Three Meanings of “End”

Three Meanings of “End” In Teleology

The word “end” has three meanings in teleological accounts of things, although all the meanings have a unity in being a “that to which” something goes.

On the most basic level, the word “end” means simply “that to which something goes”. Hydrogen and oxygen, under certain conditions, form water, under different conditions, they make hydrogen peroxide. Depending on the conditions, “water” or “hydrogen peroxide” are the ends of the process. Wood stuck in a fire will burn up, and so under these conditions, “burning up” is the end of wood, and “to burn” is the end of the fire. All that the teleological account of such things notices is a determinate result from the action. In condition X, result Y will happen.

On a higher level, the word “end” means “that perfection to which something goes”. Seeds grow into full plants, and eventually acquire the power to make other plants, which they did not have before. This end is called “maturity”- a concept that has no place in the first and most basic meaning of the word “end”.

On a higher level than this, the word “end” can mean “that perfection that something goes to knowingly“. The word “knowingly” means two things here- the knowledge of sense alone, and the knowledge of sense united to intellect. A dog can chase a Frisbee with the end of catching it, and a man can throw a Frisbee, with the end of enjoying himself.

The confusion of these three meanings makes a trainwreck of teleology. Confuse the first with the second, and you’ll think any number of impossible things: that hydrogen is somehow “better off” for making water, or that teleology is impossible, since we see no maturity in chemicals, etc. Confusing the third meaning with any of the others ends up making teleology seem like some bizarre occult belief that invests chemicals and plants with knowledge.

Chemical reactions have no good or perfection in themselves. The closest they come to goodness is the good they have by providing good to another. Water isn’t better off because it condenses in a cloud and falls to the earth, but rain is a good for crops, and crops are good for man. It may be interesting to speculate about how it is good for water to condense under certain conditions, or if there is any such good to condensation at all, but answering this problem is does not affect the consideration of condensation as teleological. Condensation has some term- it makes vapor water fall from clouds, as opposed to hovering there or floating up. Teleology demands no more than this.

All thins should make clear that there is no opposition between mechanism and teleology. Mechanism can be accounted for teleologically without any destruction of its findings. Teleology simply gives an account for the presence of ends in things. It considers ends as such, and famously sees that all ends require a participation in intelligence, and that this intelligence reduces to a divine intellect. But this consideration happens after we see ends for what they are, and see them as present in all things in one way or another.


  1. sdcojai said,

    November 4, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Hello again, James.

    I think I agree that the confusion of these three meanings is a bad thing for teleology, but it seems to me that there is a serious problem here. You say that end in the sense of maturity has no part in the meaning of end in the sense of terminus. But you need to distinguish between a terminus understood as in a single instance from a terminus understood universally (e.g., the condensation of cold water). In the latter case, we can still distinguish between end as terminus and end as good, but it will only be a rational distinction, not a real one. This is what Aristotle intends us to understand by his proof that nature acts for an “end” (a good) from the always or for the most part. His claim, restated, is that from seeing something _universally_ as a terminus, end as good is revealed to us. This is a proper demonstration from effect to cause, because we can _understand_ that the terminus happening “always or for the most part” is the proper effect of the terminus being a good; or to put it negatively, there can be no universal terminus which is not a good in some respect.

    I am wondering if this is just what you meant in your last paragraph where you say that “teleology simply gives an account for the presence of ends.” (Which sense of end were you referring to?) But it seems to me that to claim that “mechanism can be accounted for teleologically without any destruction of its findings” is at least ambiguous, and liable to be misleading. Do we really know what we mean by “mechanism”?

    Just a thought or two….

    S. Collins

  2. November 4, 2009 at 10:53 am

    I think I agree with the critique. At the time I wrote this, I wanted to distinguish goods from terms, but I no longer think this is reasonable.

    At the time, I think I was convinced that the inanimate cannot have a good proper to itself, and that it was wholly subordinate to the good of animate things. My evidence was that I couldn’t see any way that water was better off for freezing or melting; or any way that a planet was any better off for being at equinox as opposed to solstice. I thought I could get an end by yoking it to the good of the animate. I would say now that it also has a good with respect to nature universally. I am still a bit stymied by how the inanimate can have a proper good by its various motions, but I lean towards thinking that it must have one, even if we can’t know what it is (though I’m not sure).

    And I dumped any notion of “mechanism” as a final explanation of nature after I read your article on force. For me, it resolved a nagging doubt that I had for years: “How can force be blind? Is it deaf too?” I could see that mechanism needed “blind forces” but I couldn’t see how they meant anything.

    Your article did make me wonder what you would say about, say, what is happening when a raindrop falls. Is your claim that, at the bottom, what we have here is a body seeking to maintain its size? How do I get from “this body seeks to maintain its size” to “this body therefore falls” (or “this body does what we call falling, whatever that is)

  3. sdcojai said,

    November 4, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Sorry, James… I didn’t even notice the date on that post I happened on, and assumed it was a recent one!

    Anyway, to your good question about rain falling: My view is not that we have merely a body seeking to maintain its size; general relativity says that, in addition, both the raindrop and the earth cause space to be formed into a constantly changing configuration which allows them to approach each other (but without either of them being a proper subject of motion); they act on space. Their action on space is a consequence of the natural subordination of space (which I think must be a kind of defective substance) to the bodies in space. This subordination is not “forced,” but for the sake of an end inscribed in the very nature of space.

    • November 5, 2009 at 6:10 am

      One difficulty I have with understanding relativity is that on the one hand when we look at the world quantitatively in a mathematical way we only see absolute uniformity (the “math world” exists in a space that is perfectly homogeneous) but on the other hand, your interpretation of relativity seems to require that quantity is not absolutely uniform; and this lack of uniformity gives rise to different orders of place. Is the imagination an impediment here because it makes the quantitative too uniform?

      More questions:

      1.) What activity is involved in falling? Or is to see such a motion in terms of activity not exactly correct?

      2.) If there is no proper subject of motion in falling (or in a uniform motion) how should we speak of it?

      I doubt I am dividing the question at the joints here, so feel free to start where you see fit. You can presuppose that I’ve read your force article carefully.

  4. sdcojai said,

    November 6, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Hi, James.

    Seems to me that your questions are very pertinent and well divided.

    The reason why many Aristotelians balk at a strong relativistic interpretation of inertia (according to which inertial motion is equivalent to rest) is partly because they think that it is self-evident that some motion is imparted to something when it suffers a “force.” I think that they are half right. Some _act_ is imparted, without a doubt (I mean not only with respect to size, but even with respect to place); but it need not be a motion such as they conceive. General relativity indicates that we should think of the act imparted as a new modality of action of the body itself upon spacetime, by virtue of which spacetime is reorganized, so that as a result the body itself is not moving differently, but located differently.

    That is why I wrote, in the essay, not that gravitation (which _is_ the form or ordering of spacetime) is the true _locomotive_ order of bodies, but rather, more fundamentally, that it is the true _locational_ order of bodies.

    I think that there is a gigantic opportunity here to think about the relation of modern physics to Aristotelian physics in a way which modern physicists have seen no need to undertake because they have very little philosophical understanding of what physical interpretation means — and if the truth be told, students of natural philosophy have not shown much perception about it either. It has been forever pretended that the manner in which an “act of the potential” can exist needs no examination, as if the mere thought itself were entirely sufficient to understand the reality. We should see that this is a little crazy.

    I think that what relativity strongly suggests (it would require a very long discussion to show how strongly, but one is badly mistaken if one thinks that I or physicists merely want to propose this on a whim) is a new and more adequate way to understand the insight which Aristotle saw but could not possibly describe in depth: namely that the “flux” which Heraclitus, Plato, and others had written off as mere privation and beneath intelligibility, was in fact a being and energeia. To have that intuition and to be able to articulate how it concretely happens are two very different things. I think that what relativity strongly suggests is that the _flux_ is in space, while the _act_ is in the body.

    … One further thought. The inertial state of bodies (which includes, in general relativity, the state of freely “moving” bodies in a gravitational field) is a stasis in a fluctuating gravitational field. But one might interpret this in more than one way. One could interpret the “stasis” to be the privation of a _possible_ movement in the body itself. But I think now that the much simpler and more coherent position will be to simply acknowledge that the act called local motion _is_ nothing but this stasis itself, called “motion” insofar as it entails changing relations of proximity between bodies. In other words, there may be no such thing as an “act of the potential” conceived of in the old way, where the flux and the act which together constitute motion had to be seen as in the very same subject without qualification. I think that relativity theorists may, without knowing it, have thus found the reason why that conception was never easy to grasp — as even Aristotle himself recognized.

    The other interpretation will make motion, as conceived by the physicist, closer in appearance to motion according to the higher order of place, since it brings about changes in relative location. What bothered me for quite a while about my own account (before I saw this) is that I felt that I was making too much of a hiatus between motion according to different orders of place. In the way of conceiving I have just proposed, we are freed from the obligation of thinking that we have to find some proper “motion” on the lowest level of physical body which is anything other than what the physicists themselves say it is, namely relative.

    But to say it is “relative” is, emphatically, _not_ to say that it is in the eye of the beholder. Motion on the lowest level will also now be more easily understood as ordered, precisely, to the local organization of bodies which supports higher forms of being, since a salient feature of gravitation is that it brings about congregation of bodies, as in the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets, into the sorts of environments which are suitable for higher levels of being.

    This still isn’t as clear as I would like it to be, but maybe it’s the best I can manage for now. Hopefully it’s at least something like the truth.


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