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At T-time, the Inchoative Nick of Time, and “Statements about the Past”: Time and History in the Analytic Philosophy of Language*

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AbstractThe paper, drawing on articles by J. M. E. McTaggart, G. E. Moore, D. Davidson, J. L. Austin, B. Russell, A. J. Ayer and G. E. M. Anscombe, argues that the philosophy of language in the analytic tradition has developed an “inchoative” view of time, and history is a problem as regards the existence of events in the past and how these events can be known. An alternative view is hinted at through the work of L. Wittgenstein and S. Cavell.

1. FN0* I would like to thank Professor Paul Roth (University of California, Santa Cruz) for his unfailing encouragement and invaluable help while I was writing this article, as well as for his very thoughtful corrections. Without him, the article would simply not exist. However, all remaining errors are mine.
2. FN11) On the Moore-McTaggart encounter see Moore’s “An Autobiography”, in Paul Arthur Schlipp (ed.)., The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, The Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. IV, 3rd ed., La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1968, 11–14.
3. FN22) Schlipp, The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, 14.
4. FN33) The by now classical examples of the analytic philosopher who thought that e.g. Martin Heidegger, taken as the chief representative of “the metaphysician”, created obscurity on purpose are Rudolf Carnap and A. J. Ayer. Carnap wrote: “Many people, now, feel a desire to create over and above these manifestations [emotional, volitional, etc. reactions] a special expression of their attitude [to life, the environment, etc.], through which it might become visible in a more succinct and penetrating way. [. . .] What is here essential for our considerations is only the fact that art is an adequate, metaphysics is an inadequate means for the expression of the basic attitude.” (Rudolf Carnap, “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language”, (1932) trans. by Arthur Pap, in A. J. Ayer (ed.), Logical Positivism, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1959, (60–81), 79). Ayer wrote: “In general, the postulation of real non-existent entities results from the superstition [. . .] that, to every word or phrase that can be the grammatical subject of a sentence, there must somewhere be a real entity corresponding. For as there is no place in the empirical world for many of these ‘entities’, a special non-empirical world is invoked to house them. To this error must be attributed, not only the utterances of a Heidegger [sic!] who bases his metaphysics on the assumption that ‘Nothing’ is a name which is used to denote something peculiarly mysterious, but also the prevalence of such problems as those concerning the reality of propositions and universals whose senselessness, though less obvious, is no less complete.” (A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books (1936, 1946), 1972, 59).
5. FN44) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. by D. F. Pears and V. F. McGuiness, London: Routledge (1921, 1961), 1989, “Preface”, 3.
6. FN55) Hans Sluga: “the philosophy of language is the foundation of all the rest of philosophy” (H. Sluga, Gottlob Frege, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980, 2); Michael Dummett: “we may characterize analytic philosophy as that which follows Frege in accepting that the philosophy of language is the foundation of the rest of the subject” (M. A. E. Dummett, “Can Analytic Philosophy be Systematic, and Ought it to Be?” in Truth and Other Enigmas, London: Duckworth, 1978, 441); Anthony Kenny: “If analytic philosophy was born when the ‘linguistic turn’ was taken, its birthday must be dated to the publication of The Foundations of Arithmetic in 1884 when Frege decided that the way to investigate the nature of number was to analyze sentences in which numerals occurred” (A. J. P. Kenny, Frege, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1995, 211).
7. FN66) And one would like to add Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Gimbattista Vico, perhaps even Socrates, and lots of others.
8. FN77) P. M. S. Hacker, “Analytic philosophy: what, whence, and whither?” in Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar (eds.), The Story of Analytic Philosophy. Plot and Heroes, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, (3–34), 12.
9. FN88) This is of course by no means to suggest that Mauthner was, in turn, a “continental” philosopher.
10. FN99) The Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Analytic Philosophy (eds. by A. P. Martinich and David Sosa, Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2001) starts with chapters on Frege and Russell, respectively, 6–44.
11. FN1010) E.g. Readings in The Philosophy of Language (ed. by Peter Ludlow, A Bradford Book, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: The MIT Press, 1997) starts with Frege’s “The Thought: A Logical Inquiry’ (9–30) and Part III entitled “Definite and Indefinite Descriptions” with Russell’s “Descriptions” (323–333); in The Philosophy of Language (ed. by A. P. Martinich, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) Part III (“Reference and Descriptions”) at the beginning we find Frege’s foundational “On Sense and Nominatum [Reference]” (199–211) to be followed by Russell’s equally famous “On Denoting” and “Descriptions” (212–227).
12. FN1111) G. J. Warnock, English Philosophy since 1900. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press (1958), 1963, 11, 12 and 13.
13. FN1212) I take the key sentences (in the concluding paragraph) to be: “The question requiring to be asked about material things is thus not: What reason have we for supposing that anything exists corresponding to our sensations? but: What reason have we for supposing that material things do not exist, since their existence has precisely the same evidence as that of our sensations? That either exist may be false; but if it is a reason for doubting the existence of matter that it is an inseparable aspect of our experience, the same reasoning will prove conclusively that our experience does not exist either, since it must also be an inseparable aspect of our experience of it. The only reasonable alternative to the admission that matter exists as well as spirit, is absolute Scepticism [sic!] – that, as likely as not, nothing exists at all.” (Moore: “The Refutation of Idealism”, in Philosophical Studies, New York: Thew Humanities Press and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1951, (1–30), 30.
14. FN1313) I am of course aware that I am far from doing justice to the very intricate argumentation by Moore even with respect to “The Refutation of Idealism”. Taking into consideration Moore’s later positions on skepticism, perception and knowledge as well, Scott Soames discusses the validity of Moore’s arguments and their relevance for the present day in detail in Part I of his admirable Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Vol. I, The Dawn of Analysis, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003, 3–88, see especially Chapter 2, 12–33. For an equally fairly recent discussion of the main tenets of Moore’s philosophy see Ernest Sosa’s “G. E. Moore (1873–1958)” in A. P. Martinich and David Sosa (eds.), The Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Analytic Philosophy, 45–56.
15. FN1414) This is of course an all too brief summary but this is what I take to be the gist of McTaggart’s long (and sometimes tedious) argumentation. The key sentences seem to me to be: “If M [the Moment here and now] is present, there is no moment of past time at which it is past. But the moments of future time, in which it is past, are equally moments of past time, in which it cannot be past. Again that M is future and will be present and past means that M is future at a moment of present time, and present and past at different moments of future time. In that case it cannot be present or past at any moments of past time. But all the moments of future time, in which M is present or past, are equally moments of past time. [. . .] Nothing is really present, past, or future. Nothing is really earlier or later than anything else or temporally simultaneous with it. [. . .] And nothing is really in time. Whenever we perceive anything in time – which is the only way in which, in our present experience, we do perceive things – we are perceiving it more or less as it really is not” (J. M. E. McTaggart, “Time” (originally, as an extended and revised version of “The Unreality of Time”, in Vol. 2 of his The Nature of Existence, 1927), in The Philosophy of Time: a Collection of Essays, ed. by Richard M. Gale, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1967, (86–97), 96–97. See also the Editor’s lucid and detailed “Introduction” to the McTaggart-theory and its critics (65–85).
16. FN1515) Eva Brann, What, Then, Is Time?, Lanham, Boulder, New York and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999, 20–21. Some of the interpretations Brann, on these pages, enumerates are: “real and pure time: the absolute flux (Newton)”; “epochal time: human events driven by superpersonal historical forces (historicism)”; “the abstracted order of succession: relative time (Leibnitz)”; “time as the count and the counting of motion: objective and subjective number (Aristotle)”; “time as pure Becoming arising through the self-differentiation of space: time as incipient life of space (Hegel)”; “pure duration as the internal interpretation of heterogeneous moments and its homogenizing symbolization in space: the intensivity and extensivity of time (Bergson)”; “Time as a dual series (McTaggart)”; “the counting soul: the temporal ‘form of intuition’ (Kant)”; “the grounding of time: the ‘ecstatic’ temporalization of human Being (Heidegger)”; “the ‘stretching’ of consciousness: the intersection or retention-and-protention axis with the internal time-flux at the point of primary impression (Husserl)”.
17. FN1616) Brann, 131–133.
18. FN1717) See especially Brann, 100–109 and 126–156.
19. FN1818) See the Table of Contents in Bernard Harrison: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1980.
20. FN1919) On the recent marginalization of Wittgenstein see Lars Hertzberg, “Trying to Keep Philosophy Honest” in Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.). Wittgenstein: the Philosopher and His Works, Publications of the Austrian Wittgenstein Society, New Series, Vol. 2., Frankfurt: Ontos Ferlag, 2006, (82–97), especially 82–84.
21. FN2020) Cf. Harrison, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language, x.
22. FN2121) Harrison, xi. Harrison’s Word and World: Practice and the Foundations of Language (written with Patricia Hanna, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) retains this practice, and still relies heavily on Wittgenstein.
23. FN2222) Cf., for example Bernard Harrison, “What Are Fictions For?”, in Peter A. French and Howard K. Wettstein (eds.), Figurative Language, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 25, Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001, 12–35.
24. FN2323) Donald Davidson, “Truth and Meaning” (originally in Synthese 17, 1967) in: Readings in The Philosophy of Language, (89–107), 104.
25. FN2424) Davidson writes in Note 17 of his article: “There is more than an intimation of this approach to demonstratives and truth in J. L. Austin, ‘Truth’ (Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 24 [1950]).”, Davidson, 107.
26. FN2525) J. L. Austin, “Truth” in J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock (eds.) J. L. Austin: Philosophical Papers, Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1961 (pp. 85–101), 89–90.
27. FN2626) Austin, 89.
28. FN2727) Austin, 88, see further: “We may [. . .] genuinely say ‘His closing words were very true’ or ‘The third sentence on page 5 of his speech is quite false’: but here ‘words’ and ‘sentence’ refer, as it is shown by the demonstratives (possessive pronouns, temporal verbs, definite descriptions, etc.), which in this usage consistently accompany them, to the words or sentence as used by a certain person on a certain occasion. That is, they refer (as does ‘Many a true word spoken in jest’) to statements.A statement is made and its making is an historic event, the utterance by a certain speaker or writer of certain words (a sentence) to an audience with reference to an historic situation, event or what not.” (Austin, 87–88, emphases throughout original).
29. FN2828) I deliberately do not wish to say: “I know its (general) truth-conditions” because with Austin this is more complicated.
30. FN2929) Austin in a footnote mentions that “historic” of course “does not mean that we cannot speak of future or possible statements” (Austin, 88).
31. FN3030) Cf. Frencisco Cortés Rodrígez, “The inhoative construction: Semantic Representation and Unification Constraints” in Christopher Butler and Javier Martin Arista (eds.), Deconstructing Constructions, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2008, 247–270, especially 266. The inchoative is sometimes also called ergative, see Beth Levin, English Verb Classes and Alterations: a Preliminary Investigation, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993, 30.
32. FN3131) Bertrand Russell: Our Knowledge of the External World, London and New York: Routledge (1914), 2002, 171.
33. FN3232) Bertrand Russell, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism” in Russell, Logic and Knowledge, Essays 1901–1950, ed. by Robert Charles Marsh, London and New York: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. and The Macmillan Company (1956), 1968 (175–281), 179–480. Originally, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism” was “a course of eight lectures” Russell “delivered in [Gordon Square] London, in the first months of 1918” (Russell’s note, 177) and, according to the editor of the volume, “the best record of his development of [Russell’s] ideas which he had discussed with Wittgenstein in the period 1912–14” (Russell, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism”, 175).
34. FN3333) F. Waismann, The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy, ed. by R. Harré, London, Melbourne, Toronto: Macmillan and New York: St Martin’s Press (1965), 1968, 32 (in the original It is true that is between double quotation marks but then the “jam-packing” of the various inverted commas would have caused confusion, so I italicized the sentence). Waismann is one of those rare thinkers in the analytic tradition who addresses the problem of time explicitly but it would perhaps been better if he had not because he only argues that time cannot be defined, that Augustine “was led astray by the fact that the word ‘time’ is a noun” and he “looked for the object signified by it” (175) (which surely does not show a deep understand of either Augustine, or the problem of time) and he concludes that we get along very well without the precise definition of time because we are “taught” what time is through examples such as “morning”, “now”, “tomorrow”, “yesterday” etc. (cf. 172–175). I find this is a very superficial treatment of the problem.
35. FN3434) Originally: “Statements about the Past,” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1950–51.
36. FN3535) A. J. Ayer, “Statements about the Past”, Philosophical Essays, London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd. and New York: St Martin’s Press (1954), 1965, (167–190), 168, pagination is with respect to this edition.
37. FN3636) Cf. Ayer, 183.
38. FN3737) Cf. “It is indeed only by consulting our memories, assisted by other records, that we come to have any knowledge of the past” (Ayer, 175).
39. FN3838) Cf. e.g.: “If there is no returning to the past, how can a set of present experiences be in any way a ground for the existence for believing in the existence of a past event?” (Ayer, 170).
40. FN3939) Ayer, 179.
41. FN4040) Cf. “Suppose that I am asked at this moment to delimit the class of events which are strictly present; I think it would be perfectly correct for me to reply that they are all and only those events that lie within the temporal boundaries of that gesture; the gesture of my hand’s moving across the paper” (Ayer, 179).
42. FN4141) Cf. e.g. “. . . to ask when, or at what rate, or for how long, events in general accompany or succeed each other is just nonsensical” (Ayer, 181).
43. FN4242) Cf. Ayer, 187.
44. FN4343) Cf. Ayer, 187.
45. FN4444) Ayer talks of “demonstratives” on page 187.
46. FN4545) Ayer, 184.
47. FN4646) Ayer, 185.
48. FN4747) See also some of the introductory sentences of the article: “. . . it sometimes happens that people are deceived by their senses; not all perceptions are reliable: some account must be taken of the conditions in which they are made. But the philosopher is interested in the general question whether perception ever gives us ‘knowledge of an external world” (Ayer, 168).
49. FN4848) Thus, the “charm” of the paper is that it was written when Wittgenstein was still alive and Philosophical Investigations (first edition in 1953) had not yet been published; yet it was written by the future translator of Wittgenstein’s other major work besides the Tractatus. (Wittgenstein died on 29 April, 1951.)
50. FN4949) Anscombe writes in footnote 3: “In this example [when one gives the proper name A to a bang and wants the bang to be repeated and ‘we say that it is impossible to get what is asked for’] I have repeated remarks made by Dr. Wittgenstein in discussion. Everywhere in this paper I have imitated his ideas and methods of discussion. The best that I have written is a weak copy of some features of the original and its value depends only on my capacity to understand and use Dr. Wittgenstein’s work” (G. E. A. Anscombe, “The Reality of the Past” in Max Black (ed.), Philosophical Analysis: a Collection of Essays, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc. (1950), 1963, (36–56), 50.
51. FN5050) Anscombe, 49.
52. FN5151) Anscombe’s example, 37, and passim.
53. FN5252) Cf. Anscombe, 47.
54. FN5353) Cf. “When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say ‘Mr. N. N. is dead” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, The German Text, with a Revised English Translation, 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (1953, 1958), 2001, § 40).
55. FN5454) Cf. “I now seem to be brought to the position of saying that I know what it is to have (or apparently have) such knowledge, and that it is only if that understanding which I have is in the learner that he can mean ‘red’ [. . .] as a report of the past showing of the red light” (Anscombe, 45) “How can the attribution of anything to the state of mind I shall then be in establish any connection between my words then and this thing happening now?” (45) “In general we must fail if we try to explain the sense of statements about the past by means of present memory, consciousness of meaning, quality of images or anything of the kind. For either we have left out all reference to the actual past, or we have surreptitiously introduced it into an explanation that proposed to do without it” (46); “no one could understand, e.g. the description that I gave of the practice of the learner in connection with the coloured [sic!] lights, if he did not already understand the past tense: for it was used in the description of what the learner did” (55, emphases throughout original).
56. FN5555) Cf. “Now it is clear that no theory of knowledge can introduce any mention of actual past events – other than those which are remembered – into its description of what it is to know statements about the past. And so far as I can judge, only the account of meaning given by Wittgenstein enables one without begging the question to introduce mention of the actual past events into one’s account of knowing the past that one has witnessed. This is made possible precisely by that feature of his method which is most difficult to accept: namely, that he attacks the effort at justification, the desire to say: “But one says ‘was red’ because one knows that the light was red!” One says “was red” in these circumstances (not: recognizing these circumstances) and that is what in this case is called knowing the past fact. To say this is not to profess to give an analysis of what one really knows” (Anscombe, 35–36, emphasis throughout original).
57. FN5656) I am deliberately quoting from a text of Wittgenstein’s that has found its way into a collection of readings in the philosophy of language: “Excerpt from The Blue and Brown Books” in Peter Ludlow (ed.) Reading in the Philosophy of Language, 36. In paragraphs 89 and 90 of Philosophical Investigations time – now with explicit reference to Augustine’s famous interpretation of time in Book 11 of the Confessions – is an example again to bring home some ideas concerning philosophical method: “Something [such as time] that we know when no one asks us, but no longer know when we are supposed to give an account of it, is something we have to remind ourselves of” (§ 89). “We feel as if we had to penetrate phenomena: our investigation, however, is directed not towards phenomena, but, as one might say, towards the ‘possibilities’ of phenomena. We remind ourselves, that is to say, of the kind of statement that we make about phenomena. Thus Augustine recalls to mind the different statements that are made about the duration, past, present or future of events. (These are, of course, not philosophical statements about time, the past, the present and the future).” (§ 90). In paragraphs 607 and 608, Wittgenstein returns to time but then he asks what it means to “judge what time it is” and one of his conclusions is that “the idea of the intangibility of that mental state in estimating the time is of greatest importance” (§ 608). However, here, too asking what a mental state is the real question, not the problem of time (in the sense of how it is told).
58. FN5757) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 116.
59. FN5858) The most detailed account of such a reading can be found in Part One (“Wittgenstein and the Concept of Human Knowledge”) and in Chapter VII (“Excursus on Wittgenstein’s Vision of Language”) of Part Two, in Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 3–125 and 168–190, respectively. To see how Cavell’s reading differs even from such “un-othodox” readings as Saul Kripke’s (Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), see Cavell, “The Argument of the Ordinary: Scenes of Instruction in Wittgenstein and in Kripke,” in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: the Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, The Carus Lectures, 1988, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1990, 64–100.
60. FN5959) Stanely Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Six Play of Shakespeare, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 7, emphases original.
61. FN6060) Cf. “. . . what philosophy know as doubt, Othello’s violence allegorizes (or recognizes) as some form of jealousy. Now, whatever philosophy’s dissatisfaction with its own understanding of doubt [may be], it will scarcely accept this step to jealousy as a help. Because whereas jealousy share with doubt the idea of suspicion, it shifts the philosophical balance in two ways: It makes the project of assurance or appropriation less cognitive, so to speak, than philosophy takes it to be; and it makes the object of suspicion uncomfortably, let me say, animate. But the shift of philosophical balance seems to me to uncover animism, so to speak, in the philosophical idea of doubt itself: Doubt, like belief, is most fully, say originally, directed at claims of others, of speakers; an appropriate reaction to, for instance, rumor, Iago’s medium” (Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Six Play of Shakespeare, 7).

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