In general, belief in or appeal to explanation in terms of ends or purposes.

As an ethical doctrine teleology claims that our duties are specifiable in terms of the production of some value.

Teleology is perhaps rather wider than consequentialism as it includes such views as that an act is our duty if doing it will promote our own virtue.

Also see: deontology


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 the telos or “final cause” of each thing. In this, he followed Plato in seeing purpose in both human and subhuman nature.


The word teleology combines Greek telos (τέλος, from τελε-, ‘end’ or ‘purpose’)[1] and logia (-λογία, ‘speak of’, ‘study of’, or ‘a branch of learning”‘). German philosopher Christian Wolff would coin the term, as teleologia (Latin), in his work Philosophia rationalis, sive logica (1728).[12]


In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, 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:[13]

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

Socrates 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,[13] 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.[14][15] 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 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, it is necessary 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.”[16]


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 5.8, 789a8–b15

In Physics, using eternal forms as his model, Aristotle rejects Plato’s assumption that the universe was created by an intelligent designer. For Aristotle, natural ends are produced by “natures” (principles of change internal to living things), and natures, Aristotle argued, do not deliberate:[17]

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[i]

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] 4, 833[ii]


A teleology of human aims played a crucial role in the work of economist Ludwig von Mises, especially in the development of his science of praxeology. More specifically, Mises 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.[18] In other words, individuals select what they believe to be the most appropriate means to achieve a sought after goal or end. Mises also stressed that, with respect to human action, teleology is not independent of causality: “No action can be devised and ventured upon without definite ideas about the relation of cause and effect, teleology presupposes causality.”[18]

Assuming reason and action to be predominantly influenced by ideological credence, Mises derived his portrayal of human motivation from Epicurean teachings, insofar as he assumes “atomistic individualism, teleology, and libertarianism, and defines man as an egoist who seeks a maximum of happiness” (i.e. the ultimate pursuit of pleasure over pain).[19] “Man strives for,” Mises remarks, “but never attains the perfect state of happiness described by Epicurus.”[19] Moreover, expanding upon the Epicurean groundwork, Mises formalized his conception of pleasure and pain by assigning each specific meaning, allowing him to extrapolate his conception of attainable happiness to a critique of liberal versus socialist ideological societies. It is there, in his application of Epicurean belief to political theory, that Mises flouts Marxist theory, considering labor to be one of many of man’s ‘pains’, a consideration which positioned labor as a violation of his original Epicurean assumption of man’s manifest hedonistic pursuit. From here he further postulates a critical distinction between introversive labor and extroversive labor, further divaricating from basic Marxist theory, in which Marx hails labor as man’s “species-essence”, or his “species-activity”.[20]

Postmodern philosophy

Teleological-based “grand narratives” are renounced by the postmodern tradition,[21] where teleology may be viewed as reductive, exclusionary, and harmful to those whose stories are diminished or overlooked.[22]

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 After Virtue (1981) 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.

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