Wittgenstein’s Times (And Ours)

Jaakko Hintikka


Wittgenstein’s conception of time changed in the course of his philosophical development. This development leads us to some of the most important conceptual issues con- cerning time, especially time identification. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein identified time as one of the forms of simple objects. Since these objects are pheno- menological, not unlike Russell’s objects of acquaintance, this meant that we have direct experience of temporal relations. Propositions expressing such relations, like all other propositions, are verified and falsified by direct comparisons between them and the reality given. But propositions can be verified in this way only in the present. Hence temporal relations must manifest themselves in the present moment. This does not mean that only the present moment is real, but rather that memory is constitutive of the logical structure of the world. Later, Wittgenstein used the expression “memory time” for this conception of time. From the momentary character of experience it follows that there is in memory time only past and future. Later Wittgenstein gave up the idea of immediate comparisons of language and reality. Such comparisons came to require human activities which take place in the actual physical time that Wittgenstein called “information time”. Hence Wittgenstein came to recognize a duality of temporal concepts in our conceptual system. But what is this duality? There are several different (though not unrelated) distinctions here that are not equivalent but are not distinguished from each other by Wittgenstein from each other or from the distinction between memory time and information time. (1) Memory vs. external evidence as a criterion of statements about the past (2) Phenomenological vs. physicalistic conceptions of time (3) Remembering that as remembering a particular entity, be it person, object, time, place etc. (4) Many cognitive psychologists distinguish from each other episodic memory and semantic memory. Some neuroscientists likewise distinguish procedural and propositional memory. Wittgenstein’s distinction between memory time and information time involves elements from (1)-(3). For instance, one can remember that about the future (“I suddenly remembered that I will be in Boston tomorrow.”) Hence Wittgenstein says that we can have memories that are about the future in information time. In the Philosophical Investigations and elsewhere Wittgenstein argues that physicalistic evidence, not memory, provides the real criteria for statements about the past in our ordinary discourse. This complex of problems is essentially clarified by means of two ideas which are as crucial as any in philosophy today but which most philosophers are unaware (or negligent) of. These two insights are: (a) the role of an identification system over and above the reference system in semantics and (b) The presence of two different identification systems in our actual conceptual practice. The two have been called the public system and the perspectival system. By means of these two ideas not only can we clarify the problems of Wittgenstein interpretation but also the central conceptual problems concerning time.


20th century philosophy; philosophy; philosophy of time; Wittgenstein Ludwig; memory; Philosophical Investigations; Tractatus logico-philosophicus; time

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