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The Origins of Temporal Concepts

Workshop programme

The Origins of Temporal Concepts

The aim of this workshop is to bring together philosophers and psychologists with a shared interest in the origins of the metaphysical commitments and psychological processes involved in our everyday thinking about time. The workshop is held within the context of the AHRC Project ‘Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology’. The aim of the project is to examine to what extent research in psychology can bear out and explain the idea that there is a deep contrast between time as it figures in our everyday thought and experience, and time as portrayed by modern science.

We are particularly interested in the extent to which an understanding of the ways in which developmental change, adaptive behaviours, and differences between human and animal cognition can help to characterise and explain our metaphysical commitments about the nature of time. How does an understanding of time manifest in non-human animals and children, and how should we explain developmental changes in children’s understanding? To what extent does young children's understanding of time already involve ideas such as that time 'passes' or that past, present, and future are different from one another in their nature? Finally, we are interested in how work on the origins of temporal concepts might be brought to bear on debates in philosophy about the metaphysical nature of time, as well as about the status of metaphysics itself.

Provisional Programme

​Friday 13th December

9.15-9.45 Teresa McCormack (Queen’s University Belfast): Introduction
9.45-11.00 Christoph Hoerl (University of Warwick): A dual systems approach to temporal cognition

11.00-11.15 Tea/Coffee

11.15-12.30 Gema Martin-Ordas (University of Stirling): It is about time: conceptual and experimental evaluation of the temporal skills for Mental Time Travel

12.30-1.15 Lunch
1.15-2.30 Ali Boyle (University of Cambridge): Discovering the past
2.30-3.45 Judith Hudson (Rutgers): Children’s developing temporal representations

3.45-4.00 Tea/Coffee

4.00-5.15 Katharine Tillman (University of Texas Austin): The development of children’s causal and semantic knowledge of the past and future

Saturday 14th December

9.45-11.00 John Campbell (University of California Berkeley): Time and the shared language

11.00-11.15 Tea/Coffee

11.15-12.30 Andrea Bender (University of Bergen): Cultural differences in the spatial grounding of temporal representations

12.30-1.15 Lunch

1.15-2.30 Simon Prosser (St Andrew’s): How does the mind represent 'motion through time'?
2.30-3.45 Jonathan Redshaw (University of Queensland): Temporal junctures in the mind

3.45-4.00 Tea/Coffee

4.00-5.15 Sarah Beck (University of Birmingham): The importance of time in children’s counterfactual thinking

5.15 Closing Discussion


Sarah Beck, University of Birmingham
The importance of time in children’s counterfactual thinking.
A growing field of research addresses children’s thinking about counterfactual events in the past (what might have been). I suggest that discrepancies in findings within this field have resulted from the tasks used making differential demands on temporal cognition. I will review key tasks that have been used to test children’s counterfactual thinking and examine whether they in fact require the child to think about alternatives to a possible past event. I will present new empirical work that shows that including a temporal aspect makes specific demands on children. Finally, I will discuss the similarities and differences between atemporal and temporal counterfactual thinking and the implications for how we describe and define counterfactual thinking.

Andrea Bender, University of Bergen
Cultural differences in the spatial grounding of temporal representations
A growing research field in cognitive science is based on the assumption that temporal representations are grounded in space (e.g., through metaphors or in the construct of a mental time line), but the majority of studies corroborating this assumption are limited in terms of sample diversity (and occasionally also in theoretical clarity). Drawing on conceptual analyses and cross-cultural studies, I will argue that, while cultural variability in temporal representations may be bounded, it does involve variability in whether, and how, such representations are indeed grounded in space.

Ali Boyle, University of Cambridge
Discovering the Past
There is intuitively a tight connection between episodic memory and time – so much so that the question whether animals have episodic memory is often framed in terms of whether they are ‘stuck in time’. In this talk, I aim to unpick the relationship between episodic memory and temporal understanding. I argue that whilst lacking episodic memory might impose temporal restrictions on one’s experiences and projects, it is not obvious that it imposes constraints on temporal understanding. Indeed, it is far from obvious that episodic memory is the sort of thing that could furnish one with such understanding.

John Campbell, UC Berkeley

Christoph Hoerl, University of Warwick
A dual systems approach to temporal cognition
I will outline a dual systems approach to temporal cognition, which distinguishes between a temporal updating system and a temporal reasoning system. I will argue that the former is both phylogenetically and ontologically more primitive, but also that both of them are still at work alongside each other in adult human cognition. I will use this distinction to interpret findings in comparative and developmental psychology – arguing that neither animals nor infants can think and reason about time – and also to explain certain features of adult human cognition.

Judith Hudson, Rutgers University
Children’s developing temporal representations
How do children develop a mature representation and understanding of linear time? Young children’s early representations of the sequence of familiar events provides a foundation from which they can eventually construct mental timelines organized in conventional temporal measurement units (e.g., days, weeks, months, years). Key developments occurring in early childhood (ages 3 to 7 years) include developments in children’s temporal representations from events, to events in a day, to parts of a day, to days in a week, and so on. As children construct temporal representations, they are exposed to temporal language in everyday conversations with parents and teachers that include references to temporal sequence and conventional temporal units. My talk focuses on the role of event representations and everyday exposure to temporal language as critical contributions to the development of children’s time understanding.

Gema Martin-Ordas, University of Stirling
It is about time: conceptual and experimental evaluation of the temporal skills for Mental Time Travel
Mental time travel is the ability that allows humans to mentally project themselves backwards in time to remember past events (i.e., episodic memory) or forwards in time to imagine future events (i.e., future thinking). Despite empirical evidence showing that animals might possess mental time travel abilities, some still claim that this ability is uniquely human. Recent debates have suggested that it is the temporal component that makes mental time travel uniquely human. Advances in the field have been constrained by a lack of comparative data, methodological shortcomings that prevent meaningful comparisons, and a lack of clear conceptualizations of the temporal component. Here I will present a comprehensive review into mental time travel and its temporal component in humans and animals—with a particular focus on great apes and corvids. I will examine three of the most prominent and influential theoretical models of human mental time travel. Drawing on these accounts, novel experimental venues that offer sufficient flexibility to generate valid comparisons across species will be suggested. I will propose that it is only by looking at the temporal aspect of mental time travel that we will be able to deliver rigorous test of whether this ability is uniquely human or not.

Simon Prosser, University of St Andrews
How does the mind represent 'motion through time'?
Motion is variation of spatial location relative to time, so nothing can literally move through time. There is good evidence, however, that human beings think and speak of the 'passage' of time in terms of a kind of motion, and it is sometimes held that this also relates to the way in which time is experienced. I shall discuss the implications of this regarding the way in which the mind represents persons and objects over periods of time, and I shall try to separate some logical issues from some empirical ones.

Jonathan Redshaw, University of Queensland
Temporal Junctures in the Mind
Humans can imagine what happened in the past and what will happen in the future, but also what did not happen and what might happen. We reflect on envisioned events from alternative timelines, while knowing that we only ever live on one timeline. Drawing on recent theory and research, I will argue that considering alternative timelines rests on representations of temporal junctures, or points in time at which possible versions of reality diverge. These representations appear to become increasingly sophisticated over childhood, first enabling preparation for mutually exclusive future possibilities around age 4, before counterfactual thinking around age 6 and anticipated counterfactual thinking around age 8. The protracted developmental trajectory may be a function of progressively hierarchical temporal embedding, whereby representational perspectives with a particular temporal orientation (forward-looking or backward-looking) are recursively embedded within other representational perspectives with their own temporal orientation. I will end by suggesting that non-human animals may not represent temporal junctures at all