About the characteristics of historical time



A comparison of two moments of contemporary experience – 1968 and today – with profoundly different meanings.

In a passage from the first volume of Temps et Récit, Paul Ricœur draws attention to the paradoxical character, not, of course, of the immovable formal structure of historical time, of the distinction between past, present and future, but to the kind of repetition that is found in the very hemorrhagic variation of irretrievably singular events, in fact , as required by the very concept of event.

The following is said there: “The intrigues themselves are at the same time singular and not singular. They speak of events that only happen in the intrigue considered; but there are types of constitution of intrigues that universalize the event”. (Ricœur, 1983, p. 364)

It can be seen, therefore, that, to deal with the point, Ricœur appeals to the concept of “type”, of types of event. But how to understand this? Much earlier, Ricœur had explained that “the kind of universality that the plot entails derives from its order”, as it is the “internal connection as such” that outlines the universals (Ricœur, 1983, p. 85). This is why Ricœur concludes: “the universals that intrigue engenders are not Platonic ideas”, but, rather, “relatives of practical wisdom, therefore, of ethics and politics” (Id, ib.), so that “it is the intrigue that must be typical” (Id., p. 84.)

It is impossible to reconstitute Ricœur's very complex theory of history here, but, to minimally clarify the position expressed in the cited passages, it should be clarified that even though the concept of "intrigue" is understood as a technical term of the narrated history and designates the concatenation of events as present in the work of historians, he does not fail to refer to the “entities orchestrated by the historical discourse” (Ricœur, 1983, p. 321): the agents, motives, intentions, actions, interactions of which the narration it is narration.

Therefore, I believe that when Ricœur says that it is the “internal connection as such” that outlines the universals, it must be understood that even though this connection is the connection present in the historical narrative, his assumption is that the narrated has a corresponding configuration. If so, the universals that are generated by the typical configurations of the narratives must find their instances, not only in the historians' narratives, but also in the articulations of the narrated facts themselves.

Which is to say that when historians demarcate an epoch, identify a revolution, describe years of economic development, or a period of demographic increment, they are implying that these historical universals are finding correspondence with the occurrence of instances of change of status. epoch, of revolution, of economic development, of demographic increase in societies and in the times whose narratives they are making.

Now, assuming that the categorical term suitable for designating historical universals is “type”, how should its relation to events that can be considered as instances of such a type be formally understood? Or, more simply, how should one understand the relationship between a historical universal and its instances?

Even if Ricœur does not, if we first pay attention to the term he used to designate historical universals, the concept of “type”, we are naturally led to think about the way in which, since Peirce (Peirce, 1906, p. 492–546 ), Anglo-American philosophy has considered the point, that is, we are brought to par type-token. However, this Steps would be a mistake, because just read the entry Types and Tokens, by Linda Wetzel, at  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to realize that not only is there no consensus on how the distinction should be understood, but also that none of the varied ways in which it is understood seems adequate to elucidate the way in which a historical universal relates to its instances. For what interests us here, what is important to point out, however, is that, except in the case of what interests us here, historical universals, the temporal variation in the occurrence of instances is irrelevant, does not affect and is alien to the determination of the mode in which that the universal term relates to its extension. In the exception constituted by historical types, this is not the case, since instances are intrinsically time-referred, not just extrinsically datable, as is the case with instantiations of any other properties and entities.

If so, our question becomes: what relationship is there between instances of a type of historical event and time? Which allows us to say that one of these Tokens is it anachronistic, in the sense in which we have been saying that the events of 1968 of the twentieth century appear to us as irrevocably anachronistic when compared with the experience and political protests of today?

To try to answer this question, it might be worth starting at the opposite pole, paying attention to what happens to a natural event like dawn. Leaving aside what happens in winters at extreme latitudes, it can be said that each of our days begins with sunrise. In this case, the identification of each event is done through the chronological determination of its occurrence, by indicating the date and time at which the dawn takes place.

Roberto Casati and Achille Varzi, when considering the point, show that the identification of each dawn can also be done indexically by “an ordered pair where i is the relevant period of time (corresponding to the descriptor 'this morning') and φ is the sentence 'The sun rises'. In these cases, it can be said that cyclic repetition, at least in the great geological intervals and if the deterioration of the environment does not produce endless nights, it makes no sense to speak of anachronism of a given dawn. In cases like this, even though the supervenience of events obviously takes place at different times, the chronological and therefore numerical diversity of each dawn is inert with regard to the nature and intensional content of the successive events. In this sense, instances of the dawning concept are equivalent replicas of an event-type.

In the case of a historical universal, the relationship between generality and its instances is of a different order, to borrow an expression from Deleuze (Deleuze, 1968, p. 7). And this not only because historical time includes qualitative divisions, the expressions of its division setting chronological milestones ‒ moments, conjunctures, periods, epochs and eras ‒ in function of the variation of compatibilities and affinities between institutions, uses and customs, the culture and the decisions that occur in social life, but also because the differentiation of instantiation cases is sensitive to temporal changes, which obliges them to be considered as unlucky, chronic, if the special use of the term is admitted, or as misfits in relation to this same set of circumstances, being, in this sense, anachronistic.

So, when we say that the events of 1968 appear to us today as anachronistic, this means that the changes that occurred in the macroconfiguration of historical time in the last forty years, the mode of articulation between State and Market and the cultural prevalence of neoliberalism, impacted in such a way in our lives that the kind of link that existed in the previous period between frustration and utopian hopes has been loosened in such a way that insurrectionary movements, or semi-insurrectional ones like those of that time, can no longer take place.

This does not mean that there are no more large-scale protests in our days, because, in fact, after a period of great lull in social movements, we have witnessed in the most recent period a kind of return, a return of popular movements. However, current movements take place under the sign of “indetermination”, of conceptual and strategic indeterminacy, sometimes in the form of an express ideological and programmatic reservation, as in the case of the yellow vests, sometimes in the form of ambiguity, as in the case of the large urban protests of 2013 in Brazil, or in the simultaneous emergence in the United States of a growing leftist position within the establishment in the heart of the Democratic Party, with the leadership of Sanders and Warren and, on the other hand, an undeniably protest vote for Donald Trump's candidacy, or in the great rallies and marches that took place in Brazil from 2014 until President Dilma's impeachment .

It is, therefore, taking into account, on the one hand, the disconnection of social dissatisfaction and utopian hopes ‒ a result of the massive consecration of individualism as a standard of life brought about by a globalized society practically hegemonized by the neoliberal social ideal and, on the other hand, the indeterminate nature of current social protests - it is worth highlighting the anachronism of the events of 1968. As anachronizing sources of the disconnect between social dissatisfaction and collective protests, it is worth emphasizing the dominant role of the advance of individualism as a way of life, but also another major determinant of this phenomenon, which was demoralization of real socialism as a way of structuring modern societies after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Before concluding the examination of this point, it should also be noted that the claim about the anachronism of the 1968 of the last century paid attention to and was based on the most salient of the economic, sociological and political aspects of the global development that occurred in global society in the last forty years. It should be noted, however, that it would be a serious oversight to ignore that human experience unfolds in other dimensions, so that economic structures, socio-institutional conditioning and the social prevalence of behaviors and values ​​not only cannot do anything against the normative dimension of human experience , nor do they block, at least not insurmountably, our intelligence, our imagination and our aspirations.

For this reason, in a small article from 1998, written to evoke and commemorate May 68 in France, I was able to write: “But May 68 has a second destiny. There is the expression of another force there, the force of repetition, the same force that makes old age take nothing away from childhood, that makes the other seasons powerless against spring and that assures everything of an inevitable and glorious fresh start. (…) In this new register, May 68 never passes, it is a constant virtuality, the readiness for the irruption of events that shake power structures, generational crystallizations, constellations of values ​​and representations and that open space for the gesture and the cry in favor of a freer life, for a less drowsy and gray everyday life, for a happier society, for an existence of creation and audacity”.

It should be noted, however, that what is designated above as the force of repetition and virtuality are expressions that need to be well understood. I take them in the sense in which Heidegger first exposed them, also taking advantage of Deleuze's reading of his lesson.

I refer to what Heidegger says at the opening of the fourth section of Kant and the problem of metaphysics: “By repetition of a fundamental problem we understand the opening of its hitherto hidden original possibilities, through the elaboration of which it is transformed and only in this way the problematic of its content is preserved. Preserving a problem means releasing and veiling the inner strength that underlies its essence as a problem. The repetition of the possibilities of a problem absolutely does not mean simply capturing what is 'commonly given', which 'justifies visions of what can be done'. This possible is simply what is all too effective and from which everyone does what they want. Understood in this way, the possible is precisely what will prevent all genuine repetition and thus all relation to history. (Heidegger, 2019, p.207.)

Certainly, directly, Heidegger is speaking in this text of a philosophical problem, the problem contained in Kant's three questions: What can I know? What should I do? What can I expect? Questions that, comments Heidegger, explain the general interests of man as a 'citizen of the world'. However, such problems, philosophical problems, are not problems in the disciplinary sense, they are not philosophers' problems, but they are constitutive problems of human experience. And this is exactly why they can be “repeated”, they can be repeated because, as constitutive, their solution would imply overcoming, to a greater or lesser extent, the human condition itself.

When Aristotle says at the end of the first book of the Politics that living alone is something for anyone who is either below or beyond us, he is naming not only the social nature of man, but the constitutively problematic character of human sociability, since there are no problems in the proper sense in animal sociability, as well as there will be none for hypothetically superior beings, whose sociability is not constitutive of their way of being.

What I mean is that, since the terms of human sociability are not automatically resolved by genomic determinations, as occurs in the case of other animals that Aristotle and Hobbes also called politicians ‒ as is the case of bees, ants and termites ‒, being rather faced through institutional solutions of an essentially conventional nature, it turns out that these will necessarily be “cases of solution”, that is to say, prosthetic expedients whose possibility resides and whose raison d’être lies in a crack that can be filled, but which in itself does not can be extinguished and whose reappearance is inevitable, since the bases of each social formation, like the tectonic plates of the terrestrial lithosphere, are mobile. It is exactly from this constitutive and structural nature of the problem of human sociability in the deepest and most proper sense of the word problem that derives our relationship with history and epochal divisions.

From this follows the necessarily anachronizing character of history and its virtual constancy. The anachronizing character of history stems from the fact that the ways of facing the complex of economic, social, political and cultural problems ‒ which, moreover, are but the main aspects of the fundamental problem of every human society ‒ are distributed contingently and discontinuously in the time. Its constancy, however, stems from the insurmountability of its problematic character, from the fundamental problem of sociability, so that the institutional solutions proposed to it do not actualize any essence, but are rather the contingent realization of virtualities that are inherent to it.

It is in this sense, as an expression of the point at which repeatedly, even if each time in its own way, the limit of a certain way of social life is found, that I said above that “May 68 never passes, it is a virtuality constant readiness for the eruption of events that shake power structures, generational crystallizations, constellations of values ​​and representations and that make room for gestures and cries in favor of a freer life, for a less drowsy and gray everyday life, for a happier society, for an existence of creation and audacity.

Which is to say that if, as dated occurrences, the protests of 19 can be considered anachronistic, as signs of an irreducible dimension of human sociability, they are beyond chance and anachronistic, because, as Foucault says: “The insurrections belong to history. But somehow they escape it. The movement by which a man, a group, a minority, a people says: “I no longer obey” and throws the risk of his life in the face of a power that he considers unjust – this movement seems to me irreducible. (...) And that's because a man who rises is finally without explanation; a jerk is needed to interrupt the thread of history and its long chains of reasons so that a man can “really” prefer the risk of death to the certainty of having to obey. (…) Because they are thus “out of history” and in history (…) it is understandable why the uprisings could so easily find the expression of their dramaturgy in religious forms. (Foucault, 68, 2001-790)

The reader may, of course, be concerned about the paradox contained in the statement that “while signs of an irreducible dimension of human sociability”, perfectly dated events can be taken as transhistorical.

I believe that the considerations made above already allow us to understand the meaning of this statement, but perhaps it is not too much to repeat that events such as those of 1968 are placed beyond history insofar as their protests, in addition to expressing dissatisfaction and contestation of specific historical situations, they reinstate the general problem of human sociability and say: the solution that the present institutional framework offers does not work! And it doesn't work because the underlying problem, the problem of how the terms of cooperation between members of society and the mechanisms that generate differences in income are to be determined, status, power and culture between them remains unresolved and therefore inescapably open.

Which is to say that there is at the heart of human sociability a demand for justice whose satisfaction is never perfect and definitive. This is why the repetition of protests in different historical moments can be said to be transhistorical, since the repetition replaces, in a necessarily open series, this same structurally problematic dimension of the human condition. I think the thesis becomes less paradoxical if we think that just as it can be said that in each case of an elementary addition like 2+2=4 the result is dated, obtained at an exact point in time, and, at the same time, that it is timeless, it can also be said that in the case of social insurrections, the fact that each one of them, by reopening the structural problem of human sociability, occurs on a specific date and historical moment, does not prevent that, at the same time, its most profound is transhistorical.

Note, however, that the comparison just made is radically imperfect and may lead to misunderstandings. The repetition of the result of an arithmetic operation like the one mentioned is not only trivial but also irrelevant for determining the content of the problem, since both this and its solution follow necessarily and monotonously from the axioms of arithmetic, notably from the successor function. Here, the heuristic strength of the operation is entirely subjective, as can be seen when we first learn to count and perform our first operations.

However, in the case of what we call the problem of human sociability, this is not the case at all, since the very determination of what the problem is, of the problematic content of the problem, depends on the way in which the individuals who compose and form societies understand what are the difficulties to be solved. This is what makes social problems always institutional problems, problems that result from instituting beliefs and acts, instituting institutions.

It is also for this reason that both the repetition of the instituting acts and the denunciation that the insurrections make of them - despite the fact that they iteratively call into question the same question of the terms in which the coexistence of human individuals should be regulated - each time vary and , by varying, open up the space of history. This space in which all repetition is repetition of the different, because as Heidegger says in the passage quoted above, in the “repetition of a fundamental problem” necessarily takes place “the opening of hitherto hidden original possibilities contained in it, through whose elaboration the content that makes a problem is, at the same time, transformed and preserved”. It is also in this sense that the formation of a new form of society is incommensurable with the formation of a new anthill, or a new beehive.

*Joao Carlos Brum Torres is a retired professor of philosophy at UFRGS. Author, among other books, of Transcendentalism and Dialectics (L&PM).

Selected excerpt if article originally published in the journal Criterion, Belo Horizonte, Special Edition, January 2021.

To read the first part of the article click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/1968-ontem-e-hoje/


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ARISTOTLE. “Complete Œuvres”. Paris: Flammarion, 2014.

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CASATTI, R., VARZI, AC “Events”. In: ZALTA, EN (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia  of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab., Stanford University, 2015.

DELEUZE, G. Difference et repetition. Paris: PUF, 1968.

FOUCAULT, M. “Useless to soulever?”. In: FOUCAULT, M. Dits et Writings II. Paris: Gallimard, 2001.

HEIDEGGER, M. Kant and the problem of metaphysics. Translated by Marco Casanova. Rio de Janeiro: Via Veritas, 2019.

PEIRCE, CSS “Prolegomena to an Apology for Pragmaticism”. The Monist, Volume 16, Issue 4, p. 492-546. October 1906.

RICŒUR P. “Temps et récit. Volume I, L'intrigue et le récit historique”. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1983.

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ZOURABICHVILI, F. “Le vocabulary de Deleuze”. Paris: Ellipses, 2013.


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