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McTaggart's Argument

Edited by Stephan Torre (University of Aberdeen, Northern Institute of Philosophy)
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Summary In a much discussed paper, John McTaggart argues that time is unreal. He argues for this surprising conclusion by claiming that two candidate ways of construing time are inadequate. McTaggart notes that we can order times according to whether they are past, present or future and by how far into the past or future they are. He calls this ordering of times the 'A-series'. He also notes that we can order times according to whether they are earlier than or later than one another. He calls this ordering of times the 'B-series'. He goes on to argue that time cannot be construed in terms of the A-series nor in terms of the B-series. From this he concludes that time must be unreal. His reason for thinking that the A-series is inadequate is because he thinks such an ordering leads to contradiction. He claims that the properties of being past, being present and being future are incompatible, yet each time would have to possess all three, which he deemed impossible. McTaggart claims that the B-series is also inadequate because it cannot account for change. If one time is earlier than another, then this fact holds eternally. However this eternal fact cannot accommodate the fact that what times are past, present and future changes from one moment to the next. McTaggart's argument for the unreality of time is, no doubt, highly controversial and has spurred a great deal of discussion in both trying to clarify it, as well as evaluate it.
Key works McTaggart's influential argument is presented in his McTaggart 1908. An important discussion of it can be found in chapter 7 of Mellor 1998. Several key works relating to McTaggart's argument can be found in Part 2 of Oaklander & Smith 1994.
Introductions Good overviews of McTaggart's argument are found in section 4 of Markosian 2010 and section 3 of McDaniel 2010.
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  1. Thomas Baldwin (1999). Back to the Present. Philosophy 74 (2):177-197.
    McTaggart's famous argument that the A-series is contradictory is vitiated by an unsatisfactory conceptualization of tenses which can be corrected by making explicit their relational structure. This leads into a much sharper formulation of his apparent contradiction, and defusing this apparent contradiction requires a careful distinction between tensed and tenseless descriptions of thoughts. As a result the ‘unreality’ of tense turns out to rest on the fact that tensed descriptions of temporal facts do not capture their identity. This ‘metaphysical’ priority (...)
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  2. John Bigelow (1991). Worlds Enough for Time. Noûs 25 (1):1-19.
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  3. David J. Buller & Thomas R. Foster (1992). The New Paradox of Temporal Transience. Philosophical Quarterly 42 (168):357-366.
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  4. Craig Callender (2000). Shedding Light on Time. Philosophy of Science 67 (3):599.
    Throughout this century many philosophers and physicists have gone for thc ‘big ki11’ regarding tenses. They have tried to show via McTaggart’s paradox and special relativity that tcnscs arc logically and physically impossible, rcspcctivcly. Ncithcr attempt succccds, though as I argue, both lcavc their mark. In thc iirst two sections of thc paper I introduce some conceptual difficulties for the tensed theory of time. The next section then discusses the standing 0f tenses in light of special relativity, cspccially rcccnt work (...)
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  5. James Cargile (1999). Proposition and Tense. Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 40 (2):250-257.
    McTaggart assumed (1) that propositions cannot change in truth value and (2) if (a) there is real change, then (b) events must acquire the absolute property of being present and then lose this property. He held that {1,2b} is an inconsistent set and thus inferred 2a--that there is no real change. The B theory rejects 2 and the A theory rejects 1. I accept 1, 2, 2a, and consequently, 2b, and argue that this is consistent. There is an absolute property (...)
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  6. Ferrel Christensen (1974). Mctaggart's Paradox and the Nature of Time. Philosophical Quarterly 24 (97):289-299.
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  7. Denis Corish (2005). Mctaggart's Argument. Philosophy 80 (1):77-99.
    The argument of J. M. E. McTaggart in ‘The Unreality of Time’ (Mind 1908) fails logically. There is no A series as such, but there is a shifting past-present-future arrangement within and consistent with the earlier-later B series, past being always earlier, future always later, present always a position earlier or later. An exactly similar logical structure is constructible within the number series, by making each number as one goes up it in turn (it does not matter what ‘it’, or (...)
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  8. Denis Corish (1978). On a 'Very Obscure Argument' in McTaggart. Philosophical Studies (Dublin) 26:191-197.
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  9. W. Lane Craig (2001). Mctaggart's Paradox and Temporal Solipsism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 79 (1):32 – 44.
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  10. William Lane Craig (1999). Oaklander on Mctaggart and Intrinsic Change. Analysis 59 (4):319–320.
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  11. William Lane Craig (1998). Mctaggart's Paradox and the Problem of Temporary Intrinsics. Analysis 58 (2):122–127.
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  12. M. J. Cresswell (1990). Modality and Mellor's Mctaggart. Studia Logica 49 (2):163 - 170.
    This paper explores a modal analogue of Hugh Mellor''s version of McTaggart''s argument against the reality of tense. I show that if Mellor''s argument succeeds in showing that the present moment cannot be any more real than any other moment then it also shows that the actual world cannot be any more real than any other possible world.
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  13. Gregory Currie (1992). McTaggart at the Movies. Philosophy 67 (261):343 - 355.
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  14. Daniel Deasy (forthcoming). The Moving Spotlight Theory. Philosophical Studies:1-17.
    The aim of this paper is to describe and defend the moving spotlight theory of time. I characterise the moving spotlight theory as the conjunction of two theses: permanentism, the thesis that everything exists forever, and the A-theory, the thesis that there is an absolute, objective present time. I begin in Sect. 2 by clearing up some common misconceptions about the moving spotlight theory, focusing on the discussion of the theory in Sider (Writing the book of the world, Oxford University (...)
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  15. Natalja Deng (2013). Fine's Mctaggart, Temporal Passage, and the a Versus B‐Debate. Ratio 26 (1):19-34.
    I offer an interpretation and a partial defense of Kit Fine's ‘Argument from Passage’, which is situated within his reconstruction of McTaggart's paradox. Fine argues that existing A-theoretic approaches to passage are no more dynamic, i.e. capture passage no better, than the B-theory. I argue that this comparative claim is correct. Our intuitive picture of passage, which inclines us towards A-theories, suggests more than coherent A-theories can deliver. In Finean terms, the picture requires not only Realism about tensed facts, but (...)
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  16. Bradley Harris Dowden (2009). The Metaphysics of Time: A Dialogue. Rowman & Littlefield.
    Introduction -- Fatalism, free will, and foreknowledge -- Mind, the metric, and conventionality -- Time travel and backward causation -- Time's origin, and relationism vs. substantivalism -- McTaggart, tensed facts, and time's flow -- Presentism, the block universe, and perduring objects -- The arrow of time -- Zeno's paradoxes and supertasks.
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  17. Michael Dummett (1960). A Defense of Mctaggart's Proof of the Unreality of Time. Philosophical Review 69 (4):497-504.
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  18. Heather Dyke (2002). Mc Taggart and the Truth About Time. In Craig Callender (ed.), Time, Reality and Experience. Cambridge University Press. 137-.
    McTaggart famously argued that time is unreal. Today, almost no one agrees with his conclusion. But his argument remains the locus classicus for both the A-theory and the B-theory of time. I show how McTaggart’s argument provided the impetus for both of these opposing views of the nature of time. I also present and defend what I take to be the correct view of the nature of time.
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  19. Heather Dyke (2001). The Pervasive Paradox of Tense. Grazer Philosophische Studien 62 (1):103-124.
    The debate about the reality of tense descends from an argument of McTaggart's,whichwas designed to prove the unreality of time.The argument has two constituent theses: firstly that time is intrinsically tensed, and secondly, that the notion of tense is inherently self-contradictory. If both of these theses are true, it follows that time does not exist. The debate that has emerged from this argument centres around the truth or falsity of each of these theses. A-theorists accept the first and reject the (...)
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  20. John Earman (2002). Thoroughly Modern Mctaggart: Or, What Mctaggart Would Have Said If He Had Read the General Theory of Relativity. Philosophers' Imprint 2 (3):1-28.
    The philosophical literature on time and change is fixated on the issue of whether the B-series account of change is adequate or whether real change requires Becoming of either the property-based variety of McTaggart's A-series or the non-property-based form embodied in C. D. Broad's idea of the piling up of successive layers of existence. For present purposes it is assumed that the B-series suffices to ground real change. But then it is noted that modern science in the guise of Einstein's (...)
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  21. Kevin Falvey (2010). The View From Nowhen: The Mctaggart-Dummett Argument for the Unreality of Time. Philosophia 38 (2):297-312.
    Years ago, Michael Dummett defended McTaggart’s argument for the unreality of time, arguing that it cannot be dismissed as guilty of an “indexical fallacy.” Recently, E. J. Lowe has disputed Dummett’s claims for the cogency of the argument. I offer an elaboration and defense of Dummett’s interpretation of the argument (though not of its soundness). I bring to bear some work on tense from the philosophy of language, and some recent work on the concept of the past as it occurs (...)
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  22. David J. Farmer (1996). Bradley and McTaggart on Time. Bradley Studies 2 (2):104-116.
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  23. Kit Fine (2005). Modality and Tense. Oxford University Press.
    This is his eagerly-awaited first book in the area.
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  24. Kit Fine (2005). Tense and Reality. In , Modality and Tense. Oxford University Press. 261--320.
    There is a common form of problem, to be found in many areas of philosophy, concerning the relationship between our perspective on reality and reality itself. We make statements (or form judgements) about how things are from a given standpoint or perspective. We make the statement ‘it is raining’ from the standpoint of the present time, for example, or the statement‘it is here’ from the standpoint of where we are, or the statement ‘I am glad’ from the standpoint of a (...)
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  25. Richard M. Gale (2010). God and Metaphysics. Prometheus Books.
    God -- On the cognitivity of mystical experiences -- The problem of evil -- God eternal and Paul helm -- A new cosmological argument, co-authored with Alexander Pruss -- A response to oppy and to Davey and Clifton -- Co-authored with Alexander Pruss -- The ecumenicalism of William James -- Time -- Is it now now? -- McTaggart's analysis of time -- The egocentric particular and token-reflexive analyses of tense -- The impossibility of backward causation -- An identity theory of (...)
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  26. Richard M. Gale (1966). McTaggart's Analysis of Time. American Philosophical Quarterly 3 (2):145 - 152.
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  27. Nathaniel Goldberg (2004). McTaggart on Time. Logic and Logical Philosophy 13:71-76.
    Contemporary discussions on the nature of time begin with McTaggart, who introduces the distinction between what he takes to be the only two possible realist theories of time: the A-theory, maintaining that past, present, and future are absolute; and the B-theory, maintaining that they are relative. McTaggart argues against both theories to conclude that time is not real. In this paper, I reconstruct his argument against the A-theory. Then, I show that this argument is flawed. Finally, I draw a lesson (...)
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  28. D. W. Gotshalk (1930). Mctaggart on Time. Mind 39 (153):26-42.
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  29. Tobias Hansson Wahlberg (2013). Dissolving McTaggart's Paradox. In C. Svennerlind, J. Almäng & R. Ingthorsson (eds.), Johanssonian Investigations. Ontos Verlag.
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  30. Rögnvaldur Ingthorsson (2001). Temporal Parity and the Problem of Change. SATS: Northern European Journal of Philosophy 2 (2):60-79.
    I discuss the general form of arguments that profess to prove that the view that things endure in tensed time through causally produced change (the dynamic view) must be false because it involves contradictions. I argue that these arguments implicitly presuppose what has been called the temporal parity thesis, i.e. that all moments of time are equally existent and real, and that this thesis must be understood as the denial of the dynamic view. When this implicit premise is made explicit, (...)
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  31. Rögnvaldur Ingthorsson (1998). Mctaggart and the Unreality of Time. Axiomathes 9 (3):287-306.
    McTaggart's argument for the unreality of time is generally believed to be a self-contained argument independent of McTaggart's idealist ontology. I argue that this is mistaken. It is really a demonstration of a contradiction in the appearance of time, on the basis of certain a priori ontological axioms, in particular the thesis that all times exist in parity. When understood in this way, the argument is neither obscure or unfounded, but arguably does not address those versions of the A-theory that (...)
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  32. John King-Farlow (1974). The Positive McTaggart on Time. Philosophy 49 (188):169 - 178.
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  33. John Knox Jr (1981). McTaggart's Theory of the Self. Idealistic Studies 11 (2):151-166.
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  34. Robin Le Poidevin (1993). Lowe on Mctaggart. Mind 102 (405):163-170.
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  35. Robin Le Poidevin & Murray MacBeath (eds.) (1993). The Philosophy of Time. Oxford University Press.
    This volume provides a balanced set of reviews which introduce the central topics in the philosophy of time. This is the first introductory anthology on the subject to appear for many years; the contributors are distinguished, and two of the essays are specially written for this collection. In their introduction, the editors summarize the background to the debate, and show the relevance of issues in the philosophy of time for other branches of philosophy and for science. Contributors include J.M.E. McTaggart, (...)
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  36. Robin Le Poidevin & D. H. Mellor (1987). Time, Change, and the `Indexical Fallacy'. Mind 96 (384):534-538.
    E. J. Lowe sets out in a recent paper1 to refute McTaggart's proof of the unreality of time, by exposing an ‘indexical fallacy’ in his disproof of the existence of tensed (i. e., A-series) facts.2 Lowe then develops an original account of what makes time the dimension of change, based on his own account of tensed facts. But in our opinion he fails on both counts: (1) he fails to refute McTaggart's perfectly sound disproof of tensed facts, which shows that (...)
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  37. Loy Littlefield (1971). The Concept of Presence and McTaggart's Argument Against the Reality of Time. Idealistic Studies 1 (2):128-141.
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  38. Genevieve Lloyd (1978). Time and Existence. Philosophy 53 (204):215 - 228.
  39. Michael Lockwood (1997). As Time Goes By. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 11 (1):35 – 51.
    The concept of temporal flow has been attacked both on the grounds that it is logically incoherent, and on the grounds that it conflicts with the theory of relativity. I argue that the charge of incoherence cannot be made to stick: McTaggart's argument commits the fallacy of equivocation, and arguments deployed by Smart and others turn out to be question-begging. But objections arising from relativity, so I claim, have considerably more force than Lucas acknowledges. Moreover, the idea of equating the (...)
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  40. E. J. Lowe (1992). Mctaggart's Paradox Revisited. Mind 101 (402):323-326.
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  41. E. J. Lowe (1987). The Indexical Fallacy in Mctaggart's Proof of the Unreality of Time. Mind 96 (381):62-70.
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  42. Domenico Mancuso (2012). The Mathematics of McTaggart's Paradox. Manuscrito 35 (2):233-67.
    Mc Taggart's celebrated proof of the unreality of time is a chain of implications whose final step asserts that the A-series (i.e. the classification of events as past, present or future) is intrinsically contradictory. This is widely believed to be the heart of the argument, and it is where most attempted refutations have been addressed; yet, it is also the only part of the proof which may be generalised to other contexts, since none of the notions involved in it is (...)
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  43. W. J. Mander (1998). McTaggart on Error and Time. Modern Schoolman 75 (3):157-169.
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  44. Ned Markosian (2010). Time. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    Discussions of the nature of time, and of various issues related to time, have always featured prominently in philosophy, but they have been especially important since the beginning of the 20th Century. This article contains a brief overview of some of the main topics in the philosophy of time — Fatalism; Reductionism and Platonism with respect to time; the topology of time; McTaggart's arguments; The A Theory and The B Theory; Presentism, Eternalism, and The Growing Universe Theory; time travel; and (...)
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  45. Ned Markosian (1993). How Fast Does Time Pass? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (4):829-844.
    I believe that time passes. In the last one hundred years or so, many philosophers have rejected this view. Those who have done so have generally been motivated by at least one of three different arguments: (i) McTaggart's argument, (ii) an argument from the theory of relativity, and (iii) an argument concerning the alleged incoherence of talk about the rate of the passage of time. There has been a great deal of literature on McTaggart's argument (although no concensus has been (...)
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  46. Tim Maudlin (2002). Thoroughly Muddled Mctaggart: Or, How to Abuse Gauge Freedom to Create Metaphysical Monostrosities. Philosophers' Imprint 2 (4):1-23.
    It has long been a commonplace that there is a problem understanding the role of time when one tries to quantize the General Theory of Relativity (GTR). In his "Thoroughly Modern McTaggart" (Philosophers' Imprint Vol 2, No. 3), John Earman presents several arguments to the conclusion that there is a problem understanding change and the passage of time in the unadorned GTR, quite apart from quantization. His Young McTaggart argues that according to the GTR, no physical magnitude ever changes. A (...)
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  47. Kris McDaniel, John M. E. Mctaggart. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    This is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy comprehensive article on J.M.E. MacTaggart, with special focus on his methodology for philosophy, his metaphysical system, and his ethics.
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  48. J. Ellis McTaggart (1908). The Unreality of Time. Mind 17 (68):457-474.
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  49. J. Ellis McTaggart (1894). Time and the Hegelian Dialectic. Mind 3 (10):190-207.
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  50. J. Ellis Mctaggart (1894). Time and the Hegelian Dialectic. (II.). Mind 3 (10):190-207.
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