Teleology (Gk: telos = end, purpose; logos = discourse)
Wikipedia begins its entry by saying that teleology is all about a thing’s purpose. So the teleology of the prongs in a fork is that it enables people to eat. The meaning of the prongs is that they facilitate eating.
I’ve never really thought about it that way, because in school the end point of some rational meaning was emphasized whenever teleology was covered.
For me, teleology always meant what a thing is headed for, at which point its ultimate meaning (supposedly) will be found. Teleology was a process. But not just some random, discontinuous process as so many postmoderns suggest.
The joy of Wikipedia is that we can see how lacking some university profs were back in the day. They’d grab some Coles or Sparks notes, and suddenly be an expert in their field.
So in my old 2009 entry at earthpages.ca, I said teleology is
the philosophical and theological idea that all of creation is directed toward and unfolds according to a meaningful and rational outcome.
Well, this is partly true, but the story is clearly more complicated, as it usually is in a history of ideas.
In philosophy one of the most popular teleologies is that of G. W. F. Hegel, who presumed a World Spirit guides human history through successive resolutions of contradictions.
According to Hegel, the main characteristic of this unity was that it evolved through and manifested itself in contradiction and negation. Contradiction and negation have a dynamic quality that at every point in each domain of reality—consciousness, history, philosophy, art, nature, society—leads to further development until a rational unity is reached that preserves the contradictions as phases and sub-parts by lifting them up (Aufhebung) to a higher unity.¹
In social theory, Karl Marx is said to have turned Hegelian theory “on its head” by creating an historical teleology devoid of spirituality, and which predicts the supposed inevitability of Communism.
Marx believed that human history passed and would pass through definite socioeconomic stages:
- Primitive Communism
As we see with 3 and 4, Marx believed that Capitalism inevitably passes into Communism. But again, the actual picture of what’s going on in the world reveals a very different story. A far more complicated one.
In theology different teleologies have been devised. Some see God as an omniscient and external designer to creation. Hence, intelligent design. Others maintain that God is contained within the creation, learning and evolving as events progress through time.
Theologies, of course, are much harder to disprove than social theories. Maybe dead people can see where theories went astray. But down here on earth, we usually have no way to know too much for certain. So some theologians can lay guilt trips on freethinkers or ostracize them, simply for applying their God-given intellects and admitting uncertainty.
Needless to say, I don’t think this a good thing. I suppose a similar dynamic occurs in academic philosophy. For example, if a up and coming Teaching Assistant or Sessional Instructor doesn’t see things like the big cheese in the department, chances are they won’t advance too far. If anyone thinks small p (as in petty) politics don’t figure in academia, they’d probably do well to think again. And let’s not forget big E – economics.²
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