Perspectival Tenses and Dynamic Tenses


As far as our experience goes, we live in a dynamic present. Those two phenomenal features of experience—presentness and dynamism—are obviously connected. However, how they are connected is not obvious at all. In this paper, I criticise the view according to which the former can explain the latter, which I call sophisticated representationalism. My criticism will be based on an ambiguity in the notion of tense found in the philosophical literature, that between the perspectival understanding and the dynamic understanding of tenses. The distinction is not just of independent interest, but it has a role in providing indirect evidence for the claim that the feeling of passage of time should be understood in non-representationalist terms.

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  1. 1.

    A fourth position, attitudinalism, is discussed in the last section as a variant of sophisticated representationalism.

  2. 2.

    Although it may be that any dynamic representation of reality requires being centred on a “now” and hence being perspectival. Thanks to an anonymous referee for having pointed out to me that nothing in the paper rules out this possibility.

  3. 3.

    See, e.g.: “Reflection on the qualitative character of [...] experiences [of temporal features of reality] suggests that events occurring now have a characteristic property of nowness responsible for a certain special “feel”, and that events pass from the future to the present and then into the past.” (Paul 2010); “To explain what makes experience distinctive, the thought goes, we have to bring in the idea that experience makes the presence of certain phenomena manifest to us, where this involves characterising experience in tensed terms.” (Hoerl 2009); “One is told that we feel time pass or that the present is sensed as special[...]” (Callender 2008); “It is [...] difficult [...] to account for the sense in which some experiences are known to be occurring, or present, as opposed to not occurring, or absent” (Balashov 2005); “Does our impression of the flow of time, or the division of time into past, present and future, tells us nothing at all about how time is as opposed to how it merely appears to us muddle-headed humans?” (Davies 1995); “I have spoken of the fact of passage in terms of the present or now.” (Schuster 1986). Mozersky (2006) distinguish the fact that “the present is experientially privileged” form the fact that “as we interact with the world it appears as if time, in some non-metaphorical sense, passes”, but he also seems to think that the account of those two facts should go together. On the connection between the present and consciousness, see Meyer (2015).

  4. 4.

    Someone may disagree with this restriction, for instance by taking the belief to arise exclusively from comparisons between beliefs, memories and expectations (something along those lines is argued in Braddon-Mitchell 2013). I am not considering this option in this paper. Suffice here to notice that it is a form of deflationism, in that it does not recognise a specific phenomenal character of pure passage, and I have argued against deflationism in Torrengo (2017).

  5. 5.

    See Crane (2009) and Chalmers (2004). The thesis is often called intensionalism, which is also the label for a (related) view on temporal experience in the “specious present” literature, as opposed to extensionalism (see Dainton 2008; Phillips 2014; Hoerl 2013). I will not discuss the issue of intensionalism vs. extensionalism here.

  6. 6.

    See also Hoerl (2013) for further arguments against this position.

  7. 7.

    Terminological caveat: if you think of the content of a mental episode e (e.g., a perceptual experience) in propositional terms, then the claim that e has a “tensed content” does not entail (but it is compatible with) the claim that its content is a tensed proposition; the tensed aspect of the content may be encoded at the level of the Kaplanian character (Kaplan 1989). More on this later on in the text.

  8. 8.

    I’m referring to Prosser’s argument to dismiss naive representationalism, but I am aware that the dialectic in Prosser’s paper differs from the one here: Prosser is arguing against the possibility of exploiting a representationalist account of the experience of the passage of time to support realism of the passage of time, rather than criticizing naive representationalism per se.

  9. 9.

    Mellor (1998); see also Oaklander (2004). A different approach is in Deng (2013).

  10. 10.

    A similar thought is in Prosser (2016).

  11. 11.

    It is somehow surprising that the debate on temporal experience has started to focus on the problem of accounting for the phenomenal character of the experience as of passage only since very recently (Paul 2010 is seminal, and Prosser 2016 is the first book-length treatment of it, and the issue is also discussed in Skow 2015). However, my depiction of the sophisticated representationalist is not a complete straw man. Almäng (2014) argues extensively for the thesis that the content of our experiences is tensed. Although he is not explicit on this, he seems also to suggest that the experience of the passing of time is grounded on the content of experience being tensed. The work of Kriegel (2015) can be used to formulate a related position, which I call attitudinalism, according to which the feeling of the passing of time is a feature of our attitude towards representational content—its temporal directedness towards the present. I discuss explicitly Almäng and Kriegel in the last section.

  12. 12.

    This seems to be the idea behind the characterisation, in metaphysics, of the realist position with respect to the passage of time in terms of primitive tenses. The origin of it dates back to McTaggart and Broad, and has its standard formulation in Prior (1962, 1968); for more recent examples, see Correia and Rosenkranz (2011), and Lowe (2006), among others. I do not think that it is incorrect to qualify realism of the passage (or at least one version of it) in this way, but if one takes seriously the challange from Fine (2005) on how to distinguish a world containing genuine flow from a world with a “frozen” present (see also Leininger 2015), it becomes crucial to distinguish between the ordinary notion of tense as indexical feature of our language, and the “dynamically loaded” notion of tense as feature of the content of experience. (For an intelligent criticism of Fine’s point, see Tallant 2013.)

  13. 13.

    This feature is reflected in the formal treatment of the semantics of the past and future tense operators, where the truth conditions differ precisely with respect to the direction of the temporal series involved (Kaplan 1989). See also Fine (2005): “Suppose we provide a complete tenseless description of reality; we say what happens when, and in what order, but without any appeal or orientation towards the present time.”, and Dyke (2013): “[...]grammatical tense is tied to the notion of deictic centre; a reference point relative to which events are located in time[...]”.

  14. 14.

    See Moore (1987). Note that if the content of the representation is understood in propositional terms the target “object” is a world.

  15. 15.

    See Oaklander (1994).

  16. 16.

    Fine (2005), Lipman (2017) and Callender (2008) make an analogous point.

  17. 17.

    See Recanati (2007).

  18. 18.

    Is it reducible to other features? Maybe. If so, then “irreducible” above has to be understood as relative to (1*)–(3*).

  19. 19.

    Although, among the grammatical concepts, probably there are temporal notions that refer to representations that encode information that may be characterised as dynamic, such as the progressive tense in English.

  20. 20.

    A full account of my proposal is in Torrengo (2017). See also Perry (2013, p. 497), who compares (i) B-representations, eg. a calendar, which provides a map of the tenseless relations between the days of a year, (ii) A-representations, eg. a representation of the same order from the point of view of today (“In the middle of the chart there are three columns, labeled “Yesterday”, “Today,” and “Tomorrow.” There are additional columns to the left of these three, labeled “the day before yesterday,” and “the day before the day before yesterday,” and so on[...]”), and what he calls “dynamic representations”, which are constituted by “[t]he calendar, plus the magnet [a peg on today], plus my practice of moving the magnet at midnight[...]” (italics mine). The calendar plus the peg (and a direction) is enough to give us a \(\mathrm{tensed}^{-}\) representation, but we need to add something (the practice to move the peg, according to Perry) to make the representation dynamic.

  21. 21.

    Cfr. Almäng (2014).

  22. 22.

    Almäng’s terminology is slightly different from the one I have adopted so far. Rather than saying that we have experiences with a certain phenomenal character, he uses locutions of the form “experiencing a perception (or some other mental episode) as being so and so”. However, “experiencing a perception” in his idiolect does not mean having the perception as an intentional object, rather “sui generis, as something that we experience” (Almäng 2014).

  23. 23.

    Importantly, the fact that certain perceptions are experienced as being (just) past is not to be confused with the fact that we may remember experiences having occurred in the past (even long ago).

  24. 24.

    See Perry (1979), Mellor (1998) and Torre (2009). Roughly, knowing that I have to catch a train at 12:00 won’t motivate me to go to the station in time, unless when it is about 12:00 I think something like “Now it’s time to go”.

  25. 25.

    As Almäng also notes, the irreducibility of the tensed element of the content has no bearing on whether the feature of reality or the fact that is represented is irreducibly tensed or not. For discussion and further references, see Dyke (2003).

  26. 26.

    “[...] tensed content functions just as any other indexical content. It is irreducible to tenseless content, yet it can have tenseless truth-conditions. Tensed content is constitutive of a function which takes as its value the context of the act of perception and yields certain conditions of correctness for that particular act of perception (Almäng 2014).

  27. 27.

    Kriegel (2015).

  28. 28.

    Is the past-orientedness of the complex attitude typical of perceptions different from the past-orientedness typical of recollection? There are many difficult and interesting questions here. Luckily, we can leave them aside here, since nothing central to what follows hinges on them.

  29. 29.

    Kriegel’s proposal is about the felt temporal orientation rather than the felt sensation of passage of time. Here I am extending it as an account of the phenomenology of passage, but I am not claiming that Kriegel’s view is committal towards such an extension. Thus, what I call attitudinalism is not Kriegel’s position but rather a position derived by an extension of Kriegel’s position. I note here in passing also Falk (2003), who maintains what it could possibly described as a “tenseless” version of sophisticated representationalism, or a middle way between attitudinalism and sophisticated representationalism. Discussion of Falk’s work on the fact of the arguments in this paper is matter of future work.

  30. 30.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for having pushed me to say more on this point. I have explicitly defended the plausibility of the working hypothesis that ET is an ingredient of virtually all our experiences in Torrengo (2017).


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Thanks to Giacomo Andreoletti, Davide Bordini, David Braddon-Mitchell, Valerio Buonomo, Samuele Iaquinto, Dave Ingram, Cristian Mariani, Kristie Miller, Daria Vitasovic, Thomas Sattig, Nick Young for useful comments and suggestions. Thanks to the project 2015-0746 (15-5-3007000-601) of Fondazione Cariplo and Regione Lombardia, and project 15-6-3007000-2021 of Università degli Studi di Milano for financial supports.

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Correspondence to Giuliano Torrengo.

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Torrengo, G. Perspectival Tenses and Dynamic Tenses. Erkenn 83, 1045–1061 (2018).

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