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Teleology & 4 Aristotelian Causes

Christoph Hueck (DE)

Teleology is an irritant word in natural science. Modern consciousness feels threatened in its autonomy and freedom at the thought of a goal direction in nature.

This was not always the case. Aristotle described teleology as immanent in nature: "Therefore, some are perplexed as to whether it is with the mind or something else that spiders do their work and ants and such animals. If one goes a little further, it becomes clear that in plants, too, something conducive to the goal comes into being, e.g. the leaves for the protection of the fruit. If, then, by nature and for the sake of a goal, the swallow builds its nest, the spider its spider's web, both the plant has its leaves for the sake of fruit and the roots not upwards but downwards for the sake of food, it is evident that there is such a cause [namely, a goal-cause] in the beings that by nature become and exist."[1, cf. 2]

In addition to the goal-cause, Aristotle described three others: "We do not think we know something until we have grasped the why with regard to it, i.e. its first cause. ... In one way, cause is called that ... of which something consists, e.g. the ore of the statue and the silver of the bowl; but in another way it is called the form ... - that is the concept of what it is meant to be, e.g. of the octave the division ratio of the string two to one; furthermore, that from where the first beginning of the movement or the persistence comes - e.g. the father is the cause of the child and everything that changes of the changed; furthermore, one speaks of cause in the sense of the goal, this is the therefore - e.g. of going for a walk, health. Why does one go for a walk? We say: to stay healthy. And by speaking in this way, we mean to indicate the cause."[3]

In later philosophy, the four causes were called the cause of form (causa formalis), the cause of matter (causa materialis), the cause of effect (causa efficiens) and the cause of the goal (causa finalis). The cause of form is the 'what' of a thing, the archetype or idea (Greek eidos, 'that which is to be seen'), which causes its essential characteristic. The cause of matter is the 'from what', i.e. the material that can be perceived by the senses. The cause of action means the 'whence' or the effecting (it corresponds to today's conception of a causal cause), and the cause of the goal means the 'wherefore', the purpose or goal.

Interestingly, Aristotle's doctrine of four causes corresponds to the time structure of a living organism as described in Organism, Time & Consciousness.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), influential co-founder of modern scientific methodology, fundamentally criticised this Aristotelian doctrine: "Causes are not improperly distributed into four kinds: the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final. But of these the final cause rather corrupts than advances the sciences, except such as have to do with human action. The discovery of the formal is despaired of. ... For though in nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies, performing pure individual acts according to a fixed law."[4]

Living organisms, however, show such an obviously teleological structure and development that the question of teleology flares up again and again. This is the case with Kant in the Critique of Judgement and, more generally, in the philosophy of the living.[5] The philosopher Thomas Nagel even considers a cosmic teleology to be possible: "The teleological hypothesis holds that life, consciousness and values are determined not only by value-free chemistry and physics, but by a cosmic disposition that has led to their formation".[6]


[1] Aristoteles: Physik II 8, 199b 21-30.

[2] Spaemann, Robert; Löw, Reinhard: Die Frage Wozu? Geschichte und Wiederentdeckung des teleologischen Denkens. München 1991.

[3] Aristoteles: Physik II 3, 194b 23-35.

[4] Bacon, Francis (1620): The new organon or true directions concerning the interpretation of nature. Book II, Aph. II, Dodo Press 2008, p. 69

[5] Cf. Allen, Colin & Neal, Jacob: Teleological notions in biology. In: The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition). For a current discussion cf. also Zunke, Christine: Dialektik des Lebendigen. Kritik der organischen Teleologie. Bielefeld 2023.

[6] Nagel, Thomas: Mind and cosmos. Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford 2012.

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