Imagine some complex system that may have a wide variety of possible actions/outputs, and that to some extent may be responsive to its circumstances.

I'm trying to find a suitable term (hopefully a single word, a particularly apt phrase may do) for treating such a system as if it had motives - as if it was seeking or wanting some outcome or set of outcomes.

I'm not really looking for anthropomorphism (attributing specifically human qualities), since the motives needn't be human ones -- after all, an animal might easily have motives, so the word carries implications I don't wish to convey. I'm also not looking for reification, as the system may itself be concrete (a gyroscope, for example can be responsive, and seem as if it were seeking to maintain its orientation), and that doesn't convey the sense of treating it as if it had motives.

It's something in the ballpark of the pathetic fallacy, but that's not exactly what I'm after. It would almost do, but I'm trying to avoid the suggestion of fallacy -- the context is more a metaphorical usage than a logical argument, so I think something suggesting there's fallacy involved isn't quite what's called for; indeed sometimes such metaphorical usage may be quite vivid, even productive (at least where the analogy helps), even if potentially misleading when taken too far.

Is there another such a word or phrase?

[Some possible examples/near analogies occurred to me as I typed ... sometimes people speak of evolution as if it were seeking to adapt, though it doesn't. Sometimes people attribute similar notions to an economy or market... as if it were trying or acting to achieve some kind of outcome. What might one call it when someone does that?]

  • 1
    I'm not sure what you want or what would be reasonable. It's entirely normal and human nature to describe inanimate objects as having "wants". For instance, you might tell a mechanic that your car "wants to pull to the left". And computer systems are designed and configured with "desires" built in such that one might say that "the system wants to run a backup routine overnight". This is not so much anthropomorphism as it is simply using metaphoric language as a short-cut vs explaining things mechanically.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 3:37

4 Answers 4


Perhaps the idea you have in mind is teleology, which Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) defines as follows:

teleology n (1740) 1 a : the study of evidences of design in nature b : a doctrine (as in vitalism) that ends are immanent in nature c : a doctrine explaining phenomena by final causes 2 : the fact or character attributed to nature or natural processes of being directed toward an end or shaped by a purpose 3 : the use of design or purpose as an explanation of natural phenomena

The most relevant definition of teleology for your purposes appears to be number 2 above.

  • Thanks; teleology is certainly closely related to what I want to express. (It's a word I've used numerous times before, I didn't think to mention it.)
    – Glen_b
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 7:34
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    Yes, very close, and a great term. But it's not exacty what you're looking for, right? Wikipedia's "telelogy" page: a teleological explanation of why forks have prongs is that this design helps humans eat certain foods; stabbing food to help humans eat is what forks are for. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleology That says nothing about forks "wanting" to stab foods to feed humans! It would be interesting to see what some philosophers who are deep into the topic would suggest. But it's very possible that their terms would be meaningful only to themselves, unless defined with each use. Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 4:55

In the case of the gyroscope, or any system that "tries" to maintain its current, stable state, you could say that it "seeks" homeostasis.

You might say that markets similarly tend to re-balance—over the long run anyway.

Evolution, as you mention, is not a matter of motivation, but rather of adaptation. So a system that evolves based on external stimuli can be said to be adaptive. (Some might even call it heuristic: i.e., able to "learn from its mistakes".)

However, any system that actually acts in a way so as to become different than it is must be described as having motives; that is, it has the motivation (=putting into motion) that the designers built into it. This does not mean that it is sentient.

But, If you think the system seems to "want" to do something hamful to you, and it doesn't want to, that's called paranoia.

  • Thanks for the nice answer. Motive is a word with multiple meanings and within those, shades of meaning. The intent in my usage was something along the lines of a reason or emotion that makes one want to do something, rather than merely a sense like "that which causes a thing to move".
    – Glen_b
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 7:29
  • As such a system does not yet exist, you might find more creative answers in the science fiction SE. Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 7:46
  • I presume you understand that a person might ascribe motive (in the abovementioned sense) to a system that doesn't actually have emotions (e.g. because they're using a metaphor or making a category error). We have many related words. If someone calls their car 'she' and attributes specifically human qualities to it, we don't tell them "KITT isn't real, that's science fiction" -- but we do have a name for it -- anthropomorphism. I'm asking what to call it when they ascribe motive (in the above sense) to a system (which clearly can't possess it) -- but not a human motive. ...(ctd)
    – Glen_b
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 8:04
  • (ctd)... if there's no English term, so be it, but I don't think even creative SF answers will likely suit the purpose (not doubt they could give me all manner of good terms for KITT, too, but I'm not asking for a term for a system with emotions). I'll have to get by with a longer phrase to describe this particular metaphor/category error.
    – Glen_b
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 8:08
  • Okay, so you're not asking for a term for a system that has emotions. Yet you cite a definition that includes that. Let's suppose you meant to include only "reason that makes one want to do something". "wanting" (as now construed) is an emotion, whereas "needing" is not. So are we talking about a system that does what it needs to do to survive, but we view this as "wanting" to do that? Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 8:22

Rationale might be in the ballpark you want:

A set of reasons or a logical basis for a course of action or belief

Or, actually, far more saliently, given you are describing a system that must have some kind of internal reasoning process to relate input to output and be responsive, it's origin - The latin 'rationalis', meaning 'endowed with reason'.

  • I don't think reasoning is required for responsiveness at all. A gyroscope is responsive in a way that might cause us to mistakenly (or metaphorically) attribute intent to it, but doesn't have what I'd call internal reasoning. [If I push a spinning top and it rights itself after wobbling about, it doesn't have "internal reasoning" by most people's reckoning -- but a child might well say "look, it's trying to stand up!"]... Further, all manner of systems with internal feedback - a thermostat is a simple example - may have complex behavior without necessarily having anything like reasoning..
    – Glen_b
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 12:07
  • "may have a wide variety of possible actions/outputs, and that to some extent may be responsive to its circumstances." I'm taking the cue for 'reasoning' from this part of your question - I would contend an analogy of a gyroscope doesn't fit this more complex type of system as outlined, and that a system that has a wide range of responses and some adaptability must surely have some kind of decision-making process. A single-celled organism is perhaps a better example to show my point - its behaviour has a consistent pattern, which suggests some level of decision-making i.e. reasoning.
    – Sam
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 14:45

As far as I know, you need at least two words to capture what you want to express, such as

attribute, ascribe, imbue, or etc., plus

will, mind, life, consciousness, etc.

I would suppose that any more-precise language to capture the idea would be specialized language with meaning that is shared only among a restricted group (e.g., some philosophers or cognitive scientists).

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