Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 2

Welcome back! It’s time for more ideas about ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Alan Page Fiske’s way of categorizing human relationship types. In our social worlds, there may be contexts where people are essentially the same as us (as in, our votes all count equally). People may be ranked higher or lower, as in an aristocracy or in the military or other organizations that value hierarchy. We can think in terms of reciprocating, an important type of fairness. And we can think in terms of ratios and exchanges, where one hour of my time is worth some amount of dollars, which I could then take to the supermarket to trade for beer-cheese soup and ciabatta rolls, like we had tonight for dinner. One thing that especially interested me about Fiske’s ideas was that he came up with a system of four distinct categories that are also related.

Today I want to turn to another cool category system. This one’s from philosopher Stephen C. Pepper, who published a book in 1942 on what he called “world hypotheses.” Pepper believed there were four “adequate” ways of understanding everything that goes on in the world (and two that weren’t adequate by his standards, mysticism and animism). The four are:

Formism. This way of looking at the world focuses on categorizing things, and people thinking in these terms are concerned with truth, as defined by how similar something is to its object of reference.

Mechanism. This way of seeing the world is about relationships between things, the laws governing how they interact and what results from them doing so. It’s about systems and seeing the world as a bunch of moving parts that operate together predictably, rather like a machine.

Organicism. This way of thinking about the world focuses on fragments organizing themselves toward transcendent ends. In these systems, we can talk about intentions and purposes, higher goals, progress.

Contextualism. In this way of looking at the world, we are considering specific events, changes, and novelty. Its focus is on the real world, not the abstractions emphasized in the other three ways of seeing the world, and it appreciates subjective experiences and specific contexts.

Now, Pepper believed his four systems were mutually exclusive, and from the perspective of philosophy, that may be so – I’m not qualified to judge. However, from the psychological point of view, we can do something slightly different with Pepper’s system than what he had in mind for it. We can see each of the four ideas underlying his world hypotheses as components that we use, mentally, when thinking about how things work.

I see them as form, functionality, intention, and experience – a kind of “dimensionality of functionality.” We have building blocks with their basic essence (forms), we have these blocks put together into systems that do things (functionality), we have these functioning systems directed, sometimes consciously, toward ends (intentionality), and we can experience each of those from the inside, with our subjective perspective in real-world, particular circumstances (experience). We could maybe even treat the system of four categories as a simple type of “emergence.”

I’ll add here that psychologist Steven C. Hayes and many others have been actively developing “scientific contextualism” as an alternative to mechanistic understanding of the human mind and human behavior. They aren’t interested in abstractions and creating cut-and-dried rules of human psychology; rather, they’re looking for guidelines and principles that emerge from specific situations that may apply elsewhere. I think this approach is much more respectful of the complications of people’s lives and realities.

Back to the category system. Last summer, I read a really interesting paper about different types of authenticity, and as I was reading, I noticed how neatly they each lined up with the four Pepper-inspired categories. The author, Glenn R. Carroll (a Stanford professor of organizational behavior), didn’t mention Pepper and didn’t offer his own systematization of his different types, but… see what you think.

First he writes about two traditional forms of authenticity. His first category is “type authenticity” – something correctly fits the classification it’s been assigned to. For example, does this dish qualify as “authentic Greek cuisine?” The second traditional category is “moral authenticity” – something that truly expresses a person or society’s values and beliefs. Carroll gives the example of a restaurant choosing to feature food that is organic or has been locally sourced, assuming that the owners are doing so because of their values.

Anchor_Steam_beerTo these traditional meanings of authenticity, Carroll offers two more. He notes that we’re talking about “craft authenticity” when something has been made by following appropriate methods, and gives the example of the Anchor Brewing Company, the pioneer of microbrewing, where beers are made using a set of skillful and specialized techniques.

His fourth category is “idiosyncratic authenticity,” which involves “the symbolic or expressive interpretation of aspects of an entity’s idiosyncrasies.” In other words, there might be legends associated with a particular business that become part of its quirks when people think and talk about it. Carroll then ties together all four types by showing how they’re characteristic of Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse restaurant.


If you’ve been mentally categorizing these along with me, you’ll probably agree that “type authenticity” is about forms, “craft authenticity” is about functioning systems, “moral authenticity” is about intentions, and “idiosyncratic authenticity” is about particular experiences. Cool, huh?

I think these category systems are pretty nifty. Now, Fiske and Pepper aren’t doing the same thing. You can’t reduce Pepper’s world hypotheses to Fiske’s math. But they’re both going about things in the same way – creating categories where one is the most basic building block, then the next adds something, and the third something more, and the fourth yet more. In Fiske’s case, what you’re adding is a series of mathematical restrictions, and in Pepper’s case, you’re adding new levels of functionality, more types of things that can happen.

That’s enough for today. Coming soon – why I’ve been thinking about this!

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
This entry was posted in category science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 2

  1. Pingback: When is a story not a story? | The Meta-Narrator

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s