If we agree with King Lear that nothing can come of nothing, is it true that everything comes from the one? Now, one can be the undifferentiated ground of everything, or it can be regarded as the the smallest whole number, although whether as an atemporal cardinal or as the ordinal, first, feels like it is a problem about choosing a convention from which to develop a line of thought. There are three separate questions here, which are the temporal, logical and psychological origins of one. Because philosophically I favour pragmatism and phenomenology over logical and temporal (or genetic) considerations, let me say something from a psychological point of view.
In trying to get a handle on what we know, the most powerful thinkers have tried to identify the most general features of our world. This requires considerable intellectual effort, because invariably they are part of the background while the vibrant instances of our world do not proclaim their formal properties, unless they have a revelatory impact.
Aristotle produced a list of ten categories, the forms according to which the objects of experience are structured and ordered, eg substance, quality, quantity, place, time. They were criticised as arbitrary and repetitive, but Kant renewed interest in them in his Critique of Pure Reason. Kant regarded their elucidation as one of the most difficult labours of his life, and they were arranged in four groups of three, Quantity (unity, plurality, totality), Quality ( reality, negation, limitation), Relation (substance and accident, cause and effect, reciprocity) and Modality (possibility/impossibility, existence/ non-existence, necessity/contingency). Needless to say these have received plenty of criticism in their turn.
I want to mention the categories of Charles Saunders Peirce, that great but blighted figure, who was a contemporary and friend of William James. In a phrase that has stayed with me, he ended up as isolated as Milton after the restoration. Or perhaps Oedipus, also blind, at Colonus. Perhaps that is hypebole, but it is, at least, easy to imagine Peirce resolute and unbowed, if not raging, at the dying of the light. Peirce (1839-1914) first wrote of his three categories in 1867 and thereafter on many different occasions and with baffling terminological elaboration. Here is the simplest statement of them that I know, from a letter to Lady Welby of 1903. ‘Firstness is the mode of being of that which is, positively and without reference to anything else. Secondness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, with respect to a second but regardless of any third. Thirdness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, in bringing a second and third into relation with each other.’ To reduce it to single words: quality, relation, representation. I now add a vastly oversimple precis of Peirce’s ideas on categories because they seem to me so important. The typical ideas of Firstness are qualities of feeling, e.g. the scarlet of royal liveries, the quality itself, independently of it being perceived or remembered. The type of an idea of Secondness is the experience of effort, prescinded from the idea of purpose. It may be said that there is no such experience, that a purpose is always in view as long as the effort is cognised. This may be open to doubt; for in sustained effort we soon let the purpose drop out of view. The experience of effort cannot exist without the experience of resistance. ( Peirce also gives the example of a feeling of calm upon which a shrill noise breaks. The feeling of calm and the shrillness heard are examples of firstness, but the precedent state of calmness is ego, and the interruption by the noise is non-ego breaking in, and the new destroying of the old feeling is an experience, but a brute experience. i.e. not experienced as law-like.) Peirce comments that the inadequacy of Secondness to cover all that is in our minds is so evident that he scarcely knows where to begin to persuade someone who cannot see it. If you take any ordinary triadic relation, you will always find a mental element in it. Brute action is secondness, any mentality involves thirdness. Consider the relation A gives B to C. This is not two dyadic episodes, A putting B away and C taking up B. In its genuine form, Thirdness is the triadic relationship existing between a sign, its object and the interpretant or interpreting thought. If you say that these two acts constitute a single operation by virtue of the identity of B, you transcend the mere brute facts, you introduce a mental element, intention if you will. It is worth knowing that Peirce worked for years as a part of the US Coastal Survey Department, although much of his energy was directed elsewhere. His category of thirdness which provides an understanding of what measurement truly is, was also the foundation of the science of semiology. I find it astonishing that there are scientists in the field of quantum physics, who write that measurement need not require a person. A geiger counter can count radioactive emissions, they will say. True, and a tin can receive a dent and therefore record the happening, when hit by a missile. But measurement is about meaning, about comparison, about norms. One radioactive element is dangerous, another not. Machines can be programmed to do their programmers’ biddings, possibly left to get on with it, but the meanings or significance of what they record are attended to sooner or later by intentional agents, and policy modified perhaps. Machines can calculate, they cannot think because they cannot feel.
To move into another sphere entirely, the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, is seen as a sign mediating between the Father and the Son, although there is a doctrinal difference between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, marked in the Nicene Creed by the Filioque clause (q.v.) The words of St. John’s Gospel, chapter15, verse26 are: But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father. . . He shall testify of me.
And number mysticism according to some (eg Goethe – Faust part two) shows a hesitation between three and four, which represent perhaps perfection and completeness.