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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Are the Tenses Quantifiers?

In his recent paper "Tense, Modality and Semantic Values" King argues that there are no genuine tense operators in English. The English tenses are object-language quantifiers. 'John is hungry' is analyzed as 'John is hungry at the time of speech', 'John was hungry' is analyzed as 'there is a past time t & John is hungry at t', and 'John will be hungry is analyzed as 'there is a future time t & John is hungry at t'. King's article has been widely discussed. And many prominent philosophers (e.g., MacFarlane and Stanley) have, at least in print, given the impression that they are sympathetic to it. But it is not entirely clear how this treatment of the tenses could account for all English sentences. Here are a couple that would seem to resist this sort of treatment.

It has always been the case that objects persist over time.
It will always be the case that Socrates exists, located temporally before us.

'It has always been the case that objects persist over time' certainly doesn't mean that for all past times t, objects persist over time at t. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to analyze these sentences if King is right?


Richard Zach said...

The analysis of the first sentence depends on your analysis of "objects persist over time". But the second one doesn't pose any problems, as far as I can see. If u is the current time then that sentence is can be analysed as

for all t > u, there is a w < t at which Soctrates exists and for all w: if Socrates exists at w then w < t

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Richard,
Thank you for your reply! That seems right. What about the following:

It will always be the case that Socrates exists

It might be argued that the sentence has two readings. For suppose 'Socrates exists' has two readings. One reading would be false, something like "Socrates is presently among us", and another would be true if metaphysical eternalism is true. But if 'Socrates exists' has two readings, then so does 'it will always be the case that Socrates exists'. It seems that you can't capture both readings (without radical paraphrasing) if you treat the tenses as quantifiers. It was this sort of problem I had in mind.

Brit Brogaard said...

Richard, I meant to reply to your reply to the other case as well. Relatively untutored folks might say 'things persist' or 'the universe is 4-dimensional' or 'we are spread out in space and time; we always were, and we always will be'. But I don't see how the quantifier analysis could account for these cases.

Richard Zach said...

Isn't the ambguity in the first case an ambiguity in "exists" and not anything having to do with the tenses? There's Exists1, true of Socrates only during his lifetime, and Exists2, true of Socrates at any time. The two readings differ only in which existence predicate is used; the analysis of the tense si the same.

For the "persistence" case, it seems to me, the problem is similar: the hard part is to say what it is for objects to persist at a time t (maybe you need extra quantifiers that allow you to say "most things which exist at u (the current time) have existed for a short while").

Carrie Jenkins said...

I'm not sure I'm seeing what the problem is. Take:
1. It has always been the case that objects persist over time,
and the proposed translation:
1*: For all past times t, objects persist over time at t.
This seems fine, provided it means something like:
1**: For all past times t, it is true at t that objects persist over time,
and not something like:
1***: For all past moments t, objects are actually doing some persisting over time at those very moments t.
(That's not very graceful English but I hope you can see the distinction I'm after?)

Brit Brogaard said...

Richard: your suggestion definitely solves the problem. But not everyone would be happy with it. I think metaphysical eternalists insist that there is just one quantifier (i.e., 'exist' cannot be ambiguous, according to them).

Carrie: Right. However, the problem is that the interpretation appears to be ambiguous (between your two readings). Since it is ambiguous, it cannot be an adequate semantic analysis.