I'm reading an introduction to Aristotle's theory of causation, Aristotle by Christopher Shields, and I understand that he says that Aristotle's view of final causes is between teleological eliminativists and teleological intentionalists.

So far so good but I am having troubles with the following part:

The other alternative, Aristotle’s, has it that organisms have their ends neither by subordination to any larger system nor by the agency of a conscious designer, but rather intrinsically, in a non-derivative way.

Can you develop on that?

  • Maybe useful : Four approaches to teleology. Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 15:04
  • Great article. Correct me if I am wrong, but what I understand is that eliminativists hold that the world arranges itself by pure chance and intentionalists that the world arranges itself by the direct intervention of God's will. Aristotle's middle point is that there is final causality in nature, independently of God's will, and thus they can be understood without making reference to its creator. But in any case, this intrinsic nature-intrinsic causality is ultimately taken to God. Am I correct? @MauroALLEGRANZA Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 10:04

1 Answer 1


Aristotle's ideas about final causation apply to all organisms. The basic notions are those of a nature (phusis) and a potential for change (dunamis).

For instance, an acorn has a nature (phusis), an essence : it is the nut of an oak tree and it has an internal structure common and distinctive to organisms of its specific kind. It also has the potential for change (dunamis) and that potential is to change according to an intrinsic developmental pattern of organic growth until it reaches a state of maturity as an oak tree.

If we consider this process we see that the acorn has no end-state imposed on it by any larger system to which it is subordinate. It is a part of the (sub-lunary) cosmos but the cosmos does not design it to develop as it does into an oak tree or assign any goal to it. The acorn simply is what it is, an organism with an essential nature, capable of change and actually changing by a normal developmental pattern into an oak tree.

Nor are its nature and potential created by a designer. The Aristotelian God (theos) does not intervene in the world. It is pure thought thinking about pure thought. Certainly in Aristotle's grand teleology everything tries to imitate the perfection of God as best it can but this explains nothing in particular and we can bracket it out for present purposes.

The acorn has an end-state 'intrinsically, in a non-derivative way' by virtue of its essential nature, its potential for change and its normal developmental pattern as the kind of organism it is.

What is true of the acorn is equally true of the human being. A human being (generally a male citizen !) has an essential nature (phusis). Its ergon or proper work is to exercise its reason both theoretically and practically. This means acquiring and exercising the ethical and the intellectual virtues enumerated and specified in Nicomachean Ethics, III-VI. One of the intellectual virtues, practical wisdom (phronesis), needs the sphere of political participation and responsibility for its fullest development. This consideration plus the fact that the acquisition and exercise of the ethical and intellectual virtues requires the educational social context of the city-state (polis) find expression in Aristotle's description of 'man' (sic) as a 'political animal' (zōon politikon) at Politics 1278b 19.

Hope this helps. Add a comment if you need more information. Larga vida a Aristóteles.

  • Gracias por tu respuesta! What would be the teleology of nature then? Or should we stop the inquiry there? Also, can you participate on my question of the comment above with Mauro Allegranza? Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 10:06

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