Understanding Teleology

JW Rich
8 min readFeb 3, 2024
Jordan Peterson’s graphical account of human action from “Maps of Meaning”

1. A Priori Categories

How do you know what you know about the world? You may say that something is true, but how do you know that it is true?

You could provide some type of argument with premises and a conclusion to prove its validity. But this only begs the question: how do you know those premises are true? You could construct even more arguments, but how do you know the premises in these third-level arguments are true either? Clearly, we’re only pushing the question back. As long as our knowledge about the world is contingent on other knowledge, we are hopelessly stuck in an epistemological infinite regress. We do have knowledge about the world, so surely it can’t be elephants all the way down. The escape hatch from this regress is knowledge that is known automatically to be true and contingent on nothing outside itself. These facts are known a priori, meaning without any prior experience.

These a priori facts — or more accurately, a prori categories — serve as the concrete foundation for human knowledge and interaction with the world. While much of what we know is contingent and based on experience (water freezes at 32 Fahrenheit / 0 Celsius), these facts are ultimately built upon foundational, non-contingent categories. These categories are so ingrained in our own mental paradigms that we often don’t recognize them as knowledge at all. The concept of existence — that entities exist in the plane of reality — is a core aspect of understanding the world, but it feels imminently unnatural to refer to “knowing” the idea of existence. We share a similar familiarity with other concepts, such as time, space, logic, etc. Everything that we see and experience is built off of and interpreted through these categories. They are a necessary and indelible part of our mind’s construction, and as a result, they shape the way that we understand and see the world.

Crucially, these categories cannot be learned. They must be understood as an element of the a priori construction of the mind, or they cannot be understood at all. They cannot be acquired through experience in the world. For example, how could you explain the idea of a three dimensional plane to someone who didn’t already grasp the concept of physical space? Could you explain time to someone who had never experienced a temporal flow before? Because these categories are a priori, anyone without these categories has no frame of reference for comprehending them. Because they reside outside of experience, there is no type or degree of experience that could bring someone to an independent understanding of them. Space and time can only be understood by reference to space and time — nothing else. As such, they cannot be learned, they must be inherently understood.

2. The Category of Teleology

The human mind holds a great number of a priori categories, but there is one that is of particular interest: teleology. While one of the most vital elements of the human psyche, it is often not even recognized as being among the a priori categories at all. The category of teleology contains the concepts of human intention and desire. Unlike rocks or trees or plants, human beings are not passive participants in the world. Instead, we observe the world around us, and desire to see it changed in certain ways. The process of seeing these changes manifested is “action”. All action is aimed at the attainment of ends the actor wishes to fulfill. These ends can be anything that is desired: making a sandwich, driving a car to work, lying down to go to sleep, etc. In order to attain these ends, particular means must be employed. These means can be anything that an actor believes will assist them in achieving their ends. For the end of making a sandwich, the actor may use bread, meat, and cheese as his means.

The uniqueness of the teleological category is found in its focus. As opposed to other a priori categories, the teleological category is not concerned with understanding the world. Rather, it dictates how human beings behave within the world. It describes our framework of seeing and interpreting everything around us. This is why it is often overlooked as being a foundational element of human thought: it is so implicit in our psyche because we live it out every day. Our experience in and of the world is unceasingly filtered through our desires, motives, and values. We see the world not only in terms of what it is, but what it could be and what we wish it to be. Desire to see that change come about is what drives us to action.

Teleology not only shapes our view of the world, but also shapes the human condition itself. Every unique and particular aspect of the human experience is a derivative of our teleological faculties. The context in which “satisfaction” can be understood is an actor who seeks after ends and satiates his desires by having those ends fulfilled. Things in the world can only have “meaning” if there is a purposeful actor who designates this meaning. These are not concepts that exist out in the natural world, but ultimately come from within us and our innate teleological natures. In essence, it is the presence of this category within our mind that makes us human. Everything that makes us unique and special comes from the telos within us.

What exactly does the category of teleology tell us? Teleology serves as the foundation for a special branch of knowledge: the social sciences. Distinct from the natural sciences that study the natural world, the social sciences study human behavior. These sciences include history, sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology, political science, and more. Because all these sciences study different aspects of human behavior, they all must begin with the driving factor behind this behavior. As such, they all share teleology as their starting point, and diverge from there. History studies behavior of the past, sociology examines the behavior on a social level, etc.

3. The Aristotelian View of Teleology vs The Empirical View

This view of teleology presented above — as an independent category of the human mind — may be described as the “Aristotelian View”. However, it is far from the only way that human desire and purpose have been understood throughout history. The main competition of the Aristotleian position may be dubbed the “Empirical View”. As the name implies, the broader paradigm of the Empirical View is a pervading emphasis on empirical methods of obtaining knowledge about the world. In essence, the same methods used in the natural sciences should be applied everywhere, including the social sciences as well. The trademark of the Empirical View is that it effectively ignores teleology as much as possible. The primary reason behind this disposition is that the teleological factors of human action are not open to empirical study or verification. It isn’t possible to observe “value”, “meaning”, or “purpose”. At best, we can empirically observe the effects of those categories in action. For example, if someone buys a hamburger for five dollars, we can conclude that an individual values a hamburger more than his five dollars. However, the only reason we can make such an inference in the first place is because we already have knowledge of the category of teleology that we can apply to understand that action in the first place! All that could be seen from a purely empirical view is the motion of the dollars and hamburger being exchanged — nothing more.

Because of empiricism’s inability to independently grasp teleological categories, the disciples of the Empirical View almost universally exclude any mention of teleology from their analysis (and any mentions that are made are largely perfunctory). Indeed, the Empirical View doesn’t explicitly disagree with the Aristotelian View so much as it just ignores the premise behind the Aristotelian View in the first place — namely, the categorical importance of teleology. Implicitly, the Empirical View treats teleology as if it were a trivially true, but otherwise uninteresting fact about human behavior. As such, it deserves no special representation or consideration.

4. Implications for the Social Sciences

Whether we adopt an Aristotelian or Empirical view of teleology, does it even matter? Is this all just armchair conjecture over how we think about social sciences? In all fields of study, questions of methodology are dismissed at our own peril. Claiming that the paradigm we adopt towards teleology does not matter is akin to building a house without first checking the integrity of the foundation. Whether we like it or not, these contrasting views have crucial implications for how we conceive of the social sciences across the board. From an Aristotelian View, the social sciences should be seen first as teleological in nature, and empirical methods only applied in them where appropriate. Social sciences are uniquely teleological, making them uniquely purposeful in their subject matter and setting them apart from all other sciences. The Empirical View has no room for such nuance. The social sciences are no different from the natural sciences (expect perhaps, in the ease of applying empirical methods). Every step should be informed by our empirical observations.

These are two starkly contrasting visions for how social sciences should be conducted. Inevitably, this will affect not only questions of methodology, but the actual conclusions of the sciences themselves. A flawed scientific foundation leads not only to a misunderstanding of that science’s purpose, but also erroneous beliefs about how it is to be conducted. While these consequences are obscured in the application of empiricism to social sciences, imagine if the roles were reversed? What if the Aristotelian View had taken over the Natural Sciences instead of vice-versa? If we believed that the elements of the periodic table had motivations and desires, then not only would we misunderstand these elements, but the entire agenda of the natural sciences would be erroneously skewed as a result. Of course, nobody would ever truly believe that the atomic weight of Carbon was a product of what Carbon “wanted” it to be. Even so, it is no less fallacious to view human beings as not having purpose and motivations as to ascribe those motivations to inanimate materials.

This doesn’t mean that the modern social sciences are completely hopeless. Rather, they are misconceived. Whatever merits the Empirical View may have, it has incorrectly skewed the natural sciences away from a teleological foundation. Without a grasp of teleology, there can be no grasp of human meaning. Without a grasp of human meaning, there can be no understanding of the social sciences — at least not in the full, purposeful richness that they deserve. Can this damage be ameliorated? Yes, of course. The history of intellectual thought is full of such course-corrections, and there is no reason that cannot be repeated here. However, seeing such a veritable revolution carried out is another matter entirely. Regardless, any repentance from empiricism and turn towards teleology must recognize one core truism: human beings are, above all, complex creatures. Because we intentionally act instead of passively react to the world around us, we cannot be understood in simplistic, materialistic terms. Teleological agents must be shown the intellectual respect they are due.