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Stephen C. Pepper, World Hypotheses:A Study in Evidence (Berkeley,et al.: University of California Press, 1942,1970). Pp. xiii-348. ISBN0-520-00994-0.

I wish to study world hypotheses as objects existing in the world, to examine them empirically as a zoologist studies species of animals, a psychologist varieties of per­ception, a mathematician geometrical systems. These are all in some sense facts. And the analogy between world hypotheses as actual facts or objects now present in the world and the facts or objects studied by zoologists, psy­chologists, or mathematicians is worth holding in mind. For we all have and use world hypotheses, just as we have animal bodies, have perceptions, and move within geo­metrical relations. It is just because world hypotheses are so intimate and pervasive that we do not easily look at them from a distance, so to speak, or as if we saw them in a mirror. Even the authors named in my first paragraph [Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Whitehead, Euclid, Darwin] do not fully succeed in looking at their results as things to be looked at.

World hypotheses are likely to be studied as creeds to be accepted or rejected, or as expressions of highly indi­vidual personalities, or as expressions of epochs, or as objects of historical scholarship to be traced to their cul­tural sources or given their philological or psychological interpretations. They are rarely treated as objects in their own right to be studied and described in their own char­acter and compared with one another. Yet it is this last sort of study that I wish to make. (Pepper 2)

This review is the second in a periodic consideration of texts and authors that the editors believe to be seminal in the development of humanistic and social science thought in the general field of American, British and Canadian Studies. (The last was in Number 9 of ABC, being a review of a collection of René Girard’s contributions.) Looking back over a twenty-plus year period of doctoral training and subsequent career development, this reviewer believes strongly that the largely overlooked contribution of philosopher Stephen C. Pepper to the articulation of Weltanschauung thought within an American frame needs to be corrected.1

        Following from his general philosophical goal noted above, Stephen Pepper attempts to develop four “relatively adequate” methods of thinking about phenomena in the world, including both observed facts (“data”) and theoretically structured observations (“danda”). These four world hypotheses (formism, mechanism, contextualism and organicism) provide, claims Pepper, a normally unexamined assumptive ground for most any serious scientific or humanistic research. (The world hypotheses of utter skepticism, dogmatism, animism and mysticism are considered by Pepper, but rejected as adequate world hypotheses because they either deny the possibility of obtaining certified knowledge [utter skepticism], or they assert the validity of only one form of knowledge [dogmatism], or they presume that man’s private thoughts are the only measure of their own worth [animism], or finally, they give central stage to the emotive power of an indescribable experience [mysticism]). Of the latter two world hypotheses (animism and mysticism), the first, claims Pepper, suffers from a lack of precision (indeterminate categories) and the second from a lack of scope (too much phenomena in the world are rejected as unreal because the hypothesis cannot explain them).

        The four remaining world hypotheses (formism, mechanism, contextualism and organicism) can be categorized in turn by four characteristics, according to Pepper2:


1.   Analytic theses (formism, mechanism) – In these world hypotheses, a theorist will study the phenomenon part‑by‑part. Any synthesis done will be derivative, i.e., arrived at by the theorist after categorical study.

2.   Synthetic theses (contextualism, organicism) – In these world hypotheses, a theorist studies the phenomenon holistically, because the assumption of this hypothesis is that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Hence, analysis is derivative, being created in the mind of the theorist after observation.

3.   Dispersive theses (formism, contextualism) – In such world hypotheses, any data or facts are “removed” from nature, studied, and “replaced” back into nature by the scholar. In Pepper’s words, there is really no “cosmos” in dispersive theses or worldviews.

4.   Integrative theses (mechanism, organicism) – In these world hypotheses, facts (data) are inexplicably tied up with structural danda and cannot be easily separated (i.e., the hypothesis strongly governs what the observer perceives). In sum, integrative world hypotheses cannot easily allow for the analysis of functioning wholes.


In what follows, the reviewer will explicate, in turn, these four world hypotheses.


Formism (root metaphor: similarity)


In discussing formism, Pepper posits that it is the weakest of the four world hypotheses due to its philosophical shortcomings, but the reason it survives is due to the strength of its root metaphor, similarity. It is indeed easy for man to think in terms of a similar/not similar bipolar construct. (Computers “think” in such a binary fashion.) In employing this meta‑hypothesis to analyze phenomena, one would place similar items in one category and dissimilar items in another, and then compare the categories to discover the essential natures of the items via their similar and dissimilar qualities, dependent upon a deductively arrived at hierarchy of qualities. This process assumes several things: 1). “Reality” is stable, so that correspondence between phenomenon can be reached; 2). All phenomenon contain a transcendent essential quality that can be perceived by observers; 3). Things are more similar than dissimilar; and, 4). Categories created by a determination of similar and dissimilar essential qualities are mutually exclusive, i.e., data can go into one, and only one, category.

        Within the rhetorical and communicative studies framework (that form this reviewer’s expertise), he finds that (neo) Platonic (e.g., Richard M. Weaver3) and (neo) Aristotelian approaches fall within this worldview framework. Critics Bernard L. Brock and Robert L. Scott4 agree, with two caveats: 1). Aristotle had correctly perceived all elements of the speech act (the three forms of speaking, the three forms of proof and the five canons of rhetoric), inclusive of its purpose, i.e., “the faculty of discovering, in any given situation, the available means of persuasion.” 2). All rhetorical critics agree to the basic validity of neo‑Aristotelian assumptions and methodology. Lester Thonssen and Albert C. Baird provide the most traditional exemplars of rhetorical criticism undertaken within this approach.5

        This vision of rhetorical criticism held sway in the discipline until 1965, when Edwin Black published his Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method.6 Black gave a blistering critique of neo‑Aristotelian methods, arguing against a slavish attitude by critics towards Aristotle’s Rhetoric, critiquing the formist world hypothesis that these methods were built upon, and calling for a pluralistic method which was (as he saw it) more in touch with the contextual and interpretive nature of life and persuasion (or, as Brock and Scott would call it, a “new rhetorics” perspective).


        Mechanism (root metaphor: the world as machine)


In this worldview, all phenomena are compared to a machine which is the basic assumptive ground of positivistic science, Newtonian style. It is analytical in that machines are made of individual parts, but it is also integral in that the concept of a working machine requires a whole apparatus. While it is easy to fault the narrow conceptions of man and science that this world hypothesis can generate (e.g., man is just like a machine and nothing more; quantitative elements are better than qualitative elements; “facts” speak for themselves; pure “objectivity” is obtainable), it is important to note that, at a material level, this worldview has been very productive, creating the wondrous machines of modern life via the “scientific method.”

        Within rhetorical and communication studies, there are a variety of approaches corresponding to this worldview. Mechanistic methodologies are employed by a few rhetorical critics such as Roderick Hart7, Ivor Richards8 (and Marshall McLuhan,9 if one classifies him as a rhetorical critic). Mechanism, however, has had a more illustrative history in communication theory and research (e.g., Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s technical schematic communication model, Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory, and the psychological communication models of Kurt Lewin, Paul Lazarfeld and their many students).10 Yet, despite its domination of early communication research work, the positivistic scientific paradigm has come under increasing criticism since it not only treats humans as mechanical objects to be manipulated (as opposed to treating them as interpretive beings) but, moreover, it is not reflexive. In short, communication research is becoming more critical and contextual, based upon an interpretive conception of reality.11


        Contextualism (root metaphor: history)


In this world hypothesis, life is seen as a process occurring across time within an interpretive reality. It is a synthetic theory in that the concept of process is central. Unlike formism or mechanism, phenomenon in this worldview cannot be easily taken apart for analysis, because the whole determines the parts. Analysis is thus derivative. But it is also dispersive, meaning that individual facts can be “ferreted out” of the phenomenon for study and then returned to nature. These attributes can be seen by looking at the root metaphor of the hypothesis, i.e., history.

        History occurs across time. Events happen, and are recorded by interpreters of the event. Later, students compile and analyze these records in a search for understanding. But these students will not be able to grasp in any whole sense “what objectively happened.” Data which is multiplicatively corroborated can be seen as more certain, but questions about what it means will have to be based upon the interpretive readings of the student or of others. Any “reality” concerning the event is thus a created, symbolic one (cf. George H. Mead,12 Susanne K. K. Langer13). The criterion of quality of the various readings of history will be based not upon certain, formal “proofs,” but upon informal, probable justifications. Contextualism assumes that reality is a construction in people’s minds, not a concrete item.

        Modern rhetorical theory, called the “new rhetorics” perspective by Brock and Scott, is full of examples of contextualistic thought. The work of Kenneth Burke14 stands out here, as does that of Ernest Bormann,15 Stephen Toulmin,16 Chaïm Perelman17 and Jürgen Habermas.18 While these scholars’ theories do differ from each other, they all share the following assumptions: 1). Life is a process; 2). The meaning of phenomena is determined by its observers; 3). Events are not repeatable; and, 4). Any categorization by critics is tentative because any categories created by critics are not mutually exclusive.


        Organicism (root metaphor: live forms)


Under this world hypothesis, phenomena are not only perceived as wholes (like contextualism), but, different from contextualism, they can be analyzed only as wholes. Obviously, one cannot hope to capture the living nature of an organism by dissecting it, because by so doing one will remove the motivating, teleological force from it. Organicism is, therefore, both a synthetic and integrative worldview.

        In communication theory, the theorist whose work comes most readily to the reviewer’s mind is Kenneth Boulding’s.19 He builds his theory of “the image” on a biological metaphor of the living cell, developing up the life chain to man. Via “noogenetics,”20 humankind is able to reach its teleological aim by a combination of inbred genetic information and environmental learning. Boulding’s methodology, in Brock and Scott’s terms, seems to be experiential, based upon primary observations of life’s events and materials, with its philosophy naturally arising from it.21

        In a future review, the writer will consider Pepper’s subsequent major philosophical work, which sought to build upon the solid foundation established with World Hypotheses, and also to go beyond it.22 Whatever the final judgment of the academy on that secondary effort, in the mind of this reviewer, his high status as a philosopher of note is already assured with the work of primary import at hand (especially for those of us working in the rhetorical and communicative arts and sciences, given the rich variety of scholarship fruitfully connected thereby). This judgment is valid because Pepper has surely met his holistic goal of helping us all “make sense” of our disciplinary and lived environments without committing the all-too-easy “sin” of reductionism, for “the peculiarity of world hypotheses is that they cannot reject anything as irrelevant” (1).



Lucian Blaga University, Sibiu



1    In recognition of his introduction to Stephen Pepper in his Ph.D. days by Professor James L. Golden of The Ohio State University (USA), the reviewer notes that this analysis is freely based upon his unpublished “general examination” paper on the assigned topic of rhetorical methodology (November, 1987).

2    All of these world hypotheses are “adequate” because they meet the varied demands of “evidence and corroboration,” thus being able to well mediate the tension extant between “common sense” and “expert knowledge,” i.e., between what Pepper calls “cognitive security without responsibility and cognitive responsibility without full security” (44-45). As he continues, “common sense continually demands the responsible criticism of refined knowledge, and refined knowledge sooner or later requires the security of common sense support” (45-46).

3    See his The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: H. Regnery Co, 1953) and Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964). Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 2nd ed. (Prospect Heights [IL]: Waveland Press, 1991) provide an excellent summary and bibliography of his work and influence on conservative thought in America.

4    Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth-Century Perspective (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1980).

5    Speech Criticism: The Development of Standards for Rhetorical Appraisal (New York: Ronald Press Co, 1948).

6    New York: Macmillan, 1965.

7    Theory-Building and Rhetorical Criticism (Washington [D.C.]: US Department of Education [ERIC], 1974 (12-00); and Modern Rhetorical Criticism (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997).

8    The Philosophy of Rhetoric (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936).

9    See Douglas Ehninger’s Marshall McLuhan: His Significance for the Field of Speech Communication (Washington [D.C.]: US Department of Education [ERIC], 6 17-24. 1969).

10  See articles collected on these theorists in Ithiel de Sola Pool’s Handbook of Communication (Chicago: Rand McNally College Pub. Co, 1973).

11  For a classic “transitional” piece of research in this area, see William Stephenson, The Play Theory of Mass Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). Also, the seminal essay by Jesse Delia, B. O’Keefe, and D. O’Keefe, “The Constructivist Approach to Communication” in Human Communication Theory, F. E. X. Dance, ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1982, 147-91) is informative of the constructivist paradigm shift in communication, as well as its methodological considerations.

12  Works of George H. Mead (Chicago, et al.: The University of Chicago Press, 1962).

13  Her Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957) is the essential reference in this regard.

14  A multitude of books by this, for his time, revolutionary author to the study of rhetoric is surely worth study, but the best overview in this context remains Marie Hochmuth Nichols’ introductory essay, “Kenneth Burke and the ‘New Rhetoric’” (Quarterly Journal of Speech 38 [April, 1952]: 133-44). The summation of Burke’s biography, theory and bibliography (primary and secondary) provided by Foss, Foss, and Trapp is also most worthwhile.

15  Most noted for “fantasy theme” research, a socio-psychological consideration of rhetorical effects. See his The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985). In specific reference to American studies, the audio recording Visions of America: Rhetorical Approaches to American Studies (1978, OCLC: 5871821) is notable.

16  Human Understanding (Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1972) is the central philosophical contribution by Toulmin, with his earlier Uses of Argument (Cambridge [UK]: Cambridge University Press, 1958) being the primary sourcebook. See also the relevant chapter on him is Foss, Foss and Trapp, noted above, for overview and bibliography.

17  Like Toulmin, Perelman develops the central role of “informal” logic in governing human affairs, particularly in the area of ethics. See his (with Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca), The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (Notre Dame [IN]: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969). The chapter devoted to him in Foss, Foss and Trapp is also useful.

18  The Theory of Communicative Action (two volumes) Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, 1987. Habermas provides a means by which neo-Aristotelian theorists of rhetoric can understand (and be understood by) neo-Marxist thinkers of cultural studies and class-based communication processes.

19  The first work of Boulding’s that the reviewer read, The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961) was most influential on his further studies in communication studies, as was the methodological follow-up (i.e., the articulation of his three social organizers of “threat,” “exchange” and “integry”) in A Primer on Social Dynamics: History as Dialectics and Development (New York: Free Press, 1970). Many thanks are due to Professor Golden for introducing Boulding’s work to the reviewer at an early stage in his doctoral studies.

20  The term is borrowed by Boulding from the Roman Catholic thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man [New York: Harper, 1959]).

21  A present-day thinker who seems to fall within this mode of thought is Ken Wilber. While his integrative works (seeking to bridge Eastern and Western approaches to knowing across the realms of arts, sciences and philosophy) are numerous, Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy (Boston: Shambhala, 2000) provides a tight introduction to his thinking, replete with an extensive bibliography. As noted by the writer in an upcoming (2008) review, Wilber seems a 21st century heir to the 18th century Swedish thinker and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. For insight on this fascinating, if vexing thinker, see his entry in Paul Edwards (Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8 (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 48-51.

22  Concept and Quality: A World Hypothesis (La Salle, IL.: Open Court, 1967).



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