Thoughts on Teleology

Teleology is another subject on which my perspective has changed drastically over the years.

After a youthful fascination with Plotinus, my main interest turned toward the diverse group of writers loosely associated with French “structuralism”, several of whom were very interested in Spinoza. For some years, Spinoza became the great philosopher I identified with most. I had not explicitly thought much about teleology before, but Spinoza’s very sharp critique in the appendix to book 1 of the Ethics impressed me greatly. At the time, I did not trouble myself over whether it was fair to the historic Aristotle. I defended without reservation the strong determinism of Spinoza and the Stoics, emphasizing an understanding of the causes of things as the main path to enlightenment. At this time also, some contemporary writers on mathematical “chaos theory” were proposing what they called a superdeterminism, which would allow for deterministic explanation of all sorts of nonlinear phenomena, by an innovative separation of the notion of determinism from its traditional connotations of predictability. I had not yet begun to question what I have been referring to here as the “modern notion” of causality. My great preoccupation was with defending the possibility of ethics within a deterministic context.

My deeper engagement with Aristotle began initially with problems of things “said in many ways”. In my professional work as a data modeler, I was very concerned with the ambiguities of common-sense apprehensions of things, which I wanted to overcome in Platonic fashion. The univocity that Aristotle treats in a balanced way I initially saw more one-sidedly as an ideal to aim for in the quest for knowledge, though without underestimating the difficulty of attempting to treat everything in a univocal manner, or as comprehended by a single grand, consistent theory. Meanwhile, my personal interests were focused on questions of the interpretation of the history of human cultural development.

Gradually, I became more and more impressed with the importance of what I came to call “objective ambiguity” in history — the idea that this was not just a defect of our understanding or interpretation, but that the most objective reality of the concrete world may often reflect mixed or “in between” states of things. Eventually, I came to recognize that Aristotle, perhaps more than any other of the great philosophers, deeply thought about this and took it into account. I became aware of the arguments of Leibniz that all necessity is hypothetical, then realized Aristotle had already said that all necessity in generated things is hypothetical.

As Spinoza said, strict causal necessity rules out the “play” in things that leaves room for teleological explanation. But I have become convinced that that “play” in things is not something to be explained away as a mere appearance. Hypothetical necessity respects both the element of (conditional) necessity in things and this inherent “play”. It now appears to me as a priceless Aristotelian mean, and a kind of Hegelian synthesis of determination and play or flexibility.

The way Aristotle applies hypothetical necessity to determination by ends removes the mystery from final causes. Aristotle emphasizes the alternative that Spinoza ignored — that teleology need not be the product of conscious aims of a supernatural being or beings “intervening” in the natural order. In Aristotle’s non-reductionist view of the intelligibility of nature, natural things are shaped by inherent “tendencies” to seek certain states that are nonetheless not strictly determining. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Ends; Equivocal Determination; Free Will and Determinism.)

Freedom Without Sovereignty

Talk about freedom tends to be terribly ambiguous. Do we mean freedom from compulsion, or freedom from determination, or freedom resulting from some positive power? Do we mean anything other than complete unfreedom, or a super-strong total freedom, or something in between?

As to the last question, we ought at least to avoid claiming we are subject to an overly strong unfreedom, without claiming we possess an overly strong freedom. There is an Aristotelian mean here waiting to be clarified.

A first step toward such a clarification is to recognize that freedom ought not to be understood as implying something like sovereignty. Sovereignty is a kind of unconditional, total, exclusive authority or power over a domain. I want to say that nothing in the real world really does or ought to work like that. True freedom involves freedom from this kind of false freedom.

Historically, theories of sovereignty trace back to the absolute and arbitrary power attributed to the Roman emperors. The modern concept of sovereignty originated in arguments for absolute monarchy, e.g., by Jean Bodin in the late 16th century. In later political thought, the notion of sovereignty was transferred to the state as an institution, or in Rousseau’s case to a supposed general will of the people. To the extent that sovereignty of nations really just implies a kind of respect, it is unobjectionable, but to the extent that it is taken to imply a right to do arbitrary things, it is harmful.

Modern notions of individual unilateral rights, while in many cases referring to things that ought to be protected and respected more than they are, are a bad theoretical basis for good ethical concern. The notion of unilateral rights is implicitly grounded in a notion of sovereignty of each individual over a certain domain. At best, rights are a safeguard against failures of mutual recognition and Kantian respect for people, which ought to come first.

We need to think about responsibility in ways that do not presuppose that we must have some kind of sovereignty in order to be responsible. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Rationality; Choice, Deliberation; Brandomian Choice; Kantian Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Free Will and Determinism; Freedom and Free Will; Desire of the Master; Independence, Freedom; Ego; Euthyphro; Strong Omnipotence; Tyranny.)

Aristotelian Virtue

Aristotelian ethics is not just about cultivating virtue as a kind of good character. Although he does emphasize it a lot, ultimately character is just a means and a potentiality for actualization of the real goal of that part of living well that is under our power. The actualization itself comes from good practice (praxis), grounded in sound, well-rounded deliberation and choice. Aristotle also says the very best life is that of the philosopher. Not only is philosophy valuable in itself, but it also helps us deliberate.

The best deliberation and choice is supported by intellectual virtues, a concern for justice, and a spirit of friendship or love, but it would not even get off the ground without progress in the classic “moral” virtues, which are all said to pertain to our emotions or passions, and to how we are affected by pleasure and pain. Aristotle characterizes each of these emotional virtues as a kind of mean, or balanced emotional state.

Thus, courage is presented as a mean between rashness and cowardice. Temperance is a mean between self-indulgence and insensibility. Interestingly, justice and prudence are also included among emotional virtues, and subjected to a similar analysis. Other emotional virtues are presented as following the same pattern. Unlike the Stoics, neither Plato nor Aristotle advocated suppressing the emotions.


An Aristotelian mean is not the subject of a fixed formula that could just be “applied” to yield a result, like an arithmetical mean. An Aristotelian mean also has nothing to do with mere compromise. It is a kind of structural rather than quantitative criterion. A mean is not necessarily between one-sided options, but may instead be outside the space determined by their confrontation. It is a product of practical judgment or phronesis. It takes interpretive work to arrive at one. The mean just represents an ideal of avoiding one-sidedness. When Hegel complains about something being one-sided, he is saying the mean has been missed.