Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #14: Teleology


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Terms of Art #14:

Pronunciation: TEE-lee-AH-luh-JEE (Strongest accent on “AH”, but the sound is a little bit more rounded and “o”-like than a normal “ah”… same sound as in “dot”… Hm, just go look up a sound clip if this was too confusing.)


the true enemy of acorns achieving their telos, and by the look on his face, he knows it… [source]

Definition: Teleology is pretty straightforward. If something has a teleology, it has a purpose or goal. (It’s from Greek telos, which just means “end” or “goal”.) An acorn has a teleology: its purpose is to become an oak tree.

You could also talk about the teleology of an art movement or an artist’s career. That implies that the movement or career was heading toward some particular endpoint. Not necessarily because somebody planned it, but maybe because that was just the natural direction it took – maybe the direction it had to take.

There’s that famous quote (from Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King Jr.) that the arc of history “bends toward justice.” This is a view about the teleology of human history. The endpoint that we’re all going toward, slowly but surely, is a more just society.

Adjective: teleological
Basically just means goal-directed or purposeful.

For example, you should probably approach baking projects teleologically. To bake something, you should have an end in mind, let’s say cupcakes. Yum! But if you want to make cupcakes, you better not put in a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar. That would be terrible for the cupcakes!


the likely result of non-teleological baking [source]

You could have a non-teleological approach to baking. Then you’d just sort of put things together, riff on some ingredients, and see what happened. And if you came out with a mess of burnt garbage, you’d be like SURE! Awesome. This was a fulfilling baking experience, and everything is just as good as if I’d had delicious cupcakes at the end of it.

So yeah, non-teleological baking isn’t going to win you any awards… or friends.

But maybe non-teleological art making is a better idea! A non-goal-directed process of open-ended creation.

And keep in mind, there are degrees here. Things can be more or less teleological. Maybe you have the goal paint on canvas, but not the goal accurately portray this landscape. Maybe history’s arc bends toward justice, but isn’t just going to stop once we hit a good form of government. (Looking at you Hegel!)



Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.