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Aristotle on Teleology$
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Monte Ransome Johnson

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199285303

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199285306.001.0001

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Historical Background to the Interpretation of Aristotle's Teleology

Historical Background to the Interpretation of Aristotle's Teleology

(p.15) 1 Historical Background to the Interpretation of Aristotle's Teleology
Aristotle on Teleology

Monte Ransome Johnson

Oxford University Press

According to the standard history, Aristotelian teleology and final causes were discarded in the scientific revolution in favor of the mechanical philosophy. In fact, the term teleology was invented in the eighteenth century to designate the search for evidence of god in purposes, goals, intelligence, and design manifest in nature. The background natural theology is the adaptation of Aristotelian philosophy by Greek commentators and Neoplatonists (to bring it into line with the creation myth of Plato’s Timaeus), and by Arabic and Latin commentators (to being it into line with the creationism of Islam and Christianity). But already with the scholastics, there was a move to consider final causes applicable only to cases of intentional agency, or as a heuristic for material and moving causes (later, ‘mechanistic’ causes). Kant attempted to resolve the impasse between the natural theology and heuristic perspectives in his third Critique. Kant’s view of teleology has had a profound and arguably distorting influence on the later interpretation of Aristotle’s use of ends and goods in natural science. A better starting point for the examination of Aristotle’s teleology is a treatise by Aristotle’s associate and successor, Theophratus, who in his Metaphysics presents a critical view of teleological explanations.

Keywords:   heuristic, history of ideas, commentators, late ancient, medieval, Arabic philosophy, Christianity, natural theology, Kant, Theophrastus

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