Is Modernity a Third Axial Age?
In the book where he coined the term “Axial Age”, Karl Jaspers noted that human history included both “tranquil ages” and “ages of change”. This paper begins with the observation that this oscillation between stable and transformational periods encapsulates the pattern in complexity theory by which systems oscillate between relatively long “stable states” and shorter “phase transitions”. Applying this pattern, the coauthors speculate that human history has undergone three such “axial” phase transitions – the Neolithic Revolution, the Axial Age, and Modernity. During each of these periods, the older dominant social structures proved inadequate, as populations grew, new technologies appeared, and new social conflicts became more intense. To meet these challenges, people in the societies where these transformations occurred became more innovative, exploring new ways to use recently developed technologies and introducing a variety of social experiments. By the end of these ages of change, new social structures would become dominant across Eurasia. Today, Modernity, as the third axial age, seems to be coming to an end, making this pattern a valuable tool for understanding our world.