Professor of Philosophy, novelist, and MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (Pantheon, March 2014)
Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher who died in 1969, pointed out that all the religious traditions that still survive originated in roughly the same period, 800 to 200 B.C.E., and that this was the period that also saw the birth of Greek philosophy and Greek tragedy. From the Far East of China and India and Persia and westward all around the Mediterranean, including north to the Judean Hills and into Europe by way of the ancient Greeks, there was an explosion of normative thinking—thinking about how we ought to live our lives. Jaspers called the normatively active period the Axial Age, because it gave rise to visions and traditions that still extend outward into our own time, like axials of a wheel. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and the Abrahamic religions all have their roots in the period, along with the secular approach that the Greeks originated. Confucius, the Buddha, Ezekiel, and Pythagoras were contemporaries of one another. All of us, whether secular or religious, locate ourselves in normative frameworks that derived during that time.
What Jaspers called the Axial Age Goldstein prefers to call the Normative Explosion, comparing it to the Cambrian Explosion in evolutionary biology. What the Normative Explosion produced was almost all modern normative systems. Why did such an explosion happen just when it did?
Goldstein plunges into the drama of philosophy, revealing its hidden role in today’s debates on religion, morality, politics, and science. Is the discipline no more than a way of biding our time until the scientists arrive on the scene? Which of the normative systems that were forged back in the day actually continues to offer viable answers today?