Peirce on Final Causation

  • Menno Hulswit
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 90)


The problem of teleology is the question whether all natural processes can be adequately explained in terms of efficient causality. In contemporary philosophy and science there is a strong aversion to explanations by final causation; most approaches consider teleological processes as a special kind of mechanical processes, and try to reduce teleological explanations to explanations based solely on efficient causation.1 Typical examples of such reductionist strategies are the system theoretical and cybernetic approaches.2 Furthermore, there are the approaches of certain evolutionary biologists who maintain on the one hand that biology cannot do without teleological language, but on the other hand insist that the explanations of biological processes need to be based on nothing but efficient causation.3


Teleological Explanation Objective Chance Efficient Causation Teleological Interpretation Final Causation 
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  1. 1.
    Examples are: Braithwaite 1953; Hempel 1965; Nagel 1961.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Important examples: Wiener 1950; Von Bertalanfy 1968.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For an overview and critical discussion (in Dutch) of these reductionist strategies, see Soontiëns 1988.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See for example the current discussion about &quote;The Anthropic Cosmological Principle&quote; in Barrow and Tippler 1986.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    In Short 1981, 1983 some of Mayr’s ideas are discussed from a Peircean point of view. Though I agree with most of Short’s conclusions, I will try to go a little beyond these in my criticism of Mayr.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    His 1988 book contains the same paper with view minor changes.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Considered from the perspective of Peirce’s categoreal scheme, efficient causation belongs to the category of Secondness, and final causation to Thirdness. Thus, &quote;it is nonsense and utter confusion to treat [final causes] as forces in the material sense&quote; (CP 1.265, 1902).Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    For Peirce’s &quote;ethics of terminology,&quote; see Ketner 1981.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    According to Peirce, the idea of final causation is even more original than the idea of efficient causation. Consider for example the two following quotations: &quote;For the very type, and prototype of what the word cause means is the sense in which, for example, my desire for fresh air may cause me to rise from my chair, cross the room, and open the window&quote; (MS 1343, 1902). There is no doubt that this is an instance of final causation, and not of efficient causation: &quote;... who is acquainted with the fundamentals of dynamics that if physical forces obey the law of the conservation of energy, then a volition cannot be a force. For a volition tends to bring about a result and if circumstances are varied the action will be varied, so far as may seem necessary to bring about that result; while a force acting according to the law of energy [...] does not act in this way&quote; (MS 1343). A last quotation to support our point: &quote;The very conception of causality has its origin in our tendency to seek relations in nature analogous to intellectual relations&quote; (MS 963).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    According to Short (1981, 372, 375), these statistical laws, and final causes in general, are nothing but tautologies. We think that Short makes a mistake here. Final causes are characterized by an inherent drive toward realization, which can never be said of tautologies. Short seems to consider the statistical laws as &quote;purely mathematical.&quote; In a sense he is right: they are mathematical in form. But they always refer to distributions of physical phenomena. Mathematical laws are not in themselves final causes; they do not determine anything but mathematical entities. Final causes are physical possibilities, not just logical or mathematical possibilities. That Short does not refer to the tautological nature of statistical laws in his 1983 article may indicate that he abandoned this view.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Short 1981, 374; also 1983, 317.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    &quote;The distinction between psychical and physical phenomena is the distinction between final and efficient causation&quote; (CP 7.366; 1902).Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    See for example: CP 6.173,1902; 1.487,1896; 1.624-25, 1898.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    See RLT, 218-20, 1898; also Wl: 422,1866.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    See MS 1343, 26-7,1902; CP 6.322, c.1909.Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    RLT, 87, 1992; see also note 52, p. 278.Google Scholar
  17. 21.
    The idea that 'objective chance' refers to 'absolutely uncaused events' is held by Peirce from 1880 till at least 1884 (see MS 674 and &quote;Design and Chance,&quote; EP I: 217; 1884). During this period, the discussion is not yet placed within the context of his categoreal scheme. It would appear that-according to Peirce’s later works-every event involves an aspect of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. This entails that every event involves an element of objective chance, efficient causation, and final causation.Google Scholar
  18. 22.
    See note 21.Google Scholar
  19. 24.
    During the realization of a final cause, there is always the confrontation with the material world. This is the ground for the evolution of new final causes. New ideas (purposes) do not happen just by chance, but only as a response to an actual problematic situation. We think it is precisely this that Peirce was referring to when he wrote: &quote;The way in which mind [read: final causation] acts upon matter [read: chains of efficient causation] is by imposing upon it conformity to certain peculiar laws, called purposes; and the manner of the reaction is that the purposes themselves become modified and developed in being thus carried out (MS 478, 18, 1903).&quote; Consequently, developmental teleology requires more than just chance; it presupposes an interrelated activity of chance, efficient causation, and final causation. This agrees with Rosenthal’s conclusion that developmental teleology can only be understood in terms of all three of the Peircean categories (Rosenthal 1994,125).Google Scholar
  20. 25.
    Similar points of critique of Mayr’s theory of teleology were made by Soontiëns 1988, which was very helpful in formulating my 'Peircean critique of Ernst Mayr’s theory of teleology.'Google Scholar
  21. 26.
    The problem whether natural selection takes place on the level of species or of individuals, will not be discussed here. It is still a hot topic in evolutionary biology. In Peirce’s view natural selection concerns types, not individuals (EP I: 272; c.1887).Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    See W 4:46, 1880; CP 6.296, 1893; MS 1343, 1902; CP 1.204, 1.269, 2.86: all 1902.Google Scholar
  23. 28.
    We do not claim to be original here: the same point has been made before by Short (1983, esp. 314-5). Short correctly warns against misinterpreting the idea of a teleological interpretation of biological evolution: &quote;a teleological interpretation of biological evolution does not entail that the aim of evolution is a single, &quote;highest&quote; species. On the contrary, if a final cause is a general type, then it might be actualized in any number of different ways. As Darwin emphasized, the principle of the survival of the fittest entails a divergence of species to fill all of the available ecological niches&quote; (Short 1981, 372).Google Scholar
  24. 30.
    The word 'program' is taken from the language of information theory. Since the paradigmatic example of a computer program is completely mechanistic (deterministic), the analogous use of the word program to situations that might not be deterministic at all is misleading. Though there may be computer programs that agree perfectly well with Peirce’s definitions of final causation, there are serious reasons to believe that Peirce would consider most computer programs as at most quasi-teleological. Usually, the program completely determines not only the results, but also (if there are different ways) which ways will be taken toward the results. Hence, this is a perfect example of a mechanistic process (see MS 1343 and CP 6.322). But there might also be programs, and we bet there are, where there is a randomizer built in, and a principle that selects certain kinds of behavior. In that case there might be real teleology involved. The problem, though very important for our discussion, is too big to handle here.Google Scholar
  25. 31.
    The word habit is used here in a broad sense: Mayr’s &quote;completely genetically fixed programs&quote; (Mayr 1974, 102) may also be regarded as genetically fixed habits. Peirce: &quote;habit plays somewhat the same part in the history of the individual that natural selection does in that of the species; namely, it causes actions to be directed towards ends&quote; (W 4:46; 1880).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Menno Hulswit
    • 1
  1. 1.Heyendaal InstituteUniversity of NijmegenThe Netherlands

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