Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.37

Monte Ransome Johnson, Aristotle on Teleology.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2005.  Pp. xi, 339.  ISBN 0-19-928530-6.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Thornton Lockwood, Fordham University (
Word count: 2333 words

Few ideas are more central to Aristotle's thought than that of the causal purposiveness of natural things. Few ideas in the Aristotelian corpus are more controverted--whether historically, by early modern natural philosophers seeking to break with Aristotelian science or currently, by modern scholars of ancient philosophy seeking to interpret Aristotle's physics--than what has come to be called Aristotle's "teleology" (a term coined in the 18th century, apparently by the German philosopher Christian Wolff). In this ambitious study (derived from the author's 2003 doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto), Monte Johnson [J.] aims at two goals: to determine both how Aristotle uses the notions of "ends" or purposes in his natural philosophy and what are the limits to Aristotle's teleological explanations.

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which seeks to accomplish the first goal by providing individual chapters on the notion of ends in the ancient, medieval, and early modern commentary tradition on teleology, Aristotle's notion of the four causes, his central teleological terms, and finally the relationship between Aristotle and his predecessors on the limits of teleology. The second part of the book seeks to accomplish the second goal by evaluating Aristotle's account of teleological explanation at different levels of nature and thus it devotes chapters to how teleology does (and doesn't) work in explaining the elements of which Aristotle believed organisms were composed (e.g, fire, air, water, earth, and ether), substantial organisms such as plants and animals, social organisms such as the household and the city, and the cosmos as a whole. The book's conclusion argues briefly that Aristotle's account of ends--properly understood and delimited to substantial organisms (as opposed to extending it to the elements, social organisms, or the cosmos as a whole)--provides a superior model for the relationship between humans and the rest of the cosmos. On the whole, the volume provides a very complete survey of a central concept of Aristotle's thought.

What is most distinctive in J.'s account emerges from the misinterpretations of Aristotle's teleology which he seeks to correct. For instance, consider the question whether rainfall is a teleologically explicable phenomenon, a question raised by a much disputed passage in Physics II.8 in which Aristotle asks "what prevents nature creating neither for the sake of something (μὴ ἕνεκά), nor the better (ὅτι βέλτιον), but as Zeus rains, not in order to make the crops grow, but out of necessity?" (Phys II.8.198b16-19, J. trans.).1 Aristotle's conclusion--that rain falls not out of necessity or spontaneity, but rather "for the sake of something" (199a5-6)--has inspired critics of his teleology to identify at least three problematic claims: that an unconscious thing like rain falls because it "aims" at achieving some end (or the problem of animism), that the final cause of rain falling antedates the effect (or the problem of backwards causation), and that the aim of rain--watering fields of wheat for human agriculture--projects human goals on natural processes (or the problem of anthropocentricism). The first criticism--that final causes ascribe intentionality to inanimate things--is most easily defused by a consideration of Aristotle's teleological account of the terrestial elements. As J. shows persuasively, Aristotle distinguishes between self-motion (which is only possible for living things such as animals and the celestial bodies) and motion caused by an internal principle of change that results in a characteristic tendency of motion (for instance, that heavy bodies fall [cf. Phys VIII.4.255a28-30, 255b14-17, 255b29-6a3, quoted at 140-41]). Water falls as rain in a regular or orderly way, and, when one asks why, one of the reasons is that it has a tendency towards a natural "place" (namely, in the earth). But ascribing a final cause to rain water does not imply any sort of intentionality or goal-directed behavior; rather, the final cause is offered as an explanation of the regularity of an observable phenomenon. Aristotle's belief that the celestial bodies are living, self-moving organisms is very different, of course from modern views. But as J. makes clear, nothing in Aristotle's account blurs the distinction between between animate and inanimate bodies.

The alleged problem of "backward causation"--namely, that final causes precede their effects--arises from a misunderstanding of the quite plausible Aristotelian distinction between genetic and explanatory priority. As J. somewhat whimsically points out in his introduction (1), the introduction to a book appears first in the exposition of a book even though it is typically written last (or is the final result of a genetic or temporal process). But, although a well-written introduction explains the purpose or goal of the book, the complete features of that purpose will not be manifest until after the book is finished. Just as there is no contradiction between claiming that a book's introduction is both first and last (as long as one understands that "first" and "last" are being used in two different senses), there is no tension between identifying what is temporally prior in causation (namely the initial cause of motion) and what is prior in terms of explanation (namely why the motion resulted in this end rather than another end). As J. notes, "Aristotle is firmly committed to the conventional concept of causes preceding effects, and there is an explanation according to the 'origin of motion' in principle compatible with every teleological explanation" (167). The problem of backward causation arises only if one assumes that all causation is efficient causation.

J. notes that one of the central goals of his book is refuting the charge that Aristotle's teleology is anthropocentric, namely, the claim that "human beings are the center--or rather the end--of everything; everything has value or is good only in relation to human beings" (4). The issue is central to the greater ambitions of J's book, because he believes that Aristotle's axiology or account of value together with his teleology provide a superior model for the relationship between humans and the world. According to anthropocentrism, all of nature has value or purpose only in relation to humans and all objects potentially are intended for human use. But as J. rightly points out, Aristotle's rejection of a univocal account of the good and his endorsement of a teleology which ascribes goals to independent organisms results in the position that humans and other natural organisms have entirely different goods and interests. Commenting on Aristotle's claim that prudence is not the highest form of knowledge, J. writes that Aristotle "recognizes that there are different goods for fishes and for humans, thereby opening a logical space for the possibility of a conflict between the good for humans and the good for fishes. The existence, not to mention possibility, of such a conflict comes as no surprise to most people, least of all fishers" (225). If final causes are uniform in nature and fish exist for the sake of human consumption, then presumably the fish should regularly and uniformly be leaping into the boats of fishermen.

To refute the charge of anthropocentrism, J. examines famous passages such as Physics II.8 and Politics I.8 where scholars--especially David Sedley2--have found traces of anthropocentricism. In general, his argument turns on Aristotle's application of the distinction between incidental and intrinsic causes to the case of final causes (see, e.g., Phys II.5.196b24-9). J. believes that intrinsic final causes are always beneficial to the natural organism in which they adhere, but that is of course entirely consistent with a natural organism's incidental causes being of instrumental use to humans. The difference is that whereas intrinsic final causes are regular, uniform, and directed towards the continued existence of that of which they are causes, incidental final causes are coincidental, haphazard, and of course potentially detrimental to the substance itself or other substances. Thus, in the case of Physics II.8., J. writes that "Rain falls for necessary reasons, having to do with the circulation of elemental bodies in the atmosphere, and so is regular, depending on the seasons and other meteorological conditions. But the fact that rain can make crops grow is just as incidental to the cause of rainfall as is the fact that rain can spoil crops if they have been threshed and are sitting outside when a storm comes, or if rainfall is so intense that it floods fields, as was more or less a common problem for Greek farmers" (152). On the whole, I found J.'s response to these and other criticisms of Aristotle's teleology persuasive and thoughtful.

In a work that covers so much philosophical and exegetical terrain, it is inevitable that some areas receive more thorough analysis than others. Although J. explicitly notes that he does not intend to provide a comprehensive historical survey of the commentary tradition on Aristotle's notion of teleology, I got the impression that he was more interested in criticizing the Islamic and Thomistic commentary tradition than he was in elucidating it or using it to elucidate Aristotle's thought. In broad strokes, J. believes that medieval Aristotelians saddled Aristotle's teleology with the notion of a demiourgic god as a transcendent final cause. Instead, J. finds a more fruitful Aristotelian reflection on the limits of teleology in Theophrastus' short treatise entitled Metaphysics. These are interesting and speculative suggestions, but they are not adequately supported by the brief historical survey, which too often quotes secondary literature rather than engaging the commentary tradition itself. The result is that centuries of reflection in Greek, Arabic, and Latin on Aristotle's account of teleology are characterized uncharitably only so that they can be dismissed in a dozen pages.

Although J.'s familiarity and engagement with the Aristotelian natural science corpus and its modern commentators is sophisticated and comprehensive, his treatment of teleology in Aristotle's political and ethical treatises by comparison seems incomplete and at points simply incorrect. J. claims that Aristotle's "application of teleology to political organization, which ends up justifying 'natural' forms of domination--over slaves, women, and children--has little to teach contemporary sociologists and political scientists, other than what to avoid" (288). But J.'s account of the household as a social organism which stands at the root of such domination is at times false. For instance, J. claims that slaves, children, and women are all in a way "parts" of a patriarch which he dominates, but Aristotle explicitly rejects such a position as barbaric in the first chapter of the Politics (PolI.1: 1252a26-b7; cf. I.7: 1255b17-21). J. pastes together EN V.7: 1134b8-13 and V.11: 1138b5-13 to assert that Aristotle treats patriarchy as an instance in which a superior element is "equated with the whole, to which the parts are subservient" (245), but his quotation is misleading since he omits the subsequent four lines of EN V.7 (1134b14-18), in which Aristotle explicitly denies that the case between husband/wife is like that between child/parent and master/slave. Indeed, there are numerous texts in which Aristotle emphasizes the proportional equality between husband and wife, including some in which Aristotle claims that their relationship approximates the equality between citizens (see, e.g., EN V.8: 1134b15-18, VIII.10: 1160b32-1161a3, VIII.11: 1161a22-25; Pol I.5: 1259a39-b10; Oec I.3: 1343b24-44a7). Aristotle's view of the parent/child relationship is of course paternalistic (as is the view of all modern legal systems, in which a minor child is viewed as incapable of executive decision-making and thus dependent upon a guardian), but Aristotle clearly views it as one in which a parent "rules" a child in the best interest of the child (EN VIII.10: 1160b25-33, VIII.11: 1161a16-20). No doubt Aristotle's endorsement of natural slavery makes the modern appropriation of his thought complicated, but J.'s dismissive analysis sheds no light on this subject.

Indeed, the most central teachings of the Politics--the account of the common good, the analysis of the partisan nature of faction, the examination of the problem of creating and sustaining a unity of heterogeneous parts--derive from Aristotle's teleological understanding of parts and wholes, and J. makes no mention of them. Surely it is an overstatement to say that these analyses have no value to political theorists. Political sociologists from Marx to G.E.M. De Ste Croix have found in Aristotle's examination of the parts of political organization sophisticated anticipations of the modern notion of class. Authors like Fred Miller have expended considerable effort showing how Aristotle's notion of the city as a social organism is consistent with--and indeed, perhaps even requires--the protection of the rights of the individuals which are its parts.3 The relationship between nature and Aristotle's Politics has received much scrutiny in scholarship for at least the last decade, and it is odd that Johnson chose not to engage scholars such as Miller, Julia Annas, and Bernard Yack. Admittedly, J's book focuses primarily on teleology in the world of natural science, and my criticisms do not undermine the value of those analyses. But one wonders why he chose to offer a contentiously brief and dismissive chapter on texts that he himself admits are complicated.

Although the editorial production of a book is never entirely the author's responsibility, and in some cases mistakes are made that are not the author's fault at all, a significant number of editorial and typographical errata mar the overall presentation of the work and at times prove quite distracting. Throughout the book, sometimes on the same page, and in some instances even in the same line (75), the Greek for one of Aristotle's central teleological phrases--οὗ ἕνεκα--is incorrectly aspirated, wavering back and forth between οὗ ἕνεκα, οὖ ἕνεκα and even οὖ ἔνεκα.4 There are numerous errors of punctuation, incorrect italicization and inconsistent capitalization of titles, and accentuation of words in Greek.5 The capitalization and printing of column letters in the citation of Bekker pages randomly alternates between upper case and lower case; sometimes they are written in superscript, sometimes not.6 On the very first page of the book, the title of Aristotle Metaphysics is inconsistently italicized in the same line (p. 1 n.1). I caught over 50 typographical errors in the first 150 pages of the book, after which I stopped keeping track. Such errata seem unusual for a prestigious university press, and one hopes that this author's first book--worthy of inclusion in any research university's library--can be corrected in subsequent printings.


1.   The Greek in J's text (150) is incorrectly accented as μὴ ἒνεκά ... μηδ' ὄτι βέλτιον. I will return to the issue of editorial sloppiness at the conclusion of my review.
2.   See D. Sedley, "Is Aristotle's Teleology Anthropocentric?" Phronesis 36 (1991), pp. 179-96.
3.   See F. Miller, Nature, Justice and Rights in Aristotle's Politics (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 191-224.
4.   See pp. 42, 42 n.10, 44, 45, 59 n. 45, 65 (x5), 66 n. 7, 72, 73 n. 19, 75, 139 (x2), 167, 168 (x4).
5.   Incorrect punctuation, see pp. 8, 26, 29, 37, 42, 49, 65, 66 n. 7; improperly stylized titles, see pp. 1 n. 1, 23, 36 n. 58, , 65 n. 3, 72, 74 n. 20, 81 n. 32, 142; incorrect Greek accentuation or spelling, see pp. 7, 36, 42 n. 9 (x2), 43 (x2), 44, 45, 47, 65, 75, 87, 136, 150 (x2).
6.   See especially pp. 81, 135, 145, 146, 147 n. 21, where different practices are used in the very same or adjacent citations.

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