The Tangled Cultural History of the Axial Age

A Review of Jan Assman’s Achsenzeit (2018)


  • Anders Klostergaard Petersen Aarhus University



Ancient History, Axial Age, Cultural Evolution, Historiography


Jan Assmann’s Achsenzeit is the most thorough presentation of thinkers who reflected on the Axial Age available today. Although the label ‘Axial Age’ was coined by Karl Jaspers in 1946, other scholars had touched upon the issue as early as 1771. From the beginning, socio-historical analyses rested on a presentist framework according to which the Axial Age was interpreted as a positive historical legacy that could be exploited to make up for the deficiencies of the present. Achsenzeit excels in the discussions covering the time span from Anquetil-Duperron to Vögelin (1975), but it disappoints in relation to current debates. Unfortunately, Assmann’s book ignores contemporary gene-culture co-evolutionary perspectives, as well as current research which argues for the convergent evolution of axial-age societies based on increased affluence, enhanced urbanization processes, and higher population density. These criticisms aside, the book is indispensable for the necessary knowledge of the pre-2000s discussion on the topic, and it is a highly pleasurable read. 

Author Biography

Anders Klostergaard Petersen, Aarhus University

Anders Klostergaard Petersen is professor at the Department for the Study of Religion at Aarhus University, Denmark. He has published extensively in the fields of Late Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, and on methodological and theoretical questions pertaining to the overall study of religion and culture. He is currently involved in projects on biocultural evolution with a special focus on the history of religion.


Assmann, J. 1992. “Große Texte ohne eine Große Tradition. Ägypten als eine vorachsenzeitliche Kultur”. In Kulturen der Achsenzeit. II. Ihre institutionelle und kulturelle Dynamik. Teil 3, ed. S. Eisenstadt, 245–80. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Assmann, J. 2003. Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus. München and Wien: Carl Hanser Verlag.

Assmann, J. 2012. “Cultural Memory and the Myth of the Axial Age”. In The Axial Age and Its Consequences, eds R. N. Bellah and H. Joas, 366–407. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Assmann, J. 2018. Achsenzeit: Eine Archäologie der Moderne. München: Beck.

Baumard, N., and C. Chevallier. 2015. “The Nature and Dynamics of World Religions: A Life-history Approach”. Proceedings B. Royal Society Publishing 282(20151593): 1–9,

Baumard, N., A. Hyafil, I. Morris and P. Boyer. 2015. “Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdom and Moralizing Religions”. Current Biology 25(1): 10–15.

Baumard, N., A. Hyafil and P. Boyer. 2015. “What Changed During the Axial Age? Cognitive Styles or Reward Systems?” Communicative and Integrative Biology 8(5): 1–3,

Bellah, R. N. 1964. “Religious Evolution”. American Sociological Review 29(3): 358–74.

Bellah, R. N. 2005. “What Is Axial about the Axial Age?” American Sociological Review 46(1): 69–87.

Bellah, R. N. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Bellah, R. N., and H. Joas, eds. 2012. The Axial Age and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Boyd, R., and P. J. Richerson. 1985. Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., and M. Feldman. 1981. Cultural Transmission and Evolution. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Certeau, M. de. 1975. L’ecriture de l’histoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Dobzhansky, T. 1973. “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. The American Biology Teacher 35(3): 125–29.

Donald, M. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Donald, M. 2001. A Mind so Rare. The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York and London: W.W. Norton.

Gebser, J. 1949. Ursprung und Gegenwart. Die Fundamente der aperspektivischen Welt. Beitrage zu einer Geschichte der Bewußtwerdung. Band 1. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

Gebser, 1953. Ursprung und Gegenwart. Die Manifestationen der aperspektivischen Welt. Versuch einer Konkretion des Geistigen. Band 2. Stuttgart: Deusche Verlags-Anstalt.

Habermas, J. 1981. Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Band 1. Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung. Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp.

Habermas, J. 1992. Nachmetaphysisches Denken. Philosophische Aufsätze. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Habermas, J. 2009. “Es beginnt mit dem Zeigefinger”. Review of the German translation of Michael Tomasello, The Origins of Human Communication (Die Ursprünge der menschlichen Kommunikation) 10.12 Die Zeit. Available at: (accessed 14 October 2018).

Habermas, J. 2011. “Jürgen Habermas on Myth and Ritual”. Lecture given at Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University, 19 October 2011. Accessible on video at: (accessed on January 20, 2019).

Habermas, J. 2012. Nachmetaphysisches Denken II. Philosophische Aufsätze und Repliken. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Habermas, J. 2019. Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie. Band 1: Die okzidentale Konstellation von Glauben und Wissen. Band 2: Vernünftige Freiheit. Spuren des Diskurses über Glauben und Freiheit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1986. Werke in 20 Bänden. Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie. Werke 12. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Henrich, J. 2016. The Secret of Our Success. How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jaspers, K. 1947. Vom Europäischen Geist. Vortrag gehalten bei den Recontres Internationales de Genève September 1946. München: R. Piper & Co. Verlag.

Jaspers, K. 1949. Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. München: R. Piper & Co. Verlag.

Joas, H. 2014. Was ist die Achsenzeit? Eine wissenschaftliche Debatte als Diskurs über Transzendenz. Basel: Schwalbe Verlag.

Laland, K. N. 2017. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Metzler, D. 2009. “Achsenzeit als Ereignis und Geschichte”. In Das Ereignis Geschichtsschreibung zwischen Vorfall und Befund, ed. M. Fitzenreiter, 169–72. London: Golden House Publications.

Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Petersen, A. K. 2013. “Attaining Divine Perfection through Different Forms of Imitation”. Numen 60(1): 7–38.

Petersen, A. K. 2015. “The Use of Historiography in Paul: A Case-study of the Instrumentalisation of the Past in the Context of Late Second Temple Judaism”. In History and Religion. Narrating a Religious Past, eds. B.-C. Otto, S. Rau and J. Rüpke, 63–92. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

Petersen, A. K. 2017. “Plato’s Philosophy – Why Not Just Platonic Religion?” In Religio-Philosophical Discourses in the Mediterranean World. From Plato, through Jesus, to Late Antiquity, eds. A. K. Petersen and G. van Kooten, 8–36. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Petersen, A. K. 2019a. “Continuity as a Core Concept for a Renewed Science of Religion”. In Evolution, Cognition, and the History of Religion: A New Synthesis. Festschrift in Honour of Armin W. Geertz, eds. A. K. Petersen, I. S. Gilhus, L. H. Martin, J. S. Jensen and J. Sørensen, 81–99. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Petersen, A. K. 2019b. “A New Take on Asceticism: Asceticism as Training and Secession between Individuality and Collectivity”. Numen 66(5-6): 465–98.

Richerson, P. J., and R. Boyd. 2005. Not by Genes alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Sanderson, S. K. 2018. Religious Evolution and the Axial Age. From Shamans to Priests to Prophets. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Schwartz, B. 1975. “The Age of Transcendence”. Daedalus 104(2): 1–7.

Spengler, O. 1918. Der Untergang des Abendlandes – Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte. Gestalt und Wirklichkeit. Band 1. Vienna: Braumüller.

Spengler, O. 1922. Der Untergang des Abendlandes – Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte. Welthistorische Perspektiven. Band 2. München: C. H. Beck.

Turchin, P. 2015. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, CT: Beresta Books.

Turner, J. H., A. Maryanski, A. K. Petersen and A. W. Geertz. 2018. The Emergence and Evolution of Religion: By Means of Natural Selection. London and New York: Routledge.

Weber, M. 1963 [1920]. “Zwischenbetrachtung: Theorien der Stufen und Richtungen religiöser Weltablehnung“. Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen. In M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie .Vol. I, 536–73. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck.



How to Cite

Petersen, A. K. (2019). The Tangled Cultural History of the Axial Age: A Review of Jan Assman’s Achsenzeit (2018). Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 4(2), 257–271.




Most read articles by the same author(s)