Episode 81: Cathy Legg discusses what Peirce’s categories can do for you

This month, we talk with Catherine Legg, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at New Zealand’s University of Waikato. She teaches us about the philosophical categories of Charles Sanders Peirce’s (pronounced like the bag “purse”). Click here to listen to our conversation.

cathy2At Legg’s university, philosophy is part of the School of Social Sciences. Here at Chicago, philosophy is part of the Division of the Humanities. But given some modern discourse, characterized as philosophically naturalist, you’d wonder if philosophy should be housed under the natural sciences.

Here’s that thinking: Want to know reality? Then go figure out what makes up reality. Figure out what exists — e.g. chairs, electrons, years — and figure out what those things’ properties are: three-dimensional, massive, passive, etc. Do this exhaustively, for every thing and every property, and ultimately you’ll know all there is to know. Of course, in reality, we’ll never know all there is to know, because we have only finite resources with which to experience and experiment with reality. But experimentation and the general scientific method entails the possibility of teaching us ultimate reality (or so the thinking goes). Philosophy, then, can only exist as a support to science, analyzing science’s findings. Or so we may wonder today. (If so, so much for this podcast!)

Yet in the nineteenth century, philosophers considered not only what exists, but how things exist. They considered modes of being. Here’s one basic reason to appreciate their consideration: Reality can entail things that don’t exist (at least in the way you can verify experimentally) but that nonetheless are true. And these truths can be more than analytical, that is, true because we define them to be true; no, we can find these truths in our experience of the world. For instance, as is mentioned in the podcast, host Matt doesn’t have a sister; but if he did, she wouldn’t speak Swahili as a native. That possibility, we can say, is false. This possibility has another mode of being than existence, which we know not through science, but perhaps through philosophy.

Peirce, then, thought that there are fully three modes of being, called firstness, secondness, and thirdness. These modes of being entail things and properties, but also relationships, thoughts, and language — to say nothing of more cosmic senses of being. Join us to hear Legg explain these modes, and how they position philosophy’s fundamental contribution to our knowledge of reality.

Dominic Surya






3 responses to “Episode 81: Cathy Legg discusses what Peirce’s categories can do for you”

  1. Anne Avatar

    Thank you for that very valuable and vivid introduction into Peirce’s categories!

    1. Matt Teichman Avatar

      My pleasure! Cathy is a font of insight, and I hope to have her back on before too long.

  2. […] really enjoyed this podcast discussion between Cathy Legg and Matt Teichman. The topic is C.S. Peirce, and particularly his theory of categories, or modes of being. As Legg […]

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