THE NEW YORK SPACETIMES, #2–Thinking in End Times: Axial Consciousness Then.

By Michael Cifone

“Femme et Oiseaux,” by Joan Miró (1940)


THE NEW YORK SPACETIMES, by Michael Cifone, is a series about philosophy, society, politics, and everything else, starting from New York City and radiating outwards, borderlessly and unboundedly.

He has worked on the philosophy and metaphysics of natural science, with a special focus on relativity and quantum theories, and on the philosophy of science more generally, especially including “Continental” treatments of science and the scientific worldview.

You can find out more about his work HERE.



#1: Thinking in End Times: Introduction


II. Axial Consciousness Then

“Axial Age,” by Sigmar Polke (2005–2007)

In a time of endings, we begin to see even more clearly what it was that began which is now ending. What Jaspers called the “Axial Age” was a seemingly unprecedented moment in human history. In the span of only a few centuries (Jaspers’ dating is rough), we find the emergence of major religious and philosophical traditions — most of which are still with us. What we find here, however we understand its historical emergence as such, is not simply the (roughly simultaneous) emergence of a series of religious and philosophical traditions that remain curiously relevant and alive even today. No, something more fundamental occurred here — but something by no means inevitable or necessary. And it was something that appeared in the world unevenly, at different times and places and in slightly different forms. We must take this unevenness to be itself of fundamental significance.

Jaspers’s “Axial Age” is, then, not merely an historical thesis. It is also ontological; it is existential. It describes in fact the emergence and subsequent objectification (or institutionalization) of a unique form of human consciousness — one that is now the predominate mode of experience, cemented in place as the bedrock of human psychical reality. What I want to suggest, however, is that in fact it is not something strikingly new or original, but something that is already implied in human social experience itself, most especially within human civilization. What we will call the “axial mind” is the characteristic mode of human consciousness (which is at the same time of mode of relation to the world as a whole) within civilization. Without the institutions and social forms which define a civilization, there is no axial mind. Or at least, there is no sustained axiality.

As both an historical and existential phenomenon, the “Axial Age” is not a “factual” or empirical event — like the fall of Rome or the gradual replacement of the Abbasid Caliphate by the Seljuk. It is an event that is itself partly caught up in our own identity as human beings occupying a place in a particular civilization, colored by certain religious and spiritual traditions (or marked by their absence — itself a characteristic even in the history of Axial Age peoples such as ourselves). Precisely this paradox — that we theorize that with which we are intimately bound up — is constitutive of the event itself. For “axial consciousness” is this reflexive, critical investigation. Asking about origins, seeking foundations, beginnings, and endings: all of this is ontological for this form of human consciousness. That we conceptualize, and in a way achieve a perspective of reflective distance — precisely this is the essence of axial consciousness. It is this experience of distance to which we can attribute the rise of the predominate theme of this Age: the theme of critique, of criticism, whose end is a kind of transformation or reorientation not only of self but of society as a whole. This is an age of critical reflection and of revolution.

We could also call the Axial Age the Metaphysical Age, for in this space of critical, reflective distance, wherein the is a sense of being apart from that which is conceptualized and criticized, we have the sense of a beyond. Or, perhaps more basically, the sense of a possible overcoming — what Nietzsche refers to as the ‘überwindungen’ that is the essential mode of being of the future of humankind. In this space of distance therein lies, according to Nietzsche, the danger: that of idolatry, the hypostatization of this distance into a transcendent metaphysics of two worlds — the world of the human and the world of the (disembodied) spirit. Here begins the history of metaphysics, as Heidegger taught, and it is nothing but the history of this subtle error: the one-sided appropriation of “consciousness” in its capacity to create an effect of distance as what and who we really are, leading to a sense that there is some fundamental division between ourselves and everything else there is — that there is a world beyond the mundane world, which promises our salvation. The distancing (or “alienation”) of the axial mind is an effect of this one-sidedness, this “metaphysics” being a symptom. Metaphysics (in this idolatrous “two-worlds” form) is nothing but an effect of perspective, a consequence of idolizing this experience of distance.

Yet the effect is real and productive, leading to a unique and (in the West) unprecedented conception of objectivity and criticism that respects the radical spontaneity and real otherness (distance) of things — “things” being only the resistance to the concept or the idea we may create for them (and it is therefore that consciousness is a “thing” to itself). This radical openness to the spontaneity of things is formalized within post-revolution science as the experimental method, with the results of experiment represented in the language of mathematics. In its most radical form, however, axial consciousness (“axiality”) yields agnosticism (e.g., Socrates) or skepticism (e.g., Descartes or Hume), leading to an openness of mind to match the spontaneity of things, disabusing us of our (often comforting) illusions. In its most in extreme and one-sided form there is either: nothing but consciousness alone, creator and/or witness to everything (e.g., Berkeley) — leaving the material world and the otherness of things a production of consciousness (and in a way secretly adopting a materialist reductionism) or nothing but the material world alone — leaving the world of consciousness the productions of matter alone (and in a way secretly becoming a kind of radical idealism).

Can we not see in the humility of Socrates, or in the skeptical clarity of Hume, the acceptance of finite human knowing, while maintaining the wonder of things, and an openness to the spontaneity of nature and of self? The true philosopher has always been skeptical of the rationalism of concepts, with the concept of causation to fill in the gaps of our ignorance in inability to know or the “principle of sufficient reason” to force the issue of explanation when, perhaps, none is forthecoming — or skeptical of the empiricism of facts alone without the essential human need to find an essential relation to them in order to know…

I believe that axial consciousness arises whenever there is a break, or a difference between one person and another. This difference or discord establishes that very primitive distance which is the characteristic mode of experience of critique or criticism. The act of disagreement brings forth this moment of “distanciation”, and in that moment the one stands in opposition to another, experienced in discord. It is a reaction — to difference. Its opposite is the experience of being lost in another person; of being absorbed into a group, an event … it is this experience which is inimical to the axial mind, for the axial mind means to break the spell of identity. Axial consciousness is fundamentally reactive, and oppositional: it posits itself over against another — the otherness being experienced in distance, already given to us by the act of reflective conceptualization itself. But the birth of axiality is conditional, situational, occasional. Only when we are forced by circumstances to maintain a measure of this distance (for whatever reason) does it then solidify into a relatively permanent psychical feature of human experience, later to be sustained in turn by enduring social forms. But the social forms are both cause and effect. The relationship between the two (the psychical and the social) was theorized by Hegel as the movement from subjective to objective Spirit. What is remarkable about Hegel’s philosophy is that it sought to find a general logic of this kind of a movement or existential transition … but it became a “metaphysical” theory of reality itself. The negotiations between the finite grasp of the human mind and the absolute spontaneity and openness of things became the real — in effect another example of the illusion of perspective hypostasized into metaphysics. As Deleuze argues, Nietzsche saw Hegelian logic for what is was: a corruption or distortion of the real nature of ontological movement.

As we have said, the process of emergence and then development of axial consciousness is radically uneven, nonlinear, and unstable (between geographical regions, and within them). I suggest that we think of axial vs. preaxial not in terms of which one is primary, which secondary; not in terms of which is more fundamental than the other; but rather that both arise simultaneously yet unevenly (and we are even suggesting that there is no fundamental dialectical relationship in terms of the origins of axiality). Already in the immediacy of a person-on-person relationship of any kind both forms of human consciousness are there. Agreement (love) is a bond, absorptive, enfolding; disagreement breaks one from another, and indeed, is constitutive of otherness as such. Axial consciousness is born from the experience of distance in disagreement. (Is it any no wonder that Empedocles argues that love and strife are fundamental to reality?)

From this (existential) analysis it follows that axiality is always already a constitutive (albeit situational) feature of human societies and human personal intimacy itself. As such, it is everywhere. It only achieves its definite and enduring form with the emergence of a sustained need for distancing oneself from some other; that is, under the conditions of sustained power-imbalance within a society. One (or a group) directs others for ends with which, simply, not everyone agrees. This disagreement is increasingly possible as the society increases in numbers (quantity); finally, at a certain point the quantity is brings forth something qualitatively new — the abstract “people.”

Axiality arose primarily as a moral-political phenomenon — even when it was “religious” (as for the Israelites as recorded in the Hebrew Tanakh). It says: the road we’re on leads (or has led) to destruction, chaos, unhappiness, suffering; therefore this road is the wrong road to take. This characteristic axial gesture is primarily negative, moving towards the destruction (or more mildly, the de-structuring) of those conditions, ideas, and persons responsible for the path that led the people astray. As such, the axial gesture already is caught up with the nothingness of critique itself: to proselytize and to push in the direction of change is to push into a direction (the future) which does not yet exist. The axial mind’s gesture of overcoming is one working from the known problem into the unknown solution space. (Let us also recall Sartre’s analysis in this connection in “The Problem of Nothingness” [Sartre 1965/1993]). Look at us! (reflective/reflexive), we who have taken this ill-fated path, we who have been led down this road by you or them (accusative); another way is possible! (disjunctive, the opening of an alternative, pointing into nothingness), and it is a way that will transform (revolution — the overcoming), will save us from the unhappiness or destruction to which the (old) way leads; we who announce this new way speak for truth (truth is constitutively declared), they do not. This very act of critique itself is the revolution. The critique is performative revolution.

The Axial Mind, then, is born from crisis, an existential crisis into which a people, a society sees it has gotten itself into. The Axial Mind simply asks the society, the people, to see itself as having taken the path that led to the crisis, to take responsibility for that, and to change — to opt for something that will not only avoid the destruction but will lead to some improvement in the existential situation. It is originally a pragmatic mind. The differences in the various axial peoples, though, are simply dependent upon the existing intellectual and social forms with which the bringers of this axial standpoint enter into confrontation. So, for example, mixed with the quirk of the speculative in Ancient Greece, the stage is set for the emergence of the theoretical axial mind, with all of the “metaphysical” dangers that then poses. Thus in Socrates do we already see a synthesis of the speculative, the political and the transcendent-metaphysical, which yields a characteristic Greek Axial Mind — one that in time comes to dominate the Mediterranean and beyond (even influencing the future of the very Abrahamic religions that also begin during this historical epoch).

Yet not every Axial Age people shares this characteristic synthesis we find in post-Socratic Greek thought. With Socrates, and especially after Plato (Socrates’ most famous student and follower), there emerges a clearly “transcendent” orientation, one we can say is pointed in a distinctly “vertical” direction: a direction beyond the mundane, earth-bound and toward some off-world, supra-mundane reality, of which human beings only have a very dim idea (but for Plato the “ideas” we have are our vehicle of salvific escape from the prison of the mundane — what Plato’s famous Phaedo dialogue was all about).

What is this transcendence? It is an attempt of human consciousness to break­ with — not merely to overcome, as for Nietzsche — itself; it seeks, as it were, an “Archimedean” standpoint outside of an specifically human (embedded, embodied) standpoint. It is, in terms of axiality, an attempt to step outside of mythopoeic time, to see things, in Spinoza’s phrase, “from the point of view of eternity” — a timeless point of view. This distance sets the stage for yet even more radical critique.

Yet we must ask, must the axial mind yield a distinctly transcendent or “vertical” standpoint (a mind oriented towards a supra-mundane beyond)? Can even “transcendence” be conceived “horizontally”? Was this not Nietzsche’s concept of überwindungen, after all: a transcendence or going-beyond the mere human, all-to-human through self-mastery, thereby achieving the kind of greatness of soul that was Aristotle’s ideal in his Nicomachean Ethics?

This shade of difference is that between the “vertical” and the “horizonal”, the structure of which bears a relation to the distinction Deleuze for example draws between the “arborescent” vs. the “rhizomatic”: the former (transcendent-vertical) bears the structure of the tree, with roots oriented above and away from itself, towards the sky and light above; the latter (transcendent-horizontal) is that which grows sideways and down into the earth, spreading out in a planar, almost chaotic way. The arborescent concentrates its energy in the trunk, and spreads to the subordinate surfaces (leaves) whereas the rhizomatic distributes its energy and flourishes regionally, in its planar geography. The arborescent seeks higher places; the rhizomatic only greater and greater planes of distribution (a kind of repetition).

It is the dialectic between the two forms of axiality that makes every history of philosophy (or of thought more generally) deeply (and fruitfully) ambiguous. This is because the axial mind is itself unstable, as we showed earlier. The pre-axial forms of absorptive/mimetic consciousness never fully go away. Rather, a cypher of this mimetic pre-axial archaism remains within axiality itself, and shows up in the difference between the vertical and the horizontal, the arborescent and the rhizomatic. This dichotomy between the vertical and the horizontal, then, is itself a fossil of the very dichotomy between axial and non-axial consciousness. Human consciousness, then, is stratified like a rock-formation. Was this not the fundamental realization of psychoanalysis? The mistake as we saw, however, was to substantialize the layers, to insist on the existence of a metaphysical “person” behind the layers, and to insist on the hierarchical-organizational layering of consciousness into the well-known tripartite structure Freud eventually developed (thus Deleuze and Guattari see multiplicity, and hence the need for a schizo-analysis — analysis of breaks and multiple points of self-individuation — where Freud saw a single, unified person and the need for a psycho-analysis, while forgetting that the structuration of individuals is itself determined by social forms, such that, absent those forms, or as those forms break down, decay and change, so too do the individuals).

The struggle against the transcendent-vertical tendencies of the Axial Mind is, I think, first clearly shown by Socrates. For Socrates (and perhaps this is something we can see only after having been woken up by developments in twentieth century thought), we find two things: an orientation towards the transcendent (Truth takes on an almost divine, other-worldly dimension for him), and the attempt to appropriate the transcendent within himself, which leads to an endless pursuit with no final resolution (the end of the famous “Euthyphro” dialogue, used by countless generations for teaching philosophy, is a beautiful dramatization of this). Is this not why the (very non-traditional) Christian thinker Kierkegaard was so taken by Socrates: he saw in this man a struggle to make objective (transcendent) truth subjectively grounded. But the Socratic task of the subjective appropriation of Truth had an important horizontal dimension to it, which we see especially in the so-called “Socratic” dialogues of Plato: when, for example, Socrates was seeking to know the true “form” of holiness (piety) from the would-be prophet Euthyphro, the discussion winds and turns and circles back on itself, and finally is abandoned without any final conclusion; the lack of conclusiveness is the real secret, the “treasure” (amalga) that Socrates has to offer. Truth is a process not a product, to use the trite expression of this ancient wisdom. There is no “wisdom” except the wisdom of never thinking that you really know the truth — at least not completely, or fully. Thus Socrates’s wisdom was said by a prophetic Oracle to consist in his awareness of ignorance: Socrates was the wisest of all his fellow Athenians because he really knew that he didn’t know anything. There is always something beyond us, something unknown, and even for what we believe we know, there is always more to be known.

Can we accept this humility? Can we humiliate ourselves and accept ignorance (and doubt) as an eternal companion to Truth? This, I think, was a profound challenge to the Axial Mind — or if not a challenge, then a deeper dimension of it. It is this Socratic humiliation (epistemic humiliation), this “wisdom in ignorance” that cuts across the reflexive Axial Mind and cuts it down to the ground of the horizontal mind. But with Socrates it is paradoxical: his questioning does seem to be oriented in a transcendent, vertical direction (the eternal truths of what his student Plato describes as “forms,” eide); and he is continually arguing that only the opinions of the truly wise are the ones that count; in this he’s no friend of political Democracy — which is well known to readers of Plato. But what is perhaps not often appreciated is that democracy as such reappears but on a different level, for Socrates operates as if absolutely anyone is capable of reaching truth, if only they would accept humiliating themselves out of their belief to have attained truth without having first examined it from the critical perspective of independence (the standpoint of eternity — a pillar of Platonic philosophy) which is the hallmark of the axial mind. Here democracy returns in the form of democracy of access to truth.

Even so, with Socrates, what we see is a process of questioning after a transcendent truth that never really goes anywhere; it never ceases; it’s always moving and trying and experimenting. It has a goal, but does it? The end of the Euthyphro is beautiful; it is an unresolved chord, a harmonic dissonance. This, it seems to me, is what horizontal axiality looked like in the Mediterranean, and it’s why Socrates has fascinated us ever since his execution in 399 B.C.

Perhaps the first philosopher to struggle really and specifically with the phenomenon of horizontal consciousness, and what it could mean for us now, was the twentieth century philosopher Gilles Deleuze (although we could make a case for Heidegger as well; but let us note that Deleuze was very much influenced by him). His distinction was between the “rhizomatic” vs. the “arborescent” or tree-like hierarchical arrangement of concepts; or that between immanence vs. transcendence (in our terms: the transcendent-vertical). And, crucially, “concepts” for Deleuze are really somatically determined — they’re not just head-games (as it were; although this somatic take on concepts is, I think, obscured by his, and his co-author Guattari’s, innovative writing style, which tries to break through the transcendent-vertical orientation of traditional philosophical exegesis). What is very interesting about Deleuze is that he tended to focus on a kind of alternative tradition in European philosophy, one that, we might say, tried to turn its back on the transcendent orientation of its ancient Mediterranean Axial roots. So, we get Spinoza rather than Descartes; Hume or Leibniz rather than Kant; and Marx (though only incidentally) or Proust rather than Hegel. In each case what Deleuze sought to elucidate and clarify (though “clarify” should be taken with a grain of salt, because Deleuze thought that verticality or the arborescent Axial Mind has also structured language and esp. the tradition of interpretation surrounding European philosophy) was the horizontal and rhizomatic character of the alternative tradition in philosophy, in order to see how philosophy was always working against itself, as its traditional founding figure Socrates did from the very beginning.

One of the perhaps unforeseeable developments of the Axial Age, at least as this played out within the European traditions, was the emergence of a vertical conception of time and history; I am speaking of the notion of “progress” born in the wake of the so-called Scientific Revolution and which in many ways inaugurates what we call the “modern” age. Of course, the root of this vertical (and transcendent) conception of time and history can be traced to Axial Age prophets in the Hebrew tradition, and the concomitant rise there of monotheism. The nascent concepts of sin, guilt, repentance, of spiritual conversion and renewal and “speaking truth to power” that we find here formed the framework, as well, of social and political revolution, of moving peoples and nations into a totally different direction: of repentance, which asks for forgiveness for past wrongs and looks towards and renewed life in the future. Here the past is broken from the present and future, the former shrouded in sin and guilt and the latter bathed in a new divine light. The past is darkness, the future is salvation and light; hence time and history take on meaning in a linear and transcendent sense: the future is the time of salvation and of God; the past of darkness and distance from Him. History now has broken from its endless cyclical turnings and has itself been transformed into a meaningful progression towards a definite goal — a new teleology is born here. This is the historical teleology of Progress. The apotheosis of this can be found in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Progress takes on a religious dimension. The Age of Enlightenment, of the origins of modern science and technology, yields the fruits of nineteenth century Industry. We are now living out the ramifications of this Promethean Age today, as our very brilliance and ingenuity and technological successes have proven to be the seeds of our own demise. The theological-epistemological dream of Descartes, of humanity mastering Nature, has finally become so profound that, paradoxically, the very gap or distance between Man and Nature has itself been closed: Man is a “force” of Nature — Nature is not “out” there, is no longer a kind of “beyond” to which we are helplessly susceptible. Rather, that we which suffer today with “climate change” is a suffering at our own hands. Nature is nurture, as it were. If it was nature in ourselves that was repressed, that we sought to “master” and control or subdue, then it is nature herself which returns with a vengeance. It is the return of the repressed on a grand scale.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 9 June 2020

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo


Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.