Commitment and Reality: From Kant to Peirce

There was more implied in Kant’s theory of knowledge than the fact that what we see is not an objective world in itself, but rather a picture that is created by us based on sense experience. (As if that wasn’t enough.) Besides stating that we are in an essential way the creators of the world as we see it, he was also saying that creating that world as it did had a responsibility inherent in it.

Kant recognized that as we go through life we are bombarded by sensual impressions and from those we compose an ongoing moving picture of reality. The picture of reality that we create must conform to certain rules of necessity in order to create a picture that is intelligible. As we put together our moving picture of reality all sorts of laws of necessity will demand our picture of reality must look a certain way so as to remain consistent and therefore intelligible. Some of these laws are enforced apriori, or prior to thought. Kant identified certain categories such as, time, space and being that all sensations were necessarily ordered into.

Other aspects of ordering are done more consciously using thought and reason. Every way in which we order reality has implied within it certain other necessary orderings. For instance, let’s say that we perceive a certain sequence of sensations – a shape, that is furry, has four legs and two eyes and barks and we put these sensations together into a dog. To remain consistent seeing this mental object as a dog means that by necessity the same object cannot also be a cat. In order to be consistent something being a dog makes it impossible for it to also be a cat. Within all of our conceptual categories there are uncountable numbers of implied laws that order and structure the rest of reality.

To put it another way, Kant understood human reason to be a constantly integrative process. As human beings are bombarded with a barrage of varied and incoherent sensations. These sensations are instantaneously filtered, ordered and congealed into a coherent picture of reality. This picture of reality, what Kant called a necessary transcendental unity, is the contextual background of all of our experience. The demand that this contextual background remain coherent from moment to moment places a constant demand on the way we order our perceptions.

Kant went beyond this more mechanical understanding of how reality is constructed by the mind by recognizing that by seeing objects in certain ways we were also committing to them being that way. In other words, if we see the object as a dog, we are committing ourselves to acting as if it is a dog. If it is a dog then we don’t go up and start talking to it and expecting it to answer back in human language. The laws of necessity are not only rules for how we must perceive things. They are also laws governing how we must act in relationship to things. When we see things a certain way we are committing ourselves to acting as if that is the way they are and we are responsible for acting in accordance with the way we see things.

It is a small leap from Kant here to William James’ conception of “The Will to Believe” in which he sees that what we choose to believe in fundamentally orients our perception of reality and as a result the way we act in the world. Truth in James’ brand of Pragmatism was created by our actions and our actions were determined by what we chose to believe.

Of all the American Pragmatists, however, it was Charles Sanders Peirce who was following on most directly from Kant. He held an integrated view of reality in which he simultaneously acknowledged the existence of different modes of being while insisting that all were equally real. His three modes of being were a rethinking of Kant’s fundamental categories.

Peirce claimed that reality was comprised of three modes of being that he called “Firstness,” “Secondness” and “Thirdness.” These were his three catagories. Firstness is the quality or character of things. It is “redness” or “hardness” or “coldness.” Secondness is the brute actuality of things. It is the event of experiencing the quality of something. Thirdness is the laws and habits that allow us to create a mental understanding of reality by relating things and qualities. In this we hear echos of Kant’s unknowable thing in itself, firstness, his concept of sensations, Secondness, and his transendental unity, Thirdness.

To Peirce, Thirdness was not a view of some external reality; it was an actual part of reality itself. Peirce did not see ideas as simply mirrors of the “real world;” they were as real as anything else. To appreciate the metaphysics of the Pragmatists, this point is critical and it has also become central to all forms of Evolutionary Spirituality that we find in the popular literature today.

It was in this third domain of reality that Peirce’s evolutionary philosophy was rooted because he saw our growth in knowledge about the universe as part of the growth of the universe itself. In Peirce’s understanding, the fate of the universe was in human hands because it would ultimately be determined by what Peirce imagined as an “unlimited community” of investigators. These investigators, through their shared inquiry into the nature of reality, would slowly converge toward a final agreement about what was ultimately true, and that truth would define the concluding state of the universe.