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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Even though we find at the core of seventeenth-
century culture teleological conceptions (final causes
or end-purposes as explanations), almost all the impor-
tant philosophers of the time criticized them. Some
philosophers, like Boyle and Leibniz, who wished to
retain final causes, found it necessary to change their
significance. To criticize teleology was equivalent to
asserting that (a) nature is to be studied by itself and
through its own principles (juxta propria principia),
disregarding all purposes (final causes) external to the
scientific sphere; (b) this study assumes that nature
proceeds according to mechanical laws, and hence
ignores or denies any final causes internal to nature;
(c) only man can provide ends, for nature has no pur-
poses, but if anyone wishes to say that science has a
goal, that end is man. In other words, teleology
(finalism) can have only an artificial aspect (or, in the
language of that era, it belongs to the arts) and eventu-
ally a moral meaning, but neither a physical nor a
metaphysical one.

The refutation of teleology is best seen in the context
of the culture of the times. In the seventeenth century
man asserts in various ways his faith in technique and
his mastery over nature; the new science implies a
change in the conception of nature and of man's rela-
tions to nature. In order to control nature man detaches
himself from her and gives up anthropomorphism and
metaphysical anthropocentrism, the essential charac-
teristics of teleological ideas. Man still remains, indeed,
at the center of the universe, but that is due to his
own activity and not simply to a Providence that has
ordered everything for man's benefit. Only man is
active while nature is completely passive and material.
Now only after establishing these presuppositions is it
possible to reintroduce a universally valid theory like
the mechanical theory which treats man in the same
way as it treats Nature, interpreted not in terms of
final causes except to consider the ends inserted by man
in nature, that is, in technics and morals. The critics
of teleology almost exclusively attack Aristotle and the
Scholastics. Their criticisms were aimed chiefly at the
metaphysical principles that justified the application
of final causes in natural philosophy; however, except
in rare cases, the criticisms lack detailed applications.
Perhaps, this lack is explained by the fact that final
causes had already been abandoned in scientific prac-
tice; in any case, the discussion was focussed on the
domains of metaphysics and natural theology. More-
over, scholastic doctrine easily permitted discussion to


concentrate on its principles. Indeed, it was assumed
that all ends have to be desired, and they can be desired
according to the wishes of God or of man. Now nearly
all philosophers are agreed that man actually desires
certain ends in ethics and in the arts, and that God
desires ends in all that is created. But while it is ad-
mitted that man's ends are marks of man himself, it
is denied that God's ends are marks of man and that
it is legitimate to consider these ends in natural philos-
ophy; no longer is this science to study final causes,
but theology can do so only in so far as they can be
revealed to man.

As we shall see, criticism generally denied the
knowability of God's ends but not their existence.
Spinoza alone denied that God could have ends. His
was the most radical critique, however; the other phi-
losophers, on the contrary, tried not to compromise
the ideas of providence and free will, traditionally
linked to final causes. Four factors made possible and
facilitated the work of criticism: (a) the dissolving of
the idea of form; (b) the prior criticisms of the use
of final cause in natural philosophy and its ever more
widespread abandonment; (c) the spread of the mathe-
matical method; (d) the new theories about the unity
of the sciences.

(a) The idea of form was essential to Aristotelian
teleology because the actualization of form represented
exactly the end of a process. That idea comes to be
criticized at length in the sixteenth and then in the
seventeenth century, e.g., by Bernardino Telesio,
Francis Bacon, and Pierre Gassendi.

(b) The idea of end no longer had any importance
in mechanics. In biology, on the other hand, it was
preserved but there were a few authoritative voices
raised against it, e.g., that of Jean-Baptiste van Hel-
mont (1577-1644).

(c) Spinoza and a few others after him—e.g., Chris-
tian August Crusius (1758-1831)—saw in the geometric
method a singular enemy of teleology.

(d) The theories formulated in the seventeenth cen-
tury on the unity of the sciences presupposed empirical
sciences treated in separation from one another except
for a preconstituted general vision of the universe. The
reconstruction of their unity not only presupposes their
separation but respects, within certain limits, the au-
tonomy of the sciences. In that way the continuous
presence of God as the ultimate end was no longer
noticed inside a science (which had developed autono-
mously) but came to be considered separately in a more
general perspective, globally comprehending the rela-
tions between God and the universe. A far-reaching
element noticeably enters into the factors that have
facilitated the critique of final causes, viz., the new
resurgence of the philosophy of Lucretius (first century)
which yielded fruit in Michel de Montaigne, Pierre
Charron, and Francis Bacon.

Charron (in the footsteps of Montaigne) not only
combatted teleological anthropomorphism and anthro-
pocentrism but also reduced the concept of human ends
by regarding human nature as an end in itself, without
need of a final cause entering from outside, that is,
from God, for insertion in universal nature. Hence in
naturalistic ethics there is lacking the idea of a tran-
scendent highest good, which constitutes in a religious
ethics the supreme end of human actions. Thus the
concept of end came to be transformed with regard
to ethics. Paradoxically a more extreme idea than that
of Charron, viz., to mathematize ethics leaving aside
the idea of end, seemed to insinuate itself even in
Mersenne who was Charron's great enemy. However,
this tendency was to find its outlet partly in Hobbes
and completely in Spinoza.

Fundamental for almost all the seventeenth-century
philosophers were Francis Bacon's criticisms based on
the distinction between philosophy and theology, and
between human science and natural science. Bacon
believed that the idea of final cause compromises this
distinction and consequently the progress of natural
philosophy. The latter in fact can be known only by
means of the natural light of reason, while theology
on the contrary requires revelation; the two methods
of knowledge are not to be confused, and neither are
the two disciplines. God may wish to have final causes
in nature, but then they are to be studied where God's
will is studied, viz., in metaphysics, not in physics,
otherwise impiety sets in. If the study of final causes
has improperly penetrated natural philosophy, the
reason is, according to Bacon, that man believes himself
the measure of all things and attributes to nature laws
which are peculiar to him exclusively. Now the study
of final causes is proper for ethics and the arts, but
to introduce them into nature is anthropomorphism.
The use of final causes in natural philosophy is doubly
to be condemned, that is, for being both illegitimate
and sterile. Science aims at the control of nature and
demands the very progress which an unwarranted use
of final causes obstructs. On the other hand, final causes
clearly have their place in ethics because the end of
actions furnishes the criterion of moral behavior.

Galileo's criticism was developed within the context
of the attack on the geocentric conception of the
universe; it was directed, above all, at the anthropo-
centric character of final cause and was rather moder-
ate. Galileo maintained that a concept, according to
which the one and only end of the universe is man,
depreciates the omnipotence of God. Moreover, to
reason with final causes means to consecrate the sort
of ignorance which accompanies anthropocentrism.


Criticism is linked with a new idea of the relations
between man and nature: man is no longer at the
center of the universe, nor is what is advantageous to
man the criterion of scientific reasoning for either God
or man (God foresees, but this consideration escapes
scientific discourse).

Descartes' position is similar to Bacon's and Galileo's
if limited to the fact that he rejects the use of final
causes from natural philosophy; but he is more wary
in other disciplines and does not deny that God pos-
sesses final ends, or even that man can know them with
the natural light of reason alone. Descartes' discourse
never goes beyond this point, and he does not develop
ideas that he simply hints at; for example, that final
causes say nothing about the nature of the scientific
object. He has nonetheless insisted on criticizing
anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism, and the impiety
of those who claim to know final causes (for such a
person claims to know God's purposes and is therefore
vain). On the other hand, final causes have their func-
tion in ethics, but it is only a charitable and merely
conjectural function without ever being able to warrant
the status of scientific knowledge. In particular, his
criticism of anthropocentrism serves Descartes as a
subsidiary argument in criticizing geocentrism. Natu-
rally it is possible for God to reveal his purposes, but
the philosopher in the absence of such revelation has
at his disposal only the natural light of reason which
permits him to consider only efficient causes. None of
this prevents Descartes from admitting the intervention
of God in the creation, but he takes this into consid-
eration only when he speaks of very general principles.

Although Descartes' arguments show no particular
originality, they have enjoyed a very important role
historically. Following their master's suggestions the
Cartesians found themselves free to choose between
two roads: on the one hand, to subordinate to continu-
ous and special divine intervention the possibility of
explaining a more or less large number of natural
principles (but sufficiently general always); or else
render that intervention as something so general as to
make it practically of little interest. Generally the first
road was the one chosen.

There is no longer any talk of final causes in physics
(some concessions occur at times in biology) but they
still survive in metaphysical discourse, even though in
more general terms than those used by the Scholastics.
In ethics final causes succeed in prevailing undisputed,
but also beyond discussion was the condemnation of
anthropocentric and anthropomorphic conceptions.
These Cartesians bring no new argument against final
causes; as an exception, there is Jan de Raei (d. 1702)
who develops in an original manner the charge of
impiety against Aristotelian final causes, guilty (ac
cording to Raei) of having deified nature. Moreover,
the Cartesians reevaluate final causes somewhat. The
following are a few specific cases.

Henricus Regius (1598-1679) influenced by the
Calvinist doctrine, develops a deterministic view of
final causes, limited to theology and metaphysics, and
remaining mechanistic in physics and biology.

Johann Clauberg (1622-55) explains the body-mind
relation by taking recourse to the will of God as the
primary basis of final causation.

Lambert van Velthuysen (1622-85) accepts from
Calvinist theology the viewpoint of a determinism of
final causation (analogous to the viewpoint of Regius,
Velthuysen's is limited to theology and to the general
consideration of the relations of God to the world,
while natural philosophy remains mechanistic). He
denies that there is real contingency in the world by
maintaining that contingency is only an external de-
nomination arising out of our ignorance (a reason
deepened by Spinoza).

Arnold Geulincx (1624-69), although opposed to
final causes in natural philosophy, brings them back
in ethics, theology, and metaphysics; he appears to be
generally more moderate than Descartes, and yet we
find him rejecting any anthropocentric character from
final causes. Furthermore, even though he excludes the
consideration of final causes from natural philosophy,
he nonetheless puts all the natural sciences under the
insignia of final causation by maintaining that though
the origin of things is still to be studied according to
the criteria of the mechanical philosophy, their use is
to be considered in relation to the final end which can
be no other than God (occasionalism).

Nicolas Malebranche remains mechanistic in physics
but has reassessed the relevance of final causation in
other fields quite profoundly. His view of purposes as
causes, however, has nothing to do with that of the
Aristotelians, as is shown by his clear refutation of
substantial forms. In biology he restored final causes
seeking, however, not to expel mechanism but rather
to find a way of accommodating both; for example,
he considers the world of organic creatures as pre-
formed according to teleological criteria but their
growth and development follow mechanical laws. In
that way there is left open to mechanism a sphere in
which final causes operate from outside but without
violating the mechanical order. (The general attitude
of Leibniz was to be essentially the same.) Malebranche
maintains that God is the ultimate end by his own
nature, and that he orders the whole of creation with
his own ends in view; therefore, it is possible to state
the primary as well as secondary ends that God has
put in the universe, including the purposes of scientific
research which, however, proceeds in accord with the


laws of mechanism. Thus the viewpoint of final causes
originates in the domain of metaphysics and theology
and not in the physical realm. What we have here is
not an anthropocentric view of final causes but a theo-
centric one. And teleology does not reign undisputed
in ethics; although the morality of an act resides in
its end-purpose, the cause of this purpose or end is
not to be found in the end but in “self-love” (amour
) and in the desire to be happy. The study of
this cause is not teleological.

Quite different are the criticisms of final cause by
Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. Hobbes is more
explicit than his predecessors in reducing the final cause
to an efficient cause, and this he does not only in
natural philosophy but also in ethics based on the
principle of self-preservation rather than on the good
as the end willed. Moreover, by denying that the high-
est good (summum bonum) can be attained in this life
(with respect to what he calls “the so-called felicity
and ultimate end”), Hobbes intended to preclude the
possibility of fusing naturalistic ethics with religious
ethics, that is, with any concession to a transcendent
end. There is no lack of criticisms in the works of
Hobbes directed against anthropocentrism and an-
thropomorphism, for example, in defending the princi-
ple of inertia. The important thing to note is that these
criticisms run up against the source of religious belief
in the ignorance which induces men to believe the
world to be governed providentially, that is, by God's
purposes and for man's benefit.

We find the same criticism again in Spinoza, but put
more radically. He has not merely denied the know-
ability of final causes but absolutely denied their exist-
ence and their putative origin in God. Man, according
to Spinoza, believes that everything (God, nature, man
himself) acts through final causes (ends, purposes) be-
cause he does not know the true causes and refers all
natural phenomena to himself; that is, as if nature were
directed to man's benefit (anthropocentrism) by God,
who is imagined to be a sort of superman (anthropo-
morphism). But in nature everything happens accord-
ing to necessity and not freely. Final causes do not
help science and knowledge in general because they
induce man to refer every event to the inscrutable will
of God. Besides, belief in final causes tends to destroy
divine perfection because it deems God to have created
the world in order to assimilate it; we should have to
admit that God, lacking things in the world, has need
of them and is therefore imperfect. Spinoza extends
his criticism of final causes to the belief in providence
and miracles by maintaining that God never acts
against the laws of nature which he himself sanctions.
Final causes, thus excluded from God and from nature
(that is, from metaphysics, natural philosophy, and also
theology which has no cognitive value for Spinoza),
they are also routed from ethics. There are final causes
or end-purposes considered in his ethics but with the
premiss that they are illusory and not reliable instru-
ments of knowledge, even if they are objects of knowl-
edge. This teleological illusion is an inherent part of
human nature and justifiable only as ignorance of the
chain of efficient causes which determine human con-
duct. Spinoza also criticizes the idea of good under-
stood as the final cause of moral acts; he moreover
denies that such a good resides outside of human na-
ture. Man's task is to follow the laws of his own nature
and thus attain the maximum of knowledge and conse-
quently of blessedness. Every person acts through an
innate tendency to persevere in his own being (conatus
in suo esse perseverandi
). This principle is as much a
scientific one and as little a teleological one as the
principle of inertia.


Final causes had followers among the Scholastics,
among the biologists in the Aristotelian and Galenic
tradition, among the Neo-Platonists, and among those
philosophers in whom we customarily see the basic
features of the baroque period. Final causes were also
welcomed by other parties, e.g., by some of the atom-
ists despite the fact that they were strongly influenced
by Epicureanism. Sébastien Basson (ca. 1600) and
Pierre Gassendi were teleologists. Gassendi defended
his own views against those of Descartes by opposing
them on religious grounds, and by maintaining the
applicability of final causes in natural philosophy, es-
pecially in biology. Furthermore, Gassendi insisted on
the necessity of final causes that would demonstrate
the existence of God and his presence in creation.

Similar religious preoccupations guided Leibniz and
Boyle in their attitude toward final causes. Leibniz
maintained that Descartes' antifinalism led to Spinoza's
determinism (we may recall that in the Scholastic
tradition of final causation the ideas of free will and
providence were linked together; however, we have
also mentioned the finalistic determinism of the Cal-
vinists). Leibniz argued for the subordination of me-
chanical to final causes; in addition, he tended to inject
final causes also into physics, and believed he had
succeeded in doing so by dealing with an argument
in optics (light rays in refraction follow the path of
least action, a problem solved by the calculus of mini-
mal paths or “economy of action”). But he did not
succeed in going much farther, and in any case his
treatment of final causes did not rest on any structure
used by Aristotle to justify final causation. Still Leibniz
did speak often in favor of substantial forms and of
Plato's teleology. Religious concerns motivated him


and also convinced him that a mechanical explanation
of the universe was inadequate.

Robert Boyle insisted on the necessity of investi-
gating the ends or purposes of those things which were
studied according to the criteria of mechanism, but that
we ought not to ignore Divine providence. However,
he did believe it illegitimate to deduce from alleged
ends consequences otherwise unknown.

Despite all the attempts to restore final causes they
indeed received a very severe blow, particularly in
natural philosophy.


Robert Boyle, Works, ed. Thomas Birch, 6 vols. (London,
1772). R. B. Braithwaite, “Teleological Explanations,” Proc.
Aristotelian Soc.
N. S., 47 (1947), i-xxi. Enrico de Angelis,
La critica del finalismo nella cultura cartesiana. Contributi
per una ricerca
(Firenze, 1967). W. Heitler, Der Mensch und
die naturwissenschaftliche Erkenntnis
(Braunschweig, 1962).
Paul Janet, Les causes finales (Paris, 1876). G. W. Leibniz,
Monadology, in Leibniz Selections, ed. P. P. Wiener (New
York, 1951). Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science (New
York, 1961), pp. 401-28. R. B. Perry, “A Behavioristic View
of Purpose,” Journal of Philosophy, 18, 4 (Feb. 1921),
85-105. B. Spinoza, Ethics & The Improvement of the Under-
ed. James Gutmann, trans. William H. White
(New York, 1953). previous hit E next hit. C. Tolman, Purposive Behavior in
Animals and Men
(New York and London, 1932).


[See also Causation; Free Will; God; Nature; Progress; Right
and Good.]