Philosophy Time and Tense
Kristie Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0051


The nature of the relationship between time and tense is a contested one. On the one hand, when philosophers ask about the nature of time, they tend to ask (among other things) whether time flows, whether time has a direction, and if so, whether the direction is intrinsic or irreducible. They also ask whether other times are, in some good sense, just like other places, or whether there is some ontological difference between the present moment and other moments in time. When philosophers ask about the nature of tense, they ask (among other things) whether tensed language is eliminable, and they ask how we ought to model tensed language in logic. Exactly what the relationship is between these two sets of questions is not always clear. For some time it was thought that if tense turns out to be ineliminable in some appropriate sense, then this would give us reason to think that the world itself is tensed—that there are irreducible tensed facts—and therefore reason to think both that time flows, and that other locations in time are ontologically different from the current moment in time at which we are located. This link between tense, in our language, and the way the world is has for some time been much disputed, and it is probably fair to say that most philosophers no longer believe that we can automatically conclude that the world is composed of tensed facts even if language is ineliminably tensed.


There are many good introductory works about the nature of time. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good first resource—it includes both Markosian 2008 and Copeland 2007. Le Poidevin 2003 is a very accessible and far-reaching book that considers a range of issues about the nature of time, and it provides a good accessible exposition of some of the more science-related material. Another broad overview of the metaphysics of time is provided by Smith and Oaklander 1995. Written in dialogue form, this is a very accessible text for those with little or no background in these areas. Dialogues 1, 2, 3, 6, and 9 will be of particular interest. Lowe 2002 is also a good introductory text, and all of Part 5 (Space and Time) will be of use. Finally, there are some good resources for those who are looking to go beyond the bare introductory texts but who are not experts in this area. Section 1 of Zimmerman 2004 contains a number of papers that jointly provide an introduction to the metaphysics and semantics of presentism (and to some extent, therefore, eternalism). In particular, the papers by David Lewis, Ned Markosian, Thomas Crisp, Peter Ludlow, and Simon Keller introduce the reader to the most important aspects of the dialectic between presentists and eternalists. A second good resource of this kind is the edited collection Le Poidevin and MacBeath 1993. Again, some background knowledge of the issues will be useful, but with this in hand the collection offers a very good broad set of papers, and it includes the most central and influential papers, historically, on the topic.

  • Copeland, B. Jack. “Arthur Prior.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2007.

    Offers a useful overview of Prior’s views about the nature of time and tense, and a good introduction to thinking about tense and tense logic.

  • Le Poidevin, Robin. Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A very clear, introductory book that covers a wide range of topics within the metaphysics of time, and is particularly useful for those interested in some of the issues arising from a consideration of the physics of our world.

  • Le Poidevin, Robin, and Murray MacBeath, eds. The Philosophy of Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    This anthology is perhaps not best described as an introductory work, as the papers in it are not targeted at those new to this area of study. But, the papers are seminal works in the philosophy of time, including papers by McTaggart, Mellor, and Prior, so this is an excellent resource for those wanting to read the key papers on this topic.

  • Lowe, Ernest Jonathan. A Survey of Metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Part 5 of this introductory text not only contains a nice exposition of issues surrounding tense, but also considers the philosophy of time more generally. It offers an excellent source of background reading to this area.

  • Markosian, Ned. “Time.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

    This is a useful introduction to the vast literature on time; it brings together disparate issues, including discussion of different views about the ontology of our world, the nature of temporal flow, the nature of persistence, and the nature of tense.

  • Smith, Quintin, and L. Nathan Oaklander. Time, Change and Freedom: An Introduction to Metaphysics. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

    This book covers many more areas than just the metaphysics of time. Written in dialogue format, it is an entertaining and very easy read, and there are at least five dialogues (1–3, 6, and 9) that focus on both the nature of time and the nature of tense. This is an excellent resource for those with little to no background in this area.

  • Zimmerman, Dean, ed. The Oxford Studies in Metaphysics. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Section 1 of this handbook contains a number of papers that focus the discussion of time and tense by employing a particular metaphysical theory : presentism. These are not, properly speaking, introductory papers, but they are generally fairly accessible and the section as a whole gives a nice sense of the nature of the debate between presentists and eternalists.

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