Once, on a retreat in Italy, the teacher spoke about something that immediately made me think of the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. On this retreat we were all meditating on and contemplating the nature of the absolute. One way to approach it is through the contemplation of the nature of zero. Zero is an absolute concept that has compelled human investigation and deep contemplation for most of human history. Thinking deeply about the nature of zero means looking into the nature of nothingness.
What is nothingness? What does it mean to not be?
These are the deep spiritual and philosophical questions. And of course you can get to the same absolute question by asking “What does it mean to be?” Which in a sense is asking, what is Oneness? What is somethingness? Or as Charles Sanders Peirce asked, What is the nature of being first? What is firstness?
Peirce contemplated the nature of firstness and for him it revealed the origin of the universe.
When we say something is first what are we actually saying? We speak of our first love, our first child or our first wife. What do we mean? What is the particular quality of “being first” or, as Peirce put it, “Firstness” that we are using to distinguish our first child from all of the others? What makes the first one different in the sense of being first?
Peirce contemplated firstness deeply because he wanted to discover the origins of reality. He believed that before there could be anything in the universe there had to be first the quality of being . The quality of “firstness” had to have been the first thing in existence.
I realize that I have devoted a number of posts to this concept of Peirce’s, and that is because I find it so compelling as a contemplation – as I believe he himself found it so. When you think deeply about what it means to be first you enter into the same unknowable place that you find when you contemplate what it means to be zero or nothing.
Peirce described his conception of firstness as “the mode of being of that which is such as it is, positively and without reference to anything in itself.” It is first and therefore it can not be compared to anything else – it is an absolute quality. And I believe that is why it is so compelling. You cannot really understand it. You cannot compare it to anything else. You cannot say that firstness is like this, or unlike that. Firstness is such as it is, positively and without reference to anything in itself.
As I have the glorious opportunity to spend many days contemplating such profound absolutes I thought it was fitting to once again introduce Peirce’s powerful contemplation of what it means to be first.