English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque and Enlightenment

Glossary of Terms:

Telos, Teleology, Teleological Explanation

The Greek term telos means "end."  And like the term end in English, it is used in two distinct senses:  that which terminates something (the cut-off point of a line segment, the edge of a surface, destruction of an object, death of an organism) and the goal to which some activity is directed or the purpose which some object or institution is designed to accomplish.  The two senses are connected, the second having derived from the first:  when an activity reaches its aim (end), it comes to a stop (to an end).  When Roman philosophers undertook to translate the concepts they borrowed from their Greek predecessors, they used the term finis, which had exactly the same double sense.  It is the second sense -- goal, aim, purpose -- that concerns us here.

Teleological explanation specifies the purpose or end that some made object is designed to serve -- what medieval Aristotlean scholastic philosophy called a final cause.  This kind of factor has to be taken into account in explaining the nature of any artifact.  An essential element of the concept of chair is that a chair is "something for sitting on."  This involves, then, the intention of the maker.  The reason that a specification of telos is essential to the concept of chair is that we can give no adequate account of the objects we call "chairs" without taking into consideration what they are for.  Any attempt to say what makes an object a chair that confines itself to describing its size, shape, material composition, and/or process of construction, is doomed to fail.

The term "teleological explanation," then, can be used to refer to either of two distinct things:  (1) elucidating why something has the (material and formal) properties it exhibits by pointing to the purposes it is designed to serve, or (2) inferring the purposes something serves by examining the properties (material and formal) it exhibits. 

Material properties here is shorthand for what kinds of stuff something is made of, together with their size and how they are shaped.  The material properties of the chair I'm sitting in at the moment include cloth, foam, wood, paint, various metals (aluminum and steel), some plastic, together with the way the foam has been cut and sewn, the metals and plastics have been cast, etc.

Formal properties here have to do with how the various parts of the thing come together to make it what it is.  They include the structure of the assembly of the whole, as well as their mutual operations.  The formal properties of my chair include the way the wood sits atop the aluminum bars that rise from the frame that holds up the foam pad, and the way rollers connect the legs of the chair to the floor.


From here, this introduction leads to two distinct essays:

  "Teleology and Theology" 

  "Teleology and Science" 


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  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

      This page last updated 01 February 1999.