Threesology Research Journal
Philosophical Trichotomies
Page 1

(The Study of Threes)

There are many philosophical trichotomies. I do not in any way suggest that the following is comprehensive. And it should be noted that most trichotomies are not necessarily referred to in the same breath with philosophy. While you many encounter a trichotomy and in reflection define it as a philosophical perspective, you might well agree that such an example is not customarily called a philosophical trichotomy, such as the expression "Hook, Line and Sinker".

A trichotomy is a splitting into three parts, and, apart from its normal literal meaning, can refer to:

  • Trichotomy (mathematics), in the mathematical field of order theory
  • Trichotomy (philosophy), for the theological idea that man has a threefold nature; also for a three-way classificatory division, especially when done according to a pattern
  • In taxonomy, a trichotomy is speciation of three groups from a common ancestor, where it is unclear or unknown in what chronological order the three groups split.

See also: Tripartite (disambiquation).

Besides the foregoing frontispiece secured from a Wikipedia source, the following first list selection is a repeat of that placed on other pages at this site but you may not find or even look for because of the context in which it is placed under a particular page's heading. I put it together more than two decades ago and placed the collection on a poster. The poster was divided into eight columns, of which the following information appeared on the fifth column. You may view the information via the following link:

3s Poster column 5

3 patterned philosophical distinctions:

St. Augustine's Philosophy: Memory ~ Understanding ~ Will
Comte's Philosophy: Great Being ~ Great Medium ~ Great Fetish
Hegel's 3 Spirits: Subjective Spirit ~ 0bjective Spirit ~ Absolute Spirit
Plotinu's Philosophy: One ~ One Many ~ One and Many
Aristotle's 3 Unities: Unity of Action ~ Unity of Time ~ Unity of Place
Sir F. Bacon's 3 Tables: Presence ~ Absence ~ Degree
Thomas Hobbes's 3 Fields: Physics ~ Moral Philosophy ~ Civil Philosophy
Immanuel Kant's 3 Critiques: Pure Reason ~ Practical Reason ~ Judgment
Averroes's 3 Commentaries: Little ~ Middle ~ Great
Karl Marx's 3 isms: Communism ~ Socialism ~ Capitalism
Woodrow Wilson's 3 isms: Colonialism ~ Racism ~ Anti-Communism
Hippocrates's Mind Disorders: Mania ~ Melancholia ~ Phrenitis
Emile Durkeim's 3 Suicides: Egoistic ~ Altruistic ~ Anomic
D. Liesman's 3 Social Characters: Tradition-directed ~ Inner-directed ~ Other-directed
Erich Fromm's 3 Symbols: The Conventional ~ The Accidental ~ The Universal
Pythagoras's "fusion" idea: Monarchy ~ Oligarchy ~ Democracy (into harmonic whole)
M.L. King Jr.'s "Middle Road": Acquiescence ~ Nonviolence ~ Violence
Kierkegaard's 3 Stages: Aesthetic ~ Ethical ~ Religious
Husserl's 3 Reductions: Phenomenological ~ Eidetic ~ Religious
St. Augustine's 3 Laws: Divine Law ~ Natural Law ~ Temporal, or positive Law
Witness Stand "Laws": Tell the Truth ~ The whole Truth ~ Nothing but the Truth
Titus Carus's 3 Ages: Stone Age ~ Bronze Age ~ Iron Age
Feuerbach's 3 Thoughts: God, 1st Thought ~ Reason, 2nd ~ Man, 3rd
Magnus's 3 Universals: Ante Rem ~ In Rem ~ Post Rem
Max Weber's 3 Authorities: Traditional ~ Charismatic ~ Legal-rational
F.  de Sausure's 3 "Signs": Sign ~ Signified ~ Signifier
Charles Pierces 3 "Signs": Qualisign ~ Sinsign (token) ~ Legisign
John Keynes's 3 Eras: Scarcity ~ Abundance ~ Stabilization
George Mead's 3 Distinctions: Self ~ I ~ Me
Thrasher's 3-group Gangs: Inner Circle ~ Rank & File ~ Fringers
Abe Lincoln's 3-For-All: Of the People ~ By the People ~ For the People
Jesus Christ's 3 Praises: In the name of the Father ~ Son ~ Holy Spirit
Samuel Clemmons' 3 lies:
(Mark Twain)
Lies ~ Damned Lies ~ Statistics

3-part Logic

Thesis ~ Antithesis ~ Synthesis
Indulgence  ~ "Middle Way" ~ Ascetism
Major Premise  ~ Minor Premise ~ Conclusion
Contradiction ~  Excluded  Middle ~ Identity Principal
What is real
How change comes
What is mind
Marxian "Dialectology":
Unity of opposites
Quantity & quality
Negation of negation
How we know
What is truth
What is mind
Nature of good
Nature of beautiful
Nature of religious
Quality (1st-ness)
Relation (2nd-ness)
Representation (3rd-ness)

3 times the fool: You can fool some people some of the time - Some people all the time - But not all people all the time.

3 traditional syllogism forms: Categorical - Hypothetical - Disjunctive

3-patterned basic adult syllogism: All ravens are black - Jack is a raven - Therefore, Jack is black.

3-patterned basic child syllogism: Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear - Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair - Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy was he?


This next list comes from the Wickipedia: Philosophical Trichotomies. I have left the information virtually intact.

A trichotomy is a three-way classificatory division. Some philosophers pursued trichotomies.

Important trichotomies discussed by Aquinas include the causal principles (agent, patient, act), the potencies for the intellect (imagination, cogitative power, and memory and reminiscence), and the acts of the intellect (concept, judgment, reasoning), with all of those rooted in Aristotle; also the transcendentals of being (unity, truth, goodness) the requisites of the beautiful (wholeness, harmony, radiance).

Kant expounded a table of judgments involving four three-way alternatives, in regard to (1) Quantity, (2) Quality, (3) Relation, (4) Modality, and, based thereupon, a table of four categories, named by the terms just listed, and each with three sub-categories. Kant also adapted the Thomistic acts of intellect in his trichotomy of higher cognition — (a) understanding, (b) judgment, (c) reason — which he correlated with his adaptation in the soul's capacities — (a) cognitive faculties, (b) feeling of pleasure or displeasure, and (c) faculty of desire[1] — of Tetens's trichotomy of feeling, understanding, will.[2]

Hegel held that a thing's or idea's internal contradiction leads in a dialectical process to a new synthesis that makes better sense of the contradiction. The process is sometimes described as thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It is instanced across a pattern of trichotomies (e.g. being-nothingness-becoming, immediate-mediate-concrete, abstract-negative-concrete); such trichotomies are not just three-way classificatory divisions; they involve trios of elements functionally interrelated in a process. They are often called triads (but 'triad' does not have that as a fixed sense in philosophy generally).

Charles Sanders Peirce built his philosophy on trichotomies and triadic relations and processes, and framed the "Reduction Thesis" that every predicate is essentially either monadic (quality), dyadic (relation of reaction or resistance), or triadic (representational relation), and never genuinely and irreducibly tetradic or larger.

Examples of Philosophical Trichotomies

Plato's Tripartite Soul Rational. Libidinous (desiring). Spirited (various animal qualities).
St. Augustine's 3 Laws[3] Divine Law. Natural Law. Temporal, Positive, or Human Law.
St. Augustine's 3 features of the soul[4] Intellect. Will. Memory. (St. John of the Cross, OCD follows this also, but may erroneously identify them as 3 distinct powers.[5])
St. Thomas Aquinas, OP's 3 causal principles[6] (based in Aristotle) Agent. Patient. Act.
Aquinas's 3 potencies for intellect[6] (based in Aristotle) Imagination. Cogitative power (or, in animals, instinct). Memory (and, in humans, reminiscence).
Aquinas's 3 acts of intellect[6] (based in Aristotle) Conception. Judgment. Reasoning.
Aquinas's 3 transcendentals of being[6] Unity. Truth. Goodness.
Aquinas's 3 requisites for the beautiful[6] Wholeness or perfection. Harmony or due proportion. Radiance.
St. Albertus Magnus's 3 Universals[7] Ante rem (Idea in God's mind). In re (potential or actual in things). Post rem (mentally abstracted).
Sir Francis Bacon's 3 Tables[8] Presence. Absence. Degree.
Thomas Hobbes's 3 Fields Physics. Moral Philosophy. Civil Philosophy.
Johannes Nikolaus Tetens's 3 powers of mind[2] Feeling. Understanding. Will.
John Dryden's 3 ways of transferring Metaphrase. Paraphrase. Imitation.
Kant's 3 faculties of soul[1] Faculties of knowledge. Feeling of pleasure or displeasure. Faculty of desire (which Kant regarded also as the will).
Kant's 3 higher faculties of cognition[1] Understanding. Judgment. Reason.
Kant's 3 judgments of quantity Universal. Particular. Singular
Kant's 3 categories of quantity Unity. Plurality. Totality
Kant's 3 judgments of quality Affirmative. Negative. Infinite
Kant's 3 categories of quality Reality. Negation. Limitation.
Kant's 3 judgments of relation Categorical. Hypothetical. Disjunctive.
Kant's 3 categories of relation Inherence and subsistence. Causality and dependence. Community.
  In other words:
Substance and accident. Cause and effect. Reciprocity.
Kant's 3 judgments of modality Problematical. Assertoric. Apodictic
Kant's 3 categories of modality Possibility. Existence. Necessity
Hegel's 3 dialectical moments Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.
Hegel's 3 Spirits[9] Subjective Spirit. Objective Spirit. Absolute Spirit.
Charles Sanders Peirce's 3 categories Quality of feeling. Reaction, resistance. Representation, mediation.
C. S. Peirce's 3 universes of experience Ideas. Brute fact. Habit (habit-taking).
C. S. Peirce's 3 orders of philosophy Phenomenology. Normative sciences. Metaphysics.
C. S. Peirce's 3 normatives The good (esthetic). The right (ethical). The true (logical).
C. S. Peirce's 3 semiotic elements Sign (representamen). Object. Interpretant.
C. S. Peirce's 3 grades of conceptual clearness By familiarity. Of definition's parts. Of conceivable practical implications.
C. S. Peirce's 3 active principles in the cosmos Spontaneity, absolute chance. Mechanical necessity. Creative love.
Gottlob Frege's 3 realms of sense[10] The external, public, physical. The internal, private, mental. The Platonic, ideal but objective (to which sentences refer).
Karl Popper's 3 worlds[11] Physical things and processes. Subjective human experience. Culture and objective knowledge
James Joyce's 3 aesthetic stages[12] Arrest (by wholeness). Fascination (by harmony). Enchantment (by radiance).
Louis Zukofsky's 3 aesthetic elements[13] Shape. Rhythm. Style.
Søren Kierkegaard's 3 Stages[14] Aesthetic. Ethical. Religious.
Edmund Husserl's 3 Reductions Phenomenological. Eidetic. Religious.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's 3 fields[15] Physical. Vital. Human.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's 3 categories[15] Quantity. Order. Meaning.
Alan Watts's 3 world views Life as machine (Western). Life as organism (Chinese). Life as drama (Indian).
Saint Paul's tripartite nature of man (I Thes. 5:23) Body, soul, and spirit.
Sigmund Freud Id, Ego, and Superego.
Jacques Lacan Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Judgment, 2007 edition, Cosimo Classics, pp. 10-11.
  2. ^ a b Teo, Thomas (2005), The critique of psychology: from Kant to postcolonial theory, p. 43.
  3. ^ Augustine through the Ages (1999), p. 582.
  4. ^ St. Augustine of Hippo, De Trinitate, 10, 11; Encyclopedia of Christian Theology, Volume 1 (2004), page 54. See St. Augustine of Hippo, De Trinitate, 14. St. Thomas Aquinas, OP explains that St. Augustine does not identify these 3 features as "powers" of the soul. St. Thomas Aquinas, OP, Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Q. 79, A. 7, ad 1.
  5. ^ St. John of the Cross, OCD, Doctor, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chapter 6, §1.
  6. ^ a b c d e See The Pocket Aquinas (1991).
  7. ^ "St. Albertus Magnus" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Eprint.
  8. ^ "Francis Bacon, Viscount Saint Alban", Eprint
  9. ^ Redding, Paul (1997, 2006), "Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Eprint.
  10. ^ Klement, Kevin C. (2005), "Gottlob Frege (1848—1925)", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  11. ^ Popper, Karl (1982), The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism.
  12. ^ Joyce, James (1914-1915), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, see Chapter 5, especially (but not only) lines 8215-8221.
  13. ^ Zukofsky, Louis, "A" – 12 (1966), and Prepositions (1967, 1981), p. 55.
  14. ^ McDonald, William (1996, 2009), "Søren Kierkegaard" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. See Section 6.
  15. ^ a b Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1942), La structure du comportement, and published in English as The Structure of Behavior.

Page initially created: Thursday, April 24, 2014
Page update posted: Thursday, May 1, 2014

Your Questions, Comments or Additional Information are welcomed:
Herb O. Buckland