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Life and Work of Arthur Norman Prior

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The Life of Prior (1914-69)

A Brief Overview by Per Hasle


This document is a slightly extended Curriculum Vitae rather than a biography of Arthur Norman Prior - it is meant only to provide an overview of main stages and events during Prior's life.

The best biographical description of Prior's life written so far is found in Anthony Kenny's memorial paper of Prior (Kenny 1970). Kenny's description can be supplemented by two further investigations with different foci: (i) Prior's contributions to logic in general as well as the main stages of his development of tense logic are brilliantly explained in Jack Copeland's introduction to Copeland 1996. Copeland's paper is primarily concerned with the period 1950-1969. (ii) Prior's early (ca. 1938-1950) philosophical and theological thought is investigated in [Hasle 1997b]. The latter paper also tries to explain how his later thought had roots in this early phase.

Finally, the general exposition of Prior's 'Rediscovery of Tense Logic' given in Øhrstrøm and Hasle 1993 can be mentioned as a supplementary source.

The overview given here can be seen partly as a "quick reference" source for central events, and partly as a "structuring device" for combining information from the above-mentioned sources. In general, Prior's younger years are described in a little more detail than the later and better known part of his life (which was, of course, the most important part as regards Prior's contributions to logic and philosophy).

--- Per Hasle

Life of Arthur N. Prior


December 4: Born in Masterton, New Zealand.

Prior's mother died a fortnight after his birth. His father was a doctor and a medical officer during the First World War, and received the Military Cross (MC). Prior was brought up by his aunts and grandparents. Both of his grandfathers were Methodist ministers.


Studies in Philosophy and Psychology at Otago University.

During this time, Prior left Methodism in favour of the Presbyterian denomination, whose intellectual systematicity appealed more to him than the Methodist emphasis on religious experience and especially a 'conversion experience'. During his B.A. studies he also took courses at Knox Theological Hall, with a view to entering the Presbyterian ministry.

Prior was influenced by Socialism and Pacifism. Major theological influences on him were Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and to some extent Søren Kierkegaard. Another crucial intellectual influence was New Zealand philosopher John Findlay.

Prior was attached to some student periodicals: The Student (The Students' Christian Movement's magazine), the Review, and the Critic.

1934: Prior followed Findlay's course on ethics and logic.

1935: B.A. in philosophy and psychology.


While working on his M.A. thesis, Prior also worked as a teaching assistant within logic.

1937: M.A. in philosophy and psychology.

Prior's M.A. thesis was concerned with an objectivist approach to logic.

1937: Married to Claire Hunter.


These years were spent in Europe (Monte Carlo, Italy, France, and England). Prior had various minor jobs, but hoped to make a living out of religious journalism.

1938 In London.

Prior attended the 4th International Congress of Calvinists, and wrote proceedings for various journals.

1939 In Oxford.

Prior attended the World Conference of Christian Youth, Amsterdam, and wrote impressions for journals.

For some time Prior was associated with the "Birmingham Group", a Presbyterian and pacifist forum.

1940: Prior worked on several theological issues, especially a proposed revision of the (Presbyterian) Westminster Confession.

1940: Return to New Zealand in November.


Back in New Zealand, Prior had various incongruous jobs in Dunedin, Wellington, and Christchurch.

1942: Prior went through a crisis of belief (documented in 1942a).

About this time, Prior's marriage to Claire Hunter was unravelling.


During these years (till the end of World War Two), Prior served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

In view of Nazism and the World War, Prior had given up his pacifist leanings.

March 1943: Divorced from Claire Hunter.

October 1943: Married to Mary Wilkinson.


During this period, Prior was employed at Canterbury University College (apart from a stay in Oxford in 1956). Prior started work in February 1946.


First employment at Canterbury University College, taking over a vacancy made when Popper left.

Attached to the periodical 'Landfall' (1947-52).

March 1949: the Priors' house burned down.

At that time Prior was working on a book on the history of Scottish Theology. However, after the fire in which some of his drafts perished, he gave up the project. His main intellectual interest from then on veered towards philosophy and logic. Prior's first interest in symbolic (and Polish) logic was induced by his reading Bochenski's 'Precis de logique mathematique' in 1950.

1949: Prior appointed as Senior Lecturer at Canterbury University College.

1949: The publication of 'Logic and the Basis of Ethics' (1949a).


1951: Prior becomes an Elder of the Presbyterian Church.

1951: Attending the Philosophical Congress in Sydney.

Prior made some important acquaintances and friendships with other philosophers here, especially with J. L. Mackie and J.J.C. Smart.

First interest in modal logic (attested in 1951a 'The Ethical Copula', plus an added chapter on Modal Logic in his unpublished manuscript The Craft of Formal Logic, 1951).

1952: Prior appointed as Professor of Philosophy at Canterbury University College.

1953: First New Zealand conference on Philosophy, organised by Prior.

1954: A year dominated by illness in the Prior-family and Gilbert Ryle's visit to New Zealand. (Ryle was instrumental in bringing Prior to Oxford in 1956).

1955: The publication of 'Formal Logic' (1955a).


Visiting John Locke lecturer in Oxford.

The whole year was spent in Oxford, where Prior had been invited to give the "John Locke lectures" of that year. These lectures formed the basis of Prior's book 'Time and Modality' 1957a, the first work in which modern tense and temporal logic was presented systematically. In Oxford Prior made some important and lasting friendships and professional associations, especially John Lemmon, Ivo Thomas, P. T. Geach, Elizabeth Anscombe, Carew Meredith, David Meredith, and C. Lejewski.

During this year in Oxford, the Prior-family joined the Local Presbyterian church.

Logic Colloquium:

In July 1956, Prior and others organised the Oxford Logic Colloquium.

A vital event for Prior himself (and, according to some authors, indeed for the subsequent development of logic in England). (See also Logic Colloquium/box 11).

December 1956: leaving for New Zealand.


1957: The publication of 'Time and Modality' (1957a).

During these last two years in New Zealand, a voluminous correspondence, especially with John Lemmon and P.T. Geach, kept Prior in touch with new developments within the logical community.

December 1958: Leaving New Zealand in order to take up a professorship at the University of Manchester.


Professor at Manchester University.

During his Manchester time, Prior was primarily working on (i) Metaphysical questions about time, (ii) logic as concerned with temporality. After arriving in England, the Prior-family did no longer participate in Presbyterian church life.

1960: Becoming one of the editors of the Journal of Symbolic Logic, a position lasting till Prior's death in 1969.

1961: Attending the International Colloquium on Methodology of Science, Warsaw.

Lecturing on 'Time And History' in York during May.

1962: Visiting professor at University of Chicago (early winter 1962).

1962: Attending the Helsinki Conference on belief-sentences (summer 1962).

1963: Appointed Fellow of the British Academy.

1965: The First International Colloquium on Deontic Logic, organised by Prior.

1965: July-August: British Council Visiting Professor at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.

During this time the Priors stayed in Wellington (with family), but Prior gave talks at all New Zealand Universities (Auckland, Hamilton, Otago, Victoria, Canterbury).

1965: September - January (66): Visiting Flint professor at University of California, where 'Past, Present, and Future' was drafted.


Prior elected Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and appointed as a Reader in the University of Oxford.

Prior's last years, in Oxford, were characterised by an increasingly abstract interest in and use of formalism; but at the same time, he was developing a generalised interest in the philosophical questions of "Worlds, Times, and Selves" (cf. 1976a).

1967: The publication of 'Past, Present and Future' (1967a).

1968: The publication of 'Papers on Time and Tense' (1968a).


In September Prior went to Oslo; he was to give a course at the University of Oslo and lectures at Norwegian Universities during the fall term of 1969. On 6. October Prior died from a heart attack in Trondheim, Norway, the night before he was to give a lecture at the university there.

Posthumous works

1971a. Objects of Thought, ed. by P. T. Geach and A. J. P. Kenny, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971.

1976a. The Doctrine of Propositions and Terms, ed. by P. T. Geach and A. J. P. Kenny. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1976. A part of Prior's unpublished 1951-manuscript, 'The Craft of Formal Logic'.

1976b. Papers in Logic and Ethics, ed. by P. T. Geach and A. J. P. Kenny. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst/Duckworth, London, 1976.

1977a. Worlds, Times and Selves, ed. by Kit Fine, University of Massachusetts Press/Duckworth, London, 1977.

Per F. V. Hasle ©
  • Department of Information Studies

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Peter Øhrstrøm ©

  • Department of Communication and Psychology

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David Jakobsen ©

  • Department of Communication and Psychology

  • Aalborg University

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