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.

1 comment:

Edward Ockham said...

I just spotted this. Obiicitur: If 'it always rains in Boston' and 'It rained in Boston two years ago' are contraries, as your example suggests, then that suggests the present tense is not as present as it looks.

This reminds me of a nice argument I came across last week. The disjunction in 'it rains, or it has rained, or it will rain' clearly suggests that the 'rains' is to be understood as present tense.

I am reading a lot of thirteenth century material on this. Example here: