Issue #19 January 2019

The Continuity of Being: C.S. Peirce’s Philosophy of Synechism

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis — Sonata of the Sea. Finale (1908) [section]

“Nor must any synechist say, “I am altogether myself, and not at all you.” If you embrace synechism, you must abjure this metaphysics of wickedness. In the first place, your neighbors are, in a measure, yourself, and in far greater measure than, without deep studies in psychology, you would believe. Really, the selfhood you like to attribute to yourself is, for the most part, the vulgarest delusion of vanity.”

— C.S. Peirce, “Immortality in the Light of Synechism” (1893)

The unbearable presence of discontinuity

Humankind cannot bear very much discontinuity. This is not an a priori postulate, but an observationally-derived truth, and one which a study in attitudes towards so-called postmodern art will confirm, a form of art which is deliberately discontinuous. Presented with a fragmentary visage or a lack of musical harmony or with any prolonged experience of aesthetic rupture, we seek out meanings — whether by invention, authorial biography, social context, etc. — which may serve as a common foundation in which the disparate presented minima may be unified, or, at least, cobbled into a coherent object-narrative.

If the meaning found in one experience does not fit that found in another, we struggle to maintain our personal coherence to the degree that those experiences have importance and inversely to their evident disparity. When we cannot resolve the objects of our experience into a unified narrative, the result is any number of psychological disturbances: perhaps as mild as a momentary outburst of anger, of disgust; or as severe as a spiraling mania or a schizophrenic break. It is not an unreasonable conjecture that the seeming proliferation of mental ailments in the contemporary West is neither the result of capitalist pharmacological greed nor improvement in diagnostic abilities, but a creeping encroachment of unresolved cultural (and therefore psychological) fragmentation. The superficial bandage holding together the pieces of the shattered Western psyche has been the promise of illusory-realization — the belief that we can live out all our fantasies, no matter how incoherent it all seems — a bandage which has only obscured the subcutaneous hemorrhage.

But what if this fragmentation is not — despite the still-echoing voices of Eliot, Heidegger, Ellul, Tolkien, Postman, and many others whom we ought to heed — the exclusive provenance of modern industrial and now digital technology (which latter, if anything, is tearing off the bandage of illusion), but more deeply rooted in the theoretical underpinnings of modern philosophy?

Modernity’s presumed chasm

While questions of the mind’s relation to the world, and vice versa, are at least as old as Plato, there occurs a radical break with René Descartes in how those questions are pursued. Most medieval and ancient philosophers had taken it for granted that the mind truly knows the world (or at least substances in the world) — questioning how they are known, and not if — where Descartes presumes instead that the mind knows its own ideas, and only through their mediation does it, can it, have a grasp on what exists independently of the one cognizing. This presumption becomes the founding belief of all modern philosophy, not only as a chronological era but as an intellectual epoch. For centuries, it was thought we could not know how the world outside the mind is known, let alone what is known, unless we could first answer whether and how such a knowledge was possible; how it is that we could transcend the divide from the mental existence of an idea to some existence of the extramental correlate. This cart-before-the-horse approach rests upon the belief that our intellectual lives begin “inside” the mind, and only later do we transcend to the world outside. Even the empiricists of modern philosophy held that while the external world may generate the ideas, the ideas themselves are the direct and immediate objects of knowledge — retaining, therefore, the presupposed chasm between the mind and the world and prolonging the question as to how we know extramental reality as true.

This presupposed chasm between the mind and the world further diverges: if not into explicit dualism, then either into a materialist reductionism or an idealist reductionism (which ends as a de facto implicit dualism anyway); to a denial of either any reality insensate or of the accessible intelligibility of anything not intellectually-conceptualizable. Its inheritors are not only Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant, but Churchland, Dennett, and Harris. On either side of this divide we find, typically, culture and nature, subject and object, philosophy and science, opinion and truth.

This is not to say modernity has not attempted to bridge the chasm — indeed, modern philosophy, from Descartes up through contemporary analytic philosophers, has made little else its goal — but only that it has started from an impossible presupposition. Any dualist stance–the philosophy that performs all its analyses with an axe, leaving unrelated chunks of being (Peirce 1893: “Immortality in the Light of Synechism”, in The Essential Peirce, vol.2, p.2)–begins with incommensurability of its dual parts as the basic premise. If mind and body, or thought and thing, are cut of entirely different substance with no common third to unite them, transcending from the mind to the world is an impossibility.

A question of metaphysics

It was just this default position leading inevitably towards fragmentation that Charles Sanders Peirce sought to overcome. Though he produced no magnum opus — indeed, never completing any of the many books he intended to author — Peirce sought his whole life to produce an architectonic view of human knowledge which corralled not only the insights of philosophy but also those of science; a comprehensive theory of thought which united empirical investigation with speculative inquiry.

Best known as the American father of semiotics (in distinction from the semiological school of thought founded by Ferdinand de Saussure and promulgated in the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, et al.), Peirce is also recognized as a seminal figure in pragmatism, being credited with the name and the general gist of the movement — though Peirce would deliberately distance himself from those more famously associated, Dewey and James, and rename his own theory “pragmaticism”, a name so ugly no one would hijack it into a nominalist track, he thought. But less recognized is that both Peirce’s semiotic thinking and his pragmaticism depend intrinsically upon his metaphysics: the first metaphysics which can truly be called “postmodern”, in the sense of no longer following the modern presumption that what we know directly are our own ideas.

A biography in sketch

Peirce’s life, as artfully depicted in Joseph Brent’s biography, fits the profile of tortured genius more than most. Born the son of a Harvard professor of mathematics, he was precocious, brilliant, unsure of himself, erratic, temperamental, by turns abstemious and lascivious. He suffered all his life from the pains of trigeminal neuralgia — which he treated by various chemical concoctions, including morphine and cocaine — and likely had bipolar disorder. He was, moreover, convinced that his left-handedness was a physiological deformity that rendered him at odds with the rest of society, and would experience agonizing paralytic spells to which no diagnosis fit. He believed in God seemingly more from philosophical conviction, and perhaps mystical (or drug-induced) experience, than from any religious habit or practice.

At the age of 74, he died in abject poverty — despite the repute of his father and the renown in which he was held by established thinkers, such as William James and Josiah Royce — having never held a permanent academic position. When the young Johns Hopkins University, influenced by the machinations of Simon Newcomb, wanted to diplomatically remove Charles from a lecturer position, they cited budgetary cutbacks, laid off all contingent faculty — and then re-hired everyone but Peirce. Much of his income was through loans and gifts of family and friends, as well as irregular payments for various odd bits of writing. He was a victim of not only himself, but the malice of others, who saw to it that his moral profligacy impeded the success of his career. But for a handful of faithful adherents, his immense but disorganized body of work would likely have been buried forever in the archives of Harvard, if not incinerated.

Though versed in Hume, Kant, and Hegel, the deepest currents in Peirce’s thought flowed from Aristotle and Scholasticism. Though he references them rarely, one finds traces of Johannes Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and the lesser-known Modist, Thomas of Erfurt (whose most important work, Tractatus de modis significandi sive Grammatica speculativa, was mistaken to be Scotus’ until 1922) throughout Peirce’s oeuvre.

Where his personal life was marred by interruptions — mania and depression, pain and addiction, rejection and isolation — his thought was marked by continuity. Not to say that Peirce never changed his mind or even that he was steadfast and consistent in his writings; but what more than anything else what he sought was the coherence of thought. Such a search for coherence stems, I believe, primarily from the Scholastic background, from immersion in the thought of men who saw the universe as an essentially continuous and essentially intelligible whole. But, although he well-understood the importance of knowing the history of philosophy, Peirce was far from repeating the theories of ages past. He was a truly original thinker, who saw in the thought of his forebears truths that they themselves had not recognized, truths which allowed him to bring new and unique insights into the world.

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis — Sparks II (1906)

Three Universes of Experience

Much like Aristotle and Kant before him, the singularity of Peirce’s thought germinates in a system of categories. Whereas Aristotle’s categories were, arguably, ontological predicates designating distinct ways things can be, and Kant’s categories were, inarguably, psychological predicates signifying ways things may be understood, Peirce’s categories fall into neither category. Indeed, they capture neither what belongs to things nor what belongs to the mind, but the essential structure of the universe as a whole, both as it exists dependently-upon and independently-of any cognitive activity. This essentially suprasubjective nature of the categories might be missed insofar as they are termed categories or “universes” of experience, which to our ears sounds a subjective designation. But what Peirce shows through these categories is that every experience is construed by openness to relations, such that not only can the subjectivity of species-specifically human experiences be “transcended”, those experiences cannot not be open to the world outside the subject.

Over the decades from 1867 — when he first authored “On a New List of Categories” — until his death in 1914, Peirce mused over, refined, revised, and altered his terminology for the categories; for the most part, however, he simply named them Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. These categories, Peirce says, are derived as the irreducible, ineradicable elements of what he called the “phaneron”: that is, of an experience, hence the three categories occasionally being called “universes of experience” (e.g., cf. 1908: “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God”). Because this is not experience, however, understood as what happens subjectively in the individual, but as essentially suprasubjective — the universes are each by themselves innately related to one another and always situate the human individual in particular as already self-transcendent — Peirce is thus starting not from a presupposition of divided subject and object, but the inverse. This can only be made clear, however, by examining the three categories themselves.

The Category of Firstness

Characterized by an absolute simplicity — admitting no parts — Firstness defies easy exposition. Perhaps the easiest explanation of it which may be given is this: strip back an experience you have to its most basic constituent, and what is left? A “quality of feeling” (cf. Peirce 1903: “The Categories Defended”), such that it is what it is regardless of anything else. In other words, Firstness is the feeling we have that a thing is what it is, making no judgment upon it. Before we judge that red is a color, we experience red; before we judge that color generically is the refraction of light, we experience generic color.

This experience, notably, is neither something belonging to the subject — the self — nor to the object, the thing experienced. It does not discriminate between the two. It is a singular undifferentiated vagueness — an indeterminacy which admits of infinite possibility for discrimination, but which contains none in actuality, not even between who is feeling and what is being felt.

For this reason, Peirce also calls Firstness the conception of the present, in general; or, even more simply, IT in general (1867: “On a New List of Categories”). But seldom, if ever, do we experience a raw, naked Firstness: while we could conceive of some entity having a singular and unvarying feeling of a singular, unaltering experience, such is not our lot.

The Category of Secondness

That is, the Firstness of our experience is invariably joined by Secondness. This, Peirce claims, is the easiest category to comprehend: for it is the category of reaction and struggle, of being up against the resistance of the world which we habitually encounter. To strike against the other is to experience Secondness.

This dimension of experience is not two separate acts, or two separate awarenesses — of oneself and of the other — but rather a “double-sided” consciousness: awareness of effort is intrinsically awareness of resistance, just as awareness of the self is intrinsically awareness of the other, and vice versa. We may recursively separate the two, considering each as a First; but their Secondness consists in the unity of being against one another, the unity of opposition — two things mutually opposed to one another must be united in that over which they are opposed, after all.

This experience of resistance against effort introduces the conception of the other, the non-self; which is the proper sense of the object, in the sense of the Latin obiectum (from ob-, meaning “against” and iactum, meaning “thrown”) and the German Gegenstand (from gegen meaning “against” and “stand” signifying its English cognate). Secondness, in other words, is the experience of worldly interruption in the otherwise smooth continuum of presence — and thus, is the first differentiation of presence.

The Category of Thirdness

If the phaneron comprises both the undifferentiated presence of Firstness and the differentiating interruption of Secondness, it also comprises, of necessity, a third element, an element of governing generality. In other words, we never simply experience a First and a Second without experiencing them as …, such that between the First and the Second, uniting the experience of Firstness and Secondness, is something reducible to neither. This is Thirdness.

To make this admittedly abstract concept more concrete: the smooth continuum of presence is interrupted, and this interruption is shocking, or irritating, or pleasant. This being shocking, or irritating, or pleasurable is neither Firstness or Secondness, but the governing relation between the two, the relation which says how the two are related. That one feels shock, or irritation, at the interruption is an interpretation of the interruption; a “taking-it-as such-or-such”. This interpretiveness is no less true of the ordinary: seeing a rock dropped, we take it as quite natural that it should fall. These relations — ordinariness, shockingness, etc. — are inherently general (or universal, if one likes), in that one and the same relation may govern entirely different individuals and conversely, the same individuals may fall under the governance of different relations. What is shocking when seen the first time becomes, by the regularity of its presence, by being observed again and again, rather ordinary. But the shocking still exists, albeit in requirement of a different Secondness.

In other words, Thirdness is the category of regularity, of habit, and — as Peirce maintains as vital to understanding not only the categories but the universe at large — of thought.

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis — Sparks III (1906)

Unity of the Universes

What is thought, however? Our tendency today is to relate this term to the experience of mental language, or perhaps mental operation more broadly. But what does that comprise? Where does mental operation begin or end?

We cannot, of course, answer these questions here. But we can point out that the boundaries of thought, as Peirce conceived it, were far broader than the limits by which it is ordinarily circumscribed. Much in the way that Aristotle thought of virtue — such that, to become virtuous, one must act virtuously, but to act virtuously, one must have virtue — Peirce recognized that what is “thoughtful” need not be a complete thought, and need not even belong to a mind (properly speaking), just as an action may be virtuous, even if the actor does not have virtue.

Thought is never complete; that is, every thought we have either actually leads to or at the very least remains perpetually open to further thought. It possesses a twofold indeterminacy: both of vagueness, to the degree that it is imprecise, and of generality, insofar as it may comprise instances of greater particularity than itself.

Tychism and Synechism

These two indeterminacies of thought reflect the indeterminacies of the universe at large: for they are the indeterminacies belonging to the essential openness of Firstness and Thirdness, respectively, and which allow for a truly evolutionary universe — as opposed to an incidentally evolutionary universe, where advance is naught but the result of dumb happenstance — that progresses from the more chaotic to the more organized.

A truly evolutionary universe is one where by nature the constituents are disposed to evolve, to advance, to become fuller in their being. Peirce’s metaphysical cosmology has, for this reason, often been considered (cf. Houser 2014: “The Intelligible Universe” in Romanini and Fernandez, Peirce and Biosemiotics) something of an embarrassment, the sign of mental dissolution, and an odiferous elephant in the room that many who otherwise admire Peirce have striven to ignore or dismiss as best they can — pretending there is no smell whilst pinching their noses. But to admire Peirce’s logic, say, or his views on the relationship between science and philosophy, and simultaneously disdain his cosmology is to ignore the common roots in which all his thinking was grounded. For Peirce not only saw knowledge as grounded in the common understanding of signs, but all the universe — mental or otherwise — as belonging to one and the same whole; thus, he argued that even the lawlessness of chance, the principle of indeterminacy he called tychism, is itself governed by the lawfulness of regularity, the principle of continuity he termed synechism.

Synechism is named the enemy of dualism (1893: “Immortality in the Light of Synechism”), the corollary of fallibilism (c.1897: CP.1.172), the growth of reasonableness (1902a: CP.5.4), and the synthesis of tychism and pragmaticism (1906a: CP.4.584). It is the principle not of any one thing in the universe to grow, but the common root of all diverse entities that enables them to grow together. Tychism — far from being synechism’s opposite — is rather the indeterminacy of the individual which by nature seeks completion through something more than itself; just as doubt is not the opposite of belief, but the irritation of mind which seeks resolution in belief, so too the indeterminacy of the disordered seeks fittingness in regularity — a seeking which is itself the first step of order.

Final causality and purpose

In one of his most systematic and simultaneously opaque treatments of evolution — his 1893 “Evolutionary Love” — Peirce divides evolution into three kinds: 1) by fortuitous variation; 2) by mechanical necessity; and 3) by creative love. The first of these is the Darwinian process of natural selection, where the evolved variation’s fittingness to a context was a matter of pure chance. The second was advocated by Carl Nägeli, Albert von Kölliker, and Albert Weismann (despite his self-identification as a Darwinian) and attributed the impulse to improvement to some or another principle within the evolving. The third Peirce associates with the idea — present most notably in Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s presentation of soft inheritance — that habit shapes the generation-by-generation development of traits; not by a physical force, but rather by what we could call a relational-patterning-after.

These three varieties of evolution Peirce renames, respectively, as: tychasm, anancasm, and agapasm (using the related Greek roots to provide a technical terminology). The first two, he claims, are degenerate forms of the agapastic: that is, while each is a real evolutionary force, the reality of the evolutionary universe as a whole is comprised by the third form. While tychasm finds growth from the lower into the higher a matter of luck (as well as “lower” and “higher” being purely circumstantial adjectives), and anancasm sees it as a matter of internally-driven necessity (and is thus a Whiggish theory of nature, at heart), agapasm sees it as “a love which embraces hatred as an imperfect stage of it”; which seeks elevation of the lesser through a not-yet-realized better. That is: “Love, recognising germs of loveliness in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely. That is the sort of evolution which every careful student of my essay ‘The Law of Mind’ must see that synechism calls for.”

This, as Peirce calls it, is creative love. It is not a love which seeks fulfillment of itself, but which calls out for as-yet-unrealized perfection. It is love as a final cause: first in intention, last in execution, the cause that makes anything to be at all. It is the cause that answers the question “why?” for anything.

Few people already convinced that evolution proceeds through random chance will be persuaded of its inherent purposiveness, let alone that this purposiveness is not itself the product of chance — it echoes too loudly of a theistic hand guiding the universe; and natural purposiveness implies all sorts of normative consequences, including moral ones.

The challenge that Peirce’s synechism issues us, however, is this: if the universe really is found to be continuous, such that between any two things there is no unbridged gap but a gradient of infinitesimal degrees of difference — in at least potency if not actuality — if this continuity exists in fact and not only in theory (and a careful examination, I think, can only lead one to the former conclusion): what then explains this continuity, if not agapasm?

Brian Kemple is the author of Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition (Brill: 2017) and The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology (forthcoming, De Gruyter: 2019). He received his PhD in Philosophy with the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston TX, in 2016, and is the only student ever to complete a dissertation under the direction of John Deely. He currently consults as a Research Fellow with the Center for the Study of Digital Life ( and operates a private philosophical consulting and education service, Continuum Philosophical Insight (


January 2019


The Continuity of Being: C.S. Peirce’s Philosophy of Synechism

by Brian Kemple

Against Ontology: A Naturalist Critique on Two Varieties of Mathematical Structuralism

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