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Peirce, Hegel, and the Category of Secondness

University of Sheffield, UK

ABSTRACT: This paper focuses on one of C. S. Peirce’s criticisms of G. W. F. Hegel: namely, that Hegel neglected to give sufficient weight to what Peirce calls “Secondness”, in a way that put his philosophical system out of touch with reality. The nature of this criticism is explored, together with its relevant philosophical background. It is argued that while the issues Peirce raises go deep, nonetheless in some respects Hegel’s position is closer to his own than he may have realised, whilst in others that criticism can be resisted by the Hegelian.

Writing in a critical response to Hegel’s Ladder, the magisterial study of the Phenomenology of Spirit by H. S. Harris, John Burbidge adopts Peircean terminology in raising his central concerns:
What I miss, throughout Harris’s commentary, is that healthy sense of reality that secondness provides. The commentary on each paragraph elaborates the text into an intricate web of philosophical and literary traditions. One acquires a rich sense of the polysemy of Hegel’s writings – how they are filled with the mediated, reflective structures of thought. There is a lot of thirdness, to use Peirce’s term. As well, Harris, with his acute aesthetic sensibility, weaves this network of mediation into a whole which collapses into a pervasive immediacy, into an intuitive apprehension of the total picture, or firstness. Missing are the brute facts of secondness which trigger thought’s mediation, the evidence that everyday consciousness and self-conscious experience does not conform to our expectations. As I read the Phenomenology, Hegel’s primary focus is on this concrete content of consciousness’ experience and what it does to our confident pervasive assumptions, breaking them apart so that mediation is required.1
In his reply to Burbidge, Harris defends himself by stating that “Hegel is ‘a philosopher of thirdness’”, so that he is right to approach the Phenomenology in the way he does; but he also admits that “we philosophers of thirdness need ‘the dilemmas and struggles of real life’”, and concludes: “But, of course, without secondness, there could not be any thirdness at all”.2

This treatment of Hegel in Peircean terms is surprising in two respects. Firstly, it is surprising to see Peirce invoked in relation to Hegel at all, as the connection between the two has received hardly any critical attention.3 Secondly, it is curious to see Burbidge insisting that a reading of Hegel should offer “that healthy sense of reality that secondness provides”, when Peirce himself was critical of Hegel in just these terms, for neglecting Secondness within his philosophical system. And yet, as I hope to show in this paper, we can come to see that the question Burbidge raises has considerable interest; for the debate between Peirce and Hegel on Secondness can be used to sharpen fundamental issues in the understanding of Hegel’s thought, just as much as the more familiar debates between Schelling and Hegel, Marx and Hegel, Derrida and Hegel, and many others. It is the issue highlighted by Burbidge, concerning the Peircean category of Secondness, that I wish to explore here.4

As we shall see in what follows, Peirce held that a neglect for Secondness leads to a loss of “a healthy sense of reality” because of the role that Secondness plays within his categorical scheme, which also comprises the categories of Firstness and Thirdness. As with any theory of categories, Peirce’s claim is that these are the fundamental conceptions that can be used to classify everything there is or could be. Over the course of his career, Peirce approached these categories in different ways. In the 1870s, he saw them in terms of the logical structure of thought, while by the late 1880s, he was showing how these categories where manifested in the world, tracing monadic, dyadic and triadic elements in the subject matter of biology, psychology, physics and so on. Most important, for our purposes, is his slightly later phenomenological identification of the monadic, dyadic and triadic: put very briefly, Firstness is manifested in those aspects of things that concern their immediacy or individuality, where they are seen in monadic terms, as unrelated to anything else; Secondness is manifested in the awareness of things as ‘other’ or external, as things with which we react in a relational or dyadic manner; and Thirdness is manifested by the mediation between things, as when the relation between individuals is said to be governed by laws or grounded in the universals they exemplify, and hence is a triadic notion. Fundamental to Peirce’s position is that philosophical errors follow if we attempt to prioritise one of these categories at the expense of the other two, although this is always a temptation.5

In particular, as far as Hegel is concerned, Peirce believed that he showed a lack of sensitivity to Secondness as the relational category, and thus neglected the relation of reaction and resistance that holds between things, including us and the world, where this is needed to prevent the reflective intellect assimilating everything to itself. As we shall see, Peirce therefore complains of Hegel – just as Burbidge complains of Harris’s commentary on Hegel – that he is “missing the brute facts of secondness which trigger thought’s mediation”, with the result that he is left (as critics from Schelling onwards have complained) with nothing but “arbitrary constructions of thought”.6 We must first look at this criticism in more detail (in sections I to III), and then explore its cogency (sections IV and V).

Peirce’s criticism of Hegel concerning his treatment of the categories, including Secondness, is made at its clearest in the paper “On Phenomenology”, which forms the text of Peirce’s second Harvard lecture delivered on 2nd April 1903. This paper is one of the first in which Peirce offers a phenomenological approach to the investigation of the categories as “an element of phenomena of the first rank of generality”, by focusing on the nature and structure of our experience and how the world appears to us: “The business of phenomenology is to draw up a catalogue of categories and prove its sufficiency and freedom from redundancies, to make out the characteristics of each category, and to show the relations of each to the others”.7 Peirce says he will focus on the “universal order” of the categories, which form a “short list”, and notes the similarity between his list and Hegel’s, while denying any direct influence: “My intention this evening is to limit myself to the Universal, or Short List of Categories, and I may say, at once, that I consider Hegel’s three stages [of thought] as being, roughly speaking, the correct list of Universal Categories.8 I regard the fact that I reached the same result as he did by a process as unlike his as possible, at a time when my attitude toward him was rather one of contempt than of awe, and without being influenced by him in any discernible way however slightly, as being a not inconsiderable argument in favor of the correctness of the list. For if I am mistaken in thinking that my thought was uninfluenced by his, it would seem to follow that that thought was of a quality which gave it a secret power, that would in itself argue pretty strongly for its truth”.9

In Peirce’s terminology, the “short list” comprises the categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, although he does not introduce that terminology until the next lecture. Here, he offers a characterisation of the first two categories in phenomenological terms, beginning with Firstness, which he identifies with presentness because of its immediacy. Peirce then turns to Secondness, which because of its relationality he characterises in terms of “Struggle”, by which he means the resistance of the world to the self and vice versa, illustrating this with the examples of pushing against a door; being hit on the back of the head by a ladder someone is carrying; and seeing a flash of lightning in pitch darkness.10 He also argues that this resistance can be felt in the case of images drawn in the imagination, and other “inner objects”, though this is felt less strongly. Then, at the beginning of the next section of the text, Peirce comes to the category of Thirdness; but here we do not get any phenomenological analysis of the category, but an account of why “no modern writer of any stripe, unless if be some obscure student like myself, has ever done [it] anything approaching to justice”.11

Now, Peirce offers a criticism of Hegel in relation to each of the three categories. Thus, in relation to Firstness, Peirce argues that while Hegel recognized “presentness” or “immediacy”, he treated this as an “abstraction”, as if such presentness could not be a genuine aspect of experience in itself, but only something arrived at by the “negation” of something more complex: “[Presentness] cannot be abstracted (which is what Hegel means by the abstract) for the abstracted is what the concrete, which gives it whatever being it has, makes it to be. The present, being such as it is while utterly ignoring everything else, is positively such as it is”.12 In relation to Secondness, Peirce argues that Hegelians will tend to reduce “struggle” to a lawlike relation and hence to something general, and so will eliminate Secondness in favour of Thirdness.13 And in relation to Thirdness, Peirce claims that Hegel’s position is insufficiently realist, so that like all “modern philosophers”, Hegel is ultimately a nominalist.14

While each of these criticisms is clearly expressed, and repeated elsewhere,15 there is some difficulty in assessing their force in relation to Firstness and Thirdness. For, in relation to Firstness, while on the one hand Peirce’s position might suggest that he wants to adopt a kind of phenomenological and ontological monadism or atomism in contrast to Hegel’s holism, whereby “the first category” relates to “whatever is such as it is positively and regardless of aught else”,16 on closer inspection Peirce’s position appears to come closer to Hegel’s, in so far as he ultimately refuses to accord Firstness any undue privilege, and gives it the status of a “mere potentiality, without existence”.17 Thus, as one commentator has noted, in the final analysis, there is arguably a “predominance of thirdness in Peirce’s treatment” of Firstness of a kind that he attributes to Hegel: “almost any act of the mind leads so immediately to thirdness [for Peirce]…that the priority of firstness is not only left behind, but begins to seem unimportant”.18 Likewise, in relation to Thirdness, Peirce’s criticism is also hard to pin down: for it is surprising that he should accuse Hegel of nominalism, when he also thinks that Thirdness is “the chief burden of Hegel’s song”,19 where Thirdness is predominantly associated by Peirce with realism about “generals” (such as laws and universals), and hence would seem to essentially involve an anti­-nominalist position.

However such issues are dealt with,20 it would appear that no such difficulties arise in relation to the category of Secondness. For here it seems that there are clear grounds for divergence between Peirce and Hegel, at least from Peirce’s perspective. As with the category of Firstness, the central disagreement here concerns the relation between Secondness and Thirdness, and the Hegelian tendency (as Peirce sees it) to subsume the former under the latter. Thus, Peirce claims that “the idea of Hegel” is that “Thirdness is the one sole category”; and while he allows that “unquestionably it contains a truth”, he argues that Hegel takes this view too far:
Not only does Thirdness suppose and involve the ideas of Secondness and Firstness, but never will it be possible to find any Secondness or Firstness in the phenomena that is not accompanied by Thirdness.

If the Hegelians confined themselves to that position they would find a hearty friend in my doctrine.

But they do not. Hegel is possessed with the idea that the Absolute is One. Three absolutes he would regard as a ludicrous contradiction in adjecto. Consequently, he wishes to make out that the three categories have not their several independent and irrefutable standings in thought. Firstness and Secondness must somehow be aufgehoben. But it is not true. They are no way refuted or refutable. Thirdness it is true involves Secondness and Firstness, in a sense. That is to say, if you have the idea of Thirdness you must have had the idea of Secondness and Firstness to build upon. But what is required for the idea of a genuine Thirdness is an independent solid Secondness and not a Secondness that is a mere corollary of an unfounded and inconceivable Thirdness; and a similar remark may be made in reference to Firstness.21
While in relation to Firstness, a difficulty with this and related passages is that ultimately Peirce appears to treat Firstness as less “independent” than he here suggests, in respect of Secondness his position tends to remain rather more robust, as can be seen when the various dimensions of this issue are explored.

For Peirce, to insist on the importance of acknowledging “an independent solid Secondness” is to signal a commitment to a variety of related epistemological and metaphysical theses, all of which he sees as anti-Hegelian, and none of which he thinks should be compromised.

A first anti-Hegelian thesis that Peirce associates with Secondness is his opposition to what he views as Hegel’s speculative idealist project, which on Peirce’s account treats “the Universe [as] an evolution of Pure Reason”.22 According to this reading, Hegel is seen as wanting to offer a conception of the world in which everything can be explained, as from a divine perspective or (a similar thing) the perspective of “absolute knowing”, where there are therefore no sheer contingencies (so everything is ultimately necessary), or unsatisfactory regresses of explanation (so that the system as a whole is reflexively structured and hence self-explanatory). Hegel’s difficulty with Firstness and Secondness is therefore seen to be that he cannot acknowledge either the “bruteness” of certain features of the world (why some thing are one way and not another),23 or the contingency of certain events (why things happen as they do):24
[I]f, while you are walking in the street reflecting upon how everything is the pure distillate of Reason, a man carrying a heavy pole suddenly pokes you in the small of the back, you may think there is something in the Universe that Pure Reason fails to account for; and when you look at the color red and ask yourself how Pure Reason could make red to have that utterly inexpressible and irrational positive quality it has, you will be perhaps disposed to think that Quality [i.e. Firstness] and Reaction [i.e. Secondness] have their independent standings in the Universe.25
In a way somewhat reminiscent of Kierkegaard, Hegel is seen by Peirce as a paradigmatically “abstracted” philosopher,26 whose absurd intellectual ambitions have led him to neglect the reality of the world around us (with its teeming variety, complexity, and “irresponsible, free, Originality”)27 in the attempt to give the impression that reason can conquer all. To be committed to Secondness, therefore, is in part to be committed to the claim that the world will always lie outside the attempt to place it fully within the self-articulation of the Hegelian Idea, as a necessary structure apparently designed to explain and encompass everything.

A second thesis is an implication of this Peircean position: namely that a proper recognition of Secondness requires a greater commitment to experience or “experientialism”, as how the world is and goes on cannot be deduced from “Pure Reason” in what Peirce takes to be the Hegelian manner. Of course, Peirce himself is no crude empiricist,28 and is happy to allow that “Hegel’s plan of evolving everything out of the abstractest conception by a dialectical procedure [is] far from being so absurd as the experientialists think”;29 nonetheless, he holds that Hegel takes this to extremes, in a way that a proper acknowledgement of “the brute facts of secondness” (as Burbidge put it) would have prevented:

The scientific man hangs upon the lips of nature, in order to learn wherein he is ignorant and mistaken: the whole character of the scientific procedure springs from that disposition. The metaphysician begins with a resolve to make out the truth of a forgone conclusion that he has never doubted for an instant. Hegel was frank enough to avow that it was so in his case. His “voyage of discovery” was undertaken in order to recover the very fleece that it professed to bring home.30 The development of the metaphysician’s thought is a continual breeding in and in; its destined outcome, sterility. The experiment was fairly tried with Hegelianism through an entire generation of Germans. The metaphysician is a worshipper of his own presuppositions… The Absolute Knowledge of Hegel is nothing but G. W. F. Hegel’s idea of himself… If the idealist school will add to their superior earnestness the diligence of the mathematician about details, one will be glad to hope that it may be they who shall make metaphysics one of the true sciences… But it cannot be brought to accomplishment until Hegel is aufgehoben, with his mere rotation upon his axis. Inquiry must react against experience in order that the ship may be propelled through the ocean of thought…31
Like many other critics, Peirce is accusing Hegel here of speculative a priorism, which for Peirce is symptomatic of his lack of respect for Secondness.

A third thesis concerns Hegel’s idealism, which Peirce generally presents in a mentalistic manner, and thus as the view that the world is a “representation” of the mind. It is this form of idealism which he therefore thinks characterises “absolute idealism”, of the sort he attributes to the prominent American Hegelian Josiah Royce:

The truth is that Professor Royce is blind to a fact which all ordinary people will see plainly enough; that the essence of the realist’s opinion is that it is one thing to be and another thing to be represented; and the cause of this cecity is that the Professor is completely immersed in his absolute idealism, which precisely consists in denying that distinction.32
Once again, Peirce makes clear that his view is that the Hegelians slip into this erroneous position because they fail to acknowledge how far reality is not something deducible from thought, but something that impinges on us “from outside”, in the manner of Secondness rather than Thirdness:
Nothing can be more completely false than that we can experience only our own ideas. This is indeed without exaggeration the very epitome of falsity. Our knowledge of things in themselves is entirely relative, it is true; but all experience and all knowledge is knowledge of that which is, independently of being represented… These things are utterly unintelligible as long as your thoughts are mere dreams. But as soon as you take into account that Secondness that jabs you perpetually in the ribs, you become aware of their truth.33
Peirce thus claims that in his idealism, Hegel “has usually overlooked external secondness, altogether. In other words, he has committed the trifling oversight of forgetting that there is a real world with real actions and reactions. Rather a serious oversight that”.34

Fourthly, Peirce also claims that because Hegel overlooks Secondness in this way, and thus ignores “the compulsion, the insistency, that characterises experience”,35 Hegel also fails to accord sufficient ontological significance to the individual, as opposed to the universal and general: for it is this individuality which is given to us in experience in this manner, as particular things impose themselves on us:

But to say that a singular thing is known by sense is a confusion of thought. It is not known by the feeling-element of sense [i.e. Firstness] but by the compulsion, the insistency [i.e. Secondness], that characterises experience. For the singular subject is real; and reality is insistency. That is what we mean by “reality.” It is the brute irrational insistency that forces us to acknowledge the reality of what we experience, that gives us our conviction of any singular.36
Peirce therefore contrasts his own commitment to Duns Scotus’s conception of “Thisness” or haecceity to the Hegelian position, which he thinks thus fails to recognize that the individual is something over and above a collection of universals, because its neglect of Secondness leads to the prioritisation of Thirdness or generality in this way:
Hic et nunc is the phrase perpetually in the mouth of Duns Scotus, who first elucidated individual existence… Two drops of water retain each its identity and opposition to the other no matter in what or how many respects they are alike… The point to be remarked is that the qualities of the individual thing, however permanent they may be, neither help nor hinder its individual existence. However permanent and peculiar those qualities may be, they are but accidents; that is to say, they are not involved in the mode of being of the thing; for the mode of being of the individual thing is existence; and existence lies in opposition merely.37
Finally, Peirce develops his conception of Secondness, and its relation to individuality or haecceity, against Royce’s view that the subject of a proposition is picked out by a general description.38 For Peirce, this is to miss the role of indexicals in reference; and he thinks the reason an Hegelian like Royce overlooks this role is precisely because he neglects the significance of Secondness, whereby the particular individual manifests itself to us in a way that makes indexical reference possible. According to Peirce, Royce’s error was “to think that the real subject of a proposition can be denoted by a general term of the proposition; that is, that precisely what you are talking about can be distinguished from other things by giving a general description of it”.39 Although in his early work in the 1860s this had also been Peirce view,40 Peirce came to change his mind, partly as a result of the invention of quantifiers by himself and his pupil O. H. Mitchell in 1884, and partly also because this led him to take more seriously the Kantian distinction between intuitions (as singular) and concepts (as general) to be found in Kant’s “cataclysmic work”,41 The Critique of Pure Reason. Peirce’s mature view was that “it is not in the nature of concepts adequately to define individuals”,42 and that “The real world cannot be distinguished from a fictitious world by any description”.43 Peirce thus argued instead that non-descriptive reference is made possible by the use of indexicals; and this in turn requires the recognition of the fact of Secondness in our experience, or (as he puts it in his unpublished critical review of Royce of 1885), “the Outward Clash”:
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