"Second-order" culture & the Axial Age II

26 July 2019
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“Angelus Novus” by Paul Klee (1920)

The present itinerary

  • Brief recap of anything left unexplored from Chapters 1 -3

    @Michael_Stumpf, @patanswer, @johnnydavis54 and @achronon will each take a turn “leading off” with an individual chapter, sharing thoughts, reflections, and/or experiences in reaction to specific chapters, which loosely fit the current group ‘roles’ (kinesthetics / history / activism-vision / hermeneutics):

  • 4 “Embodiment, Transcendence, and Contingency” (Michael)

  • 5 “The Axial Age and Global History” (TJ)

  • 6 “The Buddha’s Meditative Trance” (John)

  • 7 “The Idea of Transcendence” (Ed)

Seed Questions

  • Seed questions from the first discussion:
    • What is second-order culture? How can we use our knowledge well to “presence” the best future?
    • What is the Axial Age? What about this piece of the past speaks best to our situation(s) today?
  • Q2

Context, Backstory, and Related topics

No reading is required to join in, but if you know absolutely nothing about the Axial Age this very brief summary of the original thought by Jaspers himself might prove helpful. Philosophy strives to interpret history as a single totality:


Working bibliography

(These ‘may come up in discussion, may not’ - sweat not!):

  • Bondarenko, Dmitri M. & Ken Baskin (2011) “Living through a Second Axial Age: Notes in the Time of an Irreversible Global Cultural Transformation”, Globalistics: Ways to Strategic Stability and the Problem of Global Governance Conference 54 , Moscow [online], available at https://www.academia.edu/1907699/Living_through_a_Second_Axial_Age_Notes_in_the_Time_of_an_Irreversible_Global_Cultural_Transformation
  • Bellah, Robert N. (2011) Religion in Human Evolution, Cambridge/MA & London, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press .
  • Bellah, Robert N. & Hans Joas (eds.) (2012) The Axial Age and its Consequences , Cambridge/MA & London, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press .
  • Black, Anthony (2008) “The ‘Axial Period’: What Was It and What Does It Signify?”, The Review of Politics , Vol. 70, #1 (Winter), pp. 23-39 [online], available at https://www.sfu.ca/~poitras/rp_axial_08.pdf
  • Donald, Merlin
    (1991) Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
    (1993) “Précis of Origins of the Modern Mind”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16, pp. 737-791 [online], available at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0f26/24745758b4e7ab16f021c674fe0de44561e0.pdf
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. (ed.) (1986) The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations, Albany, State University of New York Press.
  • Gebser, Jean (1986) The Ever-Present Origin, Authorized translation by Noel Barstad with Algis Mikunas, Athens, Ohio University Press.
  • Graeber, David (2014) Debt: The First Five-Thousand Years, London, Melville House, in particular Chapter 9 “The Axial Age”.
  • Kearney, Richard (2019) “Double Hospitality: Between Word and Touch”, Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion, 1, pp. 71-89.
  • Kripal, Jeffrey J. (2019) The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, New York, Bellevue Literary Press.
  • Löffler, Davor (2018) “Distributing Potentiality: Post-capitalist Economics and the Generative Time Régime”, Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, Vol. 15, #1-2, pp. 8-44.
  • Ong, Walter J., (2012) Orality and Literacy, 3rd edn, London and New York, Routledge.
  • Wendt, Alexander
    (2003) “Why a World State is Inevitable”, European Journal of International Relations , Vol. 9(4), pp. 491-542.
    (2015) Quantum Mind and Social Science , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

TJ responds to Walter Ong-
-Ong, Walter J., (1982, 3rd ed., 2012) Orality and Literacy , London and New York, Routledge.
“He may draw some of the lines between oral and literate cultures too sharply to make his points, but his careful exploration of the “logics” behind each is fascinating in exposing what we literates tend to take for granted. And of course there are plenty of survivals which connect oral tradition through writing and print to the (at the time he wrote) just emerging world of electronic communication.”

I wonder what Ong in 1982, would think of You Tube, in 2019? A Dark Web theorist, like Jordan Hall, seems to revisit this old debate between written and oral communiques, in a way that Ong could not. Let’s update Ong.

Jordan Hall speaks of discernment in our emerging decentralized collective intelligence

Hall uses signal and noise dynamics which makes me feel like he is still drawing upon a clustsy information theory. Human is not a conduit or a node in a network when we are using video. We are faces and voices, not a noise or signal. That is why I pleaded for speaker’s view in our recordings. We are not heads in boxes, we are voices and faces and hands in motion. We can make pictures and diagrams, share our models. Gesture is primary. I think this shift in our collective discernment is underdeveloped in our discourse analysis.

Orality is having a comeback but we have yet to learn how to do this skillfully. We are just getting started. We are more like soccer players or jazz artists when we speak together, rather than engaged in making complete sentences, as when we are writing. Let’s gather more warm data.

In our last session, I asked for metaphor. Path of Light ( TJ) , Prayer ( John), Radio ( Ed), Stories around a fire ( Michael). And what are the relationships between our metaphor cluster and a Second Order Culture?

The group offered concrete examples ( stories) about the experience of culture. This was much more grounded and interesting than abstract, text book definintions. We then viewed the fact/ value distinction through different lenses. This is not to pigeon hole anyone but just to get a grounded sense of these abstract categories we use to organize our knowledge.

So, we have, I believe, a much more grounded, action oriented inquiry than is usually developed by quick summaries or definintions from text books. I believe we are developing in an open forum a capacity for much better discernment.

Afterwards, TJ, invited the participant/observers, to present chapters from the text, through the personas (lenses) we developed previously. The flow states generated in our group performance can unfold organically. This may re-connect us, in our next session, with the flow and perhaps an even more coherent we space. This is not just a study group. We are creating and sharing knowledge. We are also learning about ourselves at a different level of our Being.

Could this be Integral? Or a Third Order? How would we know? Who are We so that we can decide? I agree, with Jordan Hall, a lot more evolutionary pressure is put upon us as individuals to make this kind of discernment a practice. This is invisible work, we have to triangulate from the margins, attuned to the liminal zones. This is anticipation work. We have to listen to the Future.

As others join us, having established a high quality of meta-attention and discernment, we can expect that others can catch the rhythm. This seems to me ( since I am now using writing to communicate about an oral performance) that we can oscillate between different kinds of styles than Ong could have predicted in 1982.

Hence, my interest, in bringing attention to the quality of the human voice and face and gesture. We are not talking heads. The voice and the face connect us to vast field. Questions and answer co-arise very differently than in print or early AI robotics. We are not taking in passively from the experts on CBS and NBC and making sense. We are our own news gathering organization. Are we up for the responsibility and the challenge?

Stay tuned for the next session. I am looking forward to enhancing our skills as communicators in this brave, new medium which demands new styles of collective attunement. We frame and then we break the frame and then we re-frame. This is a new kind of communique in motion, touching directly the field of all possibility. We need new kinds of vision-logics.



YES,John-Lets Walk,Talk & Share Attention in the Labyrinth of Our Human Beingness. I am enjoying this Play!!!


Hi folks,

I’m still struggling with Chapters 1 to 3, I doubt very much I will get through Chapters 4 to 7 by this Friday. In particular, I find Donald’s chapter really annoying - it presents a canonical cognitive science perspective with heavy emphasis on representation which I have major problems with (doubly so since reading Wendt!). In fact, I disagree with so many of his premises that I am afraid I doubt the veracity of the whole argument, since I don’t trust any of the conclusions he draws as a result of what I consider to be several erronous premises. (For example, he states that the ability to recall previous memories “is a logical precondition of language” - this assumes things develop linearly and sequentially, and I do not agree with the argument.) There are several other points I find he overstates.) I do like his general remarks about Mimetics, there I agree with your remarks, but he then goes on to say that language allows MORE complexity to be handled - there I completely disagree with him. Mimetics is hardly simple, it is extremely complex, if any thing, it is more complex than language. I guess that’s what you were saying, Ed, and Michael as well. Better than I said it, actually.

I liked the first two chapters, however. And I also agree, these folk could use some Gebserian perspective, they tend to speak in terms of one system replacing the other, rather than adopting Gebser’s structures approach. Overall, I got the most out of Taylor’s chapter with its emphasis on the process of “disembedding” involved in the Axial Age and its consequences


Just re-engaged our last campfire & this Tune came through my Heart


Thanks, Geoffrey, for sharing your objections. It’s okay if you don’t complete all of the chapters. This is a challenge for all of us.



I found Donald’s “Précis…” (cited above) a lot more broadly convincing than his argument in Chapter 3 and I’m glad I read that first. Of course, I know nothing of cognitive science - ‘history’ begins, so to speak, with the capacities of “modern” homo sapiens already in place - so I can’t properly evaluate Donald in light of the debates he references. I feel his tendency to collapse ‘language’ and ‘narrative’ does allow for more of a ‘break’ between mimetic and mythic ‘cultures’ than is really warranted. (And, though I get it, I heartily dislike the use of the word ‘culture’ in a context where Gebser’s ‘structures’ work much better.)

That said, I think Donald, along with Gebser, Bellah (“Nothing is ever lost.”) and Ong, is keen to show how each of his “stages” depend on what preceded it. The way I read it (Précis) was the ability to recall previous memories was the setting for the whole mimetic capacity - use of recall to ‘practice’ and enhance skills, use of practice to train the body-mind to retain, reinforce, and pass along things learned. In that sense, language becomes a quicker (though not necessarily more efficient) way to do some of these things - but only because it builds on what is already a ‘system’ of incredible complexity. From what I gather, Donald places the emergence of language at a much later point in time than several of his colleagues because of his great respect for the mimetic.

The larger issue of linearity and sequence is always interesting. Donald is tracing the ‘origins of the modern mind’ in his work; the problem is the same as with any history (as I pointed out many moons ago essentially a directed, mental-structure exercise), one of dealing with demonstrably increased social capacities/dimensions without falling into teleological hierarchy (hierarchy perhaps more problematic than teleology). Avoiding the connotation that everything in the past is either ‘on the road’ to whatever is being studied or not requires much from us, trained as we are to the point of second-nature instinct to show how ‘we got here from there’, often ignoring crucial points where the path dips into valleys no longer clearly visible from where we stand.


Okay, here are a few reflections based on the first three-and-a-half chapters, and Jaspers’ text.

As far as I can determine, Jaspers’ text is more observation than explanation. I found it brilliant both in its insights and its clarity. However, I don’t find much by way of explanation, which, as I understand it, is perhaps the primary purpose of Bellas’ work as well as this volume, even if the explanatory effort is limited by the admission of the authors themselves. Furthermore, my understanding is that the argument as put forward by Bellas and Donald, post Jaspers, is one grounded in the minutiae of the evolution of culture via a Gebserian-type analysis, from Mimetic to Mythic and onto Theoretic (Donald), a kind of recasting of Magic to Mythic and then Mental (Gebser). The point is the dynamics of cultural evolution underlies the changes manifest in the Axial Age. Although I still have issues with Donald’s arguments, overall I amlargely in agreement with this framing of the problem.

Interestingly, M. Jung raises, in Ch. 4, the very same criticisms of Donald as some of those I had formulated, and attempts to correct these (e.g. “…by systematically integrating mutually reinforcing feedback loops between levels of consciousness and different modes of sign-usage”), which I take as a hopeful sign regarding the project of the book as a whole. However, despite rereading passages from these texts, I still can’t get my head around the “transcendence” argument, from Jaspers onwards. Jaspers seems to be talking about a general tendency towards unification, via a kind of spiritual globalization, but one doesn’t sense that he means “beyond the body” in the same way some of the others are suggesting. It almost seems like there are two arguments going on here, one focussed on the spiritualization process as described by Jaspers, and the other this move from the numinous to this focus on “transcendental” in the sense of “beyond the bodily”. Although maybe this was already implicit in Jaspers’ text as well. The first part of this I get. The second, I am struggling with. Not that I disagree with it, but I do not understand it as a collective trend… I imagine the rest of the book will shed some light on this, but maybe others in the group could help me, too. Unless I have misread the situation.

P.S. We cross posted at the same time, T.J.! I will come back on your points later but, overall, I understand and accept the nuances you raise.


I don’t think you are misreading anything. There are several arguments going on in this anthology. In a sense, the biggest consequence of the “Axial Age” is the academic debate it has spawned! The definition and ramifications of “transcendence” are central to it, so I would say your reflections are spot on.


In many respects, I couldn’t agree more, but there is much more at work here and I think we’re scraping away the surface to get at it. Of course, I’m not moving at the same pace that the rest of you are.

That they may be looking at an evolution of culture argument could be the case (almost all the contributors other than Donald and three or four others are sociologists and this “bias” shows, I think. What I don’t find is a Gebserian-type analysis, for I can’t shake the feeling that they are arguing primarily from the outside in, so to speak (i.e., from their subject-based presuppositions and theory) and not from, as Gebser did, as I see it, from the inside out (primarily artefacts toward his initial intuition). The two notions that have been completely conceptualized for this purpose are “religion” and “transcendence”, neither of which are up to the task at hand.

And yes, I stumbled in a lot of the same places as you in this regard.

Now, having said that, in the next part (which I’m only part way through, more critique is expressed (well, good old scholarly and academic debate, from one’s own hobby horse) but your point

is well worth noting and discussing. There’s as much “how” to talk about here as there is “what”.


Agreed. I should have said, a “pseudo-Gebserian type analysis”, I didn’t mean to imply more than that they are talking about similar, uh, phases vs structures. This is a very academic text, and one outside my main areas of expertise, so I am swimming in somewhat unfamiliar waters here.

I’ve been thinking about the reason I struggle with this issue of transcendence. I think it is because, to me, this is at least as important as a personal question as it is as a societal question. I think the turn to “transcendendal Gods”, however these were conceived, must have been grounded in deeply personal experiences, not only in the larger societal questions being framed here. And these authors appear to have nothing to say about the personal, not even to present their own ideas about that. It is the tension between personal experience and societal pressures that interest me, here. Maybe that is partly what M. Jung is talking about when he discusses the tension between bodily or embodied ground and the symbolic level (“…the transcendence of meaning over symbols and the equally inescapable embodiedness of meaning”) - he is using the term “embodied” to draw attention to the personal experiences of individuals, perhaps? Although the embodied aspect of this experience is important, it is possibly not the only relevant component…

My analysis is probably tied to my metaphor of a garment. Religion, for me, is very much like wearing (and making!) garments that we inhabit. I don’t mean in a superficial way, I mean in a very deep way… So far, the discourse, outside of Jaspers (who one senses is, indeed, invested personally into this enterprise), seems to lack these depths…


Aren’t we all? :upside_down_face:

And here, I can assure you, you are not alone … and I’m glad you said “issue” rather than “concept”, for they are, at least in my small mind, not the same. This is one of the reasons I so often use the word “notion” … a small attempt to deconceptualize some of the “issues” that too often take over conversations (that is to say, the concepts take over, not whatever those concepts may be pointing at, and that is what I think is at issue (no pun intended) here.


First of all, I sort of enjoyed this little interview. Thanks for posting.

As I’m completely unfamiliar (so what’s new?) with Jordan, what makes him that?

For me, interestingly enough, in all the Tree-of-Life approaches to Kabbalah (certainly pre- internet and dark web) with which I am familiar the very first lesson of the very first sephirah is “discernment”.


Indeed, there are, and many disciplines are being breached! We are not in our cognitive silos anymore. This entire book is an attempt to get to a trans-frame! We make a frame, break a frame and then trans-frame. Nora Bateson called this process transcontextuality, which she suggests, will replace transdisiplinarity. It is not about catching the code, but catching the rhythm. As we move between text and speech and writing we can track these delicate first person, second person, third person interplay. The lands of these scholars, steeped in the written word, avoid the personal, even though they acknowledge, religion is played out in an ever shifting oral communication where the unconscious would be primary. When we gesture and shout and point we know we have something to bring forth that is not easy to convey. This is the mimetic.

And then there is the written, symbolic performances, which these scholars, know how to manipulate. But cognition-centric bias, which we have all been trained in, has another kind of relationship to the unconscious, and evades this tension. This, I suspect, is what Ong is bringing forward in his book. It is hard for us to imagine that there were entire cultures that never had to “look up anything”. The sounds the voice makes are perishable and ephemeral compared to text, but that sound resonated more deeply making transmission possible in ways writing does not. Plato embodies this paradox as he used writing to criticize writing while he banished the poets from his Utopia. Euripides wrote a script which the actors memorized. So, did Shakespeare. This is a different relationship to the word than the modern private space of the novel. It seems we are still playing this out in our threads, as we move from text, to writing, and in our zoom calls, to the immediacy of speech and the powers of first person, face to face, the interplay of drawing and gesture. I hope we can trans-frame more effectively.

Simone Weill said she pulled the tree up from the ground by the roots, fashioned it into a cross, and carried it on her back each day.

You have a right to develop your own metaphor in your own way. Take the cloth, cut and stitch, and put it on and wear that garment when you want.


He comes out of hacker culture. He is very much a product of that and he is aware of this. He knows the powers and dangers of the abiotic. I am not sure about him, actually, and his affiliations with Dark Web. I am not an expert here so I may have characterized him badly. I do find he is a smart guy and he’s trying to use speech to ground us rather than to monetize us. He is quite aware we are in a huge cultural transition.


from Ong:

The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied in, at least unconsciously, with their sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence power-driven. Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface. Such ‘things’ are not so readily associated with magic, for they are not actions, but are in a radical sense dead, though subject to dynamic resurrection. (pp. 32-33)

The oral word, as we have noted, never exists in a simply verbal context, as a written word does. Spoken words are always modifications of a total, existential situation, which always engages the body. (p. 67)

Sight isolates, sound incorporates. (p. 71)


Thanks for this, John. I, find him, well, “geeky” in places, but that’s how he characterizes himself. He grew up “at the right time” for that, which was, for the most part before Evil discovered digitality. Yes, there were innocent days, also online. But, it doesn’t take long to get expelled from the garden.


Cf. Gebser and the Magical structure of consciousness.


My thoughts exactly. LOL!

(I grabbed an ex-library copy of Consciousness and Culture: An Introduction to the Thought of Jean Gebser (edited by Eric Mark Kramer, who I believe worked with Algis Mickunas back in the day) recently. This is a 1992 collection of essays contributed mostly by (gasp) sociologists! Don’t know when I’ll get to it but I am very curious…)


You’ll certainly note the difference between sociologists who engage Gebser and those who don’t. :thinking:

The last paragraph of Kramer’s Preface notes:

This collection of original essays is intended as an introduction and application of Gebser’s theory. This is a first attempt to demonstrate how Gebser’s ideas may be of service to the many distinct and, in some cases, isolated disciplines that populate the contemporary academy. (p. x)

Unfortunately, I don’t think enough of the contributors’ colleagues took a look. (If I’m not mistaken, Kramer’s book came out while he was president of the Jean Gebser Society.) Kramer was also the editor for the Communication, Comparative Cultures, and Civilizations series of three volumes that were published as Annuals of the Jean Gebser Society (2008, 2012, 2013), but even these efforts didn’t succeed in getting Gebser even on the map. I see Jeremy’s work as trying to pick up where these efforts left off.