What the progressive aspect tells us about processes


Numerous authors have attempted to carve an ontological distinction between events and processes on the basis of a widely noted linguistic datum involving count and mass nouns, where events are thought to be analogous to countable objects while processes to non-countable stuff. By assessing the most developed of these proposals—that of Helen Steward’s—this paper locates the motivations behind the project of carving some such distinction between events and processes, and proceeds to offer considerations toward an alternative account of processes—one whose ontology is more akin to that of states than it is to stuff.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Parsons (1990: §2) provides a concise summary of evidence in support of a Davidsonian semantics. I wish, however, to remain neutral about whether Davidsonian events are reducible to tropes, property exemplifications, etc. In addition, nothing that I will say here requires commitment to Davidson’s causal analysis of event identity.

  2. 2.

    Throughout this paper I ignore other uses of the progressive such as ones that refer to the start of a long-term process (e.g. ‘John is getting his DPhil’) or statements about states with indefinite terminations (e.g. ‘John is living with us’).

  3. 3.

    I ignore the complication that Crowther and Mourelatos conceive of processes more narrowly—as atelic happenings.

  4. 4.

    Assuming that we have but only one event involving the parachutist, namely a downwards spiralling, I have adduced three further reasons that seek to explain why we may be more tolerant of temporal co-location than we are of material co-location. First, our pre-theoretical conception of the physical world is filled with temporal co-locations: e.g. my strolling and whistling at the same time, my breathing and ageing at the same time. But cases of spatial co-location are, I suspect, motivated largely by philosophical analysis (about modality, say). Second, we perceive that a single thing can be the subject of two distinct happenings, but do not perceive that the same happening can be undergone by two distinct things that occupy the same space. For example, we perceive the parachutist’s falling and spiralling, but of a spinning top, do not also perceive the spinning of the putatively non-identical stuff that constitutes it. Third, temporal phenomena that are ‘subject-less’ provide us with a well-spring of examples involving temporal co-location: e.g. a region of space that is getting warmer, increasingly magnetised, undergoing thermal entropy, etc. (what this suggests is that the culprits of metaphysical co-location worries are space-occupying things).

  5. 5.

    In a footnote, Steward (2012: pp. 387–88, fn. 17) appears to be aware of this departure.

  6. 6.

    Consider another example. If Jutta is sparring with a Roman soldier, I will be saying something false should I utter ‘Jutta is wiping out the Roman army’, but I may be saying something true should I utter ‘Jutta is killing a Roman soldier’. The first utterance is false because it is physically unlikely for Jutta to wipe out the entire Roman army since she is an ordinary human being who whose health will deteriorate from exhaustion and injury. Similarly, it is false to utter ‘John is building a house’ if, given the presence of the quick-sand that threatens to swallow the house in the next minute it is physically unlikely that a house will eventually get built.

  7. 7.

    Much of the literature on the ‘imperfective paradox’ attempt to describe the epistemic and physical modalities that make it the case that utterances of the following sort can be simultaneously asserted: ‘John was building a house’ and ‘John did not (eventually) build a house’. For an influential proposal see Portner (1998: pp. 774–777).

  8. 8.

    In addition, an objection of Steward’s that Davidsonian events cannot account for ‘actions with what one might call a smooth change profile’ (2012: p. 379) might apply to her conception of processes since processes would also be graphically represented as the step-like diagram depicted in Fig. 2 of Steward’s paper (2012: p. 380), a representation Steward finds undesirable.

  9. 9.

    Some philosophers understand the notion of a ‘particular’ as that which is ‘wholly present’ at any time of its existence (see, for e.g. Macdonald 2005: p. 38; Koslicki 2008: fn. 1). Unfortunately, this definition rules out events as being particulars. .

  10. 10.

    What Vendler ([1957] 1967) calls ‘activities’ are analogous to states in that the verb phrases that are used to describe these two categories are semantically ‘atelic’. My proposal differs from Vendler’s in that my processes can be picked out both by telic and atelic verb phrases just as long as these are in the progressive. In other words, while Vendler is more concerned about verb types I am more concerned about verb aspect. Nor is my proposal about the claim that some stative predications are almost synonymous with progressive constructions (e.g. ‘John is asleep/is sleeping’, ‘The socks are on the bed/are lying on the bed’). See also Galton (1984: p. 71).

  11. 11.

    The nominal ‘John’s building of a house’ is to be read mass-wise as a nominalization of the progressive ‘John is building a house’.

  12. 12.

    An anonymous reviewer suggested that the sentence on the right is acceptable since there is nothing wrong with ‘John’s being industrious lasted for only two years’? For readers who perceive the latter sentence as being idiomatic, this may be because we understand ‘being industrious’ to refer to activity or action that is industrious in manner and not the state of industriousness. I don’t deny that we can contrive an interpretive context in which ‘John’s being handsome lasted for two years’ will sound borderline acceptable, but it suffices for such tests that we need only detect an anomalous expression (and not a meaningless one). See Moltmann (2004) and Maeinborn (2007) for more ways of distinguishing between ‘X’s being φ’ and ‘X’s φ-ness’.

  13. 13.

    A criterion of identity for picnics might have it that a picnic at t1 is the same as that at t2 only if the picnickers are roughly the same, have gathered for the same purpose, etc. But this hardly tells us how many picnics there are in a given spatio-temporal region—which is the role of a criterion of individuation for picnics.

  14. 14.

    See Phillips (2010) for an application of this principle on temporal properties (e.g. musical succession).

  15. 15.

    It is unfortunate that the term ‘instantiation’ is used when talking about properties or attributes and kinds or sortals when, strictly speaking, it is only kinds or sortals that have countable instances.

  16. 16.

    I wish to leave it open that these facts may not be sufficient for Walking to be instantiated. This is because if Walking is a kind of action, one can imagine worlds in which such facts obtain but there is no Walking (e.g. if those bodily movements are reflex actions).

  17. 17.

    For we do say that states ‘obtain’, while events and processes ‘go on/unfold/occur’. Galton’s claim might require us to explain how it is that states in their aggregations ‘go on/unfold/occur’, and events/process in their parts ‘obtain’.

  18. 18.

    Steward’s objection is that given Stout’s terminology, the sentence ‘A comet hurtled into the sun’ quantifies over or picks out an event. But if it is true that a comet hurtled into the sun, then there must be some past time over which that (presumably non-instantaneous) event was happening. ‘But this is as much to say’, as Steward writes, ‘that any event quantified over by the sentence “A comet hurtled into the sun” was necessarily also a process… Any event that was ever happening was thereby also a process. And so how can event and process (thus conceived) be entirely distinct metaphysical categories?’ (2013: p. 784, emphasis in original).

  19. 19.

    See also Vendler (1984: p. 43) who distinguished between two modes of imagination.

  20. 20.

    For instance, Galton says ‘EXP is where change actually happens… [This] fits well with the picture painted by physics’ (2008: p. 333, my emphasis). At one point, Galton suggests the interesting claim that one perspective or ontological system is more basic than the other: ‘for if there were no processes in EXP, then HIST would be devoid of events’ (Ibid.: 334).

  21. 21.

    I am deeply grateful to the anonymous referees of this journal for their comments on an earlier draft of this work. My thanks also to Michael Martin (Oxford) and Jennifer Hornsby (Birkbeck): continuing with our conversations is a process that I wish to engage in someday.


  1. Bach, E. (1986). The algebra of events. Linguistics and Philosophy, 9, 5–16.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Braithwaite, R. B. (1928). Time and change. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society: Supplementary, 8, 162–174.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Castañeda, H. N. (1975). Individuation and non-identity: A new look. American Philosophical Quarterly, 12, 131–140.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Comrie, B. (1976). Aspect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Crowther, T. (2011). The matter of events. Review of Metaphysics, 65(1), 3–39.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Davidson, D. ([1967] 1980). The logical form of action sentences. (Reprinted from Essays on actions and events, pp. 105–123, by D. Davidson, Ed., 1980, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  7. Dowty, D. R. (1979). Word meaning and montague grammar. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Dretske, F. (1967). Can events move? Mind, 76, 476–492.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Dummett, M. (1973). Frege: Philosophy of language. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Ehring, D. (1997). Causation and persistence: A theory of causation. New York: University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Enoka, R. M. (2002). Neuromechanics of human movement. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Galton, A. (1984). The logic of aspect. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Galton, A. (2008). Experience and history: Processes and their relation to events. Journal of Logic and Computation, 18(3), 323–340.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Galton, A. (2012). The ontology of states, processes, and events. In M. Okada and B. Smith (Eds.), Interdisciplinary ontology, Vol. 5: Proceedings of the fifth interdisciplinary ontology meeting (pp. 35–45), Tokyo: Keio University, Open Research Centre for Logic and Formal Ontology. Version cited is the preprint edition Retrieved from: http://empslocal.ex.ac.uk/people/staff/apgalton/Preprints/interontology12.pdf. Accessed 1 June 2018.

  15. Galton, A., & Mizoguchi, R. (2009). The water falls but the waterfall does not fall: New perspectives on objects. Processes and Events. Applied Ontology, 4(2), 71–107.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Geach, P. T. ([1962] 1980). Reference and generality (3rd Edn.). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  17. Gill, K. (1993). On the metaphysical distinction between processes and events. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 23, 365–384.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Hacker, P. M. S. (1982). Events and objects in space and time. Mind, 91, 1–19.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Hennig, B. (2008). Occurrents. In K. Munn & B. Smith (Eds.), Applied ontology: An introduction (pp. 255–284). Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Higginbotham, J. (1983). The logic of perceptual reports: An extensional alternative to situation semantics. The Journal of Philosophy, 80, 100–127.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Higginbotham, J. ([2004] 2009). The english progressive. (Reprinted from Tense, aspect, and indexicality, pp. 126–156, by J. Higginbotham, Ed., 2009, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  22. Higginbotham, J. ([2006] 2009). Anaphoric tense. (Reprinted from Tense, aspect, and indexicality, pp. 102–115, by J. Higginbotham, Ed., 2009, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  23. Hoepelman, J., & Rohrer, C. (1980). On the mass count distinction and the French imparfait and passe simple. In C. Rohrer (Ed.), Time, tense and aspect (pp. 629–645). Tuebingen: Niemeyer.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Hornsby, J. (2012). Actions and activity. Philosophical Issues, 22, 232–245.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Koslicki, K. (2008). The structure of objects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Loux, M. J. (2006). Metaphysics: A contemporary introduction (3rd ed.). N.Y.: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Lowe, E. J. (1998). The possibility of metaphysics: Substance, identity, and time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Lowe, E. J. (2002). A survey of metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Macdonald, C. (2005). Varieties of things: Foundations of contemporary metaphysics. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Maienborn, C. (2007). On davidsonian and kimian states. In I. Comorovski & K. von Heusinger (Eds.), Existence: Semantics and syntax (pp. 107–130). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Marcus, E. (2009). Why there are no token states. Journal of Philosophical Research, 34, 215–241.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Moltmann, F. (2004). Properties and kinds of tropes: New linguistic facts and old philosophical insights. Mind, 123(1), 1–41.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Mourelatos, A. (1978). Events, processes, and states. Linguistics and Philosophy, 2, 415–434.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Oaklander, L. N. (2015). Temporal phenomena. Ontology and the R-theory. Metaphysica, 16(2), 253–269.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Parsons, T. (1985). Underlying events in the logical analysis of english. In E. Lepore & B. P. McLaughlin (Eds.), Actions and events: Perspectives on the philosophy of Donald Davidson (pp. 235–267). Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Parsons, T. (1990). Events in the semantics of english: A study in subatomic semantics. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Phillips, I. (2009). Experience and time. (Doctoral dissertation). University College London.

  39. Phillips, I. (2010). Perceiving temporal properties. European Journal of Philosophy, 18(2), 176–202.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Portner, P. (1998). The progressive in modal semantics. Language, 74(4), 760–787.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Rothstein, S. (2004). Structuring events: A study in the semantics of lexical aspect. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Savellos, E. H. (1992). Criterion of identity and the individuation of natural-kind events. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52(4), 807–831.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Savitt, S. (2014). Being and becoming in modern physics. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.) The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Summer 2014 Edn.) Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/spacetime-bebecome.

  44. Steward, H. (1997). The ontology of mind: Events, processes, and states. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Steward, H. (2012). Actions as processes. Philosophical Perspectives, 26, 373–388.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Steward, H. (2013). Processes, continuants, and individuals. Mind, 122, 781–812.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Stout, R. (1997). Processes. philosophy, 72, 19–27.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Stout, R. (2016). The category of occurrent continuants. Mind, 125, 41–62.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Szabó, Z. G. (2004). On the progressive and the perfective. Noûs, 38(1), 29–59.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Taylor, B. ([1977] 1985). Tense and continuity. (Reprinted from Modes of occurrence: Verbs, adverbs and events, pp. 51–82, by B. Taylor, Ed., Oxford: Blackwell).

  51. Vendler, Z. (1984). The matter of minds. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Vendler, Z. ([1957] 1967). Verbs and times. (Reprinted from Linguistics in philosophy, pp. 97–121, by Z. Vendler, Ed., Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

  53. Vlach, F. (1983). On situation semantics for perception. Synthese, 54(1), 129–152.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Wiggins, D. (2001). Sameness and substance renewed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ziqian Zhou.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zhou, Z. What the progressive aspect tells us about processes. Synthese 198, 267–293 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-01999-5

Download citation


  • Ontology of events, processes and states
  • Progressive/imperfective aspect of modern english
  • Philosophy of action
  • Semantics of mass and count nouns
  • Modality of events
  • Davidsonian semantics