teleological explanationEXPLANATIONS which have the form ‘A occurs for the sake of B’ (A. Woodfield, 1981). Three main forms of teleological explanation can be identified (see also TELEOLOGY):
- PURPOSIVE EXPLANATION, which is concerned with the goal-directed behaviour of animals, especially human beings, e.g. explanations in terms of purposes, motives, reasons, etc.;
- FUNCTIONAL(IST) EXPLANATIONS of biological or societal characteristics, explained: (i) as the result of a natural or social selection, and (ii) in terms of their continuing contribution (see FUNCTION) to the working and persistence of the plant, animal, society etc. in question (see also SYSTEM, SYSTEMS THEORY, EVOLUTIONARY THEORY);
- accounts of the working of machines which relate to the design and purpose of the machine, including machines that ‘behave’ or ‘function in an animal-like way (see also CYBERNETICS).
Everyone accepts that human beings act purposively Furthermore, in explaining human social action it is clear that a knowledge of actors’ beliefs and values will often do much to ‘explain’ their actions. The issue that arises is whether teleological explanations in this sense can suffice in sociology (as some sociologists and philosophers suggest, e.g. WINCH) or whether further, even wholly different, explanations are required for adequate sociological explanation, including the second type of teleological explanation(s) or causal explanations of other kinds (see SOCIAL FACTS AS THINGS, BEHAVIOURISM).
There is little disagreement that functional and evolutionary forms of teleological explanation are appropriately used in explanations of animal behaviour and of the biological realm generally. Usually it is argued that ‘teleological’ functional and evolutionary explanations are no more than one form of causal explanation. Proposed teleological explanations which involve the end-states or end-goals of societies have been far more controversial, for it is often argued that societies have neither aims nor needs apart from the aims and needs of individual human beings (see also METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM).
Against this, the view that functionalist and evolutionary accounts have a legitimate place in sociology continues strongly supported in many areas of sociology Other examples of general theories having a teleological element include Hegelian theory (see HEGEL) and MARXISM. In these cases the attempt is made to identify a general direction of history, in terms of which particular events can be understood. While much criticized (compare DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM, EPISODIC CHARACTERIZATION, POSTMODERNISM), the idea of a directionality in human history still figures in the work of many sociologists (see PROGRESS, EMANCIPATORY THEORY).