Chronos or kairos—what has happened to time?

Edvard Munch The Scream

In this essay I want to examine how our experience of time has changed from a sociological point of view to argue that the concerns about time expressed 100 years ago are still valid and we have not learned to live with the confusion and upheaval the modern world still produces. In order to answer the question I will first briefly examine how a range of theorists understood how conceptions of time started changing drastically during the beginning of modernism. I introduce early conceptions such as Leibniz’s and show the similarity with more modern theorists such as Minkowski and his view of space-time. The essay’s main theoretical basis is the work of Henri Bergson, particularly his notion of durée and this is examined in relation to the differentiation between ‘kairos’—the right or opportune time to do something—and chronos—a qualitative dimension of time—which I also relate to Kant. After briefly examining Durkheim’s idea that a society’s space-time perception was a function of its social rhythm and territory I finish by contrasting two artist’s different use of time to diagnose modern social ills. First with Edvard Munch’s expressionism combining the ‘arts of space’ into ‘art of interior time’ and Kurt Vonnegut’s use of memory and the concept of seeing events repeating themselves endlessly as a psychological coping mechanism. The essay concludes that what has happened to time is that we experience too much chronos and not enough kairos.

For Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz writing in the early 1700s: space, time, extension, and motion were not ‘things’ but the basis of our mode of consideration—they were fleeting phenomena like rainbows (Hartz, et al., 1988: 493). Similarly Minkowski’s (1918: 288) conception of time and space—derived from experimental physics—had reduced space-in-itself and time-in-itself to shadows and a union of ‘space time’ ushering in the era of quantum mechanics. Under the feudalism that Leibniz emerged from, space had primacy over time as part of the connection between legal, political, and social meaning of everyday life and isolated territorial boundaries. With the Renaissance and the discovery of a wider world geographic, knowledge grew in significance, as did the invention of the chronometer, and an objective, scientific notion of time that endured until Minkowski and Einstein. The Enlightenment’s conquest and rational ordering of space, had also implied the conquest of time through scientific prediction and rationalized systems of political and social regulation. Leibniz had already started to examine this by stating that extension was to space what duration was to time and clarifying that the continuum of time and space should be differed from the extension and duration of bodies (Hartz, et al., 1988: 510).

By the nineteenth century, another crisis in the sense of time and space radically disrupted the Enlightenment idea of objective time as uninterrupted progress. Charles Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life” (published in 1863), emphasized the transient, fleeting, contingent nature of modern life. For Dickens, et al. (2002) historically this process of time-space compression had an unbalancing effect on individual and social life. Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl and William James offered new conceptions of space and time that emphasized their subjective character such as Bergson’s notion of durée, that put the emphasis on inner time, opposed to the chronological clock time. Early sociologists such as Georg Simmel were concerned with the disorienting experience of time and space in modern societies and its effect on the psyche of modern individuals where individuals resorted to a variety of coping strategies to make sense of the accelerated experiences of modern, urban life. For Dickens, et al. (2002) Simmel’s diagnosis of ‘neurasthenia’ related to the individual’s inner security being replaced by a sense of tension and restlessness, originating in the frantic demands of modern life. Simmel viewed this condition as fostering a blasé attitude, with indifference shielding the individual from the rapid pace of over-stimulation. Clearly the changes in the modern experience of space and time also witnessed psychological adjustments by individuals struggling to maintain a sense of personal autonomy and identity (Dickens, et al., 2002: 390-391).

In studying ‘archaeological time ‘ scholars tend to divide the elements of time into threes. Bradley (1991: 1) quotes the French historian Fernand Braudel’s idea that chronological time could be measured at three different scales, each of which allow us to study a different kind of archaeological time:

  • Longue duree or ‘geographical’ time operating at the scale of environmental change.
  • Social time: used to measure the history of particular groups
  • Individual time: ‘the history of events’

Gilbert-Walsh (2010) observed that for Heidegger the phenomenological experience of time had these elements:

(a) A future orientated part in which we always head to the future—we are aimed at something.

(b) Past times that are experiences that become part of the current being or doing.

(c) Present time itself in which we are engaged with the now—also forward aiming.

This happens in a world in which we are already familiar with many moments from the lived past becoming part of ‘the now’ that we cannot separate ourselves from. A significant challenge to how the modern world could value time came from the analysis of how we experience time in the work of Henri Bergson—one of the first philosophers to profoundly engage with the subject of time. Temporality is the focus of Bergson’s (1929) ‘Time and Free Will’ that argues that time functions as a ground for everything. Time is independent, conditioned by nothing; but conditioning everything. According to Bergson underneath measurable quantifiable time is a constant flux, which he calls duration that connects time and consciousness. Duration has an immeasurable quality; it is lived and experienced time and in that it differs from Leibniz’s earlier definition of duration, which served as a length measuring term. Bergson viewed the experience of time as a multiplicity in which people allow themselves to experience time not only in a linear way, but also incorporate the past and memory and through that have an enriched living experience. In his view it is in this accumulation of images from past and present that creativity can happen (Gilbert-Walsh, 2010).

Bergson’s ideas are a return to the Greek term ‘kairos’—the right or opportune time to do something that is to be distinguished from chronos meaning uniform time. Chronos relates to measurement, the quantity of duration, by contrast, kairos indicates a qualitative dimension of time with an immersive character: something happens only at that time, marking an opportunity that probably will not recur (Smith, 1986: 4). We can find something related to this in Kant, whereby time is defined as not something that exists of itself, or is intrinsic in things: it is the form of inner sense, of the intuition of ourselves and of our inner state—similar to Bergson’s conceptualization. For Kant the present moment could never be grasped in isolation: time was measurable only by means of the impressions that lingered in our memory. For him time is not to do with shape nor position, but with the relation of us to our inner state; because time is interior and shapeless we cannot represent it without spatial analogies (Heffernan, 1987: 113).

Just after Kant passed away the first trains were invented and I will now examine how the advanced speed of travel changed perception and being. For Schivelbusch (1978) the idea that the advent of the railroad annihilated space and time was not related to incorporating new spaces into the transport network: what he observed as being annihilated was the traditional ‘space-time continuum’ characterized by the old transport technology. This is linked to Durkheim’s idea that a society’s space-time perception was a function of its social rhythm and territory. With changes to the psychology of distances and the relation of such distances the traveler’s space-time perception will affect the entire social structure in terms of a loss of its accustomed orientation. The sudden replacement of socio-cultural time measurement by an unaccustomed purely mathematical one, meant time had become devitalized with a subsequent loss of the ability to orient ourselves in the time process, to find out ‘where we are’. For example: the ever-advancing increase in the level and pace of communication and the subsequent reaction and expectation produces a lack of time for reflection. Contemporary phenomena like instagram ask the user to be non-contemplative and to react immediately, which nurtures endless self-exposure and overrules self-reflection.

In Arnold Hauser’s observations on the 20th-century concept of time the emphasis had been on:

[T]he simultaneity of the contents of consciousness, the immanence of the past in the present, the constant flowing together of the different periods of time, the amorphous fluidity of inner experience, the boundlessness of the stream of time by which the soul is borne along, the relativity of space and time. (Baigell, 1969)

That time had become cinematic was also a concern of Bergson’s and of course an influence on Cubism. Like Arnold Hauser, Souriau (1949) focused on these changes in time and their effect on the plastic arts’ and he distinguished between the arts of space (design, painting, architecture) from the arts of time (music, theatre, dance and poetry) to examine how the viewer perceived them. Spatial arts could be grasped in one moment while the time-based art’s reception was determined by the length of the piece. Souriau developed this notion to state that the contemplation of a work of art such as a painting or engaging with a work of architecture was related to the time the viewer wanted to spend with the piece whereas in ‘art of time’ the viewer has to give their time over to the creator of that piece.

Loshak (1989) gives a related argument about the impossibility of rendering a sound visually. How, in a still picture, can we express the passage of time: the forms are revealed simultaneously, however, allusions to it using points of varying distance will encourage the observer to intuitively imagine the time. Loshak’s analogy is Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and how it employs this device to portray the response to Munch’s anecdote:

I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red.

I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. And I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city.

My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.

The painting includes the two friends in the background on the boardwalk, diminished in scale as the horror increases. Their distance in space measures the time that the scream builds with the perspective preserving the naturalistic world of three dimensions but also introducing interior time, the most subjective dimension of time. Loshak tells us that Munch compared his art to music, yet music is an ‘art of time’; Munch’s painting were able to suggest a similar shaping in visual terms. Munch’s expressionism combines the ‘arts of space’ into ‘art of interior time’ or as Bergson put it: ‘

[W]e are compelled to borrow from space the images by which we describe what the reflective consciousness feels about time and even about succession.

The analogy of Munch’s use of perspective and Bergson’s theory of the psychological relations of time, is interesting in that Bergson’s work was published in Paris in 1889, the year Munch came to live there, soon after he had first painted this deep-perspective composition.

Rubens (1979) explains Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of time as also based on Bergson’s duration. Vonnegut had an optimistic idea of the experience of time and used the characters in his books to describe these. In The Sirens of Titan, Chronos— who represents punctual, regulated time—comes to the conclusion that time appears as a curse that was given to humankind, similar to ‘fate’. Chronos also represents the human urge of being organized and the need to explain everything by structure. The opposing character is Rumfoord, who has the Bergsonian quality of moving between times and through that is enabled to a wider understanding of being. He points out to his wife that all these punctualities humans impose on themselves don’t help them to avoid or address blows of fate. In Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut develops the character Billy Pilgrim who through his ability to move around different times and stepping out of them is able to live with such tragedies like the bombing of Dresden. It seems to be linked to dissociation and memory: Vonnegut himself was a prisoner of war in Dresden and survived the bombings. The idea of time being flux and events repeating themselves endlessly was his coping mechanism.



Time is an elusive concept and I would argue that we should begin again to give it the attention it deserves in understanding art and culture the way writers have in the past. Baudelaire (1863: 18) said that ‘in order that any form of modernity may be worthy of becoming antiquity, the mysterious beauty that human life unintentionally puts into it must have been extracted from it’ and I wonder how the unintentional beauty has a chance in a time where the constant overload of the emphasized now doesn’t give room for contemplation and the past is often disregarded. I have presented the case including a range of material about this ‘phenomena’. The work of Bergson points out that our space-time perception is a function of our society’s rhythm and how this is connected to our inner life. Our temporal imagination is key to understanding ourselves and I would argue that the ever-increasing speed we live in resolves in us being unbalanced. A needed understanding of time as an understanding of experience and existence is evident throughout history and in art and literature—all of which could have been explored in greater depth and at greater length. It becomes more and more difficult to live Bergson’s idea of duration and if we ask the question of what has happened to time the diagnosis is too much Chronos and not enough kairos—we live in a chronic chronosis and are at full speed trapped in the now.



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Dickens, David R. & Fontana, Andrea (2002) ‘Time and Postmodernism,’ Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 389-396.

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Minkowski, Hermann (1918) ‘Time And Space,’ The Monist, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 288-302.

Rubens, Philip M. (1979) ‘”Nothing’s Ever Final”: Vonnegut’s Concept of Time,’ College Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 64-72.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang (1978) ‘Railroad Space and Railroad Time,’ New German Critique, No. 14, pp. 31-40.

Smith, John E. (1986) ‘Time and Qualitative Time,’ The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 3-16.

Souriau, Etienne (1949) ‘Time in the Plastic Arts,’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,’ Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 294-307.