Aristotle's Concept of Teleology
In his Physics, Aristotle examines the theories and ideas regarding
nature of his predecessors and then, based upon his own ideas, theories and
experiments, argues against what he believes are incorrect conclusions. One
idea that Aristotle argues specifically is teleology. Teleology is the idea
that natural phenomena are determined not only by mechanical causes but by an
overall design or purpose in nature. In this essay, I will examine what
Aristotle's concept of teleology was and look at why he held this conception.
First, let's talk about what we mean by teleology. Teleology is the
study of ends, purposes, and goals. The word comes from the Greek word telos
which means "end" or "purpose". In cultures which have a teleological world
view, the ends of things are seen as providing the meaning for all that has
happened or that occurs. If you think about history as a timeline with a
beginning and end, in a teleological view of the world and of history, the
meaning and value of all historical events derives from thier ends or purposes.
That is, all events in history are future-directed.
Aristotle's thought is consistently teleological: everything is always
changing and moving, and has some aim, goal or purpose. To borrow from
Newtonian physics, we might say that everything has potential which may be
actualized. An acorn is potentially and oak tree for example. The process of
change and motion which the acorn undertakes is directed at realizing this
potential. Aristotle believed that things in nature occur because they serve a
purpose. He maintains that organisms develop as they do because they have a
natural goal or telos in Greek. “Nature”, writes Aristotle, is “a ‘principle
of motion and change' ”(Physics, 200b1), where “motion” or “movement” (or change
as we discussed in our classroom) describes the “fulfillment of what exists
potentially, in so far as it exists potentially”(201a) in a thing.
But is there any reason for saying nature has a goal? Why cannot the
rain rain and the sun shine, not because the sky is cloudy or clear but just by
chance? Empedocles argued for a theory of natural selection on the basis of
chance. The survival of the fittest means that those who happen to be more fit
survive longer. The less fit perish. Aristotle rejects any theory of evolution.
Things either occur by chance or they occur “always or for the most part, “
which is the opposite of chance. You must admit...