Kairos and chronos in medical practice | Hippocrates ~ 300 BCE

Attributed to Hippocrates is the use of the term kairos in observational methodology, and the presentation of significant findings.

Hippocrates uses timing and time issues continually throughout his medical works. His most famous statement on kairos occurs at the beginning of his book called Precepts. It has been translated as: “every kairos is a chronos, but not every chronos is a kairos.” I will quote it more fully: [p. 98]

  • Time [chrónos] is that wherein there is opportunity [kairós], and opportunity [kairós] is that wherein there is no great time [chrónos]. Healing is a matter of time [chrónos] but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity [kairós]. However, knowing this, one must attend in medical practice not primarily to plausible theories, but to experience combined with reason. For a theory is a composite memory of things apprehended with the sense- perception. For the sense-perception, coming first in experience and conveying to the intellect the things subjected to it, is clearly imaged, and the intellect, receiving these things many times, noting the occasion, the time and the manner, stores them up in itself and remembers. Now I approve of theorizing also if it lays its foundation in in- cident, and deduces its conclusions in accordance with phenomena. ( Jones I.313 – 15)

Kairos here is clearly aligned with experimentation, with experience, with incident, with phenomena. It is opposed to theorizing separated from these contacts. This solid declaration placed medical methodology on the path which it has fairly steadfastly pursued in Western civilization since that time. Hippocrates also defines “theory,” insisting that it is intimately tied to and re- liant upon the particular context of observed experience. The process of the- orizing is thus made more complex, but certainly not cut off from the realities of normal experience. The definition’s proximity to the statement on time and the theoretical weight of timeliness in the definition further prove the importance of kairos in the overall outlook of Hippocrates. [p. 99]

Just to be scholarly, Hippocrates is generally reported as a institution, rather than a person.

Although Hippocrates is generally accepted as the father of medicine, few have recognized, or even realized, the extent to which he is responsible for the discourse of science more generally (and some might even claim, of history as well). Perhaps the reason for this oversight is the lack of agreement about the connection between the historical figure of Hippocrates and what is generally called the “Corpus Hippocraticum.” There is no doubt that an historical physi- cian named Hippocrates existed, but the ability of scholars to prove (or dis- prove) his authorship of certain medical texts throws his reliability into doubt (Levine, 19; Prioreschi, 231). For this reason, when I refer to “Hippocrates,” I am not referring to the doctor born on Cos in 460 b.c., but rather to the Hip- pocratic Collection gathered c.300 b.c. by the Alexandrian Medical School. These texts are what has come to represent for us the notion of Hippocrates and Hippocratic medicine. Beyond the issues of textual assignation, however, are the very innovative ideas which Hippocrates left for posterity. [p. 97]


Eskin, Catherine R. 2002. “Hippocrates, Kairos, and Writing in the Sciences.” In Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis, edited by Phillip Sipiora and James S. Baumlin, 97–113. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. https://sunypress.edu/Books/R/Rhetoric-and-Kairos .