I want to go in a little deeper into Peirce’s conception of the three modes of being, Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness. By Firstness Peirce is referring to pure being. Firstness is the unseen, imperceptible essence of things. It is the thing in itself prior to anything happening or any encounter with a second. As such, Firstness is also spontaneous, immediate and free because it is inherently unrelated to anything else that it could possibly be dependent upon, or bounded by. Here is Peirce’s own description of the nature of Firstness from his essay “A Guess at the Riddle.”
“The idea of the absolutely First must be entirely separated from all conception of or reference to anything else; for what involves a second is itself a second to that second. The First must therefore be present and immediate, so as not to be second to a representation. It must be fresh and new, for if old it is second to its former state. It must be initiative, original, spontaneous, and free; otherwise it is second to a determining cause. It is also something vivid and conscious; so only it avoids being the object of some sensation. It precedes all synthesis and all differentiation; it has no unity and no parts. It cannot be articulately thought: assert it, and it has already lost its characteristic innocence; for assertion always implies a denial of something else. Stop to think of it, and it has flown! What the world was to Adam on the day he opened his eyes to it, before he had drawn any distinctions, or had become conscious of his own existence—that is first, present, immediate, fresh, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious, and evanescent. Only, remember that every description of it must be false to it.”
Secondness is pure experience, pure encounter with a first. Secondness is not unseen, it is pure seeing in the broad sense of experiencing or encountering. Secondness is, however, unknown. Secondness is the pure experience of a first and cannot include any thoughts or conceptions about either the first or the encounter with the first. Peirce thought of Firstness as the beginning and Secondness as the end.
Everything in between is Thirdness. Thirdness is the domain of mental phenomenon which are all the ideas and mental perceptions that we have that relate First essences with Second encounters. I have come to think of Peirce’s conception of Thirdness to be like the conception of “worlds” that was developed decades later by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger made a separation between the concept of “Universe” and the concept of “World.” Heidegger used the word Universe to represent the entire domain of objective things, in much the same way that the word is most often used today. The World (or Worlds) on the other hand was to Heidegger the domain of human meaning and significance that emerged from the human capacity for understanding. An example he used was a hammer. A hammer is not an object in the universe; it is a tool in the world. In the universe you might have a wooden shank with a shaped piece of metal on the end. That would be a meaningless object without significance. Put that same object in a human world, amongst people who can recognize its meaning and significance and it BECOMES a hammer that is used to bang nails into wood, and build houses and other things. The human world of meaning and significance is a world that is, to use Heidegger’s term, “disclosed” out of the universe. I would prefer to say that it emerges out of the universe in the presence of human intellect and culture.
I believe that what Heidegger was getting at in describing how human worlds of meaning and significance emerge, is more or less what Peirce was getting at with his conception of Thirdness. Look around you and see that everything can be stripped of all meaning and significance, all connection to usefulness or function, and it becomes a meaningless object, a shape in space and time. Reconnect it to its function and it discloses itself to be a “something” of value and worth to human beings.
To connect this idea with some of the things that we have discussed concerning the limitations of science, it was Heidegger’s belief that science is perfect for describing and explaining everything about the universe, but that it cannot describe or explain the world of human meaning and significance. The world of human meaning and significance is an emergent mode of being that cannot be built up from the objects of the meaningless universe alone. The “world” has evolved out of the universe and it is in the continued development of the “world” of human meaning and significance that is the domain of future evolution. It is our human ability to build and co-create the “world that gives us the ability for conscious evolution.”