The following are some working notes following up on my previous post on the relationship between Charles Sanders Peirce and Alfred North Whitehead, specifically on Peirce’s logical/relational/phenomenological categories (firstness, secondness, thirdness) and Whitehead’s notion of prehension and the “actual occasion.” It’s become clear to me since writing that post that any rapprochement between the two requires going through Charles Hartshorne (which is something I had been resisting due to the theological cast of many of Hartshorne’s writings, but I’ve come to see that it’s unavoidable).

Hartshorne (pronounced “Harts-horn”) was a close student of Whitehead’s and an editor and archive keeper of Peirce’s work at Harvard. From what I can tell, Hartshorne is the most important philosopher directly related to both CSP and ANW to have attempted a synthesis of the two. The most thorough and final elucidation of that synthesis seems to come in his 1984 book Creativity in American Philosophy [note: this post originally incorrectly identified the year of his death as 1990; it was actually 2000 - Hartshorne lived to the ripe old age of 103].

Hartshorne has great respect for Peirce’s phenomenology (a word Peirce uses somewhat differently from Husserl, being empty of what we would now call Husserl’s “correlationism”), which in his account begins to set us on the right path of metaphysics, but doesn’t quite get us all the way there. Whitehead’s metaphysics, on the other hand, for Hartshorne, tower over all recent rivals in their “conceptual clarity and relevance to our total intellectual situation” (103). Within Whitehead’s system, it is, for Hartshorne, the concept of “prehension” that is “one of the most original, central, lucid proposals ever offered in metaphysics” (109). As Hartshorne defines it, prehension

is one-way dependence as holding of subjects or experiences relative to whatever they have as strictly given. It is the form that dependence takes when it holds of a subject in relation to other entitites. The prehensive relation is ‘the most concrete form of relatedness,’ as Whitehead aptly puts it. (108, emphasis in original)

Stated otherwise, “To prehend is to possess or intuit a datum, a given,” which may be an object of perception or of memory (or anything, for that matter) (105). A prehension is akin to a “grasping,” the “intuitive having of antecedent realities” (110). (The connection with the Buddhist notion of “grasping” is relevant, but I won’t get into it here.)

Prehensions, like Peirce’s secondness, are crucially one-way and asymmetrical: the prehended is not dependent on the prehension, but the prehension is dependent on the prehended. This is the subject-object relation, the dipolarity (in Whitehead’s terms) that structures every “actual occasion” that makes up the processual universe “all the way down.” (Readers more familiar with Speculative Realism than with process-relational thought, see note (1) below.)

This asymmetry is what gives process-relational ontology, at least the kind exemplified by these three thinkers, its evolutionary character and forward momentum. It is also what makes it different from relational philosophies for which all things are symmetrically related to all other things, resulting in the kind of formless, changeless “ontological stew” that Graham Harman (and sometimes Levi Bryant) has critiqued (to which I’ve responded in posts like these). Hartshorne notes that some versions of Mahayana Buddhism are guilty of this (he mentions Hua-yen philosopher Fa Tsang, or Fazang, in this context, as well as, interestingly, Hegel).

Hartshorne argues that Peirce’s triadicity is reducible to a dyadic relationship of dependence-independence, so that the essence of the dyad is this asymmetrical relationality. “A First,” he writes, “is what is ‘regardless [that is, independently] of any other thing.’ (He should have said ‘of at least one other thing.’)” (110). This semantic difference that I’ve emphasized — the “he should have said” — is a crucial point here. It is a question of whether “the basic idea modeled by Secondness” is “that of dependence on one and only one other thing, or is it that of dependence on other things, regardless of how many or few others?” (77, emphasis added). Peirce was not clear about this, whereas Hartshorne’s clarification of it is central to the way he merges Peirce with Whitehead.

For Peirce, a First is a pure possibility, and is simply spontaneously generated, a matter of the chance-structure of the universe (if you will). It is as far as we can go “back”; we can’t think about it, as Hartshorne says, “without tarnishing it, making it dependent on our thinking” (107). Its origin is, in a sense, irrelevant, except insofar as it has an origin in reality itself, a reality at the heart of which is chance, spontaneity, and dynamism. Firsts, in a sense, come from something like the creative chance-structure of the universe, which is another name for — or at least compatible with — Deleuze’s “virtual” and Whitehead’s “eternal objects.” That virtuality is structured — because the universe is an emergent, dynamic entity, with folds and currents of possibility, so that certain things are possible (the phone may ring and I may find out that someone close to me has won a lottery, assuming they had bought a ticket for that lottery) and others are not (a live dinosaur will stomp on my head, or the same person will win that same lottery but without having obtained a ticket for it).

For Hartshorne, on the other hand, a First is always also a Second in relation to (and preceded by) its own First. It’s always structurally dependent on other things that preceded it, to which it was a Second (viewed from the outside) and a prehension (viewed from the inside).

To me, this difference is not necessarily irreconcilable; it can be seen as a difference in perspective. Hartshorne’s account, which reduces Peirce’s triadic formulation to the dyad of asymmetrical dependence, is about the relational process in general, in which each event follows others, and each is dependently related to those that preceded them (in time or space or memory or whatever) and to which they were a response, while also adding their own creative prehensive ‘subjectivation’ to the process.

Peirce’s account, on the other hand, seems to me to be a way of looking at individual occasions of semiosis, or at the process of semiosis as it proceeds not viewed horizontally and cumulatively (one thing after another) but vertically and (almost) instantaneously — with Thirdness (significance, pattern) emerging out of Secondness (relational, existential actualization) which in turn emerges out of Firstness (pure possibility/quality/spontaneity). This can be pictured somewhat similarly to Bergson’s famous cone of memory, with movement proceeding upward from Firstness (mere possibility, and therefore no more than a point, at the bottom) through Secondness (thicker, in the middle, because it’s the world of actual relations) to Thirdness (with meaning making up a still greater thickness/breadth). (I realize that’s not really analogous to Bergson’s use of the cone. One could also make it the reverse, with Firstness at the top, as the realm of virtual multiplicities, of which some enter the world of actuality, Secondness, and of which meaning/law/regularity emerges more singularly as a Thirdness, which is what we get in our semiosic experience of the world. I don’t think that works so well… We could just think of them as straight lines, Firstness leading directly to Secondness leading to Thirdness, but what’s important, as I’ll argue below, is that there’s a space, a gap, between them.)


In comparison to Whitehead’s actual occasions and prehensions, Peirce’s triadic account of signs — which are, in effect, moments or events of signification/prehension — makes clear their rootedness in the world, their connection to (and dependence on) things that preceded them and that are there in the virtual-processual chance-structure of the universe. Peirce’s Thirds, as Hartshorne acknowledges (p. 79), are more than just Seconds to other Seconds. They are a mediation of relations by which probability, regularity, predictability, habit, pattern, and law are rendered possible.

Hartshorne, on the other hand, is describing the horizontal (temporal) process whereby every event/moment inclusively transcends what it is the response to. Or, as Peter Kakol puts it (in an excellent, posthumously published comparative study of process philosophy and Madhyamika Buddhism), for Hartshorne “reality can be understood as a cumulative process of ‘inclusive transcendence’ whereby relatives become absolutes sublated within more inclusive relatives (e.g. subjects become objects of more inclusive subjects)” (2009: 55).

In the Hartshornian dyad, creativity — the possibility of decision, act, agency — emerges in the response, that is, in the moment of ‘inclusive transcendence,’ which is what every event-moment is. In the Peircian triad, on the other hand, it would seem to emerge both in the gap between Firstness and Secondness (depending on which possibilities/virtualities actualize) and in the gap between Secondness and Thirdness (in the action of the interpretant). There is, then, creativity in the nature of things — the nature of matter, as Jane Bennett would argue — as well as in the capacity that subjectivating entities have to respond to things (the more familiar level of agency).

At this point I’m really thinking out loud, and perhaps floundering a little. But the question I’m coming around to is this: Is there something, a level of openness/becoming/creativity, that gets lost in translation between Peirce’s triadism and Hartshorne’s dyadic reduction of it? Or is it a difference in perspective arising from the fact that Peirce and Hartshorne seem to be looking at the process in a slightly different way? Any experts on Whitehead, Peirce, and Hartshorne (a rare breed, I suspect) willing to chime in? (I’ll send a brief version of this question to the Peirce list to see if it generates any discussion.)

Note (1): The terms “subject” and “object” here are used quite differently from the way they are used in a non-process-relational context. “Subjects” and “objects”, for Whitehead, are emergent features of relational processes; they make up the dipolar structure of an “actual occasion,” which is the basic entity of a process-relational universe. But once that occasion has passed (which it likely did in a fleeting microsecond), any “subject” has vanished, leaving behind only the trace of its having become a datum for another subject. Subjects and objects are, in other words, verbs — subjectivation and objectivation — and not qualities of any particular category of existent thing, human or otherwise.

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