Things do not exist unless they exist in relationship with something else. In fact, things do not exist at all. Relationships exist. There are no individual things. The existence of anything is always contingent upon something else. When I was an undergraduate student I studied physics, but my favorite course in four years was one called An Introduction to Metaphysics. It was one of only two philosophy courses that I had time to take, but I will never forget it.
The professor was a budgie elderly man one year from retirement. When he lectured he giggled to himself after almost every sentence and licked his glistening lower lip after about every third word. I had no background in philosophy, but the provocative questions and statements that this rather odd man inserted between giggles held my attention transfixed for an entire semester.
One of the things I learned was that absolute One and absolute Zero are both nothing. In the case of zero this seems obvious. If all you have is zero then certainly you have nothing. It is less obvious – but equally true – with one. If there was truly only one then there is in fact nothing. Nothing can exist without a second.
You might stop me here and say, “If I had one refrigerator I would still have something!” But if you have a refrigerator then you are a second to that refrigerator. And if you didn’t exist the refrigerator would still exist in a world and it would be contingent on the existence of the world. The world would provide the second that the refrigerator’s existence could adhere to. If the world disappeared the refrigerator would still have to exist in space. If there were truly only one there would be only the refrigerator. All of reality would be encompassed by the limits of that refrigerator. The entire universe would be a refrigerator. But we can’t stop there because the refrigerator could also not be composed of any parts. Because any part of the refrigerator would be a second to the refrigerator. There also could be no ideas or feelings about the refrigerator because those would also be seconds to the original refrigerator. The refrigerator could not have a history or future because then it’s previous or future state would be a second to its current state.
For those of you who follow my blog you will see that we are coming right to Charles Sander’s Peirce’s conception of ‘Firstness.” Firstness is absolute oneness and it is in fact nothing at all – the pure potential prior to existence. Peirce’s conception of “Firstness” is a piece of pure genius and well worth the time it takes contemplating it in order to come to a deep understanding of what Peirce was getting at.
But let me get back to my main point. In order for anything to exist it has to exist in relationship to something else. This is an important part of the core character of American Pragmatism. We live in a world of relationships. As I said before, things do not exist except in relationship with other things. In fact, things do not exist at all. Relationships exist. You can read any of the Pragmatists from Charles Sanders Peirce to William James, from John Dewey to George Herbert Mead and you will find this same emphasis on the primary reality of relationship.
William James was making this point in his own way when he spoke of everything occurring as content in context. That is his way of describing the minimal relationship required for existence. You cannot have pure content. You must always have content and context – foreground and background. And James was astute enough to realize that in our experience of mind mental objects can flip from being content to being context and back again. The relationship between content and context is one way to imagine the minimal relationship required in reality – Peirce’s more abstract language of the relationship between ‘firsts’ and ‘seconds’ is another way.
This makes total sense to me…. until I try to think about it 🙂 Actually it is the first time I have had an inkling of what Pierce meant by firstness.
Dear Jeff, you say how William James states that in our experience of mind mental objects can flip from being content to being context and back again. Is’t consciousness always the context underlying every experience? As it if it being the white screen untouched where all images (content, object) are projected. What does James mean with this flip of mind mental objects?
I agree with Victor ‘s question.
What is consciousness with respect to the “context” ?
Coud we have a discussion about what is the “context ”?
Is the context a subjective notion or an objective one ?
Jeff maybe at some point I shall write a blog about what I understood of H.Bergson.
This would go very well after W. James.
Being a shut-in artist preoccupied with painting most of the time, I have more acquaintances but few relationships, I do blog and have those kinds of relationships, not very deep but enjoyable and interesting when they’re interesting. I accept my being such a loner, don’t feel lonely since my work keeps me so occupied. I wonder if most elders like me find it more difficult to establish deep friendships as you age? There’s the lyrics to “People”: People who need people are the luckiest people in the world. I may have been more longing for relationships when I was younger.… Read more »
The first thing I thought reading this blog also was ‘ what about consciousness’ . I looked what Peirce said about it and this convinced me not to take consciousness as ‘context’ or ‘relation’ in the way Jeff talks about it: “The immediate present, could we seize it, would have no character but its Firstness. Not that I mean to say that immediate consciousness (a pure fiction, by the way), would be Firstness, but that the quality of what we are immediately conscious of, which is no fiction, is Firstness.” (Lowell Lectures, CP 1.343, 1903). He also says: Firstness is… Read more »
I am really enjoying your posts. Thank you! You manage to get across profound ideas in a short space with simplicity and clarity. Loving it!
The question is are these relationships existent as part of the subjectivity of the individual or as part of the world. William James thought that the relationships were as real as the objects in the world. I opt for the relationships to exist as cognitive impositions on experience in a somewhat Kantian paradigm.
Dear Jeff and Liesbeth, thanks so much for the blog and the cotnmems. Actually I am getting excited and thrilled every time one tries to make a bridge between Pragmatism and Idealism. I myself don’t really know where the bridge is located so I want to offer here an ongoing inquiry.What comes to me while reading the blog is that what is at play here is the belief system in its interaction with the representation system. It is not really the facts that pragmatists and idealists will disagree with, but the orientation of their beliefs.Take the example of Rudolf Steiner.… Read more »
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