What is the quality of being first? This was a question that Charles Sanders Peirce thought deeply about because he felt that the quality of being first, or ‘firstness’ as he called it, was an essential element of the universe. Peirce’s conception of firstness is abstract, penetrating, profound and well worth giving yourself some time to think about.
One of the first things to come to mind when thinking about being first is the singularity of it. There can only be one first. There is only one person that comes in first in a running race. If two people arrive at the finish line at the same time before anyone else we don’t say that they were both first. We say they tied for first. That means they become fused into the one that was first.
Originality is another quality that comes to mind regarding firstness. If you are the first one to have an idea then we consider that idea to be original to you. Yet originality alone is not enough. You could have an original idea and find out later that someone else, without your knowing it, had the same idea before you did. Your idea is still original because when you had the idea it came directly to you not through anyone else. You can have an original idea – that is an idea that originates with you – without being the first person to have it. So the quality of firstness has to be both original and it also has to exist before any other of its kind.
The reason that Peirce was so interested in the qualities of firstness was because he was interested in the origin of the universe. He wanted to know what had to exist first in the universe. What was absolutely first? And he decided that before there could be anything that existed first there had to be the possibility and the quality of being first – there had to be absolute firstness before there could be any other thing. And whatever other thing came into existence would not be first – it would be second to the firstness that was already there.
And so in Peirce’s cosmology the universe starts with firstness – the quality of being first. Before there was anything at all in existence there was simply firstness. Peirce describes this initial quality of the universe in his essay A Guess at the Riddle in one of my most favorite paragraphs of philosophy.
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.
Firstness is pure spontaneity – pure chance – pure possibility. Firstness is the ground from which the rest of the universe springs forth. It is a concept very similar to what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Reason and what Ralph Waldo Emerson called The Over-Soul.