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edit index Teleology

Purpose, illustrated with Nature

Teleology (telos: end, purpose) is the philosophical study of design, purpose, directive principle, or finality in nature or human creations. Teleology traditionally is contrasted with Naturalism, which views nature as lacking design or purpose. For example, Naturalism would say that a person has sight simply because he has eyes. In other words, function follows form (eyesight follows from having eyes). Teleology is the reverse of this position: a person has eyes because he has the need of eyesight. In this case, "form follows function" (eyes follow from having the need for eyesight).

Two classic examples of these opposing views are found in Aristotle and Lucretius, the former as a supporter of Teleology and the latter as a supporter of what is now often called philosophical Naturalism, or even Accidentalism:

"Nature adapts the organ to the function, and not the function to the organ." (Aristotle,De Partibus Animalium (On the Parts of Animals)(1)

"Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use." Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)(2)

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Finality

Teleology depends on the concept of a final cause or purpose inherent in all beings:
  • Extrinsic Finality consists of a being realizing a purpose outside that being, for the utility and welfare of other beings. For instance, minerals are "designed" to be used by plants which are in turn "designed" to be used by animals.
  • Intrinsic Finality consists of a being realizing a purpose by means of a natural tendency directed toward the perfection of its own nature. In essence, it is what is "good for" a being. For example, physical masses obey universal gravitational tendencies that did not evolve, but are simply a cosmic "given." Similarly, life is intended to behave in certain ways so as to preserve itself from death, disease, and pain.

Over-emphasizing Extrinsic Finality is often criticized as leading to the anthropic attribution of every event to a divine purpose, or superstition. For instance, "If I hadn't been at the store today, I wouldn't have found that $100 on the ground. God must have intended for me to go to the store so I would find that money." or "We won the game today because of my lucky socks." Such abuses were criticized by Francis Bacon ("De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum," III, iv), Descartes ("Principia Philosophiæ", I, 28; III, 2, 3; "Meditationes", III, IV), and Spinoza (Ethica, I, prop. 36 app.).

Intrinsic Finality, while more subtle, provides the basis for the Teleological Argument for the existence of God and or some supernatural force, and its modern counterpart, Intelligent Design. Proponents of Teleology argue that it resolves a fundamental defect in philosophical Naturalism. They argue that Naturalism focuses exclusively on the immediate causes and mechanisms of events, and does not attend to the reason for their synthesis. Thus, it is argued, if we take a clock apart, we discover in it nothing but springs, wheels, pivots, levers etc. But having explained the mechanism which causes the revolutions of the hands on the dial, is it reasonable to say that the clock was not made to keep time?

Philosophers of Science respond that since Aristotle, Biology has been profoundly concerned with the constraint function places on structure, and that the arrival of Darwinian Theory of Evolution did not alter this concern. A classic and early example is Darwin's interest in functional constraints on the evolutionary development of the beaks of Galapagos finches. Of these birds, Darwin wrote, "Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends. " (Origin of Species, chapter 19)

Classical Greek Teleology

Plato summarized the argument for Teleology as follows in Phaedo, arguing that it is error to fail to distinguish between the Ultimate Cause, and the mere means by which the Ultimate Cause acts:

"Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause from that without which the cause would not be able to act as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving it a name that does not belong to it. That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could possibly be put, this they do not look for, nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and "binding" binds and holds them together." Plato, Phaedo 99bc

Thus, it is argued, those who attempt to explain Nature in terms of nature alone are forced to deny the ultimate binding Good (or other such invisible forces, such as gravity and electromagnetism) in the Universe, and hope that they will someday discover a stronger supporting argument ("Atlas" or, for example, God) to hold their universe together.

Similarly, Aristotle argued that it is error to attempt to reduce all things to mere necessity, because such thinking neglects the purpose, order, and "final cause" that causes the apparent necessity. In addition to the Final Cause, Aristotle's analysis speaks of the Material, Efficient, and Formal Causes.

"Democritus, however, neglecting the final cause, reduces to necessity all the operations of nature. Now they are necessary, it is true, but yet they are for a final cause and for the sake of what is best in each case. Thus nothing prevents the teeth from being formed and being shed in this way; but it is not on account of these causes but on account of the end; these are causes in the sense of being the moving and efficient instruments and the material. …to say that necessity is the cause is much as if we should think that the water has been drawn off from a dropsical patient on account of the lancet alone, not on account of health, for the sake of which the lancet made the incision. Aristotle, Generation of Animals V.8, 789a8-b15

Modern/Post-Modern Philosophy

Historically, Teleology may be identified with the philosophical tradition of Aristotelianism. The rationale of Teleology was explored by Immanuel Kant in his "Critique of Judgement" and, again, made central to speculative Philosophy by Hegel and the various neo-Hegelian schools, including that of Marx. In this interpretation of the history of our species on this globe — an interpretation at variance both with Darwin and with what is now called Analytic Philosophy — the point of departure is not so much Formal Logic and scientific fact but 'identity'. (In Hegel's terminology: 'objective spirit'.) Individual human consciousness, in the process of reaching for autonomy and freedom, has no choice but to deal with an obvious reality: the collective identities (the multiplicity of world views, ethnic, cultural and national identities) which divide the human race both now and in the past, and which set off (and always have set off) different groups of people against each other in violent conflict. Hegel conceived of the 'totality' of mutually antagonistic world-views and life-forms in history as being 'goal-driven', i.e. oriented towards an end-point in history in which the 'objective contradiction' of 'subject' and 'object' would eventually 'sublate' into a form of life which has left violent conflict behind it. This goal-oriented, 'teleological' notion of the 'historical process as a whole' is present in a variety of 20th Century authors, from Lukács and Jaspers to Horkheimer and Adorno.

According to Jean-François Lyotard (1979) Teleology and "grand narratives" are eschewed in a Post-Modern attitude. Teleology may be viewed as reductive, exclusionary and harmful to those whose stories are erased. (3) Against this, Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that a narrative understanding of one's self is liberatory, in understanding one's capacity as an independent reasoner and, also, in understanding one's dependence on others and on the social practices and traditions in which one participates. Social practices may be understood as teleologically orientated to internal goods. For example, practices of philosophical and scientific enquiry are teleologically ordered to the elaboration of a true understanding of their objects. Although beginning with his book After Virtue, which famously dismissed the naturalistic Teleology of Aristotle's 'Metaphysical Biology', MacIntyre has cautiously moved from that book's account of a sociological Teleology toward an exploration of what remains valid in a more traditional teleological Naturalism.


The Anthropic Principle

In recent decades, a form of teleological reasoning has reappeared in certain quarters of Physics and Cosmology, under the heading of Anthropic Principle, a term Brandon Carter coined in 1973. One of the problems the principle tries to address is this: Why did the Universe begin in a very simple state (Big Bang) but has since grown ever more complex, to the extent that it is so uniquely hospitable to human life, even more so than is necessary for survival and advanced human civilization?

Philosophy of Science

Contemporary accounts of Teleology within Biology are heavily influenced by Larry Wright's "etiological" account of teleology(4). Wright sought to supply a definition of "function" that could be applied to natural phenomena as well as human artifacts - that is, human constructions such as a hammer. Most contemporary accounts of teleology follow in the steps of Wright's etiological account (Ruth Millikan(5) for instance(6)). There is, however, disagreement over its use. Some, such as Godfrey-Smith(7) and Ernst Mayr(8), object to any sort of Etiology, or a theory of Teleology which attempts to explain both natural phenomena as well as human artifacts. Their accounts are therefore naturalistic accounts of Teleology.

For a very detailed discussion of this resurgence of Teleology in Natural Science, see Barrow and Tipler (1986). While long stretches of this monograph are technically challenging, it also includes:
  • A circa 200pp masterly review of much of the intellectual history of Teleology and Intelligent Design. Here the authors draw attention to the distinction, drawn by L. E. Hicks in 1883 and since ignored, between Teleology and Eutaxiology;
  • A whole chapter on the teleological implications of Earth Science and Chemistry, with special reference to the eclectic but little known work of Lawrence Joseph Henderson;
  • A fair discussion of the implications of Evolutionary Biology for Teleology, granting pride of place to the writings of Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ernst Mayr;
  • Teleological speculations on the ultimate fate of the Universe.
Barrow and Tipler include many references. Teleological considerations also inform some of the writings of Arthur Eddington, Freeman Dyson, and John Wheeler.


Teleology has a long history in the study of purpose in human creations such as Technology. The study of "teleological mechanisms" in machinery (i.e. machines with corrective feedback) dates back at least to the late 1700s when James Watt's steam engine was equipped with a governor.

More recently, Julian Bigelow, Arturo Rosenblueth, and Norbert Wiener conceived of Teleology in machinery as being a feedback mechanism. Wiener, a mathematician, coined the term 'Cybernetics' to denote the study of "teleological mechanisms," which was popularized through his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (1948). Cybernetics is the study of the Communication and control of regulatory feedback, both in living beings and machines, and in combinations of the two. Since that time the term "teleologic" in particular has been frequently used in the scientific literature to capture the sense of purposeful goal-directed behavior in biological and technological control systems.

See Also


  1. De Partibus Animalium On the Parts of Animals, IV, xii, 694b; 13
  2. De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), IV, 833; cf. 822-56. William Leonard's translation is very different: "Since naught is born in body so that we / May use the same, but birth engenders use".
  3. Lochhead, Judy (2000). Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, p. 6. (ISBN 0-8153-3820-1)
  4. Wright, Larry. Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, (University of California Press, 1976). Also see Wright, Larry. The Case Against Teleological Reductionism. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (Vol. 19, No. 3 [Nov. 1968]) and Wright, Larry. Functions, The Philosophical Review (Vol. 83, No. 2 [Apr., 1973]), pp. 139-168.
  5. Millikan, Ruth. Varieties of Meaning (The 2002 Jean Nicod Lectures) (Cambridge, Mass : MIT Press, 2004)
  6. For a collection of essays mostly in the line of Wright's thought, see David J. Buller, Function, Selection, and Design (State University of New York Press, 1999)
  7. Godfrey-Smith, Functions: Consensus Without Unity
  8. Mayr, Ernst. The Idea of Teleology, Journal of the History of Ideas (Vol. 53 [Jan./Mar. 1992]), pp. 117-135.

Further Reading

  • Aristotle, Metaphysics Book Theta (translated with an introduction and commentary by Stephen Makin), Oxford University Press, 2006. (ISBN 0-19-875108-7 / 978-0-19-875108-3)
  • John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford University Press, 1986. (ISBN 0-19-282147-4)
  • Julian Bigelow, Arturo Rosenblueth, and Norbert Wiener, 1943, "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology," Philosophy of Science 10: 18-24.
  • Monte Ransome Johnson, Aristotle on Teleology, Oxford University Press, 2005. (ISBN 0-19-928530-6 / 978-0-19-928530-3)
  • Kelvin Knight, Aristotelian Philosophy: Ethics and Politics from Aristotle to MacIntyre, Polity Press, 2007. (ISBN 978-0-7456-1977-4 / 0-745-61977-0)
  • Georg Lukacs. History and Class Consciousness. (ISBN 0-262-62020-0)
  • Horkheimer and Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. (ISBN 0-8047-3632-4)
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, 'First Principles, Final Ends, and Contemporary Philosophical Issues', in idem., The Tasks of Philosophy: Selected Essays, Volume 1, Cambridge University Press, 2006. (ISBN 978-0-521-67061-6 / 0-521-67061-6)
  • Herbert Marcuse. Hegel's Ontology and the Theory of Historicity. (ISBN 0-262-13221-4)
  • Lowell Nissen, Teleological Language in the Life Sciences, Rowman & Littlefield, 1997 (ISBN 0-8476-8694-9)

Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article "Teleology" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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