metaphysics Peirce Philosophy

Peirce: Metaphysics 1

In this post and the next, I am concerned with C. S. Peirce’s metaphysics (Atkin, 2016, Chapter 6) and–as it has been my aim throughout this Peirce series–with drawing connections between the philosopher’s work and the recent work in general psychology (Jens Mammen and Niels Engelsted).

Peirce’s method for metaphysical inquiry has something to do with phenomenology or, perhaps more accurately, introspection. Given that phenomenology taps into what every person can find in their experience, given that his/her experience “is so saturated” with the data of phenomenology that s/he “usually pays no particular attention to them”, metaphysical inquiry can yield results that are both novel and open to evaluation. It is worth noting that Peirce distinguishes his own approach to metaphysics (i.e., pragmatic, laboratory philosophy) from what he calls the “seminary” approach to metaphysics (i.e., inconsequential and not open to evaluation).

Prototype Theory, Black Swans, & Cultural Evolution

There are several triadic conceptual sets at work in Peirce’s metaphysics. I will discuss one of them in this post, and leave the other to my last entry in the series. Let’s begin with the most esoteric: tychism-synechism-agapism.

If you are familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s notion of Black Swan events, ontological (as opposed to epistemological) randomness, and the assumption that models of past events are necessarily erroneous in their prediction of future events, then tychism would not be a completely new concept. Tychism is the anti-mechanistic and anti-deterministic assumption that there is an element of chance inherent to reality. In defense of tychism, Peirce lists: growth and diversity [in nature], laws [of nature], and consciousness. A mechanistic worldview might take the existence of these four for granted and offer causal explanations of them, but it is not concerned with their emergence. As such, the mechanistic framework is blind to the growth and diversity of the future, the laws currently unforeseen, including those related to consciousness. This is closely related to general psychology–the fragmented subfields of psychology could be motivated within a mechanistic-causal framework, but their blindspots cannot be neglected once we consider their relation to each other, and to the broader context of human concerns.

The dimensions of general psychology, outlined in Niels Engelsted’s (2017) work (sentience, intentionality, mind, and consciousness) represent qualitative leaps in evolutionary history. They are the results of Black Swan events, i.e., low-probability and highly consequential events that gave rise to locomotion, mammals, and human surplus labor. General psychology requires an assumption similar to tychism both regarding humanity’s past, i.e., the story of how we are equipped with our particular capacities, and regarding our future (see, e.g., Engelsted’s final chapters in his Catching up with Aristotle), i.e., how our capacities, or their uses and expressions, might change in the future with subsequent Black Swans.

Next, synechism, is described as the assumption of continuity, holding that our discriminations between categories, such as mind and body, culture and nature, conscious and unconscious, do not involve sharp and impassable boundaries. More radically, I believe, synechism can be described in the form of a prototype theory of concepts, namely: that category memberships always involve an element of failure (a residual that doesn’t fit in the category). In other words, the categories we employ to describe objects do not exhaust the objects, an idea that evokes Jens Mammen’s (2017) choice categories (see my first post about choice categories and my interview with Jens Mammen). We might say, and I think Peirce would agree with this, that there is no perfect prototypical member of a category. He even went so far as to claim that certain claims in Euclidian geometry (the sum of the measures of the 3 angles of any triangle…) are, strictly speaking, approximations.

Last in the triad, agapism, refers to the assumption that there exists a purposeful force in the process of evolution, which guides the process via “evolutionary love” (agape; the love that nurtures, cultivates, humanizes, civilizes, etc.). Here, again, we can draw a connection to Mammen’s choice categories–loving someone (an offspring, a student, or a friend), in the sense of agape, requires keeping track of them in time, being open to and encouraging their growth and transformation.

It appears that Peirce has anthropomorphized nature–or, perhaps more precisely politismo-morphized it–projecting the capacity for culture, cultural evolution, and parental-societal investment onto nature. On the other hand, some version of agapism might apply to natural processes. If organism O was selected to thrive in environment E, then (in retrospect) it seems as if E is providing agape for O. This “agape”, we ought to keep in mind, has come at the cost of many other organisms O’, O”, …, not having survived in E. Mother nature might be wise, but her wisdom is the product of a history of blind tinkering, producing variations (potential solutions), and the sacrifice of failed solutions.

In the hands of human civilization, however, agape acquires genuine meaning. We might be inclined to ascribe only the purest and best of intentions to the force of agape, the “evolutionary love”, that sustains human consciousness, but Peirce (probably, given his ideas about authoritarian fixation of beliefs) and Engelsted (most definitely, given his Marxian perspective) would encourage skepticism with regard to this characterization. That is because what we call agape is the same kind of process that brings about the “fall” of human individuals into collective false consciousness, mindless collectivism, various inherited biases and conformities.

Thus, in short, the tychism-synechism-agapism triad–despite its esoteric appearance–gives us a foundation upon which we can build a general psychology and the story of human evolution, with its decisive Black Swan events. In the next post, I will discuss another triad (qualities-relations-representations), before closing the Peirce series.


Atkin, A. (2016). Peirce. Routledge.

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

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

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