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Thursday, April 21, 2022


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Hello Bill,

We have started with the following,

The presentist faces a problem of formulation. He tells us that only what exists at present exists.The problem is to say what the second occurrence of 'exists' in the italicized sentence expresses or denotes. What are the combinatorially possible views?
Your painstaking case analysis of possible understandings of the second 'exists' and your rejection of each of them, apart perhaps from the tautologous (A), suggests to me that this characterisation of presentism is at fault. We have been focusing on the second 'exists'. What about the first? If the 'at present' non-trivially qualifies 'what exists' then this first 'exists' must have more than a present-tensed sense. We have been looking for exists simpliciter in the wrong place. I suggest we start with
Only what presents exists,
where this 'exists' has its ordinary tensed sense. Now I have to explain what 'presents' means. It seems that we have a pre-theoretical understanding that all items can be exclusively categorised as past, present, or future, at least in so far as we freely use these terms in arguments about time and existence. So my suggestion is that 'what presents' means the same as 'those items categorised as present'. My reformulation is,
Only those items categorised as present exist.
Winston Churchill does not present; Boris Johnson does. We are quantifying here over the domain of 'items' which is strictly larger than the domain of 'present existents'.


You asked me about tenseless verbs in ordinary English. I'm not convinced. Copulative and identitarian 'is' are grammatically verbal and can carry tense but they are hardly 'doing words' as we called them at school. In 'Hume is an empiricist' I think 'Hume' functions metonymically for 'Hume's written works' (which we have in the present). I remember being told by the Latin master to 'open your Kennedy at page 23' and finding this rather odd at first. 'Cats are animals' etc, 'seven is prime', and 'ideas derive from sensory impressions' express relations between concepts. We tend to think of such relations as fixed over time which perhaps explains why 'grue' is such hard work. Are there examples of tenseless usages outside the conceptual sphere (in which I include numbers)?


Your comments are provocative and challenging as usual.

>>We have been focusing on the second 'exists'. What about the first? If the 'at present' non-trivially qualifies 'what exists' then this first 'exists' must have more than a present-tensed sense.<<

That's right. 'What exists at present' is to be read as a redundant expression. My meaning is better conveyed by: "Only what exists (present tense) exists." If that is not a tautology, then the sense of the second occurrence of 'exists' needs to be specified.

>> My reformulation is,
Only those items categorised as present exist.<<

Categorized by whom? Presumably by us. But now the question assumes an anti-realist form. The question, however, concerns existence itself independently of us and its relation to time, which is independent of us. So I cannot accept your reformulation.

You may also be conflating temporal presentness with experiential/phenomenological presentness. What is temporally present need not be present to any mind.

These are all different: temporal presentness, spatial presentness, phenomenological presentness, and presentness as existence.


David writes, >>We are quantifying here over the domain of 'items' which is strictly larger than the domain of 'present existents'.<<

A. That is a natural thing to say, but it raises nasty questions. Are you saying that there is a class of items that exist tenselessly only some of which are temporally present? You are presumably not saying that. (Garden variety B-theorist)

B. Are you saying or implying that there is a class/domain of items that ARE tenselessly but do not EXIST tenselessly such that the all and only the existing ones are temporally present? I don't think you want to say that either.(Palle Yourgrau)

C. Are you saying or implying that there is a class/domain of items that have no being whatsoever, but yet come within the range of our quantifiers when taken 'wide open'? (Meinong) Presumably not.

Please tell me what you mean.

I accept your four distinct senses of presentness.

I am closest to your (C) since it avoids talk of tenselessness but I would quibble with the wording of 'within the range of our quantifiers when taken 'wide open'' since the latter is to close to 'everything' and this is ill-defined. In my view when we make quantified statements we are free to choose the domain of quantification. In no way is the domain 'forced' on us though clarity behoves us to specify it.

Let me try to embed the presentism question in a somewhat larger context.

My mind is populated with ideas of things. I acquire these ideas (a) directly through acquaintance with external objects and (b) indirectly by description in language and image. These ideas of things guide my interaction with the outside world. Having seen a bear go into the cave or having been told 'There's a bear in the cave', I approach the cave with caution.

Through my contact with the external world I come to accept that all external things come into existence, exist for a while, and then pass out of existence. The ceasing to exist of things that I am familiar with and am attached to is an everyday experience. When I have such an experience, or have a thing's passing described to me, my idea of that thing becomes modified. None of the idea itself passes away, at least not initially. Instead the idea (not the thing it's an idea of) acquires a new attribute, analogous to the label 'Account Closed' on the front of a business ledger, signifying that, to a first approximation, the content of the idea can be safely ignored for purposes of guiding my life. I might express this label by saying 'The thing is past' or 'The thing is in the past' or 'The thing has ceased to exist'. The important point here is that, despite appearances, these assertions are not predicating something of the thing itself but rather of my idea of it, namely that the idea is redundant.

Something to similar effect occurs when I read fiction. My mind acquires an idea of Captain Ahab, say, but labels it fictional. I might express this by saying 'Captain Ahab is a fictional man', but if we see this as asserting the property 'fictional' of some man then we quickly get into logical deep water. What I really mean implies that the content of the idea fails to represent or to have a referent.

And likewise when reading history. My mind fills with ideas of people and events all labelled as past. But I need not concern myself with bumping into Winston Churchill or becoming embroiled in WWII.

I am clearly influenced by neo-Meinongianism. Ideas both encode properties of their objects and exemplify properties of their own. But I wouldn't want to say that 'there is a class/domain of items that have no being whatsoever'. That sounds ontologically much too strong as well as contradictory. On the other hand I don't want to rule out quantification over mixed domains of existents and non-existents. We may well consider those men, past and present, who were or are US president, and compare and contrast among them, to the exclusion of all others. This doesn't seem to cause trouble though we gloss issues of tense: Lincoln was/is taller than Trump; there are/were 45 such men.

In short: The existents are the encounterables, and that does not include the past.

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