Arthur Prior

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Arthur Norman Prior
Born(1914-12-04)4 December 1914
Masterton, New Zealand
Died6 October 1969(1969-10-06) (aged 54)
Trondheim, Norway
EducationUniversity of Otago (B.A., 1935; M.A., 1937)[1]
Spouse(s)Mary Prior
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy
InstitutionsCanterbury University College
Academic advisorsJ. N. Findlay[1]
Doctoral studentsMax Cresswell
Kit Fine
Other notable studentsGenevieve Lloyd[6]
Jonathan Bennett[6]
Richard Routley
Main interests
Notable ideas

Arthur Norman Prior (4 December 1914 – 6 October 1969), usually cited as A. N. Prior, was a New Zealand–born logician and philosopher. Prior (1957) founded tense logic, now also known as temporal logic, and made important contributions to intensional logic, particularly in Prior (1971).


Prior was born in Masterton, New Zealand, on 4 December 1914, the only child of Australian-born parents: Norman Henry Prior (1882–1967) and his wife born Elizabeth Munton Rothesay Teague (1889–1914). His mother died less than three weeks after his birth and he was cared for by his father's sister. His father, a medical practitioner in general practice, after war service at Gallipoli and in France—where he was awarded the Military Cross—remarried in 1920 and there were three more children. Arthur Prior grew up in a prominent Methodist household. His two Wesleyan grandfathers, the Reverends Samuel Fowler Prior and Hugh Henwood Teague were sent from England to South Australia as missionaries in 1875.[7] The Prior family first moved to New Zealand in 1893.

While studying for his first degree A. N. Prior attended the seminary at Dunedin's Knox Theological Hall but decided against entering the Presbyterian ministry and began to focus on logic. Following his first marriage in 1937 they spent some years in Europe returning after the outbreak of war. After divorce from his first wife he remarried in 1943 to Mary Wilkinson. They were to have a son and a daughter. He served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force from 1943 to 1945 then began his academic career at Canterbury University College in February 1946 taking over a vacancy made when Karl Popper left.[8]

After returning to New Zealand following a year at Oxford as a visiting lecturer he took up a professorship in 1959 at Manchester University where he remained until he was elected a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford in 1966 and appointed a Reader. He continued his Manchester practice of accepting visiting professorships.[8]

Arthur Prior went to give lectures at Norwegian universities in September 1969 and on 6 October 1969, the night before he was to deliver a lecture there, he died from a heart attack at Trondheim, Norway.[8]

Professional life[edit]

Prior was educated entirely in New Zealand, where he was fortunate to have come under the influence of J. N. Findlay, [1] under whom he wrote his M.A. thesis on 'The Nature of Logic'.[9] While Prior was very fond of the theology of Karl Barth, his early criticism of Barth's adherence to Philosophical Idealism, is a mark of Findlay's influence on Prior.[10]

He began teaching philosophy and logic at Canterbury University College in February 1946, filling the vacancy created by Karl Popper's resignation. In 1951 Prior met J. J. C. Smart, also known as "Jack" Smart, at a philosophical conference in Australia and the two developed a life-long friendship. Their correspondence was influential on Prior's development of tense logic. Smart adhered to the tenseless theory of time and was never persuaded by Prior's arguments, though Prior was influential in making Smart skeptical about Wittgenstein's view on pseudo-relations.[11] He became Professor in 1953. Thanks to the good offices of Gilbert Ryle, who had met Prior in New Zealand in 1954, Prior spent the year 1956 on leave at the University of Oxford, where he gave the John Locke lectures in philosophy. These were subsequently published as Time and Modality (1957). This is a seminal contribution to the study of tense logic and the metaphysics of time, in which Prior championed the A-theorist view that the temporal modalities past, present and future are basic ontological categories of fundamental importance for our understanding of time and the world. Prior was several times warned by J. J. C. Smart against making tense-logic the topic of his John Locke lectures lectures. Smart feared that tense-logic would get Prior "involved in side issues, even straight philosophy, and not in the stuff that will do Oxford most good."[12] Prior was however convinced that tense-logic had the potential to benefit logic, as well as philosophy, and thus he considered his lectures an "expression of a conviction that formal logic and general philosophy have more to bring to one another than is sometimes supposed".[13]

During his time at Oxford, Prior met Peter Geach and William Kneale, influenced John Lemmon, and corresponded with the adolescent Saul Kripke. Logic in the United Kingdom was then in a rather low state, being "deeply out of fashion and its practitioners were isolated and somewhat demoralized."[14] Prior arranged Logical a Colloquium which brought together such Logicians as John Lemmon, Peter Geach, Czesław Lejewski and more.[15] The colloquiums were a great success and, together with Prior's John Locke lecture and his visits around the country, he helped revitalize British logic. [16] From 1959 to 1966, he was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester, having taught Osmund Lewry. From 1966 until his death he was Fellow and Tutor in philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. His students include Max Cresswell, Kit Fine, and Robert Bull.

Almost entirely self-taught in modern formal logic, Prior published his first paper on logic in 1952, when he was 38 years of age, shortly after discovering the work of Józef Maria Bocheński and Jan Łukasiewicz, very little of whose work was then translated into English.[citation needed] He went on to employ Polish notation throughout his career. Prior (1955) distills much of his early teaching of logic in New Zealand. Prior's work on tense logic provides a systematic and extended defence of a tensed conception of reality in which material objects are construed as three-dimensional continuants which are wholly present at each moment of their existence.

Prior stood out by virtue of his strong interest in the history of logic. He was one of the first English-speaking logicians to appreciate the nature and scope of the logical work of Charles Sanders Peirce, and the distinction between de dicto and de re in modal logic. Prior taught and researched modal logic before Kripke proposed his possible worlds semantics for it, at a time when modality and intentionality commanded little interest in the English speaking world, and had even come under sharp attack by Willard Van Orman Quine.

He is now said to be the precursor of hybrid logic.[17] Undertaking (in one section of his book Past, Present, and Future (1967)) the attempt to combine binary (e.g., "until") and unary (e.g., "will always be") temporal operators to one system of temporal logic, Prior—as an incidental result—builds a base for later hybrid languages.

His work Time and Modality explored the use of a many-valued logic to explain the problem of non-referring names.

Prior's work was both philosophical and formal and provides a productive synergy between formal innovation and linguistic analysis.[citation needed] Natural language, he remarked, can embody folly and confusion as well as the wisdom of our ancestors. He was scrupulous in setting out the views of his adversaries, and provided many constructive suggestions about the formal development of alternative views.


The following books were either written by Prior, or are posthumous collections of journal articles and unpublished papers that he wrote:

  • 1949. Logic and the Basis of Ethics. Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-824157-7)
  • 1955, 1962. Formal Logic. Oxford University Press.
  • 1957. Time and Modality. Oxford University Press. Based on his 1956 John Locke lectures.
  • 1962. "Changes in Events and Changes in Things". University of Kansas.
  • 1967. Past, Present and Future. Oxford University Press.
  • 1968. Papers on Time and Tense. Oxford University Press.
  • 1971. Objects of Thought. Edited by P. T. Geach and A. J. P. Kenny. Oxford University Press.
  • 1976. The Doctrine of Propositions and Terms. Edited by P. T. Geach and A. J. P. Kenny. London: Duckworth.
  • 1976. Papers in Logic and Ethics. Edited by P. T. Geach and A. J. P. Kenny. London: Duckworth.
  • 1977. Worlds, Times and Selves. Edited by Kit Fine. London: Duckworth.
  • 2003. Papers on Time and Tense. Second expanded edition by Per Hasle, Peter Øhrstrøm, Torben Braüner & Jack Copeland. Oxford University Press.


  1. ^ a b c Arthur Prior (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. ^ Mary Prior and Arthur Prior, "Erotetic Logic", The Philosophical Review 64(1) (1955): pp. 43–59 doi:10.2307/2182232.
  3. ^ Andrew Bacon, John Hawthorne & Gabriel Uzquiano, "Higher-order free logic and the Prior-Kaplan paradox", Canadian Journal of Philosophy 46(4–5): 493–541 (2016).
  4. ^ McNamara, Paul. "Deontic Logic". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. ^ Ruth Barcan Marcus, Modalities: Philosophical Essays, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. x.
  6. ^ a b "Tree – David Chalmers". Retrieved 22 July 2020.
  7. ^ Adelaide Observer, 28 August 1875, p. 7.
  8. ^ a b c Per Hasle The Life of Prior (1914-69). A Brief Overview, accessed 8 June 2019
  9. ^ David Jakobsen (2019): A.N. Prior and ‘The Nature of Logic’, History and Philosophy of Logic, DOI: 10.1080/01445340.2019.1605479
  10. ^ David Jakobsen (2019): A.N. Prior and ‘The Nature of Logic’, History and Philosophy of Logic, DOI: 10.1080/01445340.2019.1605479
  11. ^ Jakobsen, D. (2017) The Significance of the Prior-Smart Correspondence for the Rise of Tense-Logic. In: Hasle, P., Blackburn, P. and Øhrstrøm, P.(eds.): Logic and Philosophy of Time: Themes from Prior. Aalborg University Press: pp. , 63--82. (Logic and Philosophy of Time: Themes from Prior.
  12. ^ Jakobsen, D. (2017) The Significance of the Prior-Smart Correspondence for the Rise of Tense-Logic. In: Hasle, P., Blackburn, P. and Øhrstrøm, P.(eds.): Logic and Philosophy of Time: Themes from Prior. Aalborg University Press: p 78.
  13. ^ Prior, A.N., (1957) Time and Modality, Oxford University Press, p. vii
  14. ^ Copeland, J., (1996) Prior's Life and Legacy, In Logic and Reality, Edited by Copeland, J. Oxford University Press, pp. 6)
  15. ^ Copeland, J (1996), Prior's Life and Legacy, p. 6.
  16. ^ Copeland, J (1996), Prior's Life and Legacy, p. 6.
  17. ^ Walter Carnielli; Claudio Pizzi (2008). Modalities and Multimodalities. Springer. p. 181. ISBN 978-1-4020-8589-5.

Further reading[edit]

The nearest thing to a biography of Prior is:

  • Copeland, B. J., 1996, "Prior's Life and Legacy," in his edited volume Logic and Reality: Essays on the Legacy of Arthur Prior, New York: Oxford University Press (pp. 519–32 of this volume contain a complete bibliography of Prior's known writings as of date).

An excellent survey of Prior's life and achievement is:

Ongoing research on the importance of Prior's philosophy and logic:

External links[edit]