Re: Thirdness

John F. Sowa (
Fri, 17 Apr 1998 06:05:22 -0400


Thank you for your comments. They are very well taken, but they illustrate
the enormous difficulty or perhaps impossibility of trying to characterize
various philosophies accurately and briefly.

I realize that Hegel only used the terms thesis-antithesis-synthesis
once in his opera omnia, when he explicitly criticized them. I was going
to mention Fichte, but I decided not to confuse the reader with any more
names than necessary. But I disagree with the claim that Peirce considered
Hegel "perhaps the greatest philosopher who had ever lived." He explicitly
mentioned Aristotle and Kant as two of the greatest, but his opinion of
Hegel's logic was similar to Russell's (who is not one of my (or Peirce's)
favorite philosophers, but who is someone you can always count on for a
clever, but devastating put-down).

>... Peirce uses them to generate his system of sign-types but not an
>ontology. The best one can do with them ontologically is to use them in
>one aspect to discuss "modes" of being. The reason for this is that the
>very notion of being presupposes the Peircean categories, and every
>representation of being is done in signs that can themselves be modally
>distinguished into types in which the categories will recursively appear.
>But to skip the intervening mediation of signs and to speak of the
>Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness of e.g. "woman", does not really
>reflect what Peirce is about. On the other hand, analyzing signs of woman
>as icon-index-symbol or as tone-token-type is a Peircean way of proceeding.

Yes, I agree with that point. But there is no way that I can possibly
say all of that in one intelligible paragraph. The excerpt that I sent
around yesterday was part of a summary of 2,500 years of philosophy in
eight pages. I avoided saying Peirce's categories were ontological, and
in Section 2.3 of the book (which follows that 8-page summary) I explicitly
built up my own selection of categories, which I said were "inspired by"
the various philosophers, but not directly taken from them.

In my crystal lattice of Figure 2.6, I had earlier used the labels
Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. I have now replaced them with
the labels Thing, Reaction, and Mediation, which are more in keeping
with the level of the other labels without making an identification
of these labels with Peirce's.

Throughout the book, I say that the character strings that appear inside
my concept boxes are _type labels_. I definitely do not claim that they
represent the way the world "is", but that they are convenient signs that
we put together in order to build diagrams that represent some aspect of
how we talk about the world. On page 1 of the book, I say "Plato's
student Aristotle shifted the emphasis from the nature of knowledge to
the less controversial, but more practical problem of representing knowledge."

One of the major questions that has always been asked about Aristotle is
whether he thought of his categories as characterizations of how the world
is or as a classification of how we talk about the way we think the world is.
Aristotle himself never made that point clear in any of his writings, but
his student Theophrastus said that he had intended his categories to be both.

I intend my categories to be first and foremost a classification of the
labels we use to describe how we think the world is. That is a point that
is hard to get across to philosophers, but I actually think that it is easier
for computer programmers, who primarily think in terms of character strings
without attributing any deeper meaning to them.

>.... The advantage I find in preserving the integrity of
>Peirce's approach-- the pragmatic justification, if you will-- is that his
>categories preserve a point of view from which we may continually revise
>systems that attempt to harden the flow of experience into set forms.

Yes, I agree with that point wholeheartedly. I do give a summary of
Peircean semeiotic in Section 6.6 of the book. But as you well know,
CSP himself was not able to get a clear conception of his point of view
across to very many, if any of his contemporaries, not even to his closest
friend William James (who was probably at least as smart as the average
reader that I am trying to address). In this book, I am trying to get
some ideas across to readers who do not have much, if any philosophical
background in a way that is as accurate as I can be without losing them

And by the way, I also corrected another inaccuracy in that excerpt:
In the answer to Exercise 2.5, I said that the objects were sorted by
weight. I have changed that to mass and added the following note:

From an earth-centric point of view, weight could be considered
an inherent property of an object, but more accurately, weight
is the result of a reaction of an object's mass to the gravitational
attraction of another object.