5 Jun 2016

Peirce (CP1.15-1.26) Collected Papers, V1, §1 “Nominalism”


by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. Boldface and bracketed commentary are mine. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos.]



Summary of


Charles Sanders Peirce


Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce


Volume 1: Principles of Philosophy


Book 1: General Historical Orientation


Chapter 1: Lessons from the History of Philosophy


§1: Nominalism [1.15 – 1.26]




Brief summary:

Peirce thinks that logic is in a bad state and that this has partly to do with the philosophical history of the nominalist/realist debate. Peirce places himself in the realist camp, but in a novel way. He holds that there are three modes of being: {1} positive qualitative possibility, {2} the being of actual fact, and {3} the being of law that will govern facts in the future. “Firstness” is something being as it is regardless of what can be said of it through its interactions with other things. This mode consists of positive qualitative traits like redness, which exist primarily as possibilities that secondarily can become evident through relational interactions with other objects. “Secondness” is brute actuality, as seen when something undeniably exerts itself upon us, or when we face external resistance to our own exertions. “Thirdness” is the present givenness of future predictable conditions, knowable now on account of general laws that will probably remain in effect.






[Peirce sees logic as being in a bad condition, although Medieval logic was quite advanced for its time]


Pierce thinks recent works in logic were “in a bad condition,” and regarding philosophy, only ethics was not at that time in a bad state. 

Very early in my studies of logic, before I had really been devoting myself to it more than four or five years, it became quite manifest to me that this science was in a bad condition, entirely unworthy of the general state of intellectual development of our age; and in consequence of this, every other branch of philosophy except ethics – for it was already clear that psychology was a special science and no part of philosophy – was in a similar disgraceful state.



However, Peirce found the logic of Medieval scholars to be “marvellously exact and critical” in comparison to the “general condition of thought” (pp.3-4).




[Nominalists think that laws and general types are figments of the mind, while realists hold that they are real.]


This period of Medieval logic that Peirce is referring to is “the age of Robert of Lincoln, Roger Bacon, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus” (p.4). During this period the debate over nominalism and realism was “settled in favor of realism” (4). Peirce characterizes the positions in this way. The nominalists held that laws and general types are figments of the mind, while realists held that they are real. Yet by saying that laws and general types are real, we are working more in metaphysics than in logic. [I am not sure, but I think the next point is the following. We might have common-sense beliefs regarding whether laws and general types are real or nominal. And saying that they are real is to make a metaphysical determination. However, if we analyze the beliefs as they are as beliefs, examining their meaning, to see if they imply that laws are either objective or subjective, then we are doing logic rather than metaphysics. Let me quote, as the idea here is not clear to me. I do not know for example if by common-sense beliefs he means realist beliefs, or beliefs regardless of whether they are realist or nominalist. Perhaps the idea is that we are to put aside the realist/nominalist debate, and instead (a) explicitly state our beliefs about laws and general types, (b) do an analysis of what exactly is meant by those statements expression the beliefs to (c) determine if they imply we believe laws and general types are objective (similar to a realist view) or subjective (similar to a a nominalist view.]

But as a first step toward its solution, it is proper to ask whether, granting that our common-sense beliefs are true, the analysis of the meaning of those beliefs shows that, according to those beliefs, laws and types are objective or subjective. This is a question of logic rather than of metaphysics – and as soon as this is answered the reply to the other question immediately follows after.





[Scotist realists in the 14th century were in power until the humanists replaced them.]


In the 14th century, the political climate was such that the Scotists, who were realists, were the party in power, although there were was a small nominalist movement that was opposed to papal power and instead favored civil government. But soon there was a rise of humanism, and at the same time Scotism died out (p.4). [I might have misunderstood the history as Peirce describes it. See the text.]




[The humanists were inspired by classical nominalists.]


Peirce portrays the humanists as being weak thinkers, as they instead favored a more artistic style of expression and took up the “three easiest of the ancient sects of philosophy, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Scepticism.” The Epicureans, like John Stuart Mill, “were extreme nominalists”. The Stoics were nominalists, and they did not put any stock in inductive reasoning. The Sceptics go a step further and did not believe “any scientific knowledge of any description to be possible”. This includes arithmetic, geometry, and other sorts of sciences [that we would think are possible even without inductive reasoning]. Thus Sceptics were nominalists [I suppose because they would claim that any knowledge we would possibly have would at best be unrelated to reality.] (p.5)




[This humanist trend extended into such thinkers as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel]


So among this Romantic movement “was a tidal wave of nominalism”. Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Harley, Hume, Reid, Leibniz, Rémusat, Kant, and Hegel were all nominalists. In fact, “all modern philosophy of every sect has been nominalistic” (p.6).




[Peirce however is a realist.]


Peirce declared himself a realist in a paper published in 1871. Although he has revised his position many times since then, he still has not changed his fundamental realist orientation. And in fact, science “has always been at heart realistic, and always must be so” (6).




[Modern philosophers, who are nominalists, recognize only one mode of being, namely, existence, which is the being of an individual or fact, and it consists in the object’s crowding out a place for itself in the universe and reacting by brute force or fact against all other things.]


[Peirce will now describe modern philosophers as holding a core belief that to me seems to also express a realist position, so I am confused by the realist/nominalist distinction. I briefly consulted Mayorga’s From Realism to “Realicism”: The Metaphysics of Charles Sanders Peirce. The situation seems to be the following. Nominalists think universals exist merely as concepts or names, while realists think they exist in reality. Let me quote her:

The problem of universals, that is, the problem of determining what kind of ontological status universals have, has been a source of fascination and frustration for philosophers for more than two thousand years. What are universals? Simply put, they are the general concepts (or ideas or words) we develop in order to make sense of the world around us. If we want to claim to have knowledge of the world as it truly is, we need to determine exactly what kinds of things our concepts are and the connection they have with the world at large. The problem of universals deals with trying to determine the nature of these concepts, and consequently, the nature of their connection with the world.

By the 1300s, the problem had become a central one for philosophy. This was the time of John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan monk from Scotland, otherwise known as “The Subtle Doctor” because of the subtlety and profundity of his work. Duns Scotus was a proponent of moderate, or scholastic realism, as the position came to be called, which claimed that universals are somehow real. The opposing stance was nominalism, which said that universals are concepts or names (nomina in Latin, hence the term), or words, and therefore not real. For a while, the realist position was the more popular, but for many reasons, the subsequent rejection of dogmatic scholastic ideas led to the acceptance of the much simpler doctrine of | nominalism, associated primarily with William of Ockham. Scotus’s (and his followers’) abstruse and recondite style of writing did not help their case much either. Eventually, the realistic position came into such disfavor that the term originally used to simply designate the followers of Duns Scotus, the “dunces,” as they were called, eventually came to acquire the pejorative meaning it has today.

(Mayorga p.1-2)

The core belief of modern philosophers is that there is only one mode of being, namely that there are individual things or facts with their own independent existence, and these things or facts interact with other ones. Later Peirce says that realists think there are two modes of being. I am still a little confused about how to characterize realism and nominalism with regard to modes of being. Let me quote.]

The heart of the dispute lies in this. The modern philosophers – one and all, unless Schelling be an exception – recognize but one mode of being, the being of an individual thing or fact, the being which consists in the object’s crowding out a place for itself in the universe, so to speak, and reacting by brute force of fact, against all other things. I call that existence.

(Peirce p.6)




[Aristotle instead recognized two modes of being. Something is primarily in the mode of a possibility of formation, in matter, and secondarily it develops into a formation, in the mode of being called form.]


For Aristotle, however, there are two modes of being, form and matter. (In fact, for Aristotle there is a hint of a third mode). The mode of matter is an embryonic form of being, and matter develops to take on form. A seed for example develops into a tree, so the “being of a tree in its seed” is an instance of “an embryonic kind of being”. It can also be “the being of a future contingent event, depending on how a man shall decide to act.” [So it would seem then that matter is the primary mode of being, and the form comes secondarily, as it is the result of a development.] Realists, however, reverse “the order of Aristotle’s evolution by making form come first, and the individuation of that form come later.” [I do not follow that idea, but perhaps Peirce is saying that realists assume that something has its given form automatically and only through transformation will it change, rather then something beginning as a possibility within something else. I am guessing. So I quote:]

Aristotle, on the other hand, whose system, like all the greatest systems, was evolutionary, recognized besides an embryonic kind of being, like the being of a tree in its seed, or like the being of a future contingent event, depending on how a man shall decide to act. In a few passages Aristotle seems to have a dim aperçue of a third mode of being in the entelechy. The embryonic being for Aristotle was the being he called matter, which is alike in all things, and which in the course of its development took on form. Form is an element having a different mode of being. The whole philosophy of the scholastic doctors is an attempt to mould this doctrine of Aristotle into harmony with christian truth. This harmony the different doctors attempted to bring about in different ways. But all the realists agree in reversing the order of Aristotle's evolution by making the form come first, and the individuation of that | form come later. Thus, they too recognized two modes of being; but they were not the two modes of being of Aristotle.





[Peirce holds that there are  three modes of being: {1} positive qualitative possibility, {2} the being of actual fact, and {3} the being of law that will govern facts in the future.]


[Now, although Peirce has declared himself a realist, which in light of what he just wrote should mean that he recognizes two modes of being, he now says that he in fact recognizes three modes of being.  Exactly what constitutes the realist position is not entirely clear to me so far. Peirce is perhaps outlining a new sort of realism.]

Peirce thinks that there are actually three modes of being: {1} positive qualitative possibility, {2} the being of actual fact, and {3} the being of law that will govern facts in the future. He says that we can directly observe these modes of being in whatever we might be turning our attention to.

My view is that there are three modes of being. I hold that we can directly observe them in elements of whatever is at any time before the mind in any way. They are the being of positive qualitative possibility, the being of actual fact, and the being of law that will govern facts in the future.





[Secondness (the second mode of being) is brute actuality; it is the undeniability of other things acting upon us and affecting us; and we experience it also when facing an exterior resistance to our actions.]


Peirce begins with the second mode of being, which he said above was “the being of actual fact”. When something is actual, that means it happens at some time and at some location. So it has that sort of specificity [which obtains its determinate specificity by comparison with its relation to other times and locations.] For this reason, an event’s actuality consists in its relations to all other existing things in the universe. Moreover, actuality is “brute” in the sense that it has an undeniability to it, on account of the fact that when something really is acting upon us and effecting us, we cannot just wish that influence and contact away. We experience in the mode of encounter this second mode of being when we feel resistance against our activities.

Let us begin with considering actuality, and try to make out just what it consists in. If I ask you what the actuality of an event consists in, you will tell me that it consists in its happening then and there. The specifications then and there involve all its relations to other existents. The actuality of the event seems to lie in its relations to the universe of existents. A court may issue injunctions and judgments against me and I not care a snap of my finger for them. I may think them idle vapor. But when I feel the sheriff's hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality. Actuality is something brute. There is no reason in it. I instance putting your shoulder against a door and trying to force it open against an unseen, silent, and unknown resistance. We have a two-sided consciousness of effort and resistance, which seems to me to come tolerably near to a pure sense of actuality. On the whole, I think we have here a mode of being of one thing which consists in how a second object is. I call that Secondness.





[The first mode of being (firstness) is something being as it is regardless of what can be said of it through interactions with other things. This mode consists of positive qualitative traits like redness.]


The first mode of being (firstness) is something being as it is in itself regardless of anything. But, Peirce seems to think that the second mode is a confirmation of existence, as it becomes evident to one thing that another exists. So taken all by itself, something’s existence is just a possibility that can only be actuated through interaction with other beings. Peirce says that the first mode of being is to be understood in terms of positive [and not relational] qualities. So something in its firstness can be red as a pure expression of color and not as a color that is to be understood in comparison with other colors or tones of the same color, or with other things with color. We assume that exterior objects bear this mode of firstness, because we treat them as possibly having qualities that may not even be evident to us at that moment, although they could become evident under the right circumstances. Thus exterior objects have certain positive qualities regardless of whether other objects, like we ourselves, become aware of them through our contact with the objects.

Besides this, there are two modes of being that I call Firstness and Thirdness. Firstness is the mode of being which consists in its subject's being positively such as it is regardless of aught else. That can only be a possibility. For as long as things do not act upon one another there is no sense or meaning in saying that they have any being, unless it be that they are such in themselves that they may perhaps come into relation with others. The mode of being a redness, before anything in the universe was yet red, was nevertheless a positive qualitative possibility. And redness in itself, even if it be embodied, is something positive and sui generis. That I call Firstness. We naturally attribute Firstness to outward objects, that is we suppose they have capacities in themselves which may or may not be already actualized, which may or may not ever be actualized, although we can know nothing of such possibilities [except] so far as they are actualized.





[The third mode (thirdness) is the present givenness of future predictable conditions, knowable now on account of general laws that will probably remain in effect.]


[The idea behind thirdness seems be the following. The future is something that now exists as possibility. But there are two sorts of possibility. There is indeterminable and determinable possibility. The third mode of being is like the determinable kind of possibility. We can safely make predictions about the future so long as there is some law or general rule in effect now and presumably also in effect throughout the future too, on the basis of which the future can be determined in the present. Let us consider a possible example. We do not know how we will die, but we do know that we will die. Our existence now has three modes of being. We express qualities that may or may not factor into the existence of other things that would be affected by our qualities or be aware of them. The second mode of our being is that about our lives which is interactive, interrelational, and interaffective with other beings. And lastly, that about our lives which is predictable like the future given now and lived now is the third mode. We might want to ignore the fact that we will die, but it is there as a predicable possibility in every moment of our living. So, one mode of our being is us existing with determinable features of our future given immanently every moment now. And this is on account of certain laws that are currently evident to us, namely, the laws of the human body’s tendency toward eventual decomposition.]

Now for Thirdness. Five minutes of our waking life will hardly pass without our making some kind of prediction; and in the majority of cases these predictions are fulfilled in the event. Yet a prediction is essentially of a general nature, and cannot ever be completely fulfilled. To say that a prediction has a decided tendency to be fulfilled, is to say that the future events are in a measure really governed by a law. If a pair of dice turns up sixes five times running, that is a mere uniformity. The dice might happen fortuitously to turn up sixes a thousand times running. But that would not afford the slightest security for a prediction that they would turn up sixes the next time. If the prediction has a tendency to be fulfilled, it must be that future events have a tendency to conform to a general rule. "Oh," but say the nominalists, "this general rule is nothing but a mere word or couple of words!" I reply, "Nobody ever dreamed of denying that what is general is of the nature of a general sign; but the question is whether future events will conform to it or not. If they will, your adjective 'mere' seems to be ill-placed." A rule to which future events have a tendency to conform is ipso facto an important thing, an important element in the happening of those events. This mode of being which consists, mind my word if you please, the mode of being which consists in the fact that future facts of Secondness will take on a determinate general character, I call a Thirdness.




Peirce, C.S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol 1: Principles of Philosophy.  In Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce [Two Volumes in One], Vols. 1 and 2. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1965 [1931].


Also cited:

Mayorga, Rosa Maria Perez-Teran. From Realism to “Realicism”: The Metaphysics of Charles Sanders Peirce. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. 



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