Ordinary Thinking about Time

John Campbell


How should we characterize our ordinary understanding of time, as displayed in our use of tense and temporal concepts? We can focus the question by looking at a way of thinking about time that is arguably more primitive than the mature conception. Children early on have the use of 'scripts' or 'schemas' which describe what typically happens, or what one does, in a stereotyped or repeated situation, such as going to a seminar, visiting a doctor, or eating in a restaurant. McCormack and Hoerl have argued that scripts function as 'temporal frameworks' into which novel events can be slotted. Someone with only this way of thinking about time, however, is in a quite different condition from someone who has our ordinary conception of time. What makes the difference? What does it take to have our ordinary conception of time, as opposed merely to script time? I hall suggest that it has to do with our understanding of the causal significance of temporal location. But this puts a great deal of pressure on the question: 'What concept of cause?'. I shall look at various ways in which one might fill out a description of the kind of understanding of causation that would make the difference here. Thus we can contrast the view of causation as having to do with what would happen to a system under interventions on that system, with a view of causation as having to do with the mechanisms underlying such counterfactuals. Arguably an interventionist understanding of causation is consistent with possession merely of the idea of script time; linear time is not required. But arguably too, the view of ausation as mechanism merely presupposes, and can do nothing to explain, the ordinary conception of time as linear. I shall propose a way through this dilemma.


20th century philosophy; philosophy; philosophy of time; Wittgenstein Ludwig; causation; concept of time; phase time; script time; time

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