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(tĕl'ēŏl`əjē, tē'lē–), in philosophy, term applied to any system attempting to explain a series of events in terms of ends, goals, or purposes. It is opposed to mechanism, the theory that all events may be explained by mechanical principles of causation. Aristotle argued that all nature reflects the purposes of an immanent final cause. Frequently, teleologists have identified purpose in the universe with God's will. The teleological argument for the existence of God holds that order in the world could not be accidental and that since there is design there must be a designer. A more recent evolutionary view finds purpose in the higher levels of organic life but holds that it is not necessarily based in any transcendent being.


See P. C. Gasson, Theory of Design (1973); N. Rescher, ed., Current Issues in Teleology (1986).


  1. (from the Greek telos, purpose) originally, the conception that all things have their own natural purposes (e.g. a stone thrown in the air which falls to the ground).
  2. (later) the ultimate purpose of things, the doctrine of’final causes’, e.g. the doctrine that everything is God's design.
  3. (more generally, including its use in sociology) any theory or account which suggests that the phenomena of nature or social phenomena can be explained not only by their prior causes but also by the end-states or purposes to which they are directed. As such, teleological accounts and explanations include both PURPOSIVE EXPLANATIONS and FUNCTIONAL(IST) EXPLANATIONS. Also included are some forms of developmental and EVOLUTIONARY THEORY.
  4. the process or processes by which teleological end-states are approached or achieved. While teleological accounts in senses l or 2 fall largely outside social science, those in sense 3 remain widely used in everyday life and in both the physical and the social sciences. A central issue is whether in their acceptable forms, teleological explanations are reducible to more conventional causal accounts. Doctrines of’historical inevitability’, human destiny, etc. have been especially controversial. see also TELEOLOGICAL EXPLANATION.



an idealist doctrine concerned with purposes and purposefulness. Counterbalancing or sometimes allegedly complementing determinism, teleology postulates a particular form of causality that is purposeful and that answers the question for what, or to what end, a given action is taken. This principle of “final causes,” whereby an ideally postulated end, or final result, exerts an objective influence on a course of action, has assumed various forms under various concepts of teleology. In every case, however, the chief feature of teleology has been preserved—namely, an idealist anthropomorphization of natural processes that attributes purpose to nature, investing the latter with a capacity for positing ends that in reality is inherent only to human activity.

This feature of teleology is most clearly expressed in the idea of an external purposefulness, supposedly established by god—a notion propounded by anthropocentric and utilitarian teleolo-gists, such as C. Wolff, according to whom the world was created for men’s purposes. The same concept, however, is also a principle of immanent teleology, which ascribes an inner purpose to nature. Immanent teleology was basically formulated by Aristotle, who asserted that just as human activity contains its actual purpose, so too natural objects contain a potential purpose: an object is directed toward an end, infinite in content, that achieves self-realization in the course of the object’s development. According to Aristotle, this inner purpose is what causes nature to move from the lower to the higher stages and to reach the peak of its development in a kind of absolute, or entelechy.

In modern times, the concepts of immanent teleology were elaborated by G. von Leibniz in his monadology and in his doctrine of preestablished harmony, and they were consistently applied in F. von Schelling’s theory of a “world soul” and in G. Hegel’s objective idealism.

I. Kant gave a distinctive interpretation to teleological concepts. Realizing that a mechanical determinism was inadequate to explain complex processes—especially those of organic life and human activity—Kant postulated a particular type of causality whereby such processes could be comprehended as “nature’s purposes.” According to Kant, however, “the purposefulness of nature is ... a special a priori conception that derives exclusively from the reflective ability of judgment” (Soch., vol. 5, Moscow, 1966, p. 179). Kant questioned the objective meaning of “nature’s purposes” and of teleology’s “final causes,” considering them significant only as regulatory, heuristic principles.

Basic teleological concepts have taken different forms in science—as in vitalism and neovitalism—and have been utilized by neo-Thomist and other philosophers, such as A. Schopenhauer and E. von Hartmann.

Biology, from C. Darwin to modern molecular biology and biocybernetics, has completely overtaken and “canceled” teleology in explaining the purposefulness of organic life. The objective processes that provided a definite basis for teleological thinking have been given a scientific explanation in the dialectical-materialist conception of determinism, which comprises everything of value in the history of thought. Precisely for this reason, all attempts to revive teleology (including attempts to relate it to cybernetics) or to re-create teleology on an allegedly materialist basis are seen as particularly negative in their import.

Concepts such as “teleonomy” and “quasi-teleology,” while similar in name to teleology, essentially have nothing in common with it. They describe causal relationships expressed in the language of cybernetics with the aid of programming and feedback concepts; their aim is to establish the predeterminability of the result of an action as observed in complex systems—and, correspondingly, the direction of such action—as well as to establish a traditionally teleological method of explaining such systems on the basis of relationships. This, however, is a special scientific approach, which uses goal-orientation as part of a general functional analysis of complex organic systems.


Engels, F. “Dialektika prirody.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20.
Bunge, M. Prichinnost’. Moscow, 1962. (Translated from English.)
Frolov, I. T. Genetika i dialektika. Moscow, 1968.
Frolov, I. T. “Organicheskii determinizm, teleologiia i tselevoi podkhod v issledovanii.” Voprosy filosofii, 1970, no. 10.
Na puti k teoreticheskoi biologii. Moscow, 1970.
Theiler, W. Zur Geschichte der teleologischen Naturbetrachtung bis auf Aristoteles. Zürich-Leipzig, 1925.
Hartmann, N. Teleologisches Denken. Berlin, 1951.
Schmitz, J. Disput über das teleologische Denken. Mainz, 1960.



(science and technology)
The doctrine that explanations of phenomena are to be sought in terms of final causes, purpose, or design in nature.


1. Philosophy
a. the doctrine that there is evidence of purpose or design in the universe, and esp that this provides proof of the existence of a Designer
b. the belief that certain phenomena are best explained in terms of purpose rather than cause
c. the systematic study of such phenomena
2. Biology the belief that natural phenomena have a predetermined purpose and are not determined by mechanical laws