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Kairos: Layers of Meaning

The name of this journal did not come without careful consideration or intention. This webtext reprint is from Kairos's Founding Editor Mick Doherty, who writes about the layers of meaning behind the journal's name.
Screenshot that includes the Kairos journal logo, journal title, navigation bar along the left, and a paragraph of text.
Screenshot of Mick Doherty's webtext, "Kairos Layers of Meaning" published in an un-dated issue of Kairos journal. 

by Mick Doherty

The name of this journal did not come without careful consideration or intention. Kairos, the ancient Greek term that can roughly be interpreted as a rhetorical combination of understood context and proper timing, carries exciting new implications in our developing rhetorics of hypertext and online communication. And as we borrow this ancient term for this new journal, we hope to call upon some of the many layers of meaning associated with this powerful word.

This post is reconstructed from a hypertext (itself reconstructed from an essay) written by Mick Doherty, published alongside the first issue of Kairos.

The Modern Rebirth of Kairos

The concept of "rescuing" classical terminology to re-invent a developing rhetoric is not new; as James Baumlin has pointed out, "other ages . . . have tried to resuscitate classical rhetorical methods and have often refined and applied the concepts in ways their classical predecessors had not anticipated" (174). Nor could the ancients have anticipated the way a term like "kairos" might be a defining factor in constructing a discursive argument with a faceless, yet immediate, interactive audience.

While "kairos" has not, as yet, been discussed in terms of computer technology, the term has re-emerged in the modern rhetorical academy, primarily due to the work of James Kinneavy, who re-introduced it as meaning, roughly, "situational context." But the word has multiple meanings, each lending itself to multiple interpretations.

Kinneavy, with Catherine Eskin, has provided something of a framework for diving into the semantic and linguistic subtleties of interpretation of the original Greek in "Kairos in Aristotle's Rhetoric." While Kinneavy reiterates his belief that Kairos has been a "neglected concept" (cf. 1986) in the field of rhetorical studies, he and Eskin assert that it has become a more acceptable term to utilize, due primarily—and ironically, given the ideas and processes which have generated this journal—to "timely advances in computer-aided referencing" (Kinneavy and Eskin 132).

Historical Connotations

With the increased interest in classical rhetoric over the past few decades, our field is deep within a revival of the terminology of that rhetorical era. The name of this journal, Kairos, is just one example of an ancient term that has regained popularity in contemporary theory. As scholars such as Corbett and Kennedy warn us, however, we need to be cautious in appropriating classical terminology. In addition to the variations in meaning that come with any translations, we are also dealing with terms that were originally deeply embedded within cultural contexts and their unique metaphors. Part of the purpose of this web, then, is to explore some of those contexts and meanings that surrounded—and still inform—the term kairos; such understanding is sure to add significance to our journal's name.

There are numerous starting points within this web, the paths of which cross threads with other paths along their ways. Here are a few places to begin your exploration of the history of the word kairos:

Many of the original meanings of kairos are based on metaphors or analogies rooted in within ancient Greek culture. This link begins to explore those metaphors.

Eric Charles White wrote in 1987:

Kairos is an ancient Greek word that means "the right moment" or "the opportune." The two meanings of the word apparently come from two different sources. In archery, it refers to an opening, or "opportunity" or, more precisely, a long tunnel-like aperture through which the archer's arrow has to pass. Successful passage of a kairos requires, therefore, that the archer's arrow be fired not only accurately but with enough power for it to penetrate. The second meaning of kairos traces to the art of weaving. There it is "the critical time" when the weaver must draw the yarn through a gap that momentarily opens in the warp of the cloth being woven. Putting the two meanings together, one might understand kairos to refer to a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved. (White 13)

In both senses, an artist (an archer, a weaver, an orator) must seize upon the crucial moment to perform accurately and skillfully in order to achieve a goal. The archer will connect suddenly and impactfully with his target; the weaver will forge a lasting bond upon which he can later build. It should not surprise, then, that the sophists seized upon "kairos" as a term defining the goal of effective communication.

To recognize the audience quickly and make a lasting first impression worked hand-in-glove with building a rhetor/audience bond that would last at least through the duration of the argument at hand. Aristotle himself identifies kairos as intrinsically related to audience—that is, it is important to get the attention of the audience, but to occasionally choose a moment to re-awaken them to the attention of the speaker. That moment, recognized, chosen and acted upon, is kairotic or interchangeably, kairic.

Kairos also has its roots in other cultural and legal contexts. This link explores these other origins of kairos and its related terms.

Kairos was one of two Greek terms often used to mean "time"; the other, chronos, had a distinctly quantitative meaning. Kairos was a more qualitative term, as per culturally-based analogies to archery and/or weaving—however, it maintained an element of ethical balance. As Carl Glover points out, Kinneavy's "conclusions and classroom applications of kairos ignore . . . the chronos/kairos distinction" (91). Nonetheless, for definitional purposes it is easy to see how Kinneavy arrived at "situational context." In some scholarly translations of both Plato and Aristotle, karoi is roughly equivalent to entautha + pote irois which has been translated as "circumstances." Kinneavy and Eskin note that "kairos" mediates the theoria/praxis distinction outlined in Plato's Phaedrus.

Aristotle more commonly used the term poia, meaning "occasions" or (sometimes) "reasons," which is less forceful than the meaning implied in "kairos." However, Aristotle did see great value in the concept of kairos—particularly in the Athenian courtroom, where the great rhetoricians of the day battled over epieikeia, the legal concept of equity which best translates to "kairic law."

The duties—the officia—of the Greek courtroom rhetor were to, within the realm of propriety and decorum (to prepon), seize upon the eukairon, the opportune, to dissuade the audience from his opponent's position. The dissociated, contradictory concepts—the dissoi logoi—of the case were both recognized as potential truths; the rhetor, then, needed to sway the audience that to dynaton (the possible) was in this instance actually to doxa (the probable).

In the courtroom, the matter under judgment—the synechon—was generated by the conflict between the charge of the prosecutor (kataphasis) and the denial of the defendant (apophasis). The topoi, or various forms of argument available to and utilized by the rhetors, depended largely on the techne (or, usually technai, for the versatile, effective rhetor!)—the specific rhetorical strategy (-ies) employed.

The effective prosecuting rhetor began his argument with nomos—the tradition-based known, accepted factors—and proceeded with practicality and good sense (phronesis). With appeal to arete (good character) among other topoi, the rhetor attempted to convince his audience that—again, in this instance—his argument was based in orthon: a kind of knowledge that approached the (unattainable) universal truth.

Of course, the "defendant" argued toward orthon as well, in presenting the quaestio, the rhetorical question used as a focus for the opposing views. While this focused heavily on peristaseis (surrounding circumstances), the primary tool of the accused was apate—deception. This classical use of what has become a pejorative term calls to mind the fact that in the Greek argument, a deception was not necessarily a falsehood; it was an acceptable techne. Since it was generally accepted by Greek orators that both sides of an argument could be, in various circumstances, "true," it was the kairic element that became decisive.

The presented arguments were eventually judged to be kairos/akairos (what Miller translates as "seasonal/unseasonal"), and the epieikeia (equitable solution) reached was a decision made precisely and only for that single situation. What Kinneavy and Eskin note of modern rhetoric was as true in that Greek courtroom: "rhetoric must focus on what is appropriate to present circumstances" (136). Miller concurs: "The art of rhetoric must be an instrument by which one indeterminacy struggles with another" (313). The rhetorical struggle is resolved with the most accurate firing of the weaver's arrow—the most effective use of the kairos of the situation.

The Rhetorical Situation

Before defining "most effective use" in terms of rhetoric and kairos, there is a further question: is the rhetor recognizing the kairos of the situation, or creating it? The rhetorical situation—that perhaps-mythical creation debated by Lloyd Bitzer and Richard Vatz in Philosophy and Rhetoric almost a quarter of a century ago—defined here demands a dual perspective of what kairos might mean. Carolyn Miller addressed the problem by pointing to the distinctions between kairos and chronos:

Bitzer's objectivism insists that the situation exists independent of the demands on the rhetor . . . Richard Vatz offers another perspective, suggesting that situations are created by rhetors; thus, by implication, any moment in time has a kairos, a unique potential that a rhetor can grasp and make something of . . . These two perspectives on situation can be clarified by contrasting the two Greek terms for time, chronos, the quantitative term, and kairos, the qualitative term. (Miller 312)

Given this appropriate distinction, we can begin to see kairos even in terms of Consigny's meaningful demarcation of "tool" and "realm." The proper time (the kairos) for presenting an argument may be seen as something the speaker grasps and utilizes (a tool) or a situation in which the speaker exists and recognizes (a realm). In a very real way this brings us all the way back to the original weaving/archery terminology associated with kairos; an archer must recognize the situation and attack it very precisely, while a weaver is in the midst of creating his own (coming full circle to Kinneavy) situational context. This should not be construed as an either/or situation; Miller herself returns to the archery/weaving references to kairos by concluding, "we should remember that an opening can be constructed as well as discovered" (Miller 313).

It is cogent to point out here that a postmodern twist to the Bitzer/Vatz argument would almost certainly require a siding with Vatz, whose argument can at least be construed as social construction; Miller implicitly does so by aligning Bitzer with chronos in her description. Ironically, to do so is to deny the very essence of kairic argument; in certain contexts (peristaseis), depending upon both the chronos and kairos of the situation, both arguments (while not orthon) can be true.

Kairos as Tool, Kairos as Realm

Clark et al. have utilized Scott Consigny's examination of Aristotelian and Ciceronian topoi to argue that "any technological artifact . . . can be seen as both a tool—something functional or working in the world, and as a realm—a reconceptualized worldview with the theory/technology foregrounded" (n.p.)

Hypertext provides us an immediate example of both tool and realm. Hypertextual programs can be seen as tools for composition, while hypertext is its own realm of writing, requiring unique ways of thinking and composing.

If we are to revive kairos as an effective tool (and realm) for the composition instructor, we must realize that most of the arguments Plato presented about writing itself in the Phaedrus can be (and are being) made about computers and writing, so little has really been changed by (the tool of) the networked classroom. What is changing the classical application is the realm of that classroom, a realm based largely in the principles of writing-as-process and collaborative writing promoted by social constructionist theory. Baumlin even claims that "contemporary philosophy . . . has taught that writing constitutes rather than merely reflects reality" (178).

Michael Carter, who has proposed that social constructionism is the key to classical rhetoric "working" in contemporary writing theory, calls upon one other Greek term to act as a counterbalance to kairos: stasis.

Carter believes the best way for us to approach an understanding of kairos is through examination of this different, but perhaps related ancient concept of stasis. He explains that Kinneavy's theoretical approach "understands rhetorical kairos as situational context and uses that principle to emphasize the contextual nature of all discourse, even the discourse of the composition class . . . [however], stasis was the method by which rhetors in the classical tradition identified the area of disagreement, the point that was to be argued, the issue on which a case hinged." He continues, "The stasiastic procedure not only identifies the rhetorical issue, but also leads the rhetor to topoi appropriate to that issue" (Carter 98-99).

Carter cites Antoine Braet in saying, "new rhetoricians have ignored the crucial role of stasis, which makes rhetoric firmly dialogical, its goal not the imposition of one position on an audience but a critical discussion among the participants" (97). Already, this should begin to sound vaguely hypertextual; in this sense, stasis is a techne, where kairos is not. This crucial difference allows for us to refer to kairos as simply a realm, whereas stasis functions as the corresponding tool. Carter continues, "Kairos and stasis together form a principle that provides a sensitive and powerful explanation of the role of social context from within the domain of rhetoric itself" (109). The tool and the realm, stasis and kairos, formulate the entirety of the domain, rhetoric, in terms of social contextualization—or, for our purposes, social construction.

Technological Connections

So, how are kairos and technology related? And why is kairos such an appropriate term for this hypertextual journal?

Simply put, technology has both sped up and changed written communication, opening up new senses of context and timeliness for writers. As numerous scholars (Hawisher, Selfe, Moran, Johnson-Eilola, Doherty, et al.) have noted, e-mail and other online writing present both writers and readers with unique new rhetorical contexts:

  • We read screens differently than we do paper, so presentation must be adjusted accordingly.
  • The speed of sending e-mail or "publishing" a Web document allows for exciting immediacy and currency of content.
  • The writing/reading act becomes more interactive with the ease of e-mail response.
  • Hypertext and multimedia allow for a larger view of "composition."
  • The social dynamics of the writing/reading act are changed when more people consider themselves to be "writers" or "authors." The nature and ease of "publishing" adds to these changes.

But what exactly does Kairos have to do with kairos?

This new journal has a great deal to do with kairos, particularly in terms of its appropriateness and timeliness in our field at this time. As we are discovering the value of hypertextual and other online writing, it is not only important to have a forum for exploring this growing type of composition, but it is essential that we have a webbed forum within which to hold those conversations. With this journal, the Kairos staff and authors intend to push many envelopes--of theory and pedagogy, of technology, of composition, and of professional scholarship--at a time when these efforts are vital to continued growth of our field. In essence, we've tried to make this the most kairotic journal we could.


Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Kennedy, George A., trans. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Baumlin, James S. "Decorum, Kairos and the 'New' Rhetoric" in Pre/Text 5:3-4 (1984): 171–83.

Bitzer, Lloyd. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (January, 1968): 1–14.

Carter, Michael. "Stasis and Kairos: Principles of Social Construction in Classical Rhetoric." Rhetoric Review 7.1 (Fall, 1988): 97–112.

Clark, J. M., Davidson, W. F., & Doherty, Jr., M. E. (1996). Cyberwrite: Implications and Applications of Virtual Discourse for the Composition Class. Unpublished manuscript.

Consigny, Scott. "Rhetoric and Its Situations." Philosophy and Rhetoric 7 (1974): 175–88.

Doheny-Farina, Stephen. "The Individual, the Organization, and Kairos: Making Transitions form College to Careers," in A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy. Stephen P. Witte, Neil Nakadate and Roger D. Cherry, eds. Southern Illinois UP: Carbondale, 1992.

Doherty, Michael E., Jr. Cyberwrite and "Audience Accessed": Kairos Comes Online in the Composition Classroom. Unpublished Master's Thesis Bowling Green State University, 1994.

Glover, Carl Wesley. Kairos and Composition: Modern Perspectives on an Ancient Idea. Unpublished dissertation. Louisville: University of Lousville Press, 1990.

Kinneavy, James. "Kairos: A Neglected Concept in Classical Rhetoric." in Rhetoric and Praxis: The Contribution of Classical Rhetoric to Practical Reasoning. Ed. Jean Dietz Moss. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1986.

Kinneavy, James and Catherine Eskin. "Kairos in Aristotle's Rhetoric" in Written Communication 11.1 (January 1994): 131–42.

Miller, Carolyn R. "Kairos in the Rhetoric of Science." in A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy. Stephen P. Witte, Neil Nakadate and Roger D. Cherry, eds. Southern Illinois UP: Carbondale, 1992.

Vatz, Richard. "The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 155–60.

Welch, Kathleen. The Contemporary Reception of Classical Rhetoric: Appropriations of Ancient Discourse. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 1990.

White, Eric Charles. Kaironomia: On the Will-to-Invent. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Witte, Stephen P., Neil Nakadate and Roger D. Cherry. A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy. Southern Illinois UP: Carbondale, 1992.