AskDefine | Define teleology

Dictionary Definition

teleology n : (philosophy) a doctrine explaining phenomena by their ends or purposes

User Contributed Dictionary





  1. The study of the purpose of natural occurrences.
  2. The use of a non-natural purpose to explain an occurrence.

Extensive Definition

Teleology (Greek: telos: end, purpose) is the philosophical study of design and purpose. A teleological school of thought is one that holds all things to be designed for or directed toward a final result, that there is an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists.
It is traditionally contrasted with metaphysical naturalism, which views nature as lacking design or purpose. In the first case form is defined by function, in the second function is defined by form. Teleology would say that a person has eyes because he has the need of eyesight, (form follows function), while naturalism would argue that a person has sight simply because he has eyes, or that function follows form (eyesight follows from having eyes).
In European philosophy, teleology may be identified with Aristotelianism and the scholastic tradition. Most theology presupposes a teleology: "intelligent design" is a teleological argument for the existence of God. Aristotle's analysis speaks of a material cause, efficient cause, and formal cause but all these serve a final cause.
Later teleology was fundamental to the speculative philosophy of Hegel and was explored in detail by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement.
In general it may be said that there are two types of final cause, which may be called intrinsic finality and extrinsic finality.
  • 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.

Classical Teleology

Plato summarized the teleological position in his dialogue Phaedo, bemoaning those who fail to distinguish between the ultimate Cause and the mere means by which that Cause acts: Similarly, Aristotle argued that Democritus, proponent of the atomic theory, was wrong to attempt to reduce all things to mere necessity, because such thinking neglects the purpose, order, and "final cause" that causes the necessity:
Hence Plato and Aristotle agreed that all lesser causes were in the service of an ultimate good while Democritus or Lucretius were supporters of what is now often called metaphysical naturalism, or accidentalism:

Modern and postmodern philosophy

In the various neo-Hegelian schools - proposing a history of our species some consider to be at variance with Darwin, 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 has 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, from Lukács and Jaspers to Horkheimer and Adorno.
In contrast teleology and "grand narratives" are eschewed in the postmodern attitude and teleology may be viewed as reductive, exclusionary and harmful to those whose stories are erased.
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 tends 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 Science

Science concerns itself with physical causality and is well able to function within the bounds of naturalism, indeed, it has frequently to counter appeals to undemonstrable modes of causality. Yet teleological ideas still find refuge in the unpenetrated beginnings and endings of things.


It has been claimed that within the framework of thermodynamics, the irreversibility of macroscopic processes is explained in a teleological way.
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 anthropic principle tries to address is this: why has the universe, which began in a very simple state (Big Bang), since grown ever more complex to the extent that it is even more hospitable to human life than is necessary for mere survival but even allows advanced human civilization?


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.


Biology has always been susceptible to teleological thought, even after Darwin proposed survival as the only observable final good. Driesch, for example, presented a modified vitalism in whch an Aristotlean (or Kantian) entelechy drove embryonic development. Contemporary accounts of teleology within biology are heavily influenced by Larry Wright's etiological account, which seeks to supply a definition of "function" that can be applied to natural phenomena as well as human constructions such as a hammer. Most contemporary accounts of teleology follow Wright. (Ruth Millikan for instance). Others, however, such as Godfrey-Smith and Ernst Mayr, object to any such theory, preferring naturalistic accounts of teleology.

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," . 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:


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)
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