Nunc pro tunc. The Problem of Retroactive Enactments


In this paper, I present a problem for the realist with respect to the institutional sphere, and suggest a solution. Roughly, the problem lies in a contradiction that arises as soon as institutional contexts are allowed to influence the institutional profile of objects and events not only in the present, but also in the past. If such “retroactive enactments” are effective, in order to avoid contradiction the realist seems to have to accept the unpleasant conclusion that institutions can create a past that has never been present. I will defend a solution which involves a distinction between temporal and atemporal types of institutional kinds that has, I maintain, independent interest.

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  1. 1.

    See Haslanger (2006), Mallon (2007), Kitcher (1999), Hacking (1999).

  2. 2.

    This is not to say that the inquiry into the way the institutional sphere depends on mental attitudes and behaviors is a trivial matter. See Khalidi (2013). On the ontology of the social and institutional sphere see Searle 1995 and Searle 2010, Tuomela (1995), Gilbert (1989), Bratman (1992), Thomasson 2002, and Thomasson 2003.

  3. 3.

    On grounding see Correia and Schnieder (2013), Sider (2011), Fine (2001). I know that constructivism has often been construed in reductionist terms, rather than by exploiting the grounding relation (but see Haslanger 2006, who uses the relation of “being founded on” to characterize her version of social constructivism). If constructivism is not a form of eliminativism, I take the formulation in terms of grounding to be clearer.

  4. 4.

    See Torrengo 2016. For the purposes of this paper, I am simplifying matters in at least two respects. Firstly, I am not interested in the role of collective intentionality in grounding the social and institutional sphere, and in particular in what it takes for an institutional context to be binding (see, for instance, the discussion on shared agreements in Gilbert 2006). Secondly, I limit my considerations to cases concerning the institutional profile of individuals and events (human actions in particular). The cases of “free standing Y-terms”, namely institutional entities that seem to have only enactments as grounds (e.g. corporations), would require some further adjustment. See Smith and Searle (2003). As an anonymous referee has pointed out, this limitation is somewhat infelicitous since the claim that (some) human actions are institutional entities is less convincing than the claim that money or debts are. An action that is described as an institutional entity (e.g., a crime) can be plausibly identified with a non-institutional action (e.g., a stabbing); and this seems to be a general reductionist strategy available to the anti-realist. However, my choice of examples is intended to be merely illustrative.

  5. 5.

    For a discussion of the linguistic aspect of the puzzle, see Barlassina and Del Prete 2015, who focus on the fact that we ordinarily would say that “That is no longer a tax crime at time t” (see also footnote 8). See also Iacona 2016.

  6. 6.

    See Le Poidevin (2003).

  7. 7.

    I am using a simplified version of the theoretic framework of Fine (2005). I do not discuss the “non-standard” views of tense realism here.

  8. 8.

    This is slightly inaccurate, because according to the traditional moving spotlight view (the version discussed in Sider 2011) qualitative properties are instantiated by objects tenselessly (and in a time-indexed way), with the only property that it is tensedly instantiated being presentness. However, the fact that presentness “moves” along the temporal series does make a serious metaphysical difference as to how reality is now (or with respect to the past). Hence, what follows is also relevant for this version of the A-theory. Notice that more recent version of the theory (such as Cameron 2015, Skow 2015 and Deasy 2015) all drop this aspect and concede that all instantiation is tensed. Thanks to a referee for having pushed me to be more precise on this point.

  9. 9.

    An anonymous referee has correctly pointed out to me that there may be cases that require relativisation of statuses not to individual enactments, but more broadly to whole “institutional assets”, and hence require an approach that is more contextualist than relativist. For instance, imagine that in a certain country it is possible to backdate bank deposits. Accordingly, let us suppose that Mary never had much money on her bank account, but on day d 0 Mary receives a deposit of 1.000.000$ that is backdated to day d −1 (one day before). The problem is to establish whether on day d −1 Mary is very rich. And the problem for my account is that kinds like rich or poor are “multifactorial” in the sense that, usually, their instantiation is dependent on a variety of enactments and on their interactions, not just in the sense that they are relative to a certain set of enactments, but in the sense that they can be realized in different ways depending on the relevant enactments. I agree many institutional kinds are multifactorial in that sense, and they would require a sophistication of my account in the direction of contextualism. However, I do not think that the main point of the paper would be disrupted by such modification.

  10. 10.

    Barlassina and Del Prete 2015 have objections to a solution parallel to the one I present here (and which they call the “relationist” solution to the puzzle). As I said, their focus is mainly on considerations about how we talk about the past in cases of retroactive enactments. Here I am focusing on the metaphysical problem for the institutional realist, and I have nothing to say about how well the proposed solution reflects our linguistic intuitions.

  11. 11.

    The B-theoretic framework is compatible with a branching topology, according to which facts about the future are not determined absolutely but only relative to possible histories (Belnap et al. 2001).

  12. 12.

    I am assuming that the A-theorist here is not a presentist — namely, she is either a spotlight theorist or a growing blocker, but not a presentist. It should be clear that for presentism the problem is even more serious. See also Torrengo 2014.

  13. 13.

    See note 8.

  14. 14.

    The A-theoretic metaphysics might actually seem to fit better with the intuition underlying the de jure/de facto distinction: the time of occurrence of enactments determines which institutional facts are de jure enforced, but only those grounded in enactment “under the light of the present” – as it were – are de facto enforced. This may be true (if the A-theory is true), but then the spatial case, in which the distinction de facto/de jure is clearly not grounded in some metaphysically substantive feature of reality (it’s just a matter of where we find ourselves), would behave very differently.

  15. 15.

    For comments on previous drafts, thanks to Dave Ingram, Davide Bordini, Nick Young, Samuele Iaquinto and an anonymous referee. 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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Torrengo, G. Nunc pro tunc. The Problem of Retroactive Enactments. Philosophia 46, 241–250 (2018).

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  • Social ontology
  • A- and B-theory
  • Institutions