Peirce’s famous ‘triadomania’ lets most of his decisive distinctions appear in threes, following the tripartition of his list of categories, the famous triad of First, Second, and Third, or Quality, Reaction, Representation, or Possibility, Actuality, Reality.
Firstness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, positively and without reference to anything else.
Secondness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, with respect to a second but regardless of any third.
Thirdness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, in bringing a second and third into relation to each other.
Firstness constitutes the quality of experience: in order for something to appear at all, it must do so due to a certain constellation of qualitative properties. Peirce often uses sensory qualities as examples, but it is important for the understanding of his thought that the examples may refer to phenomena very far from our standard conception of ‘sensory data’, e.g. forms or the ‘feeling’ of a whole melody or of a whole mathematical proof, not to be taken in a subjective sense but as a concept for the continuity of melody or proof as a whole, apart from the analytical steps and sequences in which it may be, subsequently, subdivided. In short, all sorts of simple and complex Gestalt qualities also qualify as Firstnesses. Firstness tend to form continua of possibilities such as the continua of shape, color, tone, etc. These qualities, however, are, taken in themselves, pure possibilities and must necessarily be incarnated in phenomena in order to appear. Secondness is the phenomenological category of ‘incarnation’ which makes this possible: it is the insistency, then, with which the individuated, actualized, existent phenomenon appears. Thus, Secondness necessarily forms discontinuous breaks in Firstness, allowing for particular qualities to enter into existence. The mind may imagine anything whatever in all sorts of quality combinations, but something appears with an irrefutable insisting power, reacting, actively, yielding resistance. Peirce’s favorite example is the resistance of the closed door – which might be imagined reduced to the quality of resistance feeling and thus degenerate to pure Firstness so that his theory imploded into a Hume-like solipsism – but to Peirce this resistance, surprise, event, this thisness, ‘haecceity’ as he calls it with a Scotist term, remains irreducible in the description of the phenomenon (a Kantian idea, at bottom: existence is no predicate). About Thirdness, Peirce may directly state that continuity represents it perfectly: ‘continuity and generality are two names of the same absence of distinction of individuals’. As against Secondness, Thirdness is general; it mediates between First and Second. The events of Secondness are never completely unique, such an event would be inexperiencable, but relates (3) to other events (2) due to certain features (1) in them; Thirdness is thus what facilitates understanding as well as pragmatic action, due to its continuous generality. With a famous example: if you dream about an apple pie, then the very qualities of that dream (taste, smell, warmth, crustiness, etc.) are pure Firstnesses, while the act of baking is composed of a series of actual Secondnesses. But their coordination is governed by a Thirdness: the recipe, being general, can never specify all properties in the individual apple pie, it has a schematic frame-character and subsumes an indefinite series – a whole continuum – of possible apple pies. Thirdness is thus necessarily general and vague. Of course, the recipe may be more or less precise, but no recipe exists which is able to determine each and every property in the cake, including date, hour, place, which tree the apples stem from, etc. – any recipe is necessarily general. In this case, the recipe (3) mediates between dream (1) and fulfilment (2) – its generality, symbolicity, relationality and future orientation are all characteristic for Thirdness. An important aspect of Peirce’s realism is that continuous generality may be experienced directly in perceptual judgments: ‘Generality, Thirdness, pours in upon us in our very perceptual judgments’.
All these determinations remain purely phenomenological, even if the later semiotic and metaphysical interpretations clearly shine through. In a more general, non-Peircean terminology, his phenomenology can be seen as the description of minimum aspects inherent in any imaginable possible world – for this reason it is imaginability which is the main argument, and this might point in the direction that Peirce could be open to critique for subjectivism, so often aimed at Husserl’s project, in some respects analogous. The concept of consciousness is invoked as the basis of imaginability: phenomenology is the study of invariant properties in any phenomenon appearing for a mind. Peirce’s answer would here be, on the one hand, the research community which according to him defines reality – an argument which structurally corresponds to Husserl’s reference to intersubjectivity as a necessary ingredient in objectivity (an object is a phenomenon which is intersubjectively accessible). Peirce, however, has a further argument here, namely his consequent refusal to delimit his concept of mind exclusively to human subjects (a category the use of which he obviously tries to minimize), mind-like processes may take place in nature without any subject being responsible. Peirce will, for continuity reasons, never accept any hard distinction between subject and object and remains extremely parsimonious in the employment of such terms.
From Peirce’s New Elements of Mathematics (The New Elements of Mathematics Vol. 4),
But just as the qualities, which as they are for themselves, are equally unrelated to one other, each being mere nothing for any other, yet form a continuum in which and because of their situation in which they acquire more or less resemblance and contrast with one another; and then this continuum is amplified in the continuum of possible feelings of quality, so the accidents of reaction, which are waking consciousnesses of pairs of qualities, may be expected to join themselves into a continuum.
Since, then an accidental reaction is a combination or bringing into special connection of two qualities, and since further it is accidental and antigeneral or discontinuous, such an accidental reaction ought to be regarded as an adventitious singularity of the continuum of possible quality, just as two points of a sheet of paper might come into contact.
But although singularities are discontinuous, they may be continuous to a certain extent. Thus the sheet instead of touching itself in the union of two points may cut itself all along a line. Here there is a continuous line of singularity. In like manner, accidental reactions though they are breaches of generality may come to be generalized to a certain extent.
Secondness is now taken to actualize these quality possibilities based on an idea that any actual event involves a clash of qualities – in the ensuing argumentation Peirce underlines that the qualities involved in actualization need not be restrained to two but may be many, if they may only be ‘dissolved’ into pairs and hence do not break into the domain of Thirdness. This appearance of actuality, hence, has the property of singularities, spontaneously popping up in the space of possibilities and actualizing pairs of points in it. This transition from First to Second is conceived of along Aristotelian lines: as an actualization of a possibility – and this is expressed in the picture of a discontinuous singularity in the quality continuum. The topological fact that singularities must in general be defined with respect to the neighborhood of the manifold in which they appear, now becomes the argument for the fact that Secondness can never be completely discontinuous but still ‘inherits’ a certain small measure of continuity from the continuum of Firstness. Singularities, being discontinuous along certain dimensions, may be continuous in others, which provides the condition of possibility for Thirdness to exist as a tendency for Secondness to conform to a general law or regularity. As is evident, a completely pure Secondness is impossible in this continuous metaphysics – it remains a conceivable but unrealizable limit case, because a completely discon- tinuous event would amount to nothing. Thirdness already lies as a germ in the non-discontinuous aspects of the singularity. The occurrences of Secondness seem to be infinitesimal, then, rather than completely extensionless points.