A doctor (while giving me a physical) recently said to me that we needn't have to look for teleological explanations for my condition. I looked at many web sites, but not one could provide a simple and succinct definition of what a teleological explanation means. All the definitions seemed to be written in a sort of philosophical "double talk" involving ends, purposes, design. I have to believe that a very simple and universally understandable definition exists. (As Einstein once said, genius is taking the complex and making it simple.)

Here is an example sentence from the New Yorker magazine "One natural objection to the search for Dyson spheres is that it presupposes an endlessly consumptive technological teleology". What does teleology mean in that sentence ?

Here is another example sentence from Slate: "Committed to a teleology of progress, albeit open to the reality of historical irony, this liberalism lacks a visceral sense of the tragic." What does teleology mean in that sentence ?

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    "Teleology. A teleology is an account of a given thing's purpose. For example, 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. A purpose that is imposed by a human use, such as that." basicknowledge101.com/pdf/Teleology.pdf Good Luck.
    – Kris
    Dec 10, 2019 at 13:07
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    "I looked at many web sites, ...." Let's know where you looked, what you found and how the definition was not clear enough to apply for you.
    – Kris
    Dec 10, 2019 at 13:09
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    It seems to be an overused word these days, often used where "purpose" or "direction" (in time) or "goal" or "guiding principle" would suffice, but good dictionaries give a reasonably clear explanation. The second sentence you cite (from Slate) is terrible writing, though. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/teleology
    – Stuart F
    Dec 10, 2019 at 14:02
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    @WS2 No. The teleo- refers to telos, an end or goal. A teleology or a teleological argument focuses on real or presumed end-results, or on ways that something tends toward a particular end. The idea of destiny is teleological, for instance, since it presumes an event (an end or goal) is preordained. Dec 10, 2019 at 16:19
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    What is the phrase 'philosophical "double talk"' supposed to mean here? Teleology is a term whose home is in philosophy, so it is to be expected that an account of its meaning will be philosophical in nature. Such an account is bound to involve 'ends, purposes, design', because that's what the meaning of the term involves. There may arguably be some 'double talk' in the specific examples of its use that are quoted here, but that's not the fault of the term, or its definition.
    – jsw29
    Dec 10, 2019 at 16:27

5 Answers 5


The word "teleology" is derived from the greek words "τέλος" (télos, respectively its Genitive "τελέως" teléōs), which means goal, reason (for), aim, etc., and "λόγος" (lógos), which means reason or explanation. Teleology is, by and large, the science of purposes a thing has.

The example @Kris mentioned - the fork being formed so that it can be used for a certain purpose - is what is called an extrinsic purpose. That means, the purpose for the fork (and it being formed that way) only exists in relation to humans and ho we eat. In comparison, there might be also intrinsic purposes: a classical example would be that Aristotle claimed the purpose of an acorn is to become a full-grown oak tree.

Coming back to your question:

"One natural objection to the search for Dyson spheres is that it presupposes an endlessly consumptive technological teleology". What does teleology mean in that sentence ?

Here, "teleology" is basically just a presumptuous replacement for "purpose". Basically it says: we imply that with the advance of technology the amount of energy necessary to power that technology will always increase - here and everywhere else in the universe. And because we suppose that every (alien) civilization will need increasing amounts of energy they will inevitably come to the point where they will need Dyson spheres to get that much energy. But (this is the objection) maybe we are just wrong and the endless increase of needed energy just isn't there - and therefore these presumed aliens won't have the need to build Dyson spheres in the first place.


If your doctor said:

we needn't have to look for teleological explanations for my condition

then perhaps s/he was saying that you didn't need to appeal to your body's designer / Designer to explain your condition. (I'm giving an alternative depending on if you are a naturalist as opposed to theistic. A naturalist like Charles Darwin or humanist like David Hume would take the little d. A theist like Sir Isaac Newton would take the capital D.)

The Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument) says:

The teleological or physico-theological argument, also known as the argument from design, or intelligent design argument is an argument for the existence of God or, more generally, for an intelligent creator based on perceived evidence of deliberate design in the natural world.

For the New Yorker article, "an endlessly consumptive technological teleology," one could perhaps substitute "teleology" with "argument from design." Perhaps the sentence is saying something like, "People object to the search for Dyson spheres because it assumes that the aliens creating these spheres did so in order to satisfy their need to design these spheres."

(And I will leave the Slate sentence untouched, agreeing with the commenter.)


Words ending in '-ological' are bound to be misused by someone, and teleological is a classic example of this. Indeed, it illustrates a paradoxical consequence of basing definitions on the use most widely made of long words derived from Latin or Greek. They could entrench malapropisms in the language.

The word teleological is derived from the Greek word telos (τελος), in the senses of end (both an ending and a purpose). In the Etymonline dictionary it traces the word to an 18th century German philosopher:-

"study of final causes," 1740, from Modern Latin teleologia, coined 1728 by German philosopher Baron Christian von Wolff (1679-1754) from Greek teleos "entire, perfect, complete," genitive of telos "end, goal, result" (see telos), + -logia (see -logy). Related: Teleologist; teleological.

The online definition of Cambridge English Dictionary gives the definition

(in philosophy) involving the belief that everything has a purpose or use: < a teleological argument

So the OP is rightly questioning how the use of this adjective could have anything to do with the cause, treatment or prospects of a medical condition. There are possibilities. For example, if a Doctor told a patient that their condition was 'reminder' to stop smoking, take more exercise or change diet, the use of the word reminder would deliberately make it seem as if the condition had a purpose. It would be fair to call such a usage metaphorical.

  • Shifts in meanings ('semantic drift') have been common in English, and the more serious error is pretending that usage doesn't inform correctness. Jul 18, 2023 at 18:03
  • Point taken, though the Cambridge seems to be sticking to its old fashioned guns.
    – Tuffy
    Jul 18, 2023 at 20:59
  • The use of teleological that the OP encountered has in its background more than 23 centuries of philosophical theorising (which started with Aristotle's theory about four 'causes'), and cannot be understood without at least some familiarity with it. What the OP needs is a lesson in philosophy that would be well outside the boundaries of this site; his question cannot be dealt with by consulting a dictionary.
    – jsw29
    Jul 18, 2023 at 22:13
  • @ jsw29 I couldn't agree more.
    – Tuffy
    Jul 19, 2023 at 15:00
  • @jsw29: Depends on whether OP is asking what his doctor meant in the context of his condition, or asking about philosophy. If the latter, this is the wrong site.
    – TimR
    Jul 20, 2023 at 11:17

I think your doctor was saying that the cause of the condition doesn't need to be discovered, and that the symptoms merely need to be treated. Focus shouldn't be on why the condition exists or on the physiology that produces it and makes it progress, but on how to address it.

I'm suggesting this based on your use of the word "explanations", which I assume was you quoting or paraphrasing the doctor. Teleology in medical contexts can also refer to end-of-life scenarios. If your doctor didn't say anything about "explanations" but simply said you don't need to concern yourself about teleology, the doctor could have been reassuring you that the condition isn't fatal.

  • The first sentence here suggests that teleological was a malapropism. Jul 18, 2023 at 16:48
  • Depends. A "condition" is not usually said to have an end-purpose in the way an organ does, except perhaps in the case of auto-immune disorders. The body's immune response does serve a purpose. Thus, the question "What is causing the body to act this way?" or "What is the immune system trying to do? That's tantamount to asking "What is the body responding to?" What's causing this? The answer is often not known. So some treatments merely suppress the immune system instead of removing the trigger.
    – TimR
    Jul 18, 2023 at 18:28

A doctor (while giving me a physical) recently said to me that we needn't have to look for teleological explanations for my condition.

I suspect that your doctor may have confused the word teleological, which makes little sense in this context, with etiological, which makes perfect sense. Etiological is a medical term, derived from etiology, defined by TFD as "the cause or origin of a disease or disorder as determined by medical diagnosis."

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