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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Thursdays at 11am in the Board Room
Organisers: Niall Roe (nrr32) and Nikki Levesley (nml46)

This group meets weekly and discusses questions related to purpose and progress in science. E.g.,

  • What is a purpose?
  • Is purpose different from function, goal, telos?
  • What is the relationship between purpose and intentionality?
  • How are purposes used to explain in the sciences?
  • How has this changed through science’s history?
  • Does science progress?
  • How has the notion of progress changed?
  • Does science have a purpose?
  • Does it need one?

Our aim is to have a focused question for each term and approach it from many angles, philosophical and historical.

Easter Term 2024: Teleology in Science

This term we will try to get a handle on the history of teleology and how teleological explanation has been used in science. We begin with the Socratic philosophers, trace through medieval science to Newton, and finish by looking at how Darwin reinvigorated the debate. Our goal is to come away with an understanding of:

  • why and when teleological explanations have been called upon,
  • the troubles they tend to face,
  • how the concept has changed since Aristotle, and
  • whether Darwin revitalized teleology or finally put it to rest.

Here is a schedule of proposed readings. For the final weeks, we hope to have people read papers taking different sides of a single debate, hopefully leading to a rich discussion.

Week 1: Historical overview and Aristotle

The need for purpose in nature


  • Introduction – 1.2 Leuinessin (2010), Explanation and Teleology in Aristotle's Science of Nature


  • Chase (2011), Teleology and Final Causation in Aristotle and in Contemporary Science
  • Pearlman (2004), The Modern Philosophical Resurrection of Teleology

Week 2: From Aristotle to Newton

Struggles and successes in medieval science


  • Joy (2006), Scientific Explanation from Formal Causes to Laws of Nature


  • Lang (1989), Aristotelian Physics: Teleological Procedure in Aristotle, Thomas, and Buridan

Week 3: Kant, Hegel and Wolff

'Teleology' is coined


  • Guyer (1989), Organisms and the Unity of Science

Week 4: Darwin

Is teleology banished or saved?


  • Dresow & Love (2023), Teleonomy: Revisiting a Proposed Conceptual Replacement for Teleology


For the last weeks we can choose from various topics, but for now the plan is to understand a foundational debate on whether Darwin was a teleologist.

Weeks 5–7: Teleological explanation

Was Darwin a teleologist?

Other potential topics:

  • Selectionist Consequence Etiology (Wright, Boorse and Brandon)
  • Purpose emerging from Complex Systems (Wimsatt, Juarrero, Deacon, Babcock and McShea)
  • Teleology in History (Whiggism)


  • Lennox J.G. (1993), Darwin was a Teleologist. Biology and Philosophy
  • Ghiselin M.T. (1994), Darwin's Language May Seem Teleological, but His Thinking is Another Matter
  • Lennox J.G. (1994), Teleology by Another Name: A Reply to Ghiselin
  • Short (2002), Darwin's concept of final cause: neither new nor trivial