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Teleology (from the Greek τέλος - telos, root: τελε-, "end, purpose") is the philosophical study of telos (gr. τέλοϛ), i.e., of purpose, aim, end and/or design. The word teleology was first used by the German philosopher Christian Wolff in Philosophia rationalis, sive logica (1728).

As a school of thought, teleology is often contrasted with metaphysical naturalism, which views nature as having no design or purpose.

Teleology was explored by Plato and Aristotle, and later by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement. It was fundamental to the speculative philosophy of Hegel.

In general it may be said that there are two types of final cause or telos, which may be called intrinsic finality and extrinsic finality.[citation needed]

  • 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 - and similarly humanity serves some ultimate good beyond itself.
  • Intrinsic finality consists of a being realizing a purpose directed toward the perfection of its own nature. In essence, it is what is "good for" a being. Just as physical masses obey universal gravitational tendencies, which did not evolve, but are simply a cosmic "given," so life is intended to behave in certain ways so as to preserve itself from death, disease, and pain.

In bioethics, teleology is used to describe the utilitarian view that an action's ethics is determined by its good or bad consequences.[citation needed]


Classical teleology



In the Phaedo, Plato argues that true explanations for any given physical phenomenon must be teleological. He bemoans those who fail to distinguish between a thing's necessary and sufficient causes, which he identifies respectively as material and teleological causes (Phaedo 98-9):

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 99

Plato argues that the materials that compose a body are necessary conditions for its moving or acting in a certain way, but that these materials cannot be the sufficient condition for its moving or acting as it does. For example (given in Phaedo 98), if Socrates is sitting in an Athenian prison, the elasticity of his tendons is what allows him to be sitting and so a physical description of his tendons can be given as auxiliary causes or necessary conditions of his act of sitting (Phaedo 99b; Timaeus 46c9-d4, 69e6). However, these are only necessary conditions, and one can know them without knowing where he is sitting, for they are necessary conditions on his sitting in an Athenian prison but are also necessary conditions on his sitting in a Boeotian prison. Thus to give a complete explanation of something one must additionally specify its actual cause - its purpose, telos or "reason for which." (Plato will argue in a separate document [Timaeus 27d8-29a] that such a telos is the Good.)


Similarly, Aristotle argued that Democritus was wrong to attempt to reduce all things to mere necessity, because doing so neglects the aim, order, and "final cause," which brings about these necessary conditions:

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....
—Aristotle, Generation of Animals V.8, 789a8-b15

In the Physics Aristotle rejected Plato's assumption that the universe was created by an intelligent designer using eternal forms as his model. For Aristotle, natural ends are produced by "natures" (principles of change internal to living things), and natures, Aristotle argued, do not deliberate:

"It is absurd to suppose that ends are not present [in nature] because we do not see an agent deliberating."
—Aristotle, Physics 2.8, 199b27-9;[1] see also Physics 2.5-6 where "natures" are contrasted with intelligence[2]

Aristotelian teleology, then, offers us the idea of natural design without a designer.

These Platonic and Aristotelian arguments ran counter to the earlier Philosophers Democritus and Lucretius, who were supporters of what is now often called metaphysical naturalism, or accidentalism:

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), IV, 833; cf. 822-56.

Modern and postmodern philosophy

In the various neo-Hegelian schools - proposing a history of our species some consider to be at variance with Darwin, as well as with the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 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 (such as the multiplicity of world views, ethnic, cultural and national identities) which divide the human race and which set (and always have set) different groups in violent conflict with each other. Hegel conceived of the 'totality' of mutually antagonistic world-views and life-forms in history as being 'goal-driven', that is, oriented towards an end-point in history. The 'objective contradiction' of 'subject' and 'object' would eventually 'sublate' into a form of life which leaves violent conflict behind. This goal-oriented, 'teleological' notion of the 'historical process as a whole' is present in a variety of 20th Century authors, although its prominence declined drastically after the Second World War.

In contrast teleology and "grand narratives" are eschewed in the postmodern attitude[3] and teleology may be viewed as reductive, exclusionary and harmful to those whose stories are erased.[4]

Against this, Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that a narrative understanding of oneself, of one's capacity as an independent reasoner, one's dependence on others and on the social practices and traditions in which one participates, all tend towards an ultimate good of liberation. Social practices may themselves 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. MacIntyre's book After Virtue famously dismissed the naturalistic teleology of Aristotle's 'metaphysical biology', but he 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.

Teleology and ethics

Teleology informs the study of ethics. For example, utilitarianism holds that actions should be judged by their consequences.

Business ethics

Businessmen commonly think in terms of purposeful action as in, for example, management by objectives. Teleological analysis of business ethics leads to consideration of the full range of stakeholders in any business decision, including the management, the staff, the customers, the shareholders, the country, humanity and the environment.[5]

Medical ethics

Teleology provides a moral basis for the professional ethics of medicine. It is the intrinsic purpose of medicine to relieve suffering by healing and so the first principle of the Hippocratic oath follows - that medical practitioners should not use their skills to do harm.[6] 

Teleology and science


It has been claimed that within the framework of thermodynamics, the irreversibility of macroscopic processes is explained in a teleological way.[7]


Teleological arguments in the field of chemistry have once again often centred around the fitness of materials to form the complex molecular bonds of life. For example, Lawrence Joseph Henderson, an American bio-chemist, advanced such a view in the early 20th century.


Teleology is a recurring issue in evolutionary biology,[8] and some consider teleological writing to be an obstacle to clear thinking about evolutionary processes. Daniel Dennett[9] for example, enters into some discussion about the issue of teleology as it relates to evolutionary theory. A central clue to teleological sentences is statements along the lines of "in order to", whereby a species did X "in order to" to achieve Y (circumvent obstacles or predators etc). Some past biology courses incorporated exercises requiring students to rephrase such sentences so that they do not read teleologically (e.g. Y occurred as a result of X). Nevertheless, evolutionary writings are replete with teleological sentences, contributing to some of the issues addressed by Dennett. These issues have recently been discussed by John Reiss.[10] He argues that evolutionary biology can be purged of such teleology by rejecting the use of natural selection in place of a divine creator in the watchmaker analogy; this use has been promoted by writers such as Richard Dawkins.[11]

Cybernetics and teleonomy

Julian Bigelow, Arturo Rosenblueth, and Norbert Wiener have conceived of feedback mechanisms as lending a teleology to machinery. Wiener, a mathematician, coined the term 'cybernetics' to denote the study of "teleological mechanisms."[12] Cybernetics is the study of the communication and control of regulatory feedback both in living beings and machines, and in combinations of the two.

In recent years, end-driven teleology has become contrasted with "apparent" teleology, i.e teleonomy or process-driven systems.

Philosophy of science

For a very detailed discussion of the recent resurgence of teleology in natural science, see Barrow and Tipler (1986). Their work includes:

See also


  1. ^ Aristotle. The Organon and Other Works. Opensource collection. Translated under the editorship of W.D. Ross. Full text at Internet Archive ( p. 649 in text. n647 in page field. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 
  2. ^ Aristotle. The Organon and Other Works. pp. 640-644 in text. n639-643 in page field. Retrieved 2009-10-22. 
  3. ^ Jean-François Lyotard (1979).
  4. ^ Lochhead, Judy (2000). Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, p. 6. (ISBN 0-8153-3820-1)
  5. ^ Leonard J. Brooks, Paul Dunn, Business & Professional Ethics for Directors, Executives & Accountants, 
  6. ^ Jeremy Sugarman, Daniel P. Sulmasy, Methods in medical ethics, p. 78, 
  7. ^ J.S. Wicken, Causal Explanations in Classical and Statistical Thermodynamics, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1981), pp. 65-77
  8. ^ Ruse, M., & Travis, J. (Eds.) (2009). Evolution: The First Four Billion Years. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
  9. ^ Dennett, Daniel C. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. London, England: The Penguin Press
  10. ^ Reiss, John O. (2009) Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker. Berkeley, California: University of California Press
  11. ^ Dawkins, Richard (1987) The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. New York: W W Norton & Company
  12. ^ Cybernetics, or control and communication in the animal and machine' (1948)

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)
  • [Edit this reference]
    Barrow, John D.; Tipler, Frank J. (19 May 1988). The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. foreword by John A. Wheeler. Oxford: Oxford University Press. LC 87-28148. ISBN 9780192821478. Retrieved 31 December 2009. 
  • Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow, 1943, "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology," Philosophy of Science 10: 18-24.
  • Allan Gotthelf, "Aristotle's Conception of Final Causality", in Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology (edited by A. Gotthelf and J. G. Lennox), Cambridge University Press, 1987 (ISBN 0-52-131091-1 / 978-0-52-131091-8)
  • 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 Lukács. 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)


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