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Canadian Journal of Philosophy 37.3 (2007) 351-369

Teleology Without Tears:
Aristotle and the Role of Mechanistic Conceptions of Organisms
Sylvia Berryman
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1

I Introduction

In this paper I outline a role for mechanistic conceptions of organisms in ancient Greek natural philosophy, especially the study of organisms. By 'mechanistic conceptions' I mean the use of ideas and techniques drawn from the field of mechanics to investigate the natural world. 'Mechanistic conceptions' of organisms in ancient Greek philosophy, then, are those that draw on the ancient understanding of the field called 'mechanics' — hê mêchanikê technê—to investigate living things, rather than those bearing some perceived similarity to modern notions of 'the mechanical.' I have argued elsewhere that evidence of mechanistic conceptions of the natural world can be found, not only among seventeenth and eighteenth century 'mechanical philosophers,' but also—albeit in vestigial form — in some ancient Greek texts.1 Unfortunately, these reports are slight, often by detractors of this approach, and offer only clues as to the motivational context for employing these [End Page 351] mechanical conceptions. Here, my purpose is to suggest what role they might have played in the history of natural philosophy.

Against the background of some tensions within Aristotle's biology, I consider how 'mechanistic conceptions' of the natural world could be seen to offer a resolution to a difficulty highlighted, but never resolved, in Aristotelian natural philosophy. Natural philosophers in Aristotle's wake could reasonably have seen the potential of 'mechanical models' to resolve that tension. My aim here is to work out a possible function for such models, rather than to argue that they did in fact play this role in any particular period: to formulate a position in conceptual space, rather than to document specific views that were articulated in historical time.

Few approaches to the investigation of natural things in antiquity avoid both the Scylla of denying the existence of teleological explanations, and the Charybdis of claiming that there are causal gaps in any material account that are filled by unanalyzable teleological properties. At the one extreme are those who deny the necessity for teleological accounts altogether; at the other are those who insist that teleological analyses include components — powers, natures, capacities — needed to fill efficient-causal gaps in the material account, and whose function cannot be analysed in terms of the material properties in which they are realized. There are, of course, positions between these two extremes, but few ancient natural philosophies seem to have found a stable middle ground. This paper will argue that the appeal to mechanics would have made it seem plausible, in late antiquity, that such a middle ground be tenable. The conception of the natural world as working like a mechanical device offered a way that material processes might produce goal-directed effects, without the price associated with other notions of teleology.

Some of the major interpretative difficulties surrounding Aristotle's natural philosophy generally, and his account of organisms in particular, center precisely on the relationship between his teleological explanations and the material, nonteleological accounts of phenomena that he also recognizes. Anger, he tells us, is a goal-directed desire for revenge; it is also, considered materially, a boiling of the blood around the heart. Neither explanation is dispensible or subsumed by the other: both are studied in equally legitimate fields of inquiry. Beyond this there is no consensus, however, and scholars have proposed different interpretations of the relationship between Aristotle's material and teleological accounts. Some take Aristotle to allow that material processes might be sufficient to produce a given outcome. Others regard him as introducing irredeemably teleological notions as explanatory primitives, needed to fill efficient-causal gaps in a material account. Controversy continues. [End Page 352]

Here, rather than attempting to resolve this dispute in favour of either interpretation, I suggest that a tension genuinely exists within Aristotelian natural philosophy. Aristotle might, that is, have recognized the desirability of occupying some 'middle ground,' without ever...


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