The Axial Status of the Enlightenment
The term “Axiality” embeds two concepts. One refers to religious/philosophical movements based on other-worldly, transcendental premises that originated in what Jaspers called the Axial Age: Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, Greek philosophy. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution provides the most masterful analysis of these movements. The second, even more fundamental concept embraces later religious and philosophic movements, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, each with various sectarian offshoots, that developed in large part as intensely meaningful recombinations of elements of the original Axial Age movements. All of the axial movements include basic conceptions of the sacred that transcend the profane or everyday world and anchor systems of belief about the good, the right, the valuable for all dimensions of human life. The philosophies of the Enlightenment share with the axial religions the key attribute of transcendental foundation, but do not concern the sacred or source of meaning and value as applying to human experience in its full diffuseness. Rather the Enlightenment conception of Reason introduced a cultural differentiation that established secular (or profane or everyday) morality as a sphere of culture autonomous from religion. Along with transcendental Reason, conceptions of natural law and natural (or human) rights, optimism regarding progress in practical human affairs, and this-worldly conceptions of duty and obligation, each element viewed as prior to experience in any specific societal setting, imbued secular social life and institutions with a new dignity. Philosophy and practical social thought turned to problems of the design of social institutions with an ethical seriousness new in human history. The emphasis on rationalization of institutions of secular society that has characterized the modern age derives from the transcendental anchorage for Reason achieved by the Enlightenment. The paper will explore this conception of moral culture deriving from the Enlightenment.