Ontologia del Lenguaje – RAFAEL ECHEVERRÍA

RAFAEL ECHEVERRÍA (1994), em Ontologia del Lenguaje (Santiago: Lom Ediciones, 2005).


A characteristic feature of this phase of history that we call Modernity, which extends from the beginning of the 17th century to the present day, has been to sustain a conception of time that conceives it as linear, continuous and homogeneous.

Two factors seem to have contributed to generate this conception. First, the importance that since the beginning of Modernity natural sciences and particularly physics have acquired. For a long time, they served as a model of rigorous thinking and their assumptions were often imported uncritically into the field of reflection on human phenomena. Well, during a long period dominated by Newton’s mechanical cosmovision, physical time was considered precisely as absolute and autonomous. The flow of time is conceived as a linear and continuous sequence of equivalent units. From the point of view of Newtonian physics, one minute was exactly the same as any other minute.

To the impact coming from the development of physics, a different but complementary factor is added. This is the invention of the mechanical clock in the 14th century and its impact on social coexistence (See Echeverria (1993), chapter II, page 36).

This invention completely modifies the social concept of time, allowing human beings to synchronize the way they coordinate actions and, as a consequence, substantially increase the efficiency and productivity of the actions undertaken as a whole. From that moment, human time is put in reference to the mechanical time of the clock which, obviously, homogenizes it. One minute is one minute for everyone and this is the time it takes for the second hand to turn the dial of the clock. It is the mechanical behavior of the second hand that defines the concept of time that governs human behavior.

Within physics, the concept of time will undergo a radical transformation from the theory of relativity developed by Einstein in the early 20th century. One of Einstein’s main contributions was to question the assumption of Newtonian absolute time and its resulting concept of simultaneity. The curious thing about the case, however, is that the new Einsteinian conception, instead of undermining the everyday concept of human time, strongly influenced by mechanical physics, separates from it, showing itself as an abstract time concept, alien to human time. We verify, therefore, that human beings continue attached to a mechanical concept of time, even when physics itself has already made abandonment of it.

From the developments made in this chapter on the subject of emotions and states of mind, we see that not every moment, not every unit of physical time, implies the same possibilities. For human beings, time is not homogeneous. What can happen in one minute is not equivalent to what can happen in any other minute. The density of life that a certain minute can contain for a person is not equal to what that same minute contains for another person. The flow of human time is a succession of discontinuous occasions, very different from each other and often very different for the different individuals involved.

The density of human time is heterogeneous, since the same physical unit of time can contain very different possibilities. Something that could not be done for years can be opened up as a possibility for one minute and closed down immediately afterwards.

That minute is very different from the one that preceded it or from the one that will follow it. Human time, measured mechanically, is simply not the same. Once we accept the above, we recognize that emotionality, inasmuch as it specifies different dispositions for action and, consequently, spaces of different possibilities, constitutes a fundamental factor in evaluating the different densities of human time. It is perhaps in this aspect where our traditional conception, based on the model of rational action, shows one of its main deficiencies.

The effectiveness of human action is not only a function of our capacity to rationally articulate means to achieve certain objectives. The effectiveness of our action is also a function of our capacity to observe, evaluate and design those emotional spaces that make possible what was previously not possible or that close possibilities that were previously open. The effectiveness of our action is a function of the emotional conditions (our own and those of others) inherent to the situation within which we operate. And there is no human action that escapes this emotional conditioning. At home, at work, at play, etc., what we can do, what we can achieve, will depend to a large extent on the existing emotional conditions.

This leads us to an important confrontation registered in Ancient Greece at the time when what we have called “the great metaphysical drift” was inaugurated, which we see today in crisis, but of which we are still part. The Greeks before the fathers of metaphysics, Plato and Aristotle, had recognized the heterogeneous character of human time. And they had a term through which they accounted for it. They talked about kairos.

Kairos, for the Greeks, was that moment of the right time, of the adequate time, of the occasion in which the possibility manifests itself in temporality and then disappears in it. Through kairos, it was recognized that the value of an action is realized in time and that not all time is the same. Sometimes one acts too early, other times too late.

But also sometimes one acts at the right time. To refer to the latter, the Greeks coined the term kairos.

Kairos was a term commonly used by athletes to refer to that moment when they were given the opportunity to perform a certain action. In the sport of archery, for example, it was used to refer to the opening or opportunity to shoot, the cylinder through which the arrow has to pass on its way to the target.

The same term was also used by horse-cart riders to refer to that moment when a space opened up for them to overtake their opponent. For much of the race the runners knew that they could not help but stay behind the one who had taken the lead. But many times there were moments when there was an opening, an opportunity, to accelerate the horses and move forward. Such moments were called kairos (Richard Ogle’s personal communication).

In a second sense, as kairos, the term was associated with the art of weaving in the loom trade. It referred to that critical moment when the weaver must pull the thread through the gap (opening) that opens momentarily in the warp of the fabric being woven.

Gorgias, one of the great sophists and, therefore, a repeated target of criticism from metaphysicists, incorporates the term kairos as a central distinction of his theory of rhetoric. Gorgias is dedicated to investigating the power of language and its capacity for transformation. Language, he says, “can stop fear and banish suffering and create joy and nourish compassion.”

Like the rest of the Sophists, Gorgias is dedicated to training young people in the virtues of citizenship, what the Greeks call “areté”. He understands that the nascent democratic practices taking place in Greece rest precisely on the linguistic skills of the citizens and, very particularly, on the exercise of the art of persuasion.

To this end, Gorgias insists, the speaker must always be attentive to the flow of the conversation in order to detect the opportunities (kairos) that open up to persuade the listener.

The emotional level of the conversation is a decisive aspect to ensure its success, both for the speaker (in which case we talk about ethos) and for the listener (in which case we talk about pathos). The speaker, therefore, must move in the conversation as the sailor does, always attentive to the sense and strength of the waves and the direction of the wind; always ready to change the position of his sails. The truth is intrinsically related to its context.

It will be what the community accepts as such and, in that sense, truth is seen by Gorgias as the very result of the art of persuasion.

Both Plato and Aristotle are strongly opposed to the positions taken by Gorgias. For them, truth exists independently of individuals, even if it is possible for them to access it through rational thought. Once such a truth is reached, language is the instrument through which it is communicated to others. What matters in communication, according to the position taken by Aristotle, is the content of truth in what is said. Both the ethos of the speaker and the pathos of the audience require subordination to the logos. The latter gives an account of the content of truth and represents the rational aspect of communication.

With the predominance of the metaphysical program, the recognition of the heterogeneous and discontinuous character of human time was progressively diluted. With this, we forget the importance of the notion of kairos proposed by the Greeks and incorporated in the teachings of non-metaphysical philosophers, such as Gorgias de Leontini.


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