Sunday, March 15, 2009

Peirce – firstness, secondness, thirdness

All of Pierce’s philosophical thought emerges out of his categories. At a trivial level anyone who has undertaken even a cursory study of Peirce is immediately struck by his seeming obsession with the number three. This is explained simply because his categories are three in number. Peirce defines categories as a “table of conceptions drawn from the logical analysis of thought and regarded as applicable to being” (CP 1.300). In other words, if you want to understand life the universe and everything, you need to understand first how thought functions; whether in relation to perceptions about the world outside or to the ideas inside your head. Peirce asserts that all thought can be broken down into three component parts, which he calls firstness secondness and thirdness.

Each of the categories governs a particular domain of thought. 'Firstness' governs qualities, 'secondness,' forces and 'thirdness,' mediation. Firstness is a quality, Peirce says firstness does not refer to anything nor does it lie behind anything else. The first is that which whose being is simply in itself (1. 356). It is the sensation of having only one thing occupying your thoughts and permeating your consciousness; you are so mesmerized that you are not even aware of anything else. For example if you stare at the colour red, so that your mind becomes so infused with the redness of that red: you are not actually aware that you are experiencing anything else (This is not actually firstness but it gives you a metaphorical sense or what it is). Another example of firstness is experiencing the absolute present directly (if that were ever possible!). It is a kind of unmediated meditative state without unity and without parts, it just "is."

Now imagine being in this rapturous state of firstness and suddenly walking slap-bang into a lamppost. The shock of that experience, as you actually experience it, is secondness. Secondness is existential: a physical force, a shock that strikes you. Secondness is what makes a baby first realize (no doubt after it has hurt itself) that it is not the whole universe, but is part of a universe that has its own agenda, and one that is not necessarily conducive to the safety and comfort of the baby.

Now for thirdness, imagine seeing someone else walking down the street and smacking slap bang into a lamppost. We might say, 'Oh that must have hurt!' In other words, we would be putting ourselves in the place of that person and imagining their pain. Thirdness is the mediating category, it speaks of events happening of things acting upon us of things that happen in the past or (speculatively) in the future. Thirdness deals in representations not in things. When we think about something we are in the realm of representation and therefore also in thirdness. All culture to the extent that it is something communicated is thirdness. All norms, language, all expression, everything we consciously think is thirdness. This includes the experiencing of our lives. There cannot be any hard an fast ontological distinction between a physical, virtual or mental happening in the retrospective terms of memory.

More information on the Peircean categories can be found here.

Peircean categories and virtual reality

Virtual reality emphasizes the experiential, rather than the communicative, or informational aspects of media. The notion of telepresence contends that information is not just transmitted from senders to receivers; but rather that mediated environments are created and then experienced by users. Consequently, the experiences of the individual user becomes the 'unit' of analysis for virtual reality researchers (e.g. Steuer 1992). But two questions arise – first, how is one to distinguish between virtual reality and real reality? And second, if presence is to be the agreed measure, how is one to measure presence itself? These are areas where the semeiotic of Charles Peirce can make a positive contribution.

To answer question one, Peirce asks by what evidence can we immediately know what is "present" to the mind? His answer is that reality and existence are actually two different things. Existence is a special mode of reality, which, whatever other characteristics it possesses, has that of being absolutely determinate. Reality, on the other hand is a special mode of being, the characteristic of which is that things that are real independently of any assertion we can make about them (CP 7.349). Applying Peirce's rules to virtual reality, one can say firstly that direct experience is neither certain nor uncertain, because it affirms and denies nothing (CP 1.145). As Deledalle remarks, reality is not making signs to us, it is we who provide the interpretants which become signs (Deledalle 2000, 21) Everything that is thought or experienced has a reality of a kind and this includes real life, dreams or virtual reality. Therefore if we want to distinguish virtual reality from real reality, we must become aware of the particular resistances each version of reality offers - for these resistances are what shows us that something independent of us is there (CP 1.431). And moreover their relative strengths and weaknesses can determine to what degree an environment can be said to be existent.

As to the second question, Peirce avoids dualistic or subjective interpretations of Being. There is no duality between Being and existence because epistemology and ontology are in fact the same thing (Deledalle 2000, 70). The conception of Being is nothing more than a conception about a sign. Different predicates may be attached to a subject, and the job of each is to make some conception applicable to the subject. Therefore we are able to imagine that a subject has something true of it, merely due to the fact that a predicate can be attached to it - and that is what we call Being (CP 5.294).

So presence is definable in terms of signs and by its qualities, resistances and the laws which govern them, or to put this another way, by the Peircean categories of firstness, secondness and thirdness.


Deledalle, GĂ©rard (2000) Charles S. Peirce's Philosophy of Signs - Essays in Comparative Semiotics, Bloomington USA: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1931-1935), The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vols. I-VI, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (editors), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1958), The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vols. VII - VIII, Ed. AW Burks (editor), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Steuer, J. (1992) "Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence" in Journal of Communication, 42(4), 73-93, PDF document, URL