Prior tense, Paul Morris

Arthur Prior: A “Young Progressive”: Letters to Ursula Bethell and to Hugh Teague 1936-1941
Mike Grimshaw (ed)
Canterbury University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781927145593

A N Prior graduated from Otago University in philosophy and taught there and at the universities of Canterbury (1946-58), Manchester (1959-66) and Oxford (1966-69). At Canterbury, he developed a new form of logic, “tense logic” (1949-1954). Standard logic was atemporal, having no place for timed inferences. Prior developed non-truth-functional temporal operators [F (future – “will be”); G (universal future – “always will be”); P (past – “was”); and, H (universal past – “always was”)] to be added to the usual truth-functional operators in first-order propositional logic, that allowed for propositions qualified in terms of time. This innovation allowed Prior to take time seriously – to understand reality as tensed – and so reconfigure the metaphysics of time (Time and Modality, 1957; Past, Present and Future, 1967). Tense logic also provided the foundation for a number of developments in artificial intelligence.

Prior, a Methodist, became a Presbyterian and was training for the ministry at Otago until he abruptly gave up. The rationale, according to the editor, for publishing Prior’s correspondence with Ursula Bethell and his cousin Hugh Teague, is to challenge the understanding that Prior had undertaken a modernist move from theology to philosophy by demonstrating that during this period (1936-1941) his theological concerns were just as evident, and that “the letters published in this volume give us the missing half in which, in collaboration with his known philosophical thought and reading, enabled him to create tense logic”. While Prior’s voracious theological reading clearly continued after his theological training, the larger claim that tense logic was significantly “enabled” by his theology is less persuasive. 

The 39 letters are part of the archival collection at the University of Canterbury. Archival materials once published are rendered redundant and thus there needs to be a good reason for doing so. Letters need to explain later significance or the times or particular relationships and influences. Prior’s letters are one-sided in that we only hear his voice, and they are not “literary” letters, displaying writerly craft and mastery, or novel use of language, nor are they replete with psychological insights into the private lives of the author and others, nor do they offer much original commentary on those fateful years. 

They are, however, worth reading, as they offer access to the now largely unintelligible world of 1930s public discourse in Dunedin and beyond, when a theologically and politically educated elite addressed the concerns of the day, including pacificism and militarism, capitalism and its vicissitudes, Marxism and communism, “applied Christianity” and progressive politics, and the role of religion in modern society. The letters also reveal the maturation of this brilliant young man after his radicalisation and his marriage to the most unsuitable Clare Hunter (unsuitable, at least, from a Presbyterian Church point of view) and their travels in France, Germany, Scotland and England, as they listened to Jawaharlal Nehru and Oswald Mosley, met T S Eliot, and wrote for newspapers and literary and theological periodicals.   

Prior, having discovered Karl Barth’s (as yet incomplete) dogmatic theology as a plausible dialectical account of reality, sought to assimilate all theology and knowledge to this paradigm. Barth is the predominant theme of Prior’s letters, as he tries to co-ordinate his growing appreciation of historical Scottish and English theologies with the “Continental” (ie Barth). His understanding of the world – the state, Nazism, communism, ethics, the Christian tradition, and how to think as a Christian – is largely Barthian, too. Prior’s range is impressive, as he insightfully renders Marxism as “secular scholasticism” and so reads Lenin theologically measured against John Knox. Everything is theology, or at least part of the matrix shaped by it. During this period, Prior’s future projects and plans are theological.  

Prior’s letters to Bethell include critiques of specific poems and proposed selections, but mainly consist of details of theological publications and lectures, alongside his repeated attempts to persuade her of the benefits she could derive from subscribing to Barth’s truths, interspersed with original and often devastating dialectical critiques of the work of other theologians. 

He is vitriolic about English racism, aristocracy and class, although he appears utterly unreflective about these same issues at home. Prior prefers pacifist literature to pacifists, and the only church in which he feels at home is a congregation of Jewish Christian refugees! After London, and Spain to help refugees, he and his wife return home, with Clare leaving him soon afterwards. Prior left his wild life and his pacifism behind and, after military service, began his career as a logician at Canterbury. 

The letters reveal Prior’s rejection of Platonic eternity in favour of concrete temporality and his growing appreciation of the differences between logic and theology, and that the latter, despite its logical limitations, still has immense practical value in terms of how we think and live. So, while he cannot defend his belief in god logically and Barth makes less and less logical sense, Prior comes to understand theology as on one side of a line, with logic on the other. This is evident in his later interest in the logic of natural languages, or the value that bad logic can have as “wisdom” for living – which is, of course, a much more theologically radical position.

Paul Morris was Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington from 1994-2018.

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