Teleology or finality[1][2] is a reason or explanation for something as a function of its end, purpose, or goal.[3] It is derived from two Greek words: telos (end, goal, purpose) and logos (reason, explanation). A purpose that is imposed by a human use, such as that of a fork, is called extrinsic.[2] Natural teleology, common in classical philosophy but controversial today,[4] contends that natural entities also have intrinsic purposes, irrespective of human use or opinion. For instance, Aristotle claimed that an acorn's intrinsic telos is to become a fully grown oak tree.[5]

Though ancient atomists rejected the notion of natural teleology, teleological accounts of non-personal or non-human nature were explored and often endorsed in ancient and medieval philosophies, but fell into disfavor during the modern era (1600–1900). In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant used the concept of telos as a regulative principle in his Critique of Judgment. Teleology was also fundamental to the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel.

Contemporary philosophers and scientists are still discussing whether teleological axioms are useful or accurate in proposing modern philosophies and scientific theories. An example of the reintroduction of teleology into modern language is the notion of an attractor.[6] For another instance in 2012, Thomas Nagel, who is not a biologist, proposed a non-Darwinian account of evolution that incorporates impersonal and natural teleological laws to explain the existence of life, consciousness, rationality, and objective value.[7] Regardless, the accuracy can also be considered independently from the usefulness: it is a common experience in pedagogy that a minimum of apparent teleology can be useful in thinking about and explaining Darwinian evolution even if there is no true teleology driving evolution. Thus it is easier to say that evolution "gave" wolves sharp canine teeth because those teeth "serve the purpose of" predation regardless of whether there is an underlying nonteleologic reality in which evolution is not an actor with intentions. In other words, because human cognition and learning often rely on the narrative structure of stories (with actors, goals, and proximal rather than distal causation), some minimal level of teleology might be recognized as useful or at least tolerable for practical purposes even by people who reject its cosmologic accuracy.

Sanzio 01 Plato Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle, depicted here in The School of Athens, both developed philosophical arguments addressing the universe's apparent order (logos)


The word teleology builds on the Greek τέλος, telos (root: τελε-, "end, purpose")[8] and -λογία, logia, "speak of, study of, a branch of learning". The German philosopher Christian von Wolff coined the term (in the Latin form "teleologia") in 1728 in his work Philosophia rationalis, sive logica.[9]

Historical overview

In western philosophy, the term and concept of teleology originated in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle's Four Causes give special place to each thing's telos or "final cause." In this, he followed Plato in seeing purpose in both human and sub-human nature.


In the Phaedo, Plato through Socrates 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 final causes (Phaedo 98–99):

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 be at this very time, 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 here argues that while the materials that compose a body are necessary conditions for its moving or acting in a certain way, they nevertheless 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 listed as necessary conditions or auxiliary causes of his act of sitting (Phaedo 99b; Timaeus 46c9–d4, 69e6). However, these are only necessary conditions of Socrates' sitting. To give a physical description of Socrates' body is to say that Socrates is sitting, but it does not give us any idea why it came to be that he was sitting in the first place. To say why he was sitting and not not sitting, we have to explain what it is about his sitting that is good, for all things brought about (i.e., all products of actions) are brought about because the actor saw some good in them. Thus, to give an explanation of something is to determine what about it is good. Its goodness is its actual cause—its purpose, telos or "reason for which" (Timaeus 27d8–29a).


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;[10] see also Physics 2.5–6 where "natures" are contrasted with intelligence[11]

These Platonic and Aristotelian arguments ran counter to those presented earlier by Democritus and later by Lucretius, both of whom were supporters of what is now often called 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.


Since the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon, teleological explanations in physical science tend to be deliberately avoided in favor of focus on material and efficient explanations. Final and formal causation came to be viewed as false or too subjective.[12] Nonetheless, some disciplines, in particular within evolutionary biology, continue to use language that appears teleological when they describe natural tendencies towards certain end conditions; although some argue that these arguments ought to be, and practicably can be, rephrased in non-teleological forms, others hold that teleological language cannot always be easily expunged from descriptions in the life sciences, at least within the bounds of practical pedagogy. This is discussed further below.


A teleology of human aims played a crucial role in the work of Ludwig von Mises especially in the development of his science of praxeology. More specifically he believed that human action, i.e. purposeful behavior, is teleological based on the presupposition that an individual's action is governed or caused by the existence of their chosen ends. Or in other words an individual selects what they believe to be the most appropriate means to achieve a sought after goal or end. Mises however also stressed that teleology with respect to human action was by no means independent of causality as he states "no action can be devised and ventured upon without definite ideas about the relation of cause and effect, teleology presupposes causality"[13]

Modern and postmodern 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 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) that divide the human race and 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 that 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, teleological based "grand narratives" are eschewed by the postmodern attitude[14] and teleology may be viewed as reductive, exclusionary and harmful to those whose stories are diminished or overlooked.[15]

Against this postmodern position, 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 oriented to internal goods, for example practices of philosophical and scientific inquiry 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 informs the study of ethics.

Business ethics

Business people 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.[16]

Medical ethics

Teleology provides a moral basis for the professional ethics of medicine, as physicians are generally concerned with outcomes and must therefore know the telos of a given treatment paradigm.[17]


The broad spectrum of consequentialist ethics, of which utilitarianism is a well-known example, focuses on the end result or consequences, with such principles as utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill's "the greatest good for the greatest number", or the Principle of Utility. Hence, this principle is teleological, but in a broader sense than is elsewhere understood in philosophy. In the classical notion, teleology is grounded in the inherent natures of things themselves, whereas in consequentialism, teleology is imposed on nature from outside by the human will. Consequentialist theories justify inherently what most people would call evil acts by their desirable outcomes, if the good of the outcome outweighs the bad of the act. So, for example, a consequentialist theory would say it was acceptable to kill one person in order to save two or more other people. These theories may be summarized by the maxim "the ends can justify the means."

Consequentialism stands in contrast to the more classical notions of deontological ethics, such as Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, and Aristotle's virtue ethics (although formulations of virtue ethics are also often consequentialist in derivation). In deontological ethics, the goodness or badness of individual acts is primary and a desirable larger goal is insufficient to justify bad acts committed on the way to that goal, even if the bad acts are relatively minor and the goal is major (like telling a small lie to prevent a war and save millions of lives). In requiring all constituent acts to be good, deontological ethics is much more rigid than consequentialism, which varies by circumstances.

Practical ethics are usually a mix of the two. For example, Mill also relies on deontic maxims to guide practical behavior, but they must be justifiable by the principle of utility.[18]


In modern science, explanations that rely on teleology are often, but not always, avoided, either because they are unnecessary or because whether they are true or false is thought to be beyond the ability of human perception and understanding to judge.[12] But using teleology as an explanatory style, in particular within evolutionary biology, is still controversial.[19]


Apparent teleology is a recurring issue in evolutionary biology,[20] much to the consternation of some writers.[19]

Statements implying that nature has goals, for example where a species is said to do something "in order to" achieve survival, appear teleological, and therefore invalid. Usually, it is possible to rewrite such sentences to avoid the apparent teleology. Some biology courses have incorporated exercises requiring students to rephrase such sentences so that they do not read teleologically. Nevertheless, biologists still frequently write in a way which can be read as implying teleology even if that is not the intention. These issues have recently been discussed by John Reiss.[21] He argues that evolutionary biology can be purged of such teleology by rejecting the analogy of natural selection as a watchmaker; other arguments against this analogy have also been promoted by writers such as Richard Dawkins.[22]

Some authors, like James Lennox, have argued that Darwin was a teleologist,[23] while others like Michael Ghiselin described this claim as a myth promoted by misinterpretations of his discussions and emphasized the distinction between using teleological metaphors and being teleological.[24]

Biologist philosopher Francisco Ayala has argued that all statements about processes can be trivially translated into teleological statements, and vice versa, but that teleological statements are more explanatory and cannot be disposed of.[25] Karen Neander has argued that the modern concept of biological 'function' is dependent upon selection. So, for example, it is not possible to say that anything that simply winks into existence without going through a process of selection has functions. We decide whether an appendage has a function by analysing the process of selection that led to it. Therefore, any talk of functions must be posterior to natural selection and function cannot be defined in the manner advocated by Reiss and Dawkins.[26] Ernst Mayr states that "adaptedness... is an a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking."[27] Various commentators view the teleological phrases used in modern evolutionary biology as a type of shorthand. For example, S. H. P. Madrell writes that "the proper but cumbersome way of describing change by evolutionary adaptation [may be] substituted by shorter overtly teleological statements" for the sake of saving space, but that this "should not be taken to imply that evolution proceeds by anything other than from mutations arising by chance, with those that impart an advantage being retained by natural selection."[28] J. B. S. Haldane said, "Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he's unwilling to be seen with her in public."[29][30]

Selected-effects accounts, like the one Neander suggests, face objections due to their reliance on etiological accounts, which some fields lack the resources to accommodate. Many such sciences, which study the same traits and behaviors regarded by evolutionary biology, still correctly attribute teleological functions without appeal to selection history. Gualtiero Piccinini and Corey J. Maley are a proponent of one such account which focuses instead on goal-contribution. With the objective goals of organisms being survival and inclusive fitness, Piccinini and Maley define teleological functions to be “a stable contribution by a trait (or component, activity, property) of organisms belonging to a biological population to an objective goal of those organisms.”[31]


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."[32] 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 the cybernetic classification presented in "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology", teleology is feedback controlled purpose.[33][34]

The classification system underlying cybernetics was criticized by Frank Honywill George, who cited the need for an external observability to the purposeful behavior in order to establish and validate the goal-seeking behavior. In this view, the purpose of observing and observed systems is respectively distinguished by the system's subjective autonomy and objective control.[35]

See also


  1. ^ Mahner, Martin; Bunge, Mario (2013-03-14). Foundations of Biophilosophy. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9783662033685.
  2. ^ a b "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Teleology". Retrieved 2018-06-19.
  3. ^ Júnior, Paulo Pereira Martins; Vasconcelos, Vitor Vieira (2011-12-09). "A teleologia e a aleatoriedade no estudo das ciências da natureza: sistemas, ontologia e evolução" [Teleology and randomness in the study of the natural sciences: systems, ontology and evolution]. Revista Internacional Interdisciplinar INTERthesis (in Portuguese). 8 (2): 316–334. doi:10.5007/1807-1384.2011v8n2p316. ISSN 1807-1384.
  4. ^ Allen, Colin (2003). "Teleological Notions in Biology". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]
  5. ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics 1050a9–17
  6. ^ Heinz von Foerster, (1992), Cybernetics. In S. C. Shapiro, Encyclopedia of artificial intelligence, v. 1, p. 310
  7. ^ Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, Oxford University Press: 2012.
  8. ^ Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, Routledge, 1977, p. 4187.
  9. ^ Wolff, Christian (1728). Philosophia Rationalis Sive Logica: Methodo Scientifica Pertractata Et Ad Usum Scientiarum Atque Vitae Aptata. Frankfurt and Leipzig (published 1732). Retrieved 2014-11-20.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Aristotle. The Organon and Other Works. pp. 640–644 in text. n639–643 in page field. Retrieved 2009-10-22.
  12. ^ a b "The received intellectual tradition has it that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, revolutionary philosophers began to curtail and reject the teleology of the medieval and scholastic Aristotelians, abandoning final causes in favor of a purely mechanistic model of the Universe." Ransom Johnson, Monte (2008), Aristotle on Teleology, Oxford University Press pp. 23–24.
  13. ^ kanopiadmin (18 August 2014). "The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science". Mises Institute.
  14. ^ Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979).
  15. ^ Lochhead, Judy (2000). Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, p. 6. (ISBN 0-8153-3820-1)
  16. ^ Leonard J. Brooks, Paul Dunn (2009-03-31). "Business & Professional Ethics for Directors, Executives & Accountants". Cengage Learning: 149. ISBN 978-0-324-59455-3.
  17. ^ Jeremy Sugarman, Daniel P. Sulmasy (2001). Methods in medical ethics. Georgetown University Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-87840-873-3.
  18. ^ John Gray, Ed. (1998). John Stuart Mill On Liberty And Other Essays. Oxford University Press. p. ix. ISBN 0-19-283384-7.
  19. ^ a b Hanke, David (2004). "Teleology: The explanation that bedevils biology". In John Cornwell (ed.). Explanations: Styles of explanation in science. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 143–155. ISBN 0-19-860778-4. Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  20. ^ Ruse, M., & Travis, J. (Eds.) (2009). Evolution: The First Four Billion Years. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 364
  21. ^ Reiss, John O. (2009) Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker. Berkeley, California: University of California Press
  22. ^ Dawkins, Richard (1987) The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. New York: W W Norton & Company
  23. ^ Lennox, James G. (1993). "Darwin was a Teleologist" Biology and Philosophy, 8, 409-21.
  24. ^ Ghiselin, Michael T. (1994). "Darwin's language may seem teleological, but his thinking is another matter". Biology and Philosophy. 9 (4): 489–492. doi:10.1007/BF00850377.
  25. ^ Ayala, Francisco (1998). "Teleological explanations in evolutionary biology." Nature's purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology. The MIT Press.
  26. ^ Neander, Karen (1998). "Functions as Selected Effects: The Conceptual Analyst's Defense," in C. Allen, M. Bekoff & G. Lauder (Eds.), Nature's Purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology (pp. 313–333). Cambridge, MA; London, UK: The MIT Press.
  27. ^ Mayr, Ernst W. (1992). "The idea of teleology" Journal of the History of Ideas, 53, 117–135.
  28. ^ Madrell SHP (1998) Why are there no insects in the open sea? The Journal of Experimental Biology 201:2461–2464.
  29. ^ Hull, D., Philosophy of Biological Science, Foundations of Philosophy Series, Prentice–Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1973.
  30. ^ Mayr, Ernst (1974) Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume XIV, pp. 91–117.
  31. ^ Maley, Corey J.; Piccinini, Gualtiero (2018-01-18). "A Unified Mechanistic Account of Teleological Functions for Psychology and Neuroscience". Oxford Scholarship Online. doi:10.1093/oso/9780199685509.003.0011.
  32. ^ Cybernetics, or control and communication in the animal and machine' (1948)
  33. ^ Rosenblueth, Arturo; Wiener, Norbert; Bigelow, Julian (Jan 1943). "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology". Philosophy of Science. 10 (1): 21. doi:10.1086/286788. JSTOR 184878.
  34. ^ Conway, Patrick (1974). Development of volitional competence. MSS Information Corp. p. 60. ISBN 0-8422-0424-5.
  35. ^ George, Frank Honywill; Johnson, Les (1985). Purposive behavior and teleological explanations. Gordon and Breach. pp. xII.

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)
  • Miguel Espinoza, «La finalité, le temps et les principes de la physique»
  • 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)
  • Horkheimer and Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. (ISBN 0-8047-3632-4)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow, 1943, "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology," Philosophy of Science 10: 18–24

External links

  • Quotations related to Teleology at Wikiquote

Adaptationism is the Darwinian view that many physical and psychological traits of organisms are evolved adaptations. Pan-adaptationism is the strong form of this, deriving from the early 20th century modern synthesis, that all traits are adaptations, a view now shared by few biologists. Adaptationists perform research to try to distinguish adaptations (e.g., the umbilical cord) from byproducts (e.g., the belly button) or random variation (e.g., convex or concave shape of the belly button). George Williams' Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966) was highly influential in its development, defining some of the heuristics used to identify adaptations.


Arbitrariness is the quality of being "determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle".Arbitrary decisions are not necessarily the same as random decisions. For example, during the 1973 oil crisis, Americans were allowed to purchase gasoline only on odd-numbered days if their license plate was odd, and on even-numbered days if their license plate was even. The system was well-defined and not random in its restrictions; however, since license plate numbers are completely unrelated to a person's fitness to purchase gasoline, it was still an arbitrary division of people. Similarly, schoolchildren are often organized by their surname in alphabetical order, a non-random yet still arbitrary method, at least in cases where surnames are irrelevant.

Arturo Rosenblueth

Arturo Rosenblueth Stearns (October 2, 1900 – September 20, 1970) was a Mexican researcher, physician and physiologist, who is known as one of the pioneers of cybernetics.


Dysteleology is the philosophical view that existence has no telos - no final cause from purposeful design. Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) invented and popularized the word ‘dysteleology’

(German: Dysteleologie).

Dysteleology is an aggressive, yet optimistic, form of science-oriented atheism originally perhaps associated with Haeckel and his followers, but now perhaps more associated with the type of atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens. Transcending traditional philosophical and religious perspectives, such as German idealism (including the philosophies of Hegel and Schelling) and contemporary New Age thinking, modern philosophical naturalism sees existence as having no inherent goal.


Eutaxiology (from the Greek eu – good, and tax – order) is the philosophical study of order and design. It is distinguished from teleology in that it does not focus on the purpose or goal of a given structure or process, merely the degree and complexity of the structure or process.

Four causes

The "four causes" are elements of an influential principle in Aristotelian thought whereby explanations of change or movement are classified into four fundamental types of answer to the question "why?". Aristotle wrote that "we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause." While there are cases where identifying a "cause" is difficult, or in which "causes" might merge, Aristotle held that his four "causes" provided an analytical scheme of general applicability.Aitia, from Greek αἰτία, was the word that Aristotle used to refer to the causal explanation that has traditionally been translated as "cause", but this specialized, technical, philosophical usage of the word "cause" does not correspond exactly to its most usual applications in everyday English language. The translation of Aristotle's αἰτία that is nearest to current ordinary language could be "question" or "causal explanation", although any such terms may mask the fact that Aristotelians consider the four causes to be more fundamental in nature than mere explanations. In this article, the peculiar philosophical usage of the word "cause" will be employed, for tradition's sake, but the reader should not be misled by confusing this technical usage with current ordinary language.

Aristotle held that there were four kinds of answers to "why" questions (in Physics II, 3, and Metaphysics V, 2):

Matter: a change or movement's material cause, is the aspect of the change or movement which is determined by the material that composes the moving or changing things. For a table, that might be wood; for a statue, that might be bronze or marble.

Form: a change or movement's formal cause, is a change or movement caused by the arrangement, shape or appearance of the thing changing or moving. Aristotle says for example that the ratio 2:1, and number in general, is the cause of the octave.

Agent: a change or movement's efficient or moving cause, consists of things apart from the thing being changed or moved, which interact so as to be an agency of the change or movement. For example, the efficient cause of a table is a carpenter, or a person working as one, and according to Aristotle the efficient cause of a boy is a father.

End or purpose: a change or movement's final cause, is that for the sake of which a thing is what it is. For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.The four "causes" are not mutually exclusive. For Aristotle, several answers to the question "why" have to be given to explain a phenomenon and especially the actual configuration of an object. For example, if asking why a table is such and such, a complete explanation, taking into account the four causes, would sound like this: This table is solid and brown because it is made of wood (matter), it does not collapse because it has four legs of equal length (form), it is as such because a carpenter made it starting from a tree (agent), it has these dimensions because it is to be used by men and women (end).

Historicity (philosophy)

Historicity in philosophy is the idea or fact that something has a historical origin and developed through history: concepts, practices, values. This is opposed to the belief that the same thing, in particular normative institutions or correlated ideologies, are natural or essential and thus exist universally.

Historicity relates to the underlying concept of history, or the intersection of teleology (the concept and study of progress and purpose), temporality (the concept of time), and historiography (semiotics and history of history). Varying conceptualizations of historicity emphasize linear progress or the repetition or modulation of past events.


Hylomorphism (or hylemorphism) is a philosophical theory developed by Aristotle, which conceives being (ousia) as a compound of matter and form. The word is a 19th-century term formed from the Greek words ὕλη hyle, "wood, matter", and μορφή, morphē, "form".

Intrinsic finality

Intrinsic finality is the idea that there is a natural good for all beings, and that all beings have a natural tendency to pursue their own good. It is an underlying principle of both teleology and moral objectivism. The concept of intrinsic finality was summarized by Thomas Aquinas as follows:

By the form which gives it its specific perfection, everything in nature has an inclination to its own operations and to its own end, which it reaches through these operations. Just as everything is, such also are its operations and its tendency to what is suitable to itself.The idea of intrinsic finality presumes an objective reality that obeys a natural order or natural law in the universe. Things are "meant" to be and behave a certain way, and naturally tend to act that way. For instance, animals have natural instincts for self-preservation, seeking food, and reproduction. They do so because it is their nature to do so. Theologians go further, to argue that they do so because they were created to do so.

The existence of such a finality is often challenged, particularly by philosophers ascribing to philosophical naturalism. They argue that it is unreasonable to say that all beings naturally pursue their own benefit, when some beings clearly do not. They point to instances of imperfection, disease, and death as evidence that natural beings do not naturally move toward perfection. But proponents of intrinsic finality respond that the very recognition of such imperfection requires an ideal or standard of the perfect end from which the being in question falls short owing to a variety of factors including improper education, sin, or predestination.

Intrinsic finality provides the basis for the teleological argument for the existence of God and its modern counterpart, intelligent design. Proponents of teleology argue that Darwinism does not resolve a fundamental defect in philosophical naturalism; that it focuses exclusively on the immediate causes and mechanisms of events and does not attend to the reason for their synthesis. For example, if we take a clock apart, we discover in it nothing but springs, wheels, pivots, levers and so on but does our having explained the mechanism which causes the revolutions of the hands on the dial make it reasonable to say that the clock was not made to keep time?

Naturalists respond that biology has been profoundly concerned with the ways function constrains structure since the time of Aristotle and that Darwin's own awareness of teleology is evident in his study in functional constraints on the evolutionary development of the beaks of Galapagos finches, of which he 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)


Kantianism is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher born in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The term Kantianism or Kantian is sometimes also used to describe contemporary positions in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.

National history museum

A National History Museum or National Historical Museum is a history museum dedicated to presenting artifacts and exhibits reflecting the history of a particular nation, usually its home country. The earliest public museums, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Louvre Museum in Paris, were focused on natural history and art, respectively, and not necessarily on subjects related to the history of any nation. Following Napoleon's use of the Louvre as a center of national pride during his reign, other countries began to use museums not just to store artifacts of aesthetic or educational value, but to portray the country itself in a positive light.

Historically, some national history museums have been used purely as propaganda tools through which governments attempt to convey an official history. For example, "the Nazi regime employed the museum as a deliberate tool of propaganda and 'public education'". It has further been argued that "the very idea of an officially sponsored national history museum is simply outdated" in light of the trend towards pluralistic interpretation of artifacts. On the other hand, it has been argued that: "To create a national history museum that discards unitary national narratives as well as causal trajectories (the teleology of the nation)—in effect to subvert the form—is probably impossible". One concern of national history museums, therefore, is how to fairly and neutrally depict negative periods in a nation's own history.

Omega Point

The Omega Point is a spiritual belief and a scientific speculation that everything in the universe is fated to spiral towards a final point of divine unification. The term was coined by the French Jesuit Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955). Teilhard argued that the Omega Point resembles the Christian Logos, namely Christ, who draws all things into himself, who in the words of the Nicene Creed, is "God from God", "Light from Light", "True God from true God", and "through him all things were made". In the Book of Revelation, Christ describes himself thrice as "the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end". The idea of the Omega Point is developed in later writings, such as those of John David Garcia (1971), Paolo Soleri (1981), Frank Tipler (1994), and David Deutsch (1997).


Orthogenesis, also known as orthogenetic evolution, progressive evolution, evolutionary progress, or progressionism, is the biological hypothesis that organisms have an innate tendency to evolve in a definite direction towards some goal (teleology) due to some internal mechanism or "driving force". According to the theory, the largest-scale trends in evolution have an absolute goal such as increasing biological complexity. Prominent historical figures who have championed some form of evolutionary progress include Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Henri Bergson.

The term orthogenesis was introduced by Wilhelm Haacke in 1893 and popularized by Theodor Eimer five years later. Proponents of orthogenesis had rejected the theory of natural selection as the organizing mechanism in evolution for a rectilinear model of directed evolution. With the emergence of the modern synthesis, in which genetics was integrated with evolution, orthogenesis and other alternatives to Darwinism were largely abandoned by biologists, but the notion that evolution represents progress is still widely shared. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr made the term effectively taboo in the journal Nature in 1948, by stating that it implied "some supernatural force". The American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1953) attacked orthogenesis, linking it with vitalism by describing it as "the mysterious inner force". Modern supporters include E. O. Wilson and Simon Conway Morris, while museum displays and textbook illustrations continue to give the impression of progress in evolution.

The philosopher of biology Michael Ruse notes that in popular culture evolution and progress are synonyms, while the unintentionally misleading image of the March of Progress, from apes to modern humans, has been widely imitated.

Philosophy of biology

The philosophy of biology is a subfield of philosophy of science, which deals with epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical issues in the biological and biomedical sciences. Although philosophers of science and philosophers generally have long been interested in biology (e.g., Aristotle, Descartes, and even Kant), philosophy of biology only emerged as an independent field of philosophy in the 1960s and 1970s. Philosophers of science then began paying increasing attention to biology, from the rise of Neodarwinism in the 1930s and 1940s to the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 to more recent advances in genetic engineering.

Other key ideas include the reduction of all life processes to biochemical reactions, and the incorporation of psychology into a broader neuroscience.

Teleological argument

The teleological or physico-theological argument, also known as the argument from design, or intelligent design argument is an argument for the existence of God or, more generally, for an intelligent creator based on perceived evidence of deliberate design in the natural world.The earliest recorded versions of this argument are associated with Socrates in ancient Greece, although it has been argued that he was taking up an older argument. Plato, his student, and Aristotle, Plato's student, developed complex approaches to the proposal that the cosmos has an intelligent cause, but it was the Stoics who, under their influence, "developed the battery of creationist arguments broadly known under the label 'The Argument from Design'".Abrahamic religions have used the teleological argument in many ways, and has a long association with them. In the Middle Ages, Islamic theologians such as Al-Ghazali used the argument, although it was rejected as unnecessary by Quranic literalists, and as unconvincing by many Islamic philosophers. Later, the teleological argument was accepted by Saint Thomas Aquinas and included as the fifth of his "Five Ways" of proving the existence of God. In early modern England clergymen such as William Turner and John Ray were well-known proponents. In the early 18th century, William Derham published his Physico-Theology, which gave his "demonstration of the being and attributes of God from his works of creation". Later, William Paley, in his 1802 Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity published a prominent presentation of the design argument with his version of the watchmaker analogy and the first use of the phrase "argument from design".From its beginning, there have been numerous criticisms of the different versions of the teleological argument, and responses to its challenge to the claims against non-teleological natural science. Especially important were the general logical arguments made by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published 1779, and the explanation of biological complexity given in Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859. Since the 1960s, Paley's arguments have been influential in the development of a creation science movement which used phrases such as "design by an intelligent designer", and post 1987 this was rebranded as "intelligent design", promoted by the intelligent design movement. Both movements have used the teleological argument to argue against the modern scientific understanding of evolution, and to claim that supernatural explanations should be given equal validity in the public school science curriculum.Also starting already in classical Greece, two approaches to the teleological argument developed, distinguished by their understanding of whether the natural order was literally created or not. The non-creationist approach starts most clearly with Aristotle, although many thinkers, such as the Neoplatonists, believed it was already intended by Plato. This approach is not creationist in a simple sense, because while it agrees that a cosmic intelligence is responsible for the natural order, it rejects the proposal that this requires a "creator" to physically make and maintain this order. The Neoplatonists did not find the teleological argument convincing, and in this they were followed by medieval philosophers such as Al-Farabi and Avicenna. Later, Averroes and Thomas Aquinas considered the argument acceptable, but not necessarily the best argument.

Contemporary defenders of the teleological argument are Richard Swinburne and John Lennox.

Teleology in biology

Teleology in biology is the use of the language of goal-directedness in accounts of evolutionary adaptation, which some biologists and philosophers of science find problematic. The term teleonomy has also been proposed. Before Darwin, organisms were seen as existing because God had designed and created them; their features such as eyes were taken by natural theology to have been made to enable them to carry out their functions, such as seeing. Evolutionary biologists often use similar teleological formulations that invoke purpose, but these imply natural selection rather than actual goals, whether conscious or not. Dissenting biologists and religious thinkers held that evolution itself was somehow goal-directed (orthogenesis), and in vitalist versions, driven by a purposeful life force. Since such views are now discredited, with evolution working by natural selection acting on inherited variation, the use of teleology in biology has attracted criticism, and attempts have been made to teach students to avoid teleological language.

Nevertheless, biologists still often write about evolution as if organisms had goals, and some philosophers of biology such as Francisco Ayala and biologists such as J. B. S. Haldane consider that teleological language is unavoidable in evolutionary biology.


Teleonomy is the quality of apparent purposefulness and goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms brought about by the exercise, augmentation, and, improvement of reasoning. The term derives from two Greek words, τέλος telos ("end, purpose") and νόμος nomos ("law"), and means "end-directed" (literally "purpose-law"). Teleonomy is sometimes contrasted with teleology, where the latter is understood as a purposeful goal-directedness brought about through human or divine intention. Teleonomy is thought to derive from evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, and/or the operation of a program. Teleonomy is related to programmatic or computational aspects of purpose.


A telos (from the Greek τέλος for "end", "purpose", or "goal") is an end or purpose, in a fairly constrained sense used by philosophers such as Aristotle. It is the root of the term "teleology", roughly the study of purposiveness, or the study of objects with a view to their aims, purposes, or intentions. Teleology figures centrally in Aristotle's biology and in his theory of causes. It is central to some philosophical theories of history, such as those of Hegel and Marx.

The purpose of a system is what it does

The purpose of a system is what it does (POSIWID) is a systems thinking heuristic coined by Stafford Beer.

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