HomeLegacies of Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt: From Philology to Sociology

Legacies of Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt: From Philology to Sociology

Autour de Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt : de la philologie à la sociologie

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Published on Monday, July 06, 2015 by Céline Guilleux


Within the “Plural Societies” Program of Université Sorbonne-Paris-Cité (USPC), we hereby initiate a series of meetings aimed to bring together scholars reflecting on the various means that can enable the empirical and theoretical understanding of social praxis. The opening day of our series of meetings will be dedicated to the study of the system of thinking of sociologist Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, especially focusing on his capacity to understand how plurality has been a major constitutive driving force at the basis of societies.



Within the “Plural Societies” Program of Université Sorbonne-Paris-Cité (USPC), we hereby initiate a series of meetings aimed to bring together scholars reflecting on the various means that can enable the empirical and theoretical understanding of social praxis. The opening day of our series of meetings will be dedicated to the study of the system of thinking of sociologist Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, especially focusing on his capacity to understand how plurality has been a major constitutive driving force at the basis of societies.    

Following in the footsteps of Max Weber’s ideas, Eisenstadt was primarily interested in understanding how social change and especially human creativity and its limitations make possible the internal transformations of various societies. In order to answer this query, he identified a dialectical link between the view of the world—or cosmology—and the social order, thereby opening a very broad field of study centered around a long term outlook and an understanding of space as globally-constituted at various historical moments. The type of analysis he proposed means to explain the relations existing among the social division of labor, the functioning of power structures and social institutions, the construction of collective faith and the creation of meaning within a more or less broad structure of solidarity. Eisenstadt has thereby managed to reactivate the explanatory schema of “the axial age” (or Achsenzeit) coined by Karl Jaspers in the immediate post-World War II context and to broaden it to the notion of “the axial civilization”.

Karl Jaspers’ intellectual project consisted in his attempt to formulate the schema of a comprehensive “universal view of history” by identifying a period of time running from 800 to 200 B.C.E. during which the Euro-Asian continent made significant “breakthroughs” for the history of humanity. These breakthroughs took up the form of “cultural crystallizations” represented by the great systems of religion and philosophy, namely: Confucianism in China, Brahmanism and Buddhism in India, Prophetism in Israel, the religion of Zoroaster in Persia and Philosophy in Greece. Jaspers considered these empirical data as the factors that led to the emergence of the transcendent realm, one distinct and in opposition to the world below. In his view, the human consciousness made kindred and synchronic leaps forward within a geographical area ranging from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.

Jaspers also believed that the epistemic mutation of humankind was accompanied by mutations in the social and political fields; that is why his theory of “the axial age” also explained the constitution of a new intellectual elite and the emergence of the empire as a new type of political organization.

In its original form, “the axial age” was a narrow type of notion aimed to describe the multipolar character of the habitable part of the Earth in ancient times, i.e. from the first millenary BCE. Even if this should have primarily constituted a stimulating intellectual challenge for the historians of Antiquity, the latter did not actually use it to either empirically contest or support Jasper’s thesis. As far as philosophy is concerned, if it punctually gave authority to the subject[1], it did not give rise to further more into-depth reflection on the same issue. By contrast, certain sociologists considered “the axial age” as an important point of contention, Eisenstadt being one of the major proponents of such an approach. It was through the mediation of such sociologists and in the wake of their lively debates that the issue once again became relevant for scholars of Antiquity[2].

This cross-disciplinary transfer from philosophy to sociology did not come to pass without a conceptual change, in the sense that axiality no longer (simply) corresponded to a given era but it designated a type of civilization. According to Eisenstadt, the characteristic of an axial civilization is the idea of a tension and antagonism between the world below and the transcendental realm, one sustained by an autonomous group of intellectuals. This gap demanded bridging, a situation that involved taking action in view of determining global social change. Thus, for Eisenstadt, social change lies at the intersection of contingent historical circumstances of structure and culture, understood as a series of symbols expressing a specific view of the world.

Eisenstadt believed that revolutionary changes very seldom intervene in the history of humanity and he basically identified two events of this kind: the ancient axial age and the advent of Modernity as a new type of civilization characterized by a high degree of reflexivity and by the “naturalization” of the human being and society.

Eisenstadt’s theory complemented other theories explaining modernity, by bringing up the idea that there are multiple centers of innovation and an industrial revolution cannot occur in the absence of an epistemic revolution. A new sociology of modernity therefore saw the light of day in the second half of the 20th century: this was the sociology of “multiple modernity”. If Jaspers opposed the idea that time was organized around the Christian doctrine of Incarnation by putting forward the terms of “longue durée” (long term history) and processes, Eisenstadt went against Eurocentrism and sustained, instead, the originality of extra-European modernities.

Seen in this light, the process of modernization does not imply Westernization and, according to Eisenstadt, “the process of modernization should no longer be seen as the ultimate goal of the evolution of any known society” (Eisenstadt, 2003, p. 24). In this way, the concept of modernity gains the possibility of being conceived as a specific type of civilization rather than a universal model of civilization, one born in Europe and henceforth disseminated to other parts of the world. For the other civilizations, such a dissemination of modernity would represent a challenge to their institutional and symbolic premises. In fact, a great variety of modernities has been developed starting from the interaction between the European, Western modernity and the Asian, African and Latin-American civilizations. The results of these encounters have triggered socio-historical configurations that both share a certain number of similar characteristics and are distinct from one another in other respects. The particularities characteristic to each civilization try to appropriate modernity in their own way and by their own means, and they constantly and concretely articulate the antinomies and contradictions of modernity by taking heed of the specifics of various historical contexts. Put differently, all contemporary societies have given rise to new questions surrounding the issue of modernity and new cultural programs resulting from the recent understanding of the term have bloomed. All these developments are proof of the increasing tendency to diversify the approaches and understandings of modernity, distancing us from the hegemonic concepts of the Westernization of the world which were fashionable in the 1950s. Consequently, cultural identities in our contemporary context are characterized by “the interweaving of the growing diversity of reinterpretations of modernity, on the one hand, with the development of multiple global tendencies and reciprocal references, on the other hand” (Eisenstadt, 2003, p. 532).

In light of the above, we invite contributions engaging with the following core questions raised by Eisenstadt’s oeuvre:

  1. What are the claims of historical and religious sciences on the relation between social change and a cosmology opposing the world below to the transcendent realm?
  2. How can we establish a dialogue between the micro-level argumentation of philology and the macro-level insights of sociology? How can the incomplete scholarship on Antiquity be used in support of a sociological theory? How can we prevent the still extant risk of literal interpretations of ancient sources?
  3. What new contributions could be brought to Eisenstadt’s theory concerning the scarcity of revolutionary processes?
  4. What links can be made today between the epistemic boom and the idea of revolution?
  5. What are the political consequences, especially in point of contemporary processes of radicalization, brought about by the end of the welfare state as a “charismatic location” for developing the cultural program of modernity and collective identity?
  6. Many previously invisible—either dominated or exploited—identities have moved away from a marginal to a central position in society. By what means do they contest, in the name of their right to autonomy, the content of national cultural programs deemed to be too hegemonic? 
  7. Introducing the concept of multiple modernities is particularly valuable for rekindling the debate about the civilizational paradigm by distancing it from an inopportune, limiting association to the idea of a clash of civilizations and trying, instead, to seriously answer the question raised by Weber (one to which his detractors don’t have an answer): how can one explain the rise of Europe and, more generally, of the West? Taking into consideration how Weber’s partisans and detractors have made use of comparisons, it becomes obvious that a better knowledge of the advantages and limitations of a civilization-centered approach is necessary for understanding the commonly-shared, plural world in which we live. In more general terms, the question to answer in this respect is the following: to what extent has Eisenstadt’s contribution to the understanding of civilizational dynamics boosted comparatist studies?
  8. The global world has also become the stage for understanding the mechanisms of deployment behind various forms of competition among various civilizations. If each such civilization is the bearer of a global, even universal, cultural program, how can one understand the dynamics of exchanges and hybridization of the various existing civilizations?


[1] See Eric Voegelin and his seminal work Order and History, 5 vols, 1956-1987.

[2] Apart from the special issue of Daedalus on Wisdom, Revelation and Doubt (1975), we especially have in mind the works initiated and edited by Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, primarily those from 1986 (The origins and diversity of axial age civilizations) and 2005 (Axial civilizations and world history with J.P. Árnason and B. Wittrock).

Submission guidelines

Deadline for receiving submissions: 15 October 2015.

Contact: madalina.vartejanu-joubert@inalco.fr, vincenzo.cicchelli@msh-paris.fr

Date of conference: January 26th 2016


  • Madalina Vârtejanu-Joubert (INALCO),
  • Vincenzo Cicchelli (Paris Descartes)


  • INALCO, 65 rue des Grands Moulins
    Paris, France (75013)


  • Thursday, October 15, 2015


  • Eisenstadt, âge axial, philologie, théorie de la culture, Jaspers, modernités multiples


  • Madalina Vartejanu-Joubert
    courriel : madalina [dot] vartejanu-joubert [at] inalco [dot] fr
  • Vincenzo Cicchelli
    courriel : vincenzo [dot] cicchelli [at] msh-paris [dot] fr

Information source

  • Madalina Vartejanu-Joubert
    courriel : madalina [dot] vartejanu-joubert [at] inalco [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Legacies of Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt: From Philology to Sociology », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, July 06, 2015, https://calenda.org/333856

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