Time, Context, and Cross-Temporal Claims


I present a new problem for the tense realist concerning the evaluation of cross-temporal claims, such as ‘John is now taller than Michael was in 1984’. Time can play two different roles in the evaluation of an utterance of a sentence: either as an element that completes the content expressed by the utterance (the completion role), or as part of the circumstances against which the content is evaluated (the evaluation role). It is this latter role that time plays in the realist view of tenses. I argue that if the content of a cross-temporal sentence is taken at face value (as an ascription of a crosstemporally instantiated relation), time does not play the evaluation role. Therefore, the world of the tense realist seems to leave no room for cross-temporality.

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  1. 1.

    In accepting (SC), I follow Brogaard 2006 and Torrengo 2006. A common strategy for denying (SC) is to deny (b′) and consider (2) as an “a-temporal” comparison between John’s and Michael’s heights. Consequently, (2) is paraphrased as “John has a certain height x now, Michael had a certain height y in 1984, and x > y” (See Salmon 1981: 117 n12, van Inwagen 2000, and Bourne 2006). I will meet this general objection in §V below.

  2. 2.

    I will make only a minimal assumption about the nature of propositions: they are structured entities that can function as representations of some sort, and can be evaluated with respect to certain parameters (e.g. possible worlds). For similar assumptions about propositions, see, for instance, King 2002.

  3. 3.

    Here, I am talking loosely of ‘facts’, without thereby committing myself to the existence thereof. The distinction between tensed and tenseless facts is not a distinction between two different ontologies on what things exist, but two metaphysical views on how things are. See Fine 2006. On “fact ontologies” and the semantic constraints on their feasibility, see Neale 2001.

  4. 4.

    In this framework, the evaluation of an utterance of a sentence depends on the truth-value of the proposition it expresses (in the context of use). More precisely, evaluating whether an utterance of a sentence is correct or not depends on whether or not the proposition the sentence expresses in the context of utterance is true. In turn, the proposition that it expresses is a function of the properties and relation we (contextually) ascribe to entities through language. Thus, the evaluation of a sentence S with respect to a point i and an index C boils down to an evaluation with respect to i of the proposition expressed by S, given the parameters in C. An index C is always related to its own point of evaluation i C. The standard way to correlate every index to its point of evaluation is to have the set of evaluation parameters as a subset of the set of contextual parameters, for instance, by having world- (w), time- (t), place- (p), and agent-parameters (a) in the index C and world- and time-parameters in the point i. See Kaplan 1989.

  5. 5.

    See, for instance, Richard 1981, Recanati 2007, King 2007 and Ludlow 1999.

  6. 6.

    On this debate, see Oaklander and Smith 1994, Lepoidevin 1998, and Craig 2000. More precisely, what is at stake is whether reality is composed by tensed facts, given that certain tense realists accept tenseless facts along with tensed ones (e.g. Tooley 1997). Nothing hinges on this for the present discussion; but see the end of §IV below for further reflections on tense realists who accept tenseless facts too. Note that both the tense realist and the tense anti-realist accept the idea that the distinction between non-committing, “ordinary” talk about reality and “substantial”, metaphysically loaded talk about reality is meaningful. On this conception of disputes of realism, see Fine 2001. For a critique from a sceptical point of view of the distinction, see Horwich 2007, and Yablo 1998. For a sceptical stance towards a cognate debate, that between the presentist and the eternalist, see Dorato 2006. Presentism and eternalism will be introduced below in §V.

  7. 7.

    On the difference between “serious tenserism” and tense realism, see Zimmermann 2005. See also Torrengo 2008.

  8. 8.

    Roughly, (i) if a past tense sentence is uttered at t 0, it has a time focus t that is past with respect to t 0, (ii) if the sentence is in the future tense, the time focus t follows t 0; and (iii) in the case of an utterance of a present tense sentence, the time focus t is identical with t 0.This is rough, not just because we are bracketing all considerations about adverbials and other expressions that may interact with tenses, but because, as Reichenbach 1947 argued, for the interpretation of tenses we need there to be a three-place relation R between the time of utterance, the reference time, and the event time (the last of these is what I call the time focus). For an extended formal semantics encompassing Reichenbach’s ideas on tenses, see Kamp and Reyle 1994, and Partee 1984. Moreover, although R is determined by the tense of the verb, the context may impose further constraints on it. See Partee 1973 and the debate on her article. However, nothing in what follows hinges on these simplifications.

  9. 9.

    See Prior 1968. More complex cases are substantially analogous. This also holds for interaction of tenses with adverbials. See Kamp and Reyle 1993, and Ludlow 1999: Chap. 7–8 for a tensed version.

  10. 10.

    Brogaard 2006 was the first to investigate this problem explicitly.

  11. 11.

    See Sider 2001 and Hawley 2001.

  12. 12.

    See Recanati 2007.

  13. 13.

    See, for instance, van Inwagen 2000.

  14. 14.

    The alternative to presentism that is most sympathetic to tense anti-realism is eternalism, the view that past, present and future objects all exist in the same way. See Hinchliff 1996, Markosian 2004, Merricks 1999, Sider 1999, and Crisp 2005.

  15. 15.

    Fine 2006.

  16. 16.

    Crisp 2007.

  17. 17.

    Brogaard 2006.

  18. 18.

    Bourne 2006 distinguishes (for reasons that are independent from the issue of cross-temporality) between comparisons, reference relations, and causal relations, and furnishes different strategies to eliminate them.

  19. 19.

    Of course, it is always possible to define a relation by introducing in the definition the condition that it has to be contemporaneously exemplified. Yet relations so defined are genuine only when the relation contained in the definiens is, and if the definition is not redundant, the relation in the definiens will not entail simultaneity.

  20. 20.

    Prior 1968, Bourne 2006, Crisp 2007.

  21. 21.

    Spatial distance, and composition are two other relations whose prima facie cross-temporal instantiations can probably be treated in an analogous way by the presentist.

  22. 22.

    See Brogaard 2006.

  23. 23.

    McTaggart 1908.

  24. 24.

    Bourne 2006: 39 acknowledges that a satisfactory theory of time must “accommodate the truth-value links between various times [, namely] the requirement that if p is a true present-tensed proposition, then just in virtue of our concept of tense there are links between the truths which hold at other times, which have to be accommodated and explained”; (on truth-value links, see also Dummett 1978).

  25. 25.

    See Priest 1986. For a semantics of tenses given in a primitively tensed meta-language, see Ludlow 1999. Was and Will are meta-language operators. They should not be confused with P and F, which are operators in the object language, although the operators in one set are translations of the operators in the other set (see also the next footnote).

  26. 26.

    Tensed expressions are primitive for the tense theorist. Thus, they show up both in the object language (P, F) and in the meta-language (Was, Will). See Sattig 2006: Chap. 1. Counterexamples to (CH) are sentences such as ‘There have been two kings named Charles in England’ or ‘Helen of Troy had three husbands’. See Lewis 2004, and Szabò 2007. I will not take into account the problem of counting through time here.

  27. 27.

    Bourne 2006: 46 “The truth-value links have somehow to be a feature of how the facts are structured (as they are on the tenseless theory of time […])”.

  28. 28.

    See Bigelow 1996, and Crisp 2007.

  29. 29.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for a remark that has pushed me to be clearer on the limits of such an option.

  30. 30.

    Furthermore, each metric cross-temporally tensed relation is in turn a primitive relation. See also Torrengo 2006.

  31. 31.

    Older versions of the paper were presented at the following conferences: Third Arché Graduate Conference, St. Andrews, Scotland, November 2006; V Conference of the Spanish Society of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, Granada, December 2006; Seminario di Filosofia Analitica, Bologna, May 2007; VI Italian-German Meeting of Analytic Philosophy, Parma, June 2007; SIFA Metaphysics of Time Conference, Bergamo, September 2007. For helpful comments and discussions, I wish to thank: Tiziana Andina, Andrea Bianchi, Francesca Boccuni, Andrea Bottani, Berit Brogaard, Manuel-Garcìa Carpintero, Elena Casetta, Fabrice Correia, Michele Di Francesco, Maurizio Ferraris, Kit Fine, Akiko Frischhut, Alessandro Gatti, Katherine Hawley, Mark Heller, Andrea Iacona, Philipp Keller, Pietro Kobau, Paolo Leonardi, Jonathan Lowe, Friederike Moltmann, Luca Morena, Sebastiano Moruzzi, Thomas Mueller, Kevin Mulligan, Nathan Oaklander, Carlotta Pavese, Françoise Recanati, Marco Santambrogio, Andrea Sereni, Giuseppe Spolaore, Zoltán Gendler Szabó, Achille Varzi, Alberto Voltolini, Elia Zardini, and two anonymous referees of this Journal.


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Correspondence to Giuliano Torrengo.

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Torrengo, G. Time, Context, and Cross-Temporal Claims. Philosophia 38, 281–296 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-009-9225-1

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  • Cross-temporality
  • Tense realism
  • Tense logic
  • Perspective
  • McTaggart