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Tense and the Psychology of Relief


At the centre of Arthur Prior’s ‘Thank goodness’ argument for the A-theory of time is a particular form of relief. Time must objectively pass, Prior argues, or else the relief felt when a painful experience has ended is not intelligible. In this paper, I offer a detailed analysis of the type of relief at issue in this argument, which I call temporal relief, and distinguish it from another form of relief, which I refer to as counterfactual relief. I also argue that existing discussions of the ‘Thank goodness’ argument—including Prior’s own—fail to give a satisfactory account of temporal relief, and that it needs to be seen as an emotion linked to the ability to engage in fairly sophisticated forms of planning. I also suggest that this has an impact on Prior’s claim that the idea of points in time plays no fundamental role in the semantic analysis of tenses.

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  1. I am using a broad construal of the notion of ‘experience’ here, on which it does not just encompass perceptual experiences, say of movement and change, but also other ways in which time can have an influence on our conscious mental life, say through the workings of memory.

  2. See Chen (2011) for an excellent discussion, inspired by Stroud (2000), of some of the general questions regarding transcendental arguments, and of how they bear on responses to or endorsements of Prior’s argument by theorists such as Smart (1980), Mellor (1981, 1998), Ludlow (1999), Oaklander (2003), and Zimmerman (2008).

  3. See, e.g. Prior (1996b, p. 50, 2003, p. 42), where he also points out that a precursor of the argument can already be found in Broad (1933/1938, Vol. II, Part I, pp. 266–267). Broad uses the somewhat improbable example of a person exclaiming “Thank God (on the theistic hypothesis) that’s over now!” after a dentist has finished drilling their tooth. A number of recent papers use the example of relief felt after a root canal. As far as I can tell, this specific version of the example originates with a talk John Campbell gave at the 1994 meeting of the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology in Paris (see Higginbotham 1995).

  4. See also Prior (1996a). How exactly these two aspects of the A-theory are meant to be connected with one another is in fact rather difficult to make out, on at least some versions of the A-theory (see Fine 2005, pp. 286ff). I will ignore this issue in what follows.

  5. Although it has become common to view Prior as a presentist, and although I, too, will do so for the purposes of this paper, this actually ignores some important nuances in the development of his ideas. Fairly unambiguous statements of presentism—most notably the one quoted just below—can be found in Prior’s late writings. How committed he was to presentism in his earlier work is not always so clear. See Jakobsen (2011), for an interesting discussion of the development of the paper that became Prior (1972); cf. also Fine (1977, p. 116).

  6. This is the version of the A-theory that I described as claiming that the B-theory is completely wrong about the nature of time. On other versions of the A-theory, what is real may encompass more than what is present. On different forms of A-theories, see, e.g. Moore (1997), and Fine (2005).

  7. In line with what I said in the opening paragraph of this paper, I will not take issue with this aspect of Prior’s view in this paper, which does not mean that I deem it unproblematic.

  8. I adopt the extensional versus modal terminology from Récanati (2007).

  9. In what follows, I will understand the distinction to be as clear-cut as it is presented here. In the contemporary literature on tenses, however, it has become quite a lot less clear-cut. For instance, there are variants of the modal approach (explicitly invoking Prior as their inspiration) that incorporate a referential element in the approach (Blackburn 1994). Perhaps more perniciously, Prior himself is sometimes represented as having put forward a modal approach on which tense operators shift the ‘time of evaluation’ to a different position in time. It should be clear from the quotation I give below that this would give the idea of different positions in time an irreducible and fundamental role in the semantic of tense of a kind that Prior would deny (see also Evans 1985). Views that blur the distinction between extensional and modal approaches in this way would also be unsuitable for framing the dialectic of the ‘Thank goodness’ argument, as Prior sees it.

  10. See also Prior (2003, p. 232): “I find myself quite unable to take ‘instants’ seriously as individual entities; I cannot understand ‘instants,’ and the earlier-later relation that is supposed to hold between them, except as logical constructions out of tensed facts. Tense logic is for me, if I may use the phrase, metaphysically fundamental, and not just an artificially torn-off fragment of the first-order theory of the earlier-later relation.”

  11. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the need to design experiments that will pass ethical approval, the literature on relief in experimental psychology is primarily concerned with counterfactual relief. And in so far as relief has been studied as an ‘achievement emotion’ in the context of educational psychology (see, e.g. Pekrun et al. 2007), counterfactual and temporal relief have not been systematically distinguished. Psychologists have only recently started to explore the idea that there may be different types of relief. See especially Sweeney and Vohs (2012), who speak of ‘task-completion relief’ and ‘near-miss relief’ to describe much the same as what I am calling temporal relief and counterfactual relief, respectively.

  12. See also MacBeath (1994, p. 308). As MacBeath points out in the context, the version of the ‘Thank goodness’ argument in Prior (2003, p. 42), uses the example of feeling relief after an exam has ended.

  13. See also Récanati (2007, p. 70), and Fine (2005, p. 297), for discussion of related arguments.

  14. I am setting aside here the possibility that there is an intrinsic connection between being in a state of pain and disvaluing the state one is in, which MacBeath seems committed to denying.

  15. Again, it is important here to keep in mind the difference from counterfactual relief. It may perhaps be more plausible to think that there is a necessary connection between disvaluing certain experiences and being relieved about not undergoing them. But the sort of relief for which this is plausibly true is arguably just counterfactual relief. The key feature of temporal relief that is left unexplained by the general idea of a necessary connection between disvaluing certain experiences and being relieved about not undergoing them is its temporal asymmetry—that is, why it is only after the disvalued experience that I am relieved, and not also before. I am grateful to Giuliano Torrengo for prompting me to clarify this.

  16. Where does this leave terms like ‘present’ or ‘now’? Initially Prior suggested that these terms are strictly speaking, redundant expressions (Prior 2003, ch. III), drawing a parallel to deflationist theories of truth as advanced by Ramsey and Ayer. To say that something is the case now, according to this view, is to say nothing more than that it just is the case. However, he subsequently (2003, ch. XIV) took back the claim that ‘now’ is always redundant after Hans Kamp (1971, p. 229) had pointed out that ‘now’ does occur non-vacuously when it is within the scope of another temporal modifier. Thus, while ‘now’ does indeed occur vacuously in statements with simple tense, this does not render the expression itself redundant. Precisely because “[t]he essential point about the idiomatic ‘now’ is that however oblique the context in which it occurs, the time it indicates is the time of utterance of the whole sentence” (Prior 2003, p. 174) it occurs non-vacuously within the scope of other temporal operators.

  17. Depending on one’s theory of demonstratives, there is a further question here as to whether Prior could actually construe ‘that’ as a genuine demonstrative expression in this case, rather than, say, an expression going proxy for a definite description (see Ludlow 1999, on related matters). This point isn’t of any immediate significance to the present discussion, though.

  18. See also Prior (1996b, p. 45): “The truth that I once fell out of a boat is not a truth about a falling-out-of-a-boat, but a truth about me, and about a boat. […] I am a real object, and I did really fall, but my falling is not an additional real object, but only a ‘logical construction’. To call it a logical construction is not to call it a piece of language—a fall is not a piece of language—but it is to say that pieces of language which seem to be about a fall are really about something else, namely the man who falls.”

  19. The classification is in fact three-fold, and the quotation continues: “Having singled out the class of predicates first mentioned, it is natural to go on to distinguish further, among those predicates which are true of an object only during periods of its existence, those which, if they are true of an object at all, are true of it throughout its existence” (ibid.).

  20. In Sect. 7, below, I shall suggest a different way of determining the ‘real tense’ of the statement by using the present perfect tense, but there is no straightforward way of accounting for perfect tenses, especially the present perfect, by using sentential operators.

  21. For the notion of ‘ruling out’ which is relevant here cf. also Evans 1985, p. 350. In ordinary English, use of the past tense is usually restricted to talking about events that have ceased. However, this is not a strict rule (cf. Comrie 1985, 41ff.).

  22. Matters are of course not really so easy, but the complications don’t matter to the argument in this paper. For instance, following Partee (1984), it is now generally accepted that a past-tense sentence like ‘I didn’t turn the stove off’ makes implicit reference to a particular occasion. As Blackburn (2006) brings out, Prior was aware of a version of this issue, and appreciated the problem it raises for a theory like his, on which points in time are not treated as basic. See Blackburn (2006, section 7) for an excellent account of Prior’s attempt to solve this problem by developing a hybrid logic, and of a deep dilemma that this attempted solution left him with as regards his metaphysical position.

  23. The hyphenation here is meant to echo Prior’s own remark that “the internal punctuation of “having been green in August” is “having-in-August been green”, not “having been green-in-August”. […] A leaf that was green in August is one sort of formerly-green leaf […] but a formerly-green leaf is not one sort of green leaf” (Prior 1959, p. 15).

  24. See also Suhler and Callender (2012, p. 6), who write that, in discussions of asymmetries in our attitudes towards the past and the future, it is often assumed that such asymmetries can be “rendered ‘appropriate’, ‘not mysterious’ and sometimes even ‘rational’ [and that] the explanation of the asymmetry will in some way vindicate the asymmetry, that believing, feeling or preferring that tensed way is what we ought to do. But why must this be the case?”

  25. Thus, Maclaurin and Dyke are in a position to acknowledge Prior’s point, noted in Sect. 3, that temporal asymmetries in our emotional attitudes are not always explained by an epistemic asymmetry.

  26. The same goes for Suhler and Callender (2012). See also Cockburn (1998, p. 85f).

  27. Thus, I want to allow that there can be mixed emotions in such a case. What I am claiming is that there would not necessarily be relief associated specifically with looking back on the experiences in question. There might, of course, at the same time be relief about not undergoing those experiences in the present. But that, arguably, is just a species of counterfactual relief.

  28. Why do I say ‘may not’ here? It should be borne in mind that I agree with Maclaurin and Dyke that there has to be an evolutionary element in the explanation of the phenomenon of temporal relief. This implies, I think, that it might also occur in cases in which its doing so is not intelligible in the way indicated here. But I would claim that the cases in which it is adaptive are cases in which it possesses this type of intelligibility.

  29. Note that in one of the other versions of the ‘Thank goodness’ argument that can be found in Prior, the relevant event is an exam that is now over. For an overview of some of the empirical literature on planning, and developmental differences between more primitive and more sophisticated planning abilities, see McCormack and Atance (2011).

  30. Note that Suhler and Callender (2012), alongside discussing the temporally asymmetric emotions of fear and relief, also discuss the phenomenon of temporal discounting. As they put it (ibid., p. 1), “our preferences display at least two markedly temporally asymmetric features. As a first approximation, and all else being equal, (1) we prefer distant future pain (proximal future pleasure) to proximal future pain (distant future pleasure), and (2) we prefer past pain (future pleasure) to future pain (past pleasure). Call the first the discounting asymmetry and the second the temporal value asymmetry.” Crudely put, my proposal here is that the motivational function of temporal relief is to counter-act the effects of temporal discounting in cases where we can assign value to putting ourselves through proximal pain, because doing so will lead to a greater benefit overall.

  31. The brackets give the terminology used in current Neo-Reichenbachian theories. Talk of ‘events’ here must be understood as standing for talk of events or situations.

  32. This argument is not unproblematic. However, there are other ways of arguing for the existence of a reference time in simple tenses based, for instance, on embedding phenomena. See esp. Hornstein (1990, ch. 3).

  33. In English, the most adequate tense for conveying this perspective is the present perfect. However, things are not as clear-cut as one would wish, since the English present perfect allows for the state reported to continue in the present which our case would have to rule out. Comrie (1985, p. 54) reports that Luganda, one of the Bantu languages, has a ‘no longer’ tense in which this aspect is incorporated in the grammatical form.

  34. For comments on earlier versions of this paper, I am grateful to Tom Crowther, Naomi Eilan, Hemdat Lerman, Guy Longworth, Johannes Roessler, Matthew Soteriou and Guiliano Torrengo.


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Correspondence to Christoph Hoerl.

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Hoerl, C. Tense and the Psychology of Relief. Topoi 34, 217–231 (2015).

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  • Arthur Prior
  • A-theory
  • B-theory
  • Tense
  • Relief
  • Motivation
  • Planning