Trichotomy (philosophy)

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) and 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 subcategories. 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] In his Logic (113) Kant notes that all "polytomy are empirical" and "cannot be taught in logic".[3]

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 3 parts of man[4]Nous (mind, intellect). Psyche (soul). Soma (body).
Plato's 3 transcendentalsTruth (logic, verum). Goodness (ethics, bonum). Beauty (aesthetics, pulchrum).
Plato's tripartite soulLogistykon (logical, rational). Thymoeides (spirited, various animal qualities). Epithymetikon (appetitive, volitive, libidinous, desiring).
Aristotle's 3 kinds of soulThreptike (nutritive, vegetative). Aisthetike (sensitive, animal). Noetike (rational, human).
Aristotle's 3 main modes of persuasionEthos. Pathos. Logos.
Plotinus' three principlesThe One. The Intellect. The Soul.
Shema's 3 elements of manלב / Kardia (heart). נפׁש (nephesh) / Psyche (soul). מְאֹד / Dynamis (power)[5][6]
Saint Paul's tripartite nature of man (I Thes. 5:23)Soma (body). Psyche (soul). Pneuma (spirit).
(Paul uses alternative concepts in other passages: kardia [heart], eso kai exo anthropos [inner and outer human being]; nous [mind]; suneidesis [conscience]; sarx [flesh]).[7]
Saint Augustine's 3 Laws[8]Divine Law. Natural Law. Temporal, Positive, or Human Law.
Saint Augustine's 3 features of the soul[9]Intellect. Will. Memory. (Saint John of the Cross, OCD follows this also, but may erroneously identify them as 3 distinct powers.[10])
Saint Albertus Magnus' 3 Universals[11]Ante rem (Idea in God's mind). In re (potential or actual in things). Post rem (mentally abstracted).
Saint Thomas Aquinas, O.P.'s 3 causal principles[12] (based in Aristotle)Agent. Patient. Act.
Aquinas' 3 potencies for intellect[12] (based in Aristotle)Imagination. Cogitative power (or, in animals, instinct). Memory (and, in humans, reminiscence).
Aquinas' 3 acts of intellect[12] (based in Aristotle)Conception. Judgment. Reasoning.
Aquinas' 3 transcendentals of being[12]Unity. Truth. Goodness.
Aquinas' 3 requisites for the beautiful[12]Wholeness or perfection. Harmony or due proportion. Radiance.
Sir Francis Bacon's 3 Tables[13]Presence. Absence. Degree.
Bacon's 3 faculties of mindMemory. Reason. Imagination.
Bacon's 3 braches of knowledgeHistory. Philosophy. Poetry. (Inspired the figurative system of human knowledge of Diderot and d'Alembert.)
Thomas Hobbes' 3 FieldsPhysics. Moral Philosophy. Civil Philosophy.
John Dryden's 3 ways of transferringMetaphrase. Paraphrase. Imitation.
Christian Wolff's 3 special metaphysicsRational psychology. Rational cosmology. Rational theology.
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 quantityUniversal. Particular. Singular
Kant's 3 categories of quantityUnity. Plurality. Totality
Kant's 3 judgments of qualityAffirmative. Negative. Infinite
Kant's 3 categories of qualityReality. Negation. Limitation.
Kant's 3 judgments of relationCategorical. Hypothetical. Disjunctive.
Kant's 3 categories of relationInherence and subsistence. Causality and dependence. Community.
  In other words:
Substance and accident. Cause and effect. Reciprocity.
Kant's 3 judgments of modalityProblematical. Assertoric. Apodictic
Kant's 3 categories of modalityPossibility. Existence. Necessity
Johannes Nikolaus Tetens's 3 powers of mind[2]Feeling. Understanding. Will.
Hegel's 3 dialectical momentsThesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.
Hegel's 3 Spirits[14]Subjective Spirit. Objective Spirit. Absolute Spirit.
Søren Kierkegaard's 3 stages[15]Aesthetic. Ethical. Religious.
Charles Sanders Peirce's 3 categoriesQuality of feeling. Reaction, resistance. Representation, mediation.
C. S. Peirce's 3 universes of experienceIdeas. Brute fact. Habit (habit-taking).
C. S. Peirce's 3 orders of philosophyPhenomenology. Normative sciences. Metaphysics.
C. S. Peirce's 3 normativesThe good (esthetic). The right (ethical). The true (logical).
C. S. Peirce's 3 semiotic elementsSign (representamen). Object. Interpretant.
C. S. Peirce's 3 grades of conceptual clearnessBy familiarity. Of definition's parts. Of conceivable practical implications.
C. S. Peirce's 3 active principles in the cosmosSpontaneity, absolute chance. Mechanical necessity. Creative love.
Gottlob Frege's 3 realms of sense[16] The external, public, physical. The internal, private, mental. The Platonic, ideal but objective (to which sentences refer).
Sigmund Freud's structural modelId, ego, and superego
Edmund Husserl's 3 ReductionsPhenomenological. Eidetic. Religious.
R. Steiner more threefold aspects. Body, soul and spirit. Imagination, inspiration and intuition.
Korzybski's 3 types of lifeChemical-binder (i.e. plants). Space-binder (i.e. mammals). Time-binder (i.e. humans). Each one up the scale requires the previous one.
James Joyce's 3 aesthetic stages[17]Arrest (by wholeness). Fascination (by harmony). Enchantment (by radiance).
Jacques Lacan's 3 ordersReal, Symbolic, and Imaginary
Karl Popper's 3 worlds[18]Physical things and processes. Subjective human experience. Culture and objective knowledge
Louis Zukofsky's 3 aesthetic elements[19]Shape. Rhythm. Style.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's 3 fields[20]Physical. Vital. Human.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's 3 categories[20]Quantity. Order. Meaning.
Eric Berne's transactional analysisParent, Adult, Child
Alan Watts' 3 world viewsLife as machine (Western). Life as organism (Chinese). Life as drama (Indian).

See also


  1. Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Judgment, 2007 edition, Cosimo Classics, pp. 10-11.
  2. Teo, Thomas (2005), The critique of psychology: from Kant to postcolonial theory, p. 43.
  3. Kant I., (1800), Logic (Logik), tr. J. Richardson London, 1819, p.209. In preparation he states "A division into two members goes under the appelation of dichotomy; but it, when consisting of more than two, takes the name of poytomy".
  4. Plato, Timaeus, 30.
  5. Petersen, W.L. 2011. Patristic and Text-Critical Studies: The Collected Essays of William L. Petersen. Brill: Leiden. p. 229. link.
  6. Davies, W.D., Allison, D.C. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. T&T Clark, 1988-1997, 3 vols. link. [vol 3, p. 241.]
  7. Crandall University. Pauline anthropology. .
  8. Augustine through the Ages (1999), p. 582.
  9. Saint Augustine of Hippo, De Trinitate, 10, 11; Encyclopedia of Christian Theology, Volume 1 (2004), page 54. See Saint Augustine of Hippo, De Trinitate, 14. Saint Thomas Aquinas, OP explains that Saint Augustine does not identify these 3 features as "powers" of the soul. Saint Thomas Aquinas, OP, Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Q. 79, A. 7, ad 1.
  10. Saint John of the Cross, OCD, Doctor, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chapter 6, §1.
  11. "St. Albertus Magnus" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Eprint.
  12. See The Pocket Aquinas (1991).
  13. "Francis Bacon, Viscount Saint Alban", Eprint
  14. Redding, Paul (1997, 2006), "Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Eprint.
  15. McDonald, William (1996, 2009), "Søren Kierkegaard" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. See Section 6.
  16. Klement, Kevin C. (2005), "Gottlob Frege (1848—1925)", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  17. Joyce, James (1914-1915), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, see Chapter 5, especially (but not only) lines 8215-8221.
  18. Popper, Karl (1982), The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism.
  19. Zukofsky, Louis, "A" 12 (1966), and Prepositions (1967, 1981), p. 55.
  20. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1942), La structure du comportement, and published in English as The Structure of Behavior.
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