Evolution", which deals with, among other things, the "axial age", seems to focus more on the social coordination function of religious philosophy, and less on transcendence: He makes a similar point in this article:

I have sympathy for this kind of functionalist account of religion and philosophy, and suspect there might be more to it than the incredibly cheesy Bellah quote in your second paragraph. Although that doesn't mean I have a good rebuttal to this: "But wherever these shite 'intellectuals' have shown up, everybody thought and said they were worthless cunts."

windwheel said...

Very many thanks for your wise and thought provoking comments.
I'm afraid the British chose to remain ignorant of their great American cousins- C.S. Pierce corresponded with Victoria Lady Welby- who had been denied the sort of education American women had started receiving some 20 or 30 years before, and whose 'Significs' circle only influenced Ogden (as far as I'm aware) but no mainstream British philosopher- more's the pity. She also influenced Brouwer but Russel and Whitehead and so on don't seem to have registered this. Wittgenstein has a bit of L.E.J. Brouwer in him but though devouring American pulp fiction, Pierce doesn't seem to have impacted on him at all.
British neglect of the achievements of their American cousins is an utter scandal. The fact is our paths diverged as early as the 1630's. America followed Coke, England followed, ostensibly, Bacon but actually the turn coat Stafford. Over the last 20 years, the British rediscovered America- in particular the success of local Govt. which we over here just gave up a long time ago- but our own working/lower middle class is just as good and dynamic as yours. Ronald Coase was one of ours- he couldn't fight Lord Reith (head of the BBC) so went over the pond and helped you guys get Radio policy right. Ezra Pound said 'there is no free speech without free Radio speech' but he'd been thoroughly deracinated by his stay here and simply turned into a prancing ninny of a type all to common this side of the pond.
Pierce is still a treasure trove for Maths/Computing mavens. Dewey corrects our notion of what Education should be about- not bloody Credentialist nonsense. William James helped India to develop a notion of Secularism with Spiritual values. It is no wonder Indians love America and feel part of it, from the moment their plane takes off, whereas Indians long settled in Britain (arguably the most friendly and affectionate and welcoming country to Indians in the world because every Brit knows we have our little kinks and foibles and so grants us a wide latitude) tend to have to go through some tortuous process of finding their inner, and spurious, Babu.
We here in Britain- except for the Beatles who learnt America in Germany- finally 'got' America too late. Still, we have the greatest working/lower middle class in the world and, what's more, are a very affectionate people so we'll do all right in despite of our elitist bleeding heart leaders. (Contd)

windwheel said...

Turchin ought to be one of the good guys but let's face it, Clio was so thoroughly debauched- not actually by Russians but the sort of ideas, but also people, we in Britain export because not every totalizing idea has equal comic valency nor is every savant eccentric enough to serve as an exemplary Rugby Coach cum Classics Master at a Prep or Public School- and the shame of it is 'Saltwater' America too was affected.
Why is this, essentially Maths/Game theory guy, buying into Jaspers/Toynbee type nonsense? Does he really believe that apes are degenerate human beings? Yet only that sort of reverse Evolutionary theory (it is mentioned in the Quran) which is very ancient BUT WRONG- and widely recognized to have been WRONG by the contemporary rank and file- justifies this Axial Age nonsense according to which there was a sort of 'ratchet effect' associated with like famous dead guys and if we stop worshipping those famous dead guys then, oh dear!, we end up eating bananas and hanging from tree branches by our tails.
We actually now know a lot about 'Turanian' - i.e. Turk/Hun/Magyar/Mongol- or 'tribal'- i.e. Goth, Gujjar, Anglo Saxon, Tamil, Red neck, whatever- expungers of the availability cascades of the so called 'Axial Age'- and we also know that the reason people like my ancestors survived, or Rabbis in Yemen survived, or Greek & Latin survived in Ireland when the 'light' had all but gone out over Carolingian Europe- was because we were poor, we were hilarious, so long as we had love in our hearts we were good guys to entrust the education of your kids to. A good school master ought to be utterly mad!
Philosophy, Metaphysics, Soteriology- what can be funnier? So long as the thing doesn't turn into a Credentialist Ponzi scheme- and the pederasts are kept out of the business- what's wrong with that?
This Axial Age shit is worthless because the proto-Slavs or whatever they are now termed had huge cities which we've only found out about recently. Russians are good people. So are Lithuanians. So are Zulus. So are Maoris or Australian aborigines (who look like Tamils like me).
'World Religions?' - are you kidding me? Some fishermen from Europe's western shore developed skills and showed incredible courage- but for them America and the Phillippines and some portion of my own countrymen wouldn't be Christian. Look at Turkish history- their origin story. They were slaves working in the mines of the Altai mountains. They rebelled.
Turchin talks about a U curve or Z curve of inequality- nonsense! Econ explains these things differently. Turchin says human sacrifice means high inequality- the reverse is and must be the case.
I'm a 'Brahmin'- our rituals are of bloody Stone age origin! We don't use a flint to kindle the sacrificial fire, but, like boy scouts, use wood on wood. We have Axial age coming out of our pores. Does that make us better than Khoisan 'bushmen' or the Ik tribesmen in Turkana (the tribe too poor for morality- Colin Turnbull said)? No, if I'd had to compete with kids from those tribes for a scholarship, I'd never have got an education. I'm a Theist. I believe in God. If God said 'well, you are in a continuous scholarly lineage stretching back to before the Axial Age, therefore I expect you to have a more transcendent view of Me and on that basis I will judge you'- fuck, I'm in Hell for sure. My counterblast to God is 'Axial Age shite is shite. I'm stupid. Those guys are smart. Send them to Hell and me to Heaven because I do too have the best transcendent image of you- coz I'm just naturally stupid, cowardly, hypocritical and self-aggrandizing. In any case, by sending the non-Axials to Hell- you get Real Estate Development like you won't believe- basically Hell turns into the Spiritual equivalent of Florida.

windwheel said...

You write 'I have sympathy for this kind of functionalist account of religion and philosophy,'. So too, Sir, did I. But functionalism, for the Theist, is a sort of 'Sufficient Reason' Liebnizian Theodicy. I can't accept this. I will be 50 years old in a few months time. I have seen 'Religion', I have seen 'Philosophy', killing good people- people better, brighter, more useful to the race than myself- or causing them to embrace, from the best possible motives, not a 'practising death' but the preaching of a dispassionate duty of murder and genocide.
As a poet, a hermeneut, yes, I have an unhealthy intimacy with metaphysics, but, as a fool, a sinner, an uncouth man, that intimacy, I hope, is at least quarantined if not inoculated against for such innocent eyes, in virginibus peuresque, as I fondly imagine to ever retire shuddering from the pages of this blog.
Many thanks for your comments, Sir.

windwheel said...

Dear FredR- I've just found out that you have had the very great kindness to read and leave a review on my last novel. Thank you so much.
I wish I had your address so I could send you a proper handwritten letter testifying to my gratitude.
I guess, like a lot of people who have never lived in the States for any length of time, I have a rosy tinted image of that country. That can be very annoying.
I don't know if you will ever read this. Still, I must tell you, your 'I.Q' (whatever that means) greatly exceeds mine. I write badly because I am a fool. Fools are supposed to be clowns and I think I'm being funny.
It was a very kind thing you did to read my book. I wish you had asked me for a copy, I'd have sent you not just the book but a nice bottle of Tokai.
Well, anyway, if you're ever in London...
Once again, a very kind gesture on your part.
God bless you.