Philosophy Phridays – Tense and Aspect

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Tense and Aspect.

As someone who tutors English and frequently works with students for whom English is a second language, I find myself talking about tense and aspect fairly frequently. Tense, as you probably know, is about when something happens. Aspect is much less famous, but it is about the internal constituency of verbs. This is most commonly addressing things like if an action is completed or in progress (or perfect or progressive to use the grammar lingo). I know these things in a very practical way that allows me to help people learning English how to make themselves understood. I had never spent much time thinking about them philosophically.

I would understand if you’re wondering what is philosophical about tense and aspect anyway. It comes into play when studying temporal logic. Also, philosophers throughout the twentieth century studied language to learn about how we experience the world. And linguistics is often thought of as a branch of philosophy and they spend their time studying language and grammar.

The logic that most people learn about when they learn how to do proofs in geometry class, as well as standard Aristotelean logic, is time agnostic, kind of like physics. If bachelors are unmarried men, and Charlie is unmarried, he is a bachelor. It doesn’t matter when this little scenario takes place, the logic is sound. Temporal logic is about the propositions in which time does matter. For example, in regular logic, if p then p is uncontroversial. But when you add time to it, it becomes more difficult. If present p then future p is not a valid argument. In temporal logic, the tense and aspect matter.

Tense and aspect tell us about the world in several ways. One that I find interesting is the idea of instants. This quote says it better than I can:

Even if there be a physical world such as the mathematical theory of motion presupposes, impressions on our sense-organs produce sensations which are not merely and strictly instantaneous, and therefore the objects of sense of which we are immediately conscious are not strictly instantaneous. Instants, therefore, are not among the data of experience and must be either inferred or constructed. It is difficult to see how they can be validly inferred; thus we are left with the alternative that they must be constructed. (Russell 1914: lecture IV)

This is basically saying that we never experience an instant, just like we never perceive a geometrical point. Yet we talk about them. We construct them out of tense and aspect. If we say something in the past tense, it is over at a specific instant in the past. If we use a perfect aspect, the action is complete at a distinct time. We don’t witness those instants, but our language lets us create them.

Linguistically, the most interesting thing, to me at least, is the way tense and aspect are different in different languages. As a native English speaker, the idea of three tenses, past, present, and future, is the most natural thing in the world. But, some languages only have two tenses, past and non-past, while other languages have a more robust future tense than English. And when they give equivalent sentences to native speakers of different languages and ask those people to plot the events on a timeline, the people put the events in different places depending on what language they speak. With aspect, German speakers and English speakers differ on the time they think a progressive happens. English speakers mark the progressive event at its beginning while German speakers mark it at the end.

Next time I get an English as a second language student, this will definitely be on my mind. I probably won’t get any definite answers, but I’ll be curious how the person’s native language treats tense and aspect. There may not be any practical consequence to my questions, but it will deepen the interactions on my end at least.

Hamm, Friedrich and Bott, Oliver, “Tense and Aspect”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/tense-aspect/>.

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