A colleague and I just had an interesting hallway chat about what constitutes a satisfactory explanation. We focused on disciplinary differences - psychology versus history - concluding, perhaps, that these two fields often ignore each other because what constitutes a satisfactory explanation differs between them.

I have continued to think about this issue more generally and remembered a provocative book written decades ago by philosopher Stephen Pepper titled World Hypotheses. The book discussed different ways of explaining anything, some deemed inadequate by Pepper (e.g., animism, mysticism) and four others that are presumably more viable. He called these root metaphors.

Formism explains in terms of placing whatever we are trying to explain into a category (form). Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because he is an a**hole!

Mechanism explains in terms of causes: events that regularly precede whatever we are trying to explain. Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because he passed all of his final exams!

Organicism explains in terms of the unfolding of the inherent nature of whatever we are trying to explain. Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because he is a young man who just moved into his own apartment!

Contextualism explains in terms of the interplay between whatever we are trying to explain and its larger context. Why did my neighbor play his music loudly at 2:00 AM? Because it was Saturday night, and this is a college town!

Many psychologists are mechanists (e.g., behaviorists) or formists (e.g., trait theorists), although developmental psychologists in the Freudian or Piagetian traditions may be organicists. Historians, I think, may often be contextualists. Depending on one's disciplinary -ism, dialogue is or is not possible because different criteria are used to judge the adequacy of each type of explanation.

In murkier ways, the same points apply to our own more casual explanations of everyday events, from likes and dislikes to events in the news (e.g., the decision by LeBron James to play basketball in Miami).

Although each type of explanation is in the repertoire of most people, styles may exist (cf. Laird, 1976). All things being equal, some of us are typically formists, and others of us typically mechanists. And so on.

An important part of Pepper's thesis is that each approach to explanation has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Another important point is that attempts to combine metaphors, which seems tempting to do, invariably fail - mixed metaphors are precisely that.

So, there are a number of ways to explain anything but no way to explain everything to everyone. We may fail to get along because we use different metaphors to make sense of the world.

There must be an important "so what?" here about how to achieve the good life. But I suspect there are many of them.

Vive la difference!


Laird, J. D. (1976). World hypotheses. Paper presented at the New England Social Psychological Association Meeting. Hanover, NH.

Pepper, S.C., (1942). World hypotheses: A study of evidenc. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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