metaphysics Peirce Philosophy

Peirce: Metaphysics 2

We find another triad in Peirce’s categories. They are opaquely named Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness (Atkin, 2016, Chapter 6). In earlier works Peirce more descriptively calls them, respectively, quality, relation, and representation. The term “relation” might be misleading, because–as we find in Peirce’s treatment of signs–there are relations that cannot be reduced to two terms. That is why Peirce considers replacing relation with reaction. He also admits to have stretched “the meaning of the word Representation so far beyond all recognition” (Peirce, 1992/1989, p. 147). Later, we read: “I think it far the best plan to form entirely new scientific names for [the categories]. I therefore prefer to designate them as Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.” (ibid)

Firstness (quality) consists of what we usually refer to as perceptual features (e.g., magenta) isolated from everything else that may be present. We might map Firstness onto Jens Mammen’s (2017) Sense Categories, although Sense Categories include more than isolated qualities–they include also conjunctions and complex object types that are divisible into parts. A more apt correspondence is found between Firstness and Engelsted’s (2017) Sentience. Here is one hint: Peirce writes about Firstness that “this mode of being can only be apprehended as a mode of feeling.” (Peirce, 1992/1989, p. 147) In our perceptual experiences, Firstness is not given for free. It’s the result of effort, i.e., abstraction, to get to Sentience, just as it takes effort to get to the innermost Russian doll (Engelsted, 2018).

Secondness (relation/reaction) consists of a two-part relation that is irreducible to a single part (see also, Hibberd, 2014). Peirce writes:

“Imagine a magenta color to feel itself and nothing else. Now while it slumbers in its magenta-ness let it suddenly be metamorphose into pea green. Its experience at the moment of transformation will be secondness.”

(Peirce, 1992/1989, p. 148)

Through such a sudden transformation, something (e.g., another object) is revealed to our imagined magenta-sentient. This new object is neither understood nor represented, but shows up as a kind of resistance or interference (e.g., a force that turned the magenta green). In Engelsted’s (2017, 2018) framework, the idea of Secondness can be assimilated in Intentionality, particularly in the phase called “handling”–the object pursued by the subject presents itself as “an object of its own” (Gegenstand). Within Mammen’s (2017) framework, Secondness is where Choice Categories emerge, because it allows for the recognition of particularity–the object that is an object of its own is this particular object. The object has features that resist assimilation into the subject’s activity. Firstness and Thirdness don’t seem to allow such sense of particularity.

About Thirdness, or Representation, we read:

It is a modification of the being of one subject which is a mode of a second so far as it is a modification of a third. It might be called an inherent reason.

(Peirce, 1992/1989, p. 148)

The introduction of Thirdness as a metaphysical category involves the claim that are three-part relations that cannot be reduced into two-part relations. This includes, of course, semiotic relations. Let’s go back to an example I wrote about previously.

“An intruder makes a noise which starts my dog barking, alerting me to the presence of the intruder. The intruder is the object, the particular noise is the sign-vehicle, my dog’s barking is the interpretant. But notice, my dog’s barking functions as a further sign of the intruder, my response to the dog’s barking, as an interpretant. And we could continue.”

(Atkin, 2016, p. 131)

The three-part relations here include: intruder-noise-dog and intruder-dog’s bark-writer. In the first relation, the dog’s modification (barking) reflects a Thirdness; in the second relation, the writer’s modified awareness (becoming aware of the dog’s barking) similarly reflects a Thirdness. Connecting Thirdness/Representation to Mammen and Engelsted’s frameworks requires further thinking. At the present time, I am inclined to map Thirdness into complex Sense Categories, which enable analysis and inference. Furthermore, Thirdness seems to correspond to Engelsted’s Mind.

If I am not mistaken, the recognition of Thirdness accomplishes two things: (1) It shows a way out of the naïve naïve realism by suggesting that seemingly isolated qualities (of the empiricists) or seemingly two-part relations (of the experimental scientist) can be regarded with reference to generalities of different kind, i.e., different kinds of Thirdness, attached to particular perspectives. (2) It establishes Peirce’s realism, because Thirdness is not detached from reality and has to contend with the brute facts of Sentience and relations/reactions.


Atkin, A. (2016). Peirce. Routledge.

Engelsted, N. (2017). Catching up with Aristotle: A journey in quest of general psychology. Springer.

Engelsted, N. (2018). General psychology walks again. Journal für Psychologie26, 74-96.

Hibberd, F. J. (2014). The metaphysical basis of a process psychology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology34, 161-186.

Mammen, J. (2017). A new logical foundation for psychology. Springer.

Peirce, C. S. (1992). Reasoning and the logic of things (edited by K. L. Ketner). Original lectures given in 1989.

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