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Teleology ( ancient Greek τέλος télos , Gen. τελέως teléōs 'purpose', 'goal', 'end' and λόγος lógos 'teaching') is the teaching that describes that actions or development processes in general are goal-oriented. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, attributes such a purposefulness apparently or actually inherent to the forms and behavior of living beings as well as inorganic matter to the immobile mover as the first cause of the cosmos as a whole. Considerations of this kind therefore have a long history; the term teleology , which covers them together , was first introduced by the German philosopher Christian Wolff in his Philosophia rationalis, sive logica (1728).


Teleology as a world view is based on the assumption of either external ( transcendent ) or internal (immanent) purposes .

  • According to the transcendent conception ( Anaxagoras , Heraklit ), the purposeful order of the world is established through the action of a world force ( nous , logos ) that sets its purpose ; with Plato through the ideas outside the world ; in Christian theology by God or Divine Providence .
  • The immanent teleology ( Aristotle ) moved the final cause in the things themselves, which is thus attributed to a desire for certain target states.

The dualistic view contrasts teleology and causality as mutually exclusive concepts.

Monistic positions, on the other hand, regard both as complementary aspects that are not in opposition to one another, but are compatible with one another in a higher synthesis as different ways of apprehending the same event.

The mechanistic worldview ( Lucrez , Hobbes , Descartes , Spinoza ) is strictly anti-teleological .

The constitutive role that teleology exercises in these approaches can be contrasted with an exclusively heuristic use (in a “regulative” sense). In the modern science of teleology, analog processes are studied under the designation teleonomy .

History of philosophy

"Nothing happens by chance, but everything for a reason and with necessity."

This sentence, traditionally attributed to Leukippus , resolutely rejects any teleology, because "reason" (lógos) is to be understood here as nothing else than the mathematical-mechanical law which the atoms follow in their movement with absolute necessity.

Teleology as a whole could be understood as being at home in theology : namely, that a First Cause, as the infallible builder of the worlds, had set it up in such a way that man, following the analogy of the use of his own (admittedly fallible) reason, must recognize this procedure as expedient. Aristotle seems to be essentially a proponent of this position. In his considerations he includes earlier philosophers such as Empedocles , Anaxagoras , Socrates and Plato , but he sees himself as the founder of a special doctrine of purpose.

Indeed, Aristotle is the first to formulate the principle of purpose: the essence and cause of every thing is the purpose resting in it. In this way he puts himself in marked contrast to the mechanical worldview of Democritus , which he rebukes for ignoring the ultimate causes and reducing everything to necessity. The doctrine of an “immanent” purpose fixes the idea of ​​expediency corresponding to the human ideal, even if that of an extra-worldly personal God is given up in favor of pantheism .

In addition to the causa finalis (ultimate / final cause) relevant for teleology, Aristotelianism knows three other types of causes, namely the causa efficiens (effective cause), the causa materialis (material cause) and the causa formalis ( formal cause). With the purpose cause - analogous to human actions - attempts are also made to explain processes within nature via goals or target states. A combination of effective cause and final cause can also appear in teleological explanations.

The Christian Middle Ages came up with the completely new idea that the chronological sequence of events in human life also had a purposeful overall meaning. That of history rises above the teleology of nature .

Spinoza openly and sharply opposes the anthropomorphism of teleology. It is absurd to speak of purposes of the Godhead, let alone those that relate to man. Since everything follows from the essence of the Godhead with eternal necessity, there is no room for purposeful activity. The explanation of natural things by the will of God appears to him as an asylum ignorantiae for the natural scientist.

Francis Bacon polemicized Aristotle sharply, but he did not quite understand what was really new that the experimental approach of Copernicus , Kepler and Galileo had brought about. Because Bacon maintains essential features of the Aristotelian approach, namely the theory of forms and teleology, without dealing with them epistemologically.

In his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant rejects the assumption of purposeful processes in nature. For him the teleological description of organisms is only an aid of reason, which we must assume for an adequate description, but which does not have any objective truth. For the natural sciences, an “objective” teleology can never be anything other than a heuristic principle. Because nothing is explained by it, natural science reaches once and for all only as far as the mechanical-causal explanation of things. If Kant believes that this mode of explanation will never be completely sufficient for organisms, he is not claiming that the mechanical explanation of nature can encounter a fixed limit somewhere, beyond which the teleological one must enter.

Rather, Kant only thinks of the mechanical explanation of organisms as an infinite process in which an unresolved residue will always remain, similar to the mechanical explanation of the world as a whole. All parts are determined by the idea of ​​the whole. With this thesis, the concept of objective expediency leads over to that of the organism : “An organized product of nature is that in which everything is an end and mutually also a means.” Kant's account of teleology can still be used as a starting point for the “philosophy of Biology ”.

Hegel welcomes a restoration of the Aristotelian idea of ​​immanent purpose. Ludwig Feuerbach, however, opposes this and takes the side of Democritus. The inclusion of teleology only harms physics. "Teleology is sterile and gives birth to nothing, like a consecrated virgin."

Following Kant and Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche places the endeavor to completely eliminate teleology at the center of his thinking. Metaphysical thinking, as essentially teleological thinking, is reasonable thinking in the sense of a schematic interpretation in the "large safety net fabric of causality". Correspondingly, the criticism of teleology, as the most dangerous of all, must be the focus of the criticism of metaphysics .

Friedrich Engels mocks “ Wolff's flat teleology, according to which cats were created to eat mice, mice to be eaten by cats, and all of nature to show the wisdom of the Creator. The philosophy of that time is honored that it did not let itself be deterred by the limited level of simultaneous knowledge of nature, that it insisted - from Spinoza to the great French materialists - on explaining the world in terms of itself, and the natural science of The future left the justification in detail. ”Wolff's empirical teleology (of the ultimate intentions of natural things ) stimulates the laughing muscles with its petty-bourgeois viewpoints. Engels rejects the assumption of deliberate acts in nature as pantheism or deism and insists on a causal explanation , as it is also presented by Darwin's theory of evolution .

In philosophy of science

Theorists of science such as Hempel , Oppenheim or Stegmüller see causal explanations as the primary goal of empirical science .

For Hans Albert there is only one uniform method of explanation in empirical science, so he rejected a methodological separation - for example on the axis nomothetic vs. idiographically - from “ humanities ” and “ natural science ” as unfounded.

For Karl Popper , however, this is not an argument against teleology: on the contrary, teleological explanations are just as possible in the natural sciences as in the humanities. For example, he took a teleological view of the origin of species.

Stegmüller emphasized that the terms “teleological” and “causal” should not be understood as mutually exclusive terms; an orientation towards causal explanations does not exclude teleological explanations. Ultimately, however, every real teleological explanation, including, for example, the explanation of a person's behavior with reference to his objectives and wishes, is always a real causal explanation.

From the real teleological explanation Stegmüller distinguishes the seemingly genuine teleological explanation, which should, for example, explain a natural phenomenon Although to a certain state moved toward ( "purposefulness"), but does an explicit purpose of setting ( "Target Intention") detectable.

These seemingly genuine teleological explanations form the very core of the debate over teleology. While metaphysically oriented positions argue with such natural phenomena with an inner, not directly recognizable, purposefulness and thus want to subsume this under the real teleological explanations, this approach is rejected because of its obviously non-empirical character in the empirical sciences and instead a return to causal explanations is sought, for example in framework of functional analysis or self-regulation .

In contrast to this epistemological position, v. Wright in those sciences that want to explain human behavior (e.g. sociology, historical sciences), in addition to causal and intentional (teleological) explanations, are permissible and necessary. Our knowledge of actions and their consequences are included in the description, as well as the conscious intentions of our actions.

In biology

In contrast to the early modern times , modern biology can explain the usefulness of natural organisms, structures and systems without resorting to purposeful instances. This is particularly true of physiology and the theory of evolution , where cells or organs were once assigned internal intentions or goals.

The denial of a higher intention and the explanation of existing structures through scientific phenomena connects modern biology with other natural sciences such as chemistry and physics. Naturalistic basic assumptions with a teleological character are no longer represented today by biologists, but above all by some theologians. According to Gerhard Vollmer , their naturalistic approach is not characterized by a complete elimination of metaphysical requirements, but by their minimization. The term teleology is also not used uniformly, which makes a theoretical foundation even more difficult. According to Ernst Mayr , three different meanings of teleology have to be differentiated:

  1. unilinear evolutionary sequences (progressionism, orthogenesis );
  2. apparent or real purposeful processes;
  3. teleological systems.

Often a seeming expediency of natural organisms, structures and systems with natural adaptations or with an organization - related self-regulation is explained. Colin S. Pittendrigh led in 1958 the concept of teleonomy one to apparent expediencies on automatically running programs due . This is countered by the fact that it reduces the question of teleology to a purely terminological problem in that it eliminates the connotation of inner intention or supernatural control, but most biologists would reject this connotation anyway. Likewise, the coupling of the biological concept of function to mathematical functions is not helpful, because they do not do justice to the actual use in biology.

In psychology

The individual psychology according to Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs assumes that the basic human drive in depth psychology is teleological. In this context, individual psychology speaks of “finality”. Adler calls the basic finality of a person the “ lifestyle ”. The analytical psychology according to CG Jung also represents this approach of a final method from a not only causal-mechanistic , but also from a psychoenergetic point of view.

In action theory

In the action theory of practical philosophy , teleology serves as a basic principle for description and explanation. Teleology is the appeal to the goal of the action , the realization of which the agent is responsible for as a consequence of the action together with the other consequences. It is then examined whether these practical consequences ( e.g. convenience , usefulness) contribute to the realization of a value . The justification procedure allows intermediate stages between good and bad .

In normative ethics

In addition, ethics are called teleological when these actions are measured against the condition brought about without recourse to motives for action or moral obligations . The utilitarian ethics represents such a model, although here too there are efforts to expand utilitarianism to include motives for action.

There are also anti-teleological ethics, such as the theory of justice developed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice .

Many theories in philosophy are also teleological in a universalistic sense: for eudaemonism, objective success in relation to particular life goals is decisive, for a hedonist, on the other hand, the subjective experience of happiness (e.g. through sensual stimuli or experiences of success), for the utilitarian Satisfaction of needs and for the perfectionist best results in culture is the goal.

In law

In law , "teleology" is a special method of interpretation . It is listed as the fourth classical interpretation method, alongside the grammatical (wording analysis), the systematic (the question of the position in the legal system) and the historical (which takes into account the “legislative will” and tries to understand it hermeneutically ).

The teleological interpretation asks about the meaning and purpose of a law, the so-called ratio legis . It is checked whether this purpose is fulfilled in the individual case.

See also


  • C. Allen, M. Bekoff, G. Lauder (Eds.): Nature's Purposes. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1998.
  • A. Ariew, R. Cummins, M. Perlman (Eds.): Functions. New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology. 2002.
  • Hans Peter Balmer : Figures of Finality. To the teleological thinking of philosophy. readbox unipress, Münster 2017, ISBN 978-3-95925-053-5 . (Open Access: )
  • Morton Beckner, Karen Neander: Teleology. (Beckner 1967) / Teleology (Addendum). (Neander 2005), In: Encyclopedia of Philosophy . Pp. 384-388 / 388-390.
  • D. Buller (Ed.): Function, Selection, and Design. SUNY Press, Albany, NY 1999.
  • H. Busche: Teleology; teleologically. In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy . Vol. 10, pp. 970-977.
  • Nicolai Hartmann : Teleological thinking. Berlin 1966.
  • Eve-Marie Engels: The Teleology of the Living. A historical-systematic investigation. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1982.
  • Karen Neander: The Teleological Notion of Function. In: Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 69: 454-468 ​​(1991).
  • Juergen-Eckardt Pleines (Ed.): On the teleological argument in philosophy. Aristotle - Kant - Hegel. Publishing house Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1991.
  • J.-E. Pleines (Ed.): Teleology. A philosophical problem in the past and present. Publishing house Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1994.
  • Nicholas Rescher (Ed.): Current Issues in Teleology. University Press of America, Lanham, MD 1986.
  • Robert Spaemann , Reinhard Löw: The question why? History and rediscovery of teleological thought. 3. Edition. Munich 1991, ISBN 3-492-10748-6 .
  • Wolfgang Stegmüller : Problems and results of the philosophy of science and analytical philosophy. Volume I (Scientific explanation and justification.) Springer Verlag, 1982.
  • Michael Stöltzner , Paul Weingartner : Formal Teleology and Causality. Mentis, Paderborn 2005.
  • Georg Henrik von Wright : Explain and Understand. Frankfurt 1974.
  • Larry Wright : Teleological Explanation. University of California Press, Berkeley 1976.

Web links

Wiktionary: Teleology  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. "Etiology (Greek αἰτιολογία aitiología - from αἰτία aítia 'cause' and lógos 'word', 'doctrine'), the doctrine of causes and their effects, is usually considered the second part of speculative metaphysics, while the first, the Ontology, of the essence of things and the third, teleology, is about their purpose. ”(Friedrich Kirchner, Carl Michaëlis: Dictionary of Basic Philosophical Concepts. Revised by Carl Michaëlis, 5th edition. Leipzig 1907, p. 48, cf. P. 22).
  2. Busche, p. 970.
  3. Hegel: Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Volume 3, work edition Vol. 19, p. 173.
  4. ^ Rudolf Eisler: Teleologie I in: Dictionary of philosophical terms. 1904.
  5. “Mechanism (neo-French; from ancient Greek μηχανή mēchanḗ = machine) is called, in contrast to the organism, a being that is only set in motion by external forces, i.e. pressure and impact. Mechanism is also called the view of the world, which traces what happens in nature back only to causes and forces and excludes all explanations of purpose. Its opposite is teleology (see d.). See Lamettrie, L'homme machine. 1748. ”(Kirchner / Michaelis, p. 352).
  6. Lange: History of Materialism. P. 22. In: Digital Library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy. P. 3505 (see Lange-Mat., P. 16).
  7. ^ Vorländer: History of Philosophy. P. 249. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy. P. 7249 (see Vorländer-Gesch. Vol. 1, p. 132).
  8. Lange: History of Materialism. P. 1035. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy , p. 4518 (cf. Lange-Mat., P. 690–691)
  9. Windelband: Textbook of the history of philosophy. P. 553. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy. P. 5914 (see Windelband-Gesch., P. 217).
  10. Windelband: Textbook of the history of philosophy , p. 857. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy , p. 6218 (see Windelband-Gesch., P. 336).
  11. ^ Vorländer: History of Philosophy. P. 757. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy. P. 7757 (see Vorländer-Gesch. Vol. 2, p. 49).
  12. ^ Hirschberger: History of Philosophy. Volume II, p. 94. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy. P. 9825 (see Hirschberger-Gesch. Vol. 2, p. 51).
  13. Lange: History of Materialism. P. 1090. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy , p. 4573 (cf. Lange-Mat., Pp. 720–721). / August Stadler: Kant's teleology and its epistemological significance. Berlin 1874.
  14. ^ Vorländer: History of Philosophy. P. 1066. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy , p. 8066 (cf. Vorländer-Gesch. Vol. 2, p. 214).
  15. The Philosophy of Biology. ( Memento of the original from October 25, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. University of Luxembourg, 2009. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  16. Hegel: Lectures on the History of Philosophy. P. 1055. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy , p. 1059 (cf. Hegel-W Vol. 19, p. 173).
  17. Feuerbach: History of modern philosophy. P. 76. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy , p. 2729 (cf. Feuerbach-Gesch., Pp. 60–61).
  18. ^ Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals , Third Essay, 9.
  19. Engels: Dialectics of Nature . P. 13f. Digital library. Volume 11: Marx / Engels, p. 8332 (cf. MEW Vol. 20, p. 315f.).
  20. Windelband: Textbook of the history of philosophy. P. 1039. Digital library. Volume 3: History of Philosophy , p. 6.400 (see Windelband-Gesch., P. 410).
  21. Friedrich Engels: Mr. Eugen Dühring's revolution in science. P. 123. Digital library. Volume 11: Marx / Engels, p. 7754 (cf. MEW Vol. 20, p. 66).
  22. Hans Albert: Theory, Understanding and History - To the criticism of the methodological claim to autonomy in the so-called human sciences. Journal of General Theory of Science, 1, 1970.
  23. ^ Karl Popper: Evolution and the tree of knowledge. Objective Knowledge. P. 267.
  24. ^ W. Stegmüller: Problems and results of the philosophy of science and analytical philosophy. Volume I, Part E ( Explanation of the justification for causality ) Springer Verlag, ISBN 3-540-11810-1 , pp. 642–646.
  25. Cf. GH v. Wright: Explain and Understand. Frankfurt 1974, p. 83ff.
  26. Vollmer Gerhard: What is naturalism? Logos 2 (1994), pp. 200-219.
  27. in biology & f = false Georg Toepfer: concept of purpose and organism on Google Books
  28. ^ Andreas Bartels , Manfred Stöckler (ed.): Theory of Science. mentis Verlag, Paderborn 2009, p. 288.
  29. ^ Rudolf Dreikurs: Basic Concepts of Individual Psychology. Stuttgart 1969, 2005.
  30. Carl Gustav Jung: The dynamics of the unconscious. Collected Works. Walter-Verlag, Düsseldorf 1995, paperback, special edition, volume 8, ISBN 3-530-40083-1 ; §§ 3 ff, 41–47, 51, 56, 59, 456, 470 f., 491, 497, 843 footnote 34 and ö.
  31. Jolande Jacobi: The psychology of CG Jung. An introduction to the complete works. With a foreword by CG Jung. Fischer Taschenbuch, Frankfurt March 1987, ISBN 3-596-26365-4 , pp. 70 f., 103.