Social Research Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Teleology is most commonly used to refer to a view that argues that certain phenomena can best be explained by reference to their puposes.

explanatory context

Rather than a causal explanation of the phenomenon, the aims, ends, or intentions of the observed phenomenon or behaviour are used to explain the process. Thus animal behaviour is about an intention to survive, an intermediate step being to seek out food. A games player's activities may be seen as a function of aiming to win, and so on.


There is much debate about the efficacy of this kind of approach to explanation, not surprisingly amongst positivists in general but particularly amongst sociobiologists and philosophers of science. There has been a tendency for a over-rigorous and rather unhelpful ascription of teleology to social scientific arguments among some positivists. This has reached the point in some writing where teleology has become a virtual term of abuse.

The rather less used meaning of teleology is one that refers to a view that everything in the world has been designed by a supernatural being for the purpose of humans.

analytical review

An anonymous (undated) explanation drawing on Wikipedia states :

Teleology (Greek: telos: end, purpose) is the philosophical study of design and purpose. A teleological school of thought is one that holds all things to be designed for or directed toward a final result, that there is an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists.
It is traditionally contrasted with metaphysical naturalism, which views nature as lacking design or purpose. In the first case form is defined by function, in the second function is defined by form. Teleology would say that a person has eyes because he has the need of eyesight, (form follows function), while naturalism would argue that a person has sight simply because he has eyes, or that function follows form (eyesight follows from having eyes).
In European philosophy, teleology may be identified with Aristotelianism and the scholastic tradition. Most theology presupposes a teleology: "intelligent design" is a teleological argument for the existence of God. Aristotle's analysis speaks of a material cause, efficient cause, and formal cause but all these serve a final cause.
Later teleology was fundamental to the speculative philosophy of Hegel and was explored in detail by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement.
In general it may be said that there are two types of final cause, which may be called intrinsic finality and extrinsic finality.
Extrinsic finality consists of a being realizing a purpose outside that being, for the utility and welfare of other beings. For instance, minerals are "designed" to be used by plants which are in turn "designed" to be used by animals - and similarly humanity serves some ultimate good beyond itself.
Intrinsic finality consists of a being realizing a purpose directed toward the perfection of its own nature. In essence, it is what is "good for" a being. Just as physical masses obey universal gravitational tendencies, which did not evolve, but are simply a cosmic "given", so life is intended to behave in certain ways so as to preserve itself from death, disease, and pain.
In bioethics, teleology is used to describe the utilitarian view that an action's ethics is determined by its good or bad consequences.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'teleology' as:

Goal seeking; usually used as a criticism of a theory that assumes that societies have goals that are more than the goals of the individuals making up the society.

associated issues


related areas

See also




Anonymous, undated, 'AskDefine: Define teleology' available at, accessed 8 May 2013, still available 15 June 2019.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home