Do you believe that everything has a purpose? Aristotle, the ancient Greek father of western philosophy, thought so, and he called that purpose, telos (pronounced ‘TELL-os’ or ‘TAY-los’). The word can mean ‘purpose,’ ‘intent,’ ‘end,’ or ‘goal,’ but as usual, Aristotle used it in a more specific and subtle sense—the inherent purpose of each thing, the ultimate reason for each thing being the way it is, whether created that way by human beings or nature.
Take my coffee mug as an example. If asked to define it, you might say something like, “it’s a kind of container from which to drink hot beverages”; nearly everything about the mug reveals its purpose. It is too small and open to hold anything but a drink or pencils; you wouldn’t want to carry gasoline in it! It’s too big for drinking shots of liquor. You can’t measure cups with it (not accurately anyway). Mine is ceramic and heavy, with a handle, which protects my hands from the heat of the coffee. You could of course, describe the mug without mentioning hot beverages, just describing its shape and materials in technical terms; but doing so would miss the most important thing about it, it’s very reason for existing – it’s telos.
The mug was made by humans for the drinking of coffee, and every human artifact is made for some purpose—chairs for sitting, cars for driving, television shows for entertaining. You can try to create something with no purpose, which a lot people would call “art,” except that it would then have a purpose—to make an artistic or philosophical statement.
But what about natural objects? Do trees and people have inherent purposes? And how can we define them without reference to religious beliefs? According to Aristotle, the telos of a plant or animal is also ‘what it was made for’—which can be observed. For example, trees seem to be made to grow, branch, produce fruit, nuts, or flowers, provide shade, and reproduce. So, that is all part of their telos. More importantly, each of these elements of a tree’s telos is something that the tree only does if healthy and thriving – only if it lives long enough and under the right conditions to fulfill its potential. You might try to argue that, according to these criteria, the telos of a tree is to eventually decay and die, and perhaps that is part of it, but Aristotle could disagree by saying that the telos of a thing is that which it does when it fulfills its full potential.
What about humans? According to Aristotle, the telos of a human being is happiness, or eudemonia actually, which means something more like “fulfillment.” Fulfillment of what? Our potential for excellence, or “virtues” in English translations of Aristotle. The word “virtue” in Aristotle, refers to artistic, scientific, athletic, or any other kind of excellence. They are the things human beings can do when they fulfill their potential, such as paint a picture, win a race, or write philosophy. Much of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to “virtues” of which there are a great variety, since each of us seems made to excel in different areas of life.
When Aristotle defined telos, it was in the context of a lengthy argument about politics, or politke in Greek, which referred to the political and social structures of city-states, not everything that we call politics today. Aristotle claimed that politics was the ultimate arena for the creation of eudemonia (human well-being) – that a person can, most likely, fulfill their telos only to the degree that his or her social and political environment facilitates it. This idea was central to the American founding fathers, who wrote in the “Declaration of Independence” that all humans are born with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It has also become the central philosophy of most modern states, especially in Europe, where most nations now provide full free education, health care, and other benefits (such as paternity leave) to their citizens. Before the 19th century, most nations had no such obligations to their citizens (even though the Greeks had progressed far down that road long ago).
At approximately the same time that nations were developing systems to foster the telos of their citizens, another revolution gave new meanings to telos and teleology (‘the study of telos,’ but often used just to mean telos): in the late 18th century, Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection, which explains exactly how living things come to appear so teleological – how each species and organ seems perfectly made to fulfill its purpose – eyes to see, hearts to pump blood, minds to reason, and whole organisms to reproduce – their ultimate natural purpose.
Does the Theory of Evolution explain or contradict Telos?
Ironically, although one could say that Darwin’s theory explains the apparent teleology of living things, it can be, and often is, seen in the opposite sense: since evolution works through random, un-designed processes, it shows that organisms have no natural telos. For instance, you do not have the ability to reason so that you can be excellent in your professional endeavors, but rather because some of your ancestors mutated enough to be a little more rational than others, and that happened to help them live longer and have more children than others. The potential of reason to create science and technology, or anything else, did not cause its evolution; everything about us was “engineered” accidentally by the blind mechanical process of natural selection. So, most scientists believe that attributing telos to living things constitutes a grave misunderstanding of evolution, and a dangerous one to rationality. After all, attributing telos to living things, can be used to justify intelligent design (theory that life was created by an intelligent entity) which denies science, the only method we have for deriving reliable truths about nature.
Others note that although the functions of evolutionary adaptations (such as our hearts and brains) may not have evolved to function as they do, it is almost impossible to talk about or understand them without referring to their telos. It makes no sense to talk about our ability to reason without mentioning what it accomplishes, because, evolution, although accidental and blind, results in organisms having certain natural potentials. For example, reason gives us the potential to solve problems, which is why it helped our ancestors survive. So, in a sense, it is true that we have reason because of its ends, even if those ends did not directly “cause” its evolution.
So, the debate continues, with many scientists considering it essential to eliminate teleology from the way we talk about biology, while others feel that such language is appropriate, or even necessary. However, both kinds of scientists agree that evolution did occur through natural selection and that teleology is, at best, an enlightening shorthand way to talk about evolution, not a literal truth. Since evolution shows how species evolve without intentional design, there is no reason to posit such a design.
V. Famous Quotes about Telos
“Pleasure and pain moreover supply the motives of desire and of avoidance, and the springs of conduct generally. This being so, it clearly follows that actions are right and praiseworthy only as being a means to the attainment of a life of pleasure. But that which is not itself a means to anything else, but to which all else is a means, is what the Greeks term the telos, the highest, ultimate or final Good.” ― Epicurus
Here, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus explains his own philosophy, Epicureanism, which urges us to live the most enjoyable lives possible; and, he justifies this philosophy with Aristotle’s definition of human telos, the “highest good” — that which is not a means to anything else, and to which all else is a means. Aristotle’s highest good was eudemonia, understood to mean happiness, well-being, and the fulfillment of one’s potential for good.
“Among the things most characteristic of organisms–most distinctive of living as opposed to inorganic systems–is a sort of directedness. Their structures and activities have an adaptedness, an evident and vital usefulness to the organism. Darwin’s answer and ours is to accept the common sense view…[that] the end (“telos”) [is] that the individual and the species may survive. But this end is (usually) unconscious and impersonal. Naive teleology is controverted not by ignoring the obvious existence of such ends but by providing a naturalistic, materialistic explanation of the adaptive characteristics serving them. [Book review in “Science,” 1959, p. 673.]” ― George Gaylord Simpson
Here, Simpson provides a particularly clear and pithy explanation of the confusing relationship between telos and Darwin’s theory; the most distinctive quality of living systems is their “directedness,” which some people might call “telos.” But it’s crucial to understand the “naturalistic, materialistic” explanation for that telos.
VI. Types of Telos
a. The telos of human artifacts
The purposes of human-created artifacts; i.e. books are for reading, chairs are for sitting, etc.
b. The telos of living things:
The purposes of the natural features of living things; i.e. wings are for flying, ears are for hearing.
c. The telos of historical trends:
The idea that historical processes have a telos became popular in the late 19th century, especially through Hegel’s dialectic and Karl Marx’s theories.
d. The telos of actions:
Telos is a central concept in the philosophy of human actions; actions are only those behaviors which have a telos – those that are intentional; thus we hesitate to refer to accidental behaviors, such as tripping, as “actions.”
VII. Telos versus Techne
Techne means “art,” “skill,” or “technique,” as one might guess from its appearance in words like technology and technical. It is often contrasted with telos as an alternate explanation for the characteristics of objects. In other words, one might say that a coffee mug is the way it is because of its telos (purpose) or because of its techne (its design and manufacture). Obviously human artifacts can be described in terms of both telos and techne, while natural objects cannot be explained by techne (unless one believes they were designed and created by gods or other intelligent agents).
VIII. Telos in Popular Culture
Example 1: Marvel’s X-men films
The “X-men” (and women) are human beings with genetic mutations giving them remarkable powers, such as telepathy and telekinesis. Like much science-fiction about human evolution, the X-Men comic books and films imply that evolution is teleological in a sense that few if any scientists accept. In these stories, mutations do not seem as purposeless as they are according to the theory of natural selection. Instead, in the X-men stories, each mutation creates a more powerful human being, as if evolution is proceeding with a purpose, rather than by chance.
Example 2: the Star Wars films
One of the most common tropes in movies, or any stories, about heroes, is the idea that a certain individual is destined to save the world, or something similar. In most stories, it is assumed that the hero was born for this purpose, making it morally wrong for them to refuse the duty (which they usually try to do). This is certainly a kind of telos – an inherent purpose for which the hero was made. In the Star Wars series, young Annakin Skywalker is believed to be “the one” destined to “restore balance to the Force.” When he surprises everyone by becoming Darth Vader instead, his son, Luke Skywalker inherits the destiny (thanks, Dad). As of the writing of this essay, we still don’t know if Luke will fulfill this telos during the last few films!