The Rule(s) of Three

Fenster writes:

Why do so many things come at us in threes?

Perhaps I should not put it that way.  To me it is less that the world is ordered into threes than it is that our minds may be comfortable reading three-way divisions into an otherwise messy reality.  It is tempting to think that the world tends to break out, like all Gaul, into three parts, but perhaps there may be something about our cognitive structure that prompts us to think in terms of three. Do our brains trick us into seeing three when it is not there, or is there some underlying three-ness to things?

My daughter is attending a Jesuit college in the fall.  I am not Catholic but listened with devout attention to a theology professor explain to parents at summer orientation what it means to be a Jesuit institution.  Over and over again he came to a situation or phenomenon that he placed into a three-way vessel for discussion.  It was so pronounced that I thought it was subtly intentional, and perhaps a reference of some sort to the Trinity, and I asked him a question along those lines in the Q&A.

He took the question in, paused, and then acknowledged that while he had not thought of it that way relative to the Trinity he was aware of how common it was to think in threes. Since a good deal of his talk involved the dialectics of conversation his answer was along those lines.  Perhaps, he said, there is a conventional way of thinking about something and then two other ways of thinking about it, one on each side.  He seemed to be saying that if there is a three-ness to the way we think it has to do with the give and take of conversation, as a part of learning.

I agree with that.  I wrote here that learning is a three way thing, citing the old Buddhist wisdom . . .

When I had not yet begun to study Zen thirty years ago, I thought that mountains are mountains and waters are waters. Later when I studied personally with my master, I entered realization and understood that mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters. Now that I abide in the way of no-seeking, I see as before that mountains are just mountains, waters are just waters.

. . . later recycled by Donovan into:

First there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is.

Our Jesuit teacher at orientation reminded us that all learning is a conversation.  My idea meets another idea and out of that comes something else.   One, two, three.  A dialectic.  Thesis antithesis synthesis.

Learning is not primarily a matter of the accretion of new facts on top of the old. It’s more a process of disruption, in which a former settled view becomes unsettled, then becomes settled again in a new way. First you know you know. Then you are made unstable by knowing that what you know may not be true. Then you once again know you know. That’s called learning–the disruptive accretion of falsehoods providing useful new perspectives.

So there is some truth to education being a three way thing as it involves conversation and disruption.  But is that it? I wonder if it isn’t more than that.

Consider the wide range of things that are captured in threes.  Consider as well the resemblances between three-way groupings of different phenomenon.

You can start with Freud’s division of mind into ego, superego and id.  This conception is no longer considered scientifically justified.  But there is something going on with it.  What?  Why is it compelling to think of ourselves as embodying energies related to will and passion, then reflection and conscience, then identity and action?

In the 1930s the political scientist Harold Laswell remarked that Freudian conceptions of ego, superego, and id coincide quite well with the three branches of government proposed by the framers (executive, judicial, and legislative, respectively). It is as though Madison recognized that humans are composed of warring impulses, that human institutions reflect human imperfections and that each impulse ought to be separately named and housed in order to maximize the chances of healthy governance.

I wrote an academic paper once on the field of what is called public service motivation.  This area of inquiry involves defining and measuring the reasons people are motivated to enter public service.  A key methodological distinction accepted by many in the field is itself a three-way thing.  People might be motivated toward public service for rational reasons, norm-based reasons or affective reasons.   Rational (I reason my way to my goal) maps to ego and executive.  Norm-based (I should do these things) maps to supergo and judicial.  Affective (I am driven to do these things) maps to id and legislative.

Why?  Evolutionary science Paul MacLean has posited the idea of a “triune brain”. Under this view, the brain can be functionally divided into “a part related to habits and instinctive behavior, a part related to emotional and social behavior, and a part related to higher cognitive and semantic processing” with each part having developed through the evolution of the species.

There are many other “rule of three” candidates for mapping, such as Aristotle’s three types of argument.  Ethos, or appeal to ethics, maps to norm-based.  Pagos, or appeal to emotions, maps to affective.  Logos, or appeal to logic, maps to rational.

To say nothing of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow and the Three Stooges.

Or just consider BC’s motto:

Be Attentive

Be Reflective

Be Loving


About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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3 Responses to The Rule(s) of Three

  1. To me, W. V. Quine in “Quiddities” (1987) said it best. Reflecting on the concept of trinity, he wrote: “A predilection for threes has invested song and story. We have the Three Fates, the Three Graces, the Three Magi, the Three Musketeers, the Three Bears, the Three Little Maids from School. … The stability of three comes down to the brute and homely fact when we look upon the three-legged stool and contrast its firmness with the wobbly four legs or the toppling two. The underlying geometry is elementary. Three points always lie in a plane; four need not. Three points lie in ONLY one plane; two lie in many.”


    • Fenster says:

      That stability notion seems to be what the BC prof was getting at when he talked about one idea being flanked by two others. Sturdiness is a static notion though and his other ramblings suggested that the idea had meaning in a dynamic sense too, with the dialectic concept relating to flux and change, and of one emerging from two. Holy Procreation Batman!

      There is also the odd symmetries behind that way we choose to divide into three. Three legs of a stool are stable, to be sure, but why does leg 1 on one stool so often rhyme with leg 1 on another stool?


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