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Stephen C. Pepper (April 29, 1891–May 1, 1972) was an American philosopher.

Stephen Coburn Pepper, born in Newark, New Jersey on April 29, 1891, died May 1, 1972 in Berkeley, California, was a noted American philosopher who received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University in 1916 and taught throughout nmost of his career at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author, co-author, or editor of a dozen books and had over a hundred articles published. He is best known for his root metaphor theory of metaphysics, detailed in his 1942 book World Hypohteses, but was also a respected authority on aesthetics and the philosophy of art, as well as on value theory and ethics. In The New American Philosophers (1968) Andrew Reck says "it was Pepper who, more than any thinker of his generation, made aesthetics and the philosophy of art the technical fields of study they are today." And in The Rise of American Philosophy (1977) Bruce Kuklick ranks Pepper among the twenty most eminent recipients of PhDs in philosophy at Harvard from 1878 to 1930.

Early life

Pepper was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Charles Hovey Pepper and Frances (nee Coburn) Pepper. Pepper's father was a portrait and landscape artist who took his family to France and Japan, among other places, in pursuit of his career, evidently influencing Pepper's lifelong interest in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Pepper was married to Ellen Hoar in 1914 and they had three children, a boy and two girls. He served briefly as a private in the U.S. Army in 1918 during World War I, stationed in the U.S.


Pepper was sent to prep school at the Browne and Nichols School in Concord, Massachusetts. He enrolled at Harvard shortly before the death of William James in 1910, receiving his bachelors degree in 1913, his masters in 1914, and his PhD in 1916. His dissertation supervisor was Ralph Barton Perry, a protege of William James. His dissertation tried to account for the concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness in terms of the at-that-time relatively new stimulus-response concepts of behaviorism, the term "behaviorism" having entered the language just three years earlier in 1913, according to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.

Teaching career

He was a philosophy instructor at Wellesley College in 1917. Following a brief stint as a private in the U.S. Army in 1918 during World War I, serving in the U.S., he began his long career as a teacher at the University of California at Berkeley in 1919. He served as Chairman of the Berkeley Art Department from 1938 to 1953 and as Chairman of its Philosophy Department from 1953 to 1958. He served as Mills Professor of Philosophy, the sole endowed chair in philosophy at Berkeley, a distinction subsequently held by the noted Berkeley philosopher John R. Searle. From 1958 to 1970 he taught at Hamline University and Macalister College (1958), the University of California at Santa Barbara and Colby College (1959), Tulane Univefrsity (1961), Williams College (1964), the University of California at San Diego (1965), the University of California at Santa Cruz (1966), Carleton College (1967), and the University of California at Santa Cruz again (1970).


Pepper's never-published doctoral dissertation was titled "The Theory of Value in Terms of Stimulus and Response." The values it focused on were truth, beauty, and goodness, and his main published monographs can all be grouped under these three headings as follows (with the date of first publication in parentheses):


  • World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (1942)
  • Concept and Quality: A World Hypothesis (1967)


  • Aesthetic Quality: A Contextualistic Theory of Beauty (1937)
  • The Basis of Criticism in the Arts (1945)
  • Principles of Art Appreciation (1949)
  • The Work of Art (1955)


  • A Digest of Purposive Values (1947)
  • The Sources of Value (1958)
  • Ethics (1960)

Other books

Pepper also co-authored a book titled Modern Color (1923) with Carl Gordon Cutler, which offers advice on painting shadows with realistic color shadings. Knowledge and Society: A Philosophical Approach to Modern Civilization (1938) was co-authored by the entire Philosophy Department faculty at Berkeley and was essentially a philosophy textbook. Selected Writings in Philosophy: A Companion Volume to "Knowledge and Society" (1939), eidted by Pepper and the entire Philosophy Department faculty at Berkeley, has excerpts from the writings of various noted thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead.

Notable shorter writings

"Emergence" (The Journal of Philosophy, 1926) focused on puzzles concerning the concept of emergent qualities in nature, e.g., the fact that the sight of the colors blue or red purportedly emerged in nature only when color vision finally was attained during the course of evolution. Pepper also contributed articles on value theory and aesthetics to three volumes in The Library of Living Philosophers, an ongoing series now totaling 32 volumes each devoted to one notable philosopher, founded by Paul Arthur Schilpp in 1939. The volumes Pepper contributed articles to are those devoted to the philosophies of John Dewey (1939), George Santayana (1940) , and C. I. Lewis (1968). Prior to World Hypotheses Pepper wrote two preliminary essays on his root metaphor theory: "Philosophy and Metaphor" (1928) and "The Root-Metaphor Theory of Metaphysics" (1935), both published in The Journal of Philosophy. Three of Pepper's final essays can be found in The Nature of Philosophical Inquiry (1970), edited by Joseph Bobik. They are based on lectures at a the University of Notre Dame in 1966-1967 by Pepper and four other philosophers. These three essays were tieled "The Search for Comprehension, or World Hypotheses," a summary of Pepper's root-metaphor theory; "The Ordinary Language Movement," which criticizes the largely Anglo-American analytic school of philosophy in terms of Pepper's root-metaphor theory; and "Existentialism," which critiques Sartre's Being and Nothingness in terms of the root-metaphor theory.

Root metaphor theory

Pepper coined the phrase "root metaphor" in 1935, and the phrase entered popular use sufficiently to have an entry devoted to it in the Webster's Third New International Dictionary, the unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary initially published in 1961. This entry reads as follows:

root metaphor: a fundamental perspective or viewpoint based on a supposition of similarity of form between mental concepts and external objects which though not factually supportable determines the manner in which an individual structures his knowledge -- see category.

But in his introduction to the root-metaphor concept in World Hypotheses Pepper repeatedly emphasized the responsiveness of a root metaphor to facts, the root metaphor constantly evolving to adjust itself to each important new fact with which it is confronted. Metaphysics is the attempt to account for everything in the universe in terms of some underlying metaphor that gives it coherence and precision. Pepper held that all of the metaphysical systems in Western philosophy can be boiled down to just seven or eight basic root metaphors, of which only four he regarded as relatively adequate. The four relatively adequate systems he called mechanism, based on the root metaphor of a machine, such as a simple lever; formism, based on the root metaphor of similarity, such as the similarity between different sheets of yellow paper in a ream of yellow paper; contextualism, based on the root metaphor of a historical event in its context, illustrated by the decision to put a period at the end of a sentence like "A period will be put at the end of this sentence," and organicism, based on the root metaphor of an organic whole, illustrated by the coalescence of celestial phenomena into more and more coherent and comprehensive schemes of thought from the time of the ancient Greeks to the modern cosmologies of Einstein and others. Among the relatively inadequate world hypotheses Pepper includes animism, based on the root metaphor of a person, as in the idea that every event in nature is the product of a deity or deities acting on nature, a thory that ultimately has to be supported by the excessive dogmatism of priests and holy books, and mysticism, based on the root metaphor of the mystical experience, which is an experience whose emotional intensity leads its experiencer to overvalue its cognitive worth. A third relatively inadequate theory was the generating substance theory of the ancient pre-Socratic philosophers and others, who tried to account for everything in the universe in terms of some fundamental substance such as water (Thales) or air (Anaximines) out of which all other substances are generated. The main problem for the root-metaphor theory is whether the four relatively adequate theories can be amalgamated under a single root metaphor. In the middle of World Hypotheses (Chapter VII) Pepper indicates reasons for thinking this may be possible, but in his concluding chapter (Chapter XII) he gives reasons for hinking this may not be possible.

The categories of one's metaphysical system should derive from an analysis of one's root metaphor. A geometrical analogy seems to support this idea. If we think of a cube as the root metaphor for a rectangualr coordinate system, then length, breadth, and height would amount to the categories of such a system, by means of which we can specify the position of any point in space. Similarly, if we think of a sphere as the root metaphor of a spherical coordinate system, then latitude, longitude, and altitude would amount to the categories of such a system, by means of which we can specify the position of any point in space. In metaphysics, by analogy, we ought to be able to account for any fact in nature by describing it in terms of the categories of one's root metaphor.

Pepper held that the root metaphor of each world hypothesis generates its own distinctive theory of truth, its own distinctive definition of beauty, and its own distinctive ethical theory, which he explains in World Hypotheses, in The Basis of Criticism in the Arts, and in Ethics, respectively. For example, he regards the Correspondence Theory of Truth as emerging from formism and as utilizing similarity as the basis for what is meant by correspondence for this theory; the Coherence Theory of Truth as emerging from organicism and as utilizing the organic whole as the basis for what it means by coherenc; and the Pragmatic Theory of Truth as emerging from contextualism and as utilizing the decisions made in a given context as the basis of what is meant by pragmatism. Evidently every conceivable concept, not just those of truth, beauty, and goodness, could be viewed through the distinctive perspective of the root metaphor of a world hypothesis.

In Pepper's final book, Concept and Quality: A World Hypothesis, he proposes his own metaphysical theory, which he calls slectivism because it is based on the underlying root metaphor of a selective system or, in simpler guise, the purposive act, which seemed promising to Pepper because it corresponds to intelligence, perhaps the most complex thing in nature, from an understanding of which one might get a grasp of any simpler thing. Selective systems seem akin to what Norbert Wiener called a cybernetic system, but it seems probable that Pepper developed his theory independently of Wiener, since for example his A Digest of Purposive Values was published a year before Wiener's first book on cybernetics first appeared.

Influences on his philosophy

Pepper's root metaphor theory seems to have been influenced by two immediate sources. One was William James's 1909 book, A Pluralistic Universe, which in its opening pages, where James writes that "All philosophers...have conceived of the whole world after the analogy of some feature of it which has particularly captivated their attention." This is the essential idea of Pepper's root-metaphor theory. The other source was Ralph Barton Perry's 1912 book Present Philosophical Tendencies, whose subtitle reads A Critical Survey of Naturalism, Idealism, Pragmatism, and Realism, together with a synopsis of the Philosophy of William James. The four tendencies mentioned correspond to what Pepper called the four "relatively adequate" world hypotheses excpet for the new names that Pepper applied to them so that he could give them his own distinctive characterizations: naturalism is what Pepper calls mechanism, idealism is organicism, pragmatism is contextualism, and realism is formism.

Influenced by his philosophy

Andrew Reck has a 37-page summary of Pepper's philosophy in his 1968 book The New American Philosophers (p. 46), where he remarks that "it was Pepper who, more than any thinker of his generation, made aesthetics and the philosophy of art the technical fields of study they are today" (ref). Reck's own 1972 book, Speculative Philosophy, delves into roughly the same four main philosophical world views that Perry and Pepper had dealt with in 1912 and 1942, again changing the names to enable him to put his own stamp on them: Pepper's mechanism he calls materialism, Pepper's formism he calls realism, Pepper's formism he calls realism, and Pepper's contextualism he calls Process Philosophy. There have been at least seven doctoral dissertations on various aspects of Pepper's philosophy.


Pepper's died in Berkeley, California, at the age of 81 of throat cancer. The death certificate gives the time of death as 11:25 p.m., which may account for the erroneous death date of May 2, 1972, given in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1973, vol. 57). The most widely available photograph of Pepper, a frontispiece to his 1967 book Concept and Quality, shows him as a bald older man holding a pipe in his left hand, which suggests that pipe smoking contributed to his death. Pepper, married in 1914, outlived his wife but was survived by three children.


1. For data on Pepper's early life, education, and teaching career, see the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (vol. 57, 1973).

2. A complete bibliography of Pepper's writings down to early 1968 was provided in typescript by the Philosophy Department at the University of California at Berkeley. It did not include Pepper's contribution to the Library of Living Philosophers volume on C. I. Lewis (1968), the three Pepper essays in The Nature of Philosophical Inquiry, edited by Joseph Bobik (1970), nor books and articles commenting on Pepper's philosophy.

3. Reference to Pepper as among the 20 most eminent Harvard philosophy PhDs from 1878 to 1930 in Bruce Kuklick's The Rise of American Philosophy can be found in Appendix 3 (pp. 581-589).

4. Reference to Pepper as a leading figure in aesthetics and the philosophy of art in Andrew Reck's The New American Philosophers can be found on page 46.

5. Information about the time and cause of Pepper's death was found in a death certificate provided by the State of California's bureau of vital statistics in Sacramento, California.

6. Virtually all of Pepper's books are still available from, even though nearly all are now out of print.

7. One can find synopses of the seven doctoral dissertations that deal with Pepper's philosophy in Dissertation Abstracts.


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