March 03

The Holistic Evolution of Charles Sanders Peirce

The American Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce did not see the universe as collection of separate but interconnected things that evolved together. He saw a continuous whole universe with three essential characteristics that co-emerge.

All of creation is built from the interplay of only three essential characteristics that combine and recombine in an infinite variety of permutations. The three essential qualities do not exist in separation, they co-emerge together and the presence of all three at once is the minimal requirement for something to exist at all. Peirce believed that nothing can exist except as co-emergent triadic relationships of firstness, secondness and thirdness.

To better understand the co-emergent nature of these three essential qualities, imagine a piece of blank white paper. Now imagine a circle being drawn on the paper. A circle is a combination of three elements, an inside, an outside, and a line separating the two. You cannot have a circle without all three of these elements present.

As you drew the circle you started with a curved line that already had two sides to it. Once the loop of the circle was closed one side of the line became the inside of the circle and the other the outside. The circle is not built out of an inside, an outside, and a boundary that can be separated like the bricks that build a house. As you were drawing the line, the inside and the outside of the circle were co-emerging with it from the start. Similarly our universe arises in co-emerging triads of firstness, secondness and thirdness.

In order to get a sense of how the universe emerges we need to understand the natures of firstness, secondness and thirdness.

Firstness we have already defined as pure novelty and spontaneity. It is the quality of being first, of appearance without cause or history. It is the magic spark of creation. It is the essence of existence.

Secondness is brute contact. It is the pure experience of coming in contact with another – a second. It has nothing to do with the qualities of the other. It is merely the experience of making contact, which is the minimal experience required to recognize the existence of a second. Secondness has no qualities other than the quality of ‘being in contact.’

Thirdness is relationship. It includes all of the qualities that connect firsts and seconds. Thirdness is most of what we experience because everything we experience we experience as a relationship or comparison between something and something else. For example, I experience this as a book either because it is similar to other things that I know are books, or because it is different from other things that I know are not books.

We can alternatively name these three qualities as essence, contact and relationship. Everything else is constructed from combinations of these. In his evolutionary philosophy Peirce believed that over time we would be able to explain all of creation as the emergence of relationships between connected essences.

Think of this like pointillism – the art in which paintings are created by placing solid dots of color side by side. From a distance you see a scene with people, trees and flowers in it. When you get close to the paper you see that all of the figures are constructed from tiny dots of pure color. Peirce would say that if you look closely enough at reality you would only see combinations of essence, contact and relationship.

To get an experiential sense of what Peirce was pointing toward imagine reaching your hand into a paper bag. You know that something is in the bag, but you don’t know what. First your finger touches something and you experience pure contact – secondness. Then the qualities of the touch begin to emerge. The object is hard, smooth and cold. These qualities are the beginning of thirdness. Next you recognize that it is an apple and suddenly the object is a specific something that relates to many other things that you know about. It has become an object in your mind that relates to an entire world of other objects. The world of objects is a world of thirdness, but of course thirdness (relationship) cannot exist without secondness (contact) and firstness (essence.)

In his evolutionary philosophy, Peirce imagined that the universe began as absolute firstness – the pure possibility before anything had occurred. The universe ends with absolute secondness – the final encounter with the absolute essence that initiated the creative process. In between these is the unfolding of thirdness – the ever-expanding relationships that connect firsts to seconds. The ultimate contact with absolute firstness, however will always be infinitely far off in the future because as thirdness unfolds it continuously generates more possibility for further unfolding. If we use theological terminology the universe starts with God or ultimate essence, and ends with a final universal encounter with God. Those who are familiar with the cosmology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin will be curious to learn that Peirce was one of the influences on Teilhard’s thinking.