Teleological Explanations

  • Jennifer Trusted


Teleological explanations are explanations in terms of actual or expected outcomes; the explicans states the actual or expected consequences of the explicandum. It is helpful to discuss teleological explanations in two categories: purposive explanations and functional explanations. The former attribute some active goal-directed behaviour to the explicandum-agent whereas the latter imply a more passive quality whereby certain consequences occur. The two formulae ‘T’ and ‘F’, given by Wright, illustrate this:
  • (T) S does B for the sake of G iff:*
    1. (i)

      B tends to bring about G.

    2. (ii)

      B occurs because (i.e. is brought about by the fact that) it tends to bring about G.1

  • (F)The function of X is Z
    1. (i)

      Z is a consequence (result) of X’s being there,

    2. (ii)

      X is there because it does (results in) Z.2

*‘iff’ signifies ‘if and only if’.


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  1. 1.
    L. Wright, Teleological Explanation (London: University of California Press, 1976), p. 39. Note that L. Wright is to be distinguished from G. H. von Wright.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    C. Taylor, The Explanation of Behaviour (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), pp. 28–9.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    J. Trusted, Free Will and Responsibility (Oxford University Press, 1984), Chapter 17.Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    J. K. Derden Jr, ‘Reasons, Causes, and Empathetic Understanding’, Philosophy of Science Association, I (1978) 177.Google Scholar
  5. 17.
    D. Hume, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding, L. A. Selby-Brigge (ed.), 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), Part I, section viii para 71, p. 92.Google Scholar
  6. 20.
    N. Block, ‘Introduction: What is Functionalism?’, Readings in Philosophy of Psychology’, N. Block (ed.) vol. I (1980), p. 172.Google Scholar
  7. 26.
    D. Harvey, Explanation in Geography (London: Edward Arnold, 1973), p. 444.Google Scholar

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© Jennifer Trusted 1987

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  • Jennifer Trusted

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