Transcending positivism: the Axial Age consciousness of psychology

Since its inception psychology has been deeply indebted to positivism; in latter ‘postmodern’ decades the discipline has greatly diversified. I argue what is really at stake across the diversity of psychology’s approaches is whether consciousness, as an emergent ‘higher-level’ phenomenon, truly transcends its simpler ‘lower-level’ conditions, or will prove reducible to them. The starting point for investigating this tension is the historical moment when human beings first thematize consciousness as ‘transcendent’. According to contemporary scholarship in history and sociology, this starting point is found in “the Axial Age” when not only the major world religions and civilizations are seeded but the horizons of modern Western thought delineated, too. The bulk of my argument therefore takes the form of a theory review of scholarship on “the Axial Age”. Since the work of Karl Jaspers and Max Weber, historical and sociological interest in the Axial Age has been steadily increasing, from the 1980s until the present in the work spearheaded by S. N. Eisenstadt, and most recently with Robert Bellah’s magisterial treatment Religion in Human Evolution. I propose psychology participate in this collective effort and offer its own distinctive insights, although to do so it needs to transcend the positivist prejudices that prevent it from adequately thinking ‘consciousness’ as its object.

Peet, C. (2013). Transcending positivism: The Axial Age consciousness of psychology. Paper presented at Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) Annual Conference, Quebec City, Quebec, June 13-15, 2013.

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