Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Myth of the Tenseless (I)

Philosophers are prone to describe mathematical and conceptual statements (e.g. that two plus two makes four and that red is a colour) as ‘tenseless’ on the grounds that time is irrelevant to mathematics and conceptual analysis.  But of course our language does not know which topics are sensitive to time, so on this theory the English present verb form must be systematically ambiguous between present-tensed and tenseless interpretations.  The extravagance of such a theory is astounding.  A much simpler theory would be that English requires every message encoded with it to have a tense, even though sophisticated people understand that in mathematics and conceptual analysis the tense chosen is usually unimportant.  (Cf. Dudman, ‘Conditional Interpretations of If-Sentences’ (1984), §48.)

Sadly, cavalier attitudes towards language are endemic in modern philosophy.  This is the first in a series of posts exposing the problems that arise when people try to foist tenseless statements on English.

According to McArthur's introductory textbook Tense Logic (1976), the statement that it always rains in Boston ‘do[es] not convey any positional information concerning the temporal relation of the speaker and the event or state of affairs depicted’, and its truth-value is independent of the time of its utterance.  Sed contra: any speaker of English would understand the reply ‘I know, it's awful – it wasn't like this 50 years ago.’  This can only be because the habitual statement that it always rains in Boston is as present-tensed as it looks.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Confusion about the Future (II)

The lack of a future tense in Romance and Germanic languages is not widely known; on the tacit assumption that there must be one somewhere, people tend to seize on verb forms and modals whose function is to signal that the speaker is making not a statement of fact but a judgement in the absence of the relevant information – a function that makes them useful for discussing the future, of course, but also for making conjectures about present and past facts.

I shall not explain this further here; from the above remarks, it is obvious what is going on when, for instance, a Dutch blogger working in Cameroon writes of a friend whose time there has recently come to an end:  ‘Ze zal nu al thuis zijn, hopelijk heeft ze het niet te koud’ (‘she will already be home by now, hopefully she is not too cold’).

Instead, this is the second in a series of posts exposing the confusion that ensues when people fail to recognize that these Romance verb forms and Germanic modals do not intrinsically encode futurity.

This time my target is the common theory that the ‘future tense’, when not expressing the future, expresses probability as opposed to certainty.  This admits of a homely and a sophisticated refutation.

Firstly, there is no obvious uncertainty when a French couple, reporting on their round-the-world trip, write:  ‘On sera sans doute passé trop vite pour creuser et trouver des endroits plus sauvages, mais il y avait quand même un peu trop de tourisme a notre goût en Thailande’ (‘we will no doubt have passed through too quickly to delve deeper and find wilder places, but even so there was a bit too much tourism in Thailand for our tastes’).  Other examples abound.

Secondly, if non-future ‘will’ expressed probability, people would use it in situations where in fact they do not.  For instance, if you have just tossed two coins without looking at them, you won't assent to the claim that they won't both have come up heads – whereas you will assent to the claim that they probably won't both have come up heads.  What's worse, the same goes for any probability short of 1.

Both difficulties are avoided by the theory that what ‘zal’, ‘will’ and ‘sera’ have in common is that they signal a judgement in the absence of the relevant information – for it is of course possible to make a certain judgement even in the absence of concrete information.