Aristotle’s Concept of Teleology

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.

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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 that things that occur always
or for the most part occur either by chance, or not by chance. If they occur
not by chance, then they occur for a purpose. Let’s take the example of
monsters. Monsters occur by chance because they are not among those things that
are always or for the most part. Man, on the other hand, survives because he is
meant to survive. To argue that he is a result of chance is to argue that he
does not exist always or for the most part, but only sometimes. This, of co
urse, is absurd. Because most things in nature seem to occur most of the time
and exhibit a pattern of change which can be broken up into the four causes,
Aristotle argues that nature must have a purpose. Order and conformity to type
infer purpose.

Aristotle goes on in Book II to make his explanation of purpose in
nature more clear by relating natural purpose to artistic creation. In any
process of human creation, there is a definite end to be achieved. In order to
achieve that end, the artist must complete a series of steps to bring this end
about. For example, if you want to build a house, there are certain steps you
have to go through in order to bring the house into being. If those steps are
not followed, you may very well end up with something that resembles a house but
is not a house. Natural processes imitate nature in the way art works come into
being. If the art if for an end, nature must even more be for an end. One has
only to look at the work of swallows, ants or bees, who have no conscious
purpose, to realize that they are nevertheless acting according to a purpose.

Mutations are simply nature’s failures, the miscarriage of purpose. If all had
gone well, the monster would have been a man and that which resembles a house
but is not a house would have been a house. When nature fulfills her purpose,
man begets man and nothing else. The natural end of anything is to conform to
its type, to become what it is designed to be.

In his zoological research Aristotle set forth his teleological view of
nature based upon his observations. To explain a phenomenon, Aristotle said
that one must discover its goal, to understand that for the sake of which the
phenomenon in question existed. A simple example of this kink of explanations
is the duck’s webbed feet. According to Aristotle’s reasoning, ducks have
webbed feet for the sake of swimming which is an activity that supports the goal
of a duck’s existence. That goal is to find food in water so as to stay alive


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