Code: DP - 7


Final Cause, Continuity and Peirce’s Understanding of Reality


Type of Submission: Discussion Paper



This paper demonstrates a Peircian retrieve of final causation, which plays a critical role in his synechism and pragmatism as a whole. Through an analysis of some common prejudices against final causation in post-modern thought, such as the claimed "violation" of the temporal order of causal relation and its "conflict" with efficient causation, it is shown that the modern antipathy toward final causation stems from a misconception of the Greek concept of telos and aitia.  Final causation in its authentic Greek meaning, as it is interpreted by Peirce, is not only not in conflict with mechanical explanation, but is the hidden foundation of all causal explanations, including mechanism. Peirce’s developmental teleology, however, is different from Aristotle’s in that it puts strong emphasis upon the principle of chance and continuity. Through this developmental teleology, Peirce brought into light a unique understanding of reality in his pragmatism.








The critical role played by final causation in Peirce’s understanding of reality and in his pragmatism as a whole has not received sufficient attention among contemporary scholars. This is for the most part due to the dominance of mechanical explanation based upon efficient causation over teleological explanation, a situation that has generated a general sense of antipathy toward the concept of telos or final causation in post-modern thought. This antipathy, as I see it, comes mainly from two prejudices. On the one hand, scientists and philosophers tend to believe that efficient causation, in its modern sense, is sufficient for the any causal explanation and there is thus simply no room or need for final causation, let alone the concern that the use of final causation would often imply conflicts with efficient causation. On the other hand, the acceptance of final causation has often been taken as the embracement of a doctrine that allows the future to affect the present, and is thus believed to reverse the temporal order of causal relation.


A brief historical review of the meaning of final cause and causation in general will let us understand better these contemporary prejudices. As T.L. Short pointed out, "the classical conception of teleology, found in Plato’s dialogues and perhaps earlier still, was most clearly formulated by Aristotle."[1] For Aristotle, final cause is " end or that for the sake of which a thing is done, e.g., health is the final cause of walking about."[2] Final cause is the kind of causes, together with other three kinds of causes, namely material, formal and efficient causes, that answer the "why" question of a thing. Here I’d like to call for special attention to the fact that for Aristotle, these four kinds of causes are not four causes isolated from each other that all belong to the explanation of something like pieces belonging to something composite, one of which might sometimes be missing. Rather, they express different "ways in which the term ‘cause [aitia]’ is used"[3] and are always woven together for any explanation of things. Efficient causation and final causation, hence, though often being taken as the foundation of mechanical and teleological explanation respectively, are not isolated from each other but always belong together to a unity of causal relations. In other words, efficient and final causation are not mutually exclusive, but only speak of different aspects of the "why" of a thing and jointly they make the full explanation of something possible. W.D. Ross, for example, pinpointed long time ago that, according to Aristotle’s theory of four causes, "mechanism and teleology are not mutually exclusive; where A mechanically necessitates B it may also be true that B teleological necessitates A," just as "exercise is the efficient cause of health, health the final cause of exercise."[4]


In a sense, the modern division between efficient and final causation comes exactly from a breakup of the inherent unity of four kinds of causes, a breakup that began with medieval thinking. The four kinds of causes were first reduced to formal and material causes, and these two were again reduced to efficient cause alone, the essential meaning of which in its modern usage, however, is still in need of investigation and clarification. This breakup of the unity of causal relations, in consequence of which final causation were carelessly dropped out and forgotten in modern age, reflects an utterly different conception of causation among medieval philosophers. This difference arises in part from the translation of Greek word aitia into Latin causa, a word from which the English word "cause" derives. Along with this translation, are the translations of the Greek words hypokeimenon into subiectum, hypostasis into substantia, sumbebekos into accidens, dynamis into potentialitas and energeia into actualitas. This translation of Greek names into Latin, as Heidegger claims, "is by no means without consequences," but conceals within itself a "translation [Übersetzen] of Greek experience into a different mode of thinking. Roman thinking takes over the Greek words without the corresponding and equiprimordial experience of what they say, without the Greek word. The rootlessness of Western thinking begins with this translation."[5]


Peirce, on the other hand, attributes the contemporary dismissal of final cause to nominalism – a doctrine originating in late medieval thinking that Peirce worked his whole philosophical career to overcome. The key of Peirce’s response to nominalism, in fact, lies precisely in his efforts to reclaim the efficacy of final cause, and thus in a way to retrieve the root of Western thinking. In an unpublished manuscript, we find Peirce criticizing fiercely the neglect of final causation in modern age:


… the non-recognition of final causation … has been and still is productive of more philosophical error and nonsense than any or every other source of error or nonsense. If there is any goddess of nonsense, this must be her haunt. (MS 478, 1903)[6]


In what follows, I will first address the two prejudices against final causation mentioned above in order to show a Peircian retrieve of the efficacy and significance of final causation. Then, I will explain how Peirce, by virtue of his developmental teleology and synechism, brought into light a unique understanding of reality.


I. Modern Prejudices against Final Cause


One of the major difficulties precluding contemporary philosophers and scientists from granting final cause the status of a real cause is the prima facie tension between final cause and temporal order of causal relation. How can something in the future, that is, something that doesn’t really exist yet exert any influence on present things? In order to resolve this tension it is necessary to distinguish two kinds of final cause: final cause as that for which and that toward which, or final cause as purpose and as end.[7] The former is said of human beings and possibly animals, of beings with consciousness, while the latter is said not only of beings with consciousness but of inanimate things as well.[8]  


For final cause as purpose, there seems to be no difficulty, if we distinguish between the fulfillment of a purpose and the presence of the same purpose. In other words, all purposes can be understood as ideals or ideas, and it is the presence of these ideas in human minds that have physical effects on the present things, but not the fulfillment of them. There is thus no temporal disorder between human purposes and their effects. For example, in building a house, the purpose is to provide receptacle and shelter for men and goods. Now the fulfillment of this purpose, i.e., the actual establishment of the house, which is a future event, should indeed have no influence on the present things. But before people start to build the house, there must be in their minds already the purpose of providing receptacle and shelter. The presence of this purpose, therefore, is in fact temporally prior to the actual building of the house. The building of the house, moreover, is continuously sustained by the presence of this purpose, without which, the whole building process is simply unexplainable.


For final cause as end, however, the issue is much more complicated. For usually, nature by itself is not thought to be a conscious being with purposes analogous to those of human beings. What’s more, there is a tendency even now among scientists and philosophers to think of nature as completely governed by mechanical laws and efficient causation. In order to explain how final cause can be effective in natural things, hence, we must first investigate the following questions: what is the essence of efficient causation in its modern sense? Are efficient causes sufficient for the explanation of nature, and if not, what is the relation between efficient causation and final causation?


Peirce describes efficient causation as "a compulsion determined by particular condition of things, and is a compulsion acting to make that situation begin to change in a perfectly determined way."[9] Efficient cause in its modern sense, as here interpreted by Peirce, is different from Aristotelian efficient causation in that the emphasis is not on the source of motion as an external agent but on the compulsion or force that makes the change of things possible. Aristotle defines efficient cause as "the primary source of the change or rest; e.g. … the father is cause of the child, and generally what makes of what is made and what changes of what is changed."[10] The builder of the house, for example, is "what" makes of what is made, the house, and the sun that is shining upon a tomato tree and makes it grow is "what" changes of what is changed, the tomato tree. It is clear that for Aristotle, the emphasis is on the "what," on the agents that make the change possible, while in modern usage of the term efficient causation, the emphasis, as Peirce points out, is on the force that these agents excise upon that what is made and that what is changed.


Now this force that makes the change of things possible corresponds to what the Greeks called "dynamis." Dynamis was translated into Latin as potentia, and became potentiality or potency in English. But in its original Greek sense, as Aristotle explains in detail in Book V of Metaphysics, dynamis is the principle of motion or change and thus has two major groups of meanings.[11] On the one hand, dynamis means the capability or capacity that somebody or something possesses that makes it possible for it to be changed. It is in this sense of capability that the Latin potentia and the English potentiality or potency carry for the most of the time. For example, a tomato seed has the capability of becoming a tomato tree and thus producing new tomatoes and wood, bricks, glass, etc. have the capability of being used for the building of a house. It can also be noted that this meaning of dynamis as capability sides with the material cause: for wood, bricks and glass can be seen as matter – "that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists"[12] – for the building of a house, just as a tomato seed can be seen along with others as matter for the tomato tree and new tomatoes that are going to be. On the other hand, the Greek word dynamis carries the more important and essential meaning of power or force that actually brings forth the change or motion. Dynamis in this sense, therefore, corresponds to the force or power, for example, that the builders of a house excise upon wood, bricks, glass and all other kinds of material so that the house is to be built or the forces of power that the sun, air and earth excise jointly upon the tomato seed and later the tomato tree so that the tomato tree will grow up and produce new tomatoes.[13]


Dynamis in the meaning of force – a meaning that has been largely neglected and forgotten through its Latin translation potentia and the dominant understanding of this potentia in medieval philosophy as capability or passive potency[14] – is found by Peirce to be the essence of efficient causation in its modern usage. For Aristotle, dynamis is always used together with and as opposed to energeia, which was translated into Latin as "actualitas," and into English as "actuality." Peirce applauds Aristotle’s dynamis and energeia as "wonderful conceptions" and claims that this idea of Aristotle "has proved marvelously fecund."[15] While the two senses of dynamis sides roughly with material causation and efficient causation in its modern usage, the meaning of energeia agrees with formal and final causation.[16] The belonging together of dynamis and energeia, hence, demonstrates again the inherent unity of the four kinds of causes I’ve shown above. The dominance of mechanism in modern age stems precisely from the breakup of this unity and the singling out of efficient cause as the only effective causation. Nonetheless, final causation, though being constantly neglected and forgotten since the beginning of modernity, and hence never adequately studied, remains the hidden foundation of all causal explanations, and thus of mechanism itself.


In order to let this hidden foundation come into full light, we need first have a closer look at the inherent unity of four kinds of causes and the constant togetherness of efficient causation and final causation.[17] Peirce interprets the inter-dependence of efficient and final causation in this way:


Final causation without efficient causation is helpless: mere calling for parts is what a Hotspur, or any man, may do; but they will not come without efficient causation. Efficient causation without final causation, however, is worse than helpless, by far; it is mere chaos; and chaos is not even so much as chaos, without final causation: it is blank nothing .[18]


At the same time, Peirce compares the relationship between efficient and final causation to that between the sheriff and the court. Final causation cannot be imagined without efficient causation just as "the court cannot be imagined without a sheriff." On the other hand, "an efficient cause, detached from a final cause in the form of aw, would not even possess efficiency."[19]



We have found out that the essence of efficient cause in its modern sense is power or force. This force considered in itself, however, is blind, and it can accomplish its effects only because it always, no matter it is recognized or not, comes together with final causes. The force speaks of potentiality [dynamis]. But every potentiality presupposes already an actuality, energeia, for potentiality is always "potentiality for…." "Without the influence of ideas," as Peirce says, " there is no potentiality."[20] Contrary to the common beliefs in modernity, the actuality for Aristotle lies not in matter or force in itself but in ideas, that is, ideas as final and formal causes.[21] The Greek word energeia comes from ergon, which has the meaning of "work." In Greek thought, therefore, energeia means "standing in the work," where "work" means the fulfillment of a certain purpose or end.[22] That is to say, only when something is standing fully in its "end" can we say it is "standing in the work," that is, in its actuality. The essential unity of efficient cause and final cause, therefore, indicates a more original togetherness of dynamis and energeia, and it is this togetherness that lies in the core of the unity of four kinds of causes in any causal explanation of change or motion.


At the beginning of this section, we have raised question of how a final cause, which is often taken as something in the future that doesn’t really exist yet, can exert any influence on the present things. Given our discussion of dynamis and energeia, this question has actually been transformed into another question, that is, whether energeia as the idea of end or form could be in some sense prior to dynamis. This is indeed a question receiving plenty of discussion in Greek thought.[23] Aristotle argues that energeia is prior to dynamis in formula, in substance [ousia] and in time.[24] In other words, energeia is not only ontologically prior, but can also be temporally prior to dynamis. We have already seen above that dynamis is inseparable from energeia, without which dynamis would be simply Nothing. Energeia, in this sense, is not only the end of dynamis, but continuously preserves and sustains the forced movement toward its end as "standing in the work." Energeia, hence, is the ontological foundation for the realization of dynamis. On the other hand, energeia can also be prior in time in the sense that there always exists another thing of the same species as the thing in dynamis, which is prior in time to it.[25] For example, the form of a tomato can be prior to the tomato seed in time in the sense that this seed must itself come from another ripened fruit that has the same form of tomato.[26]


II. Final cause, mechanism and developmental teleology


We have found that the very division between the so-called mechanical systems and teleological systems, and thus mechanical explanation and teleological explanation is a result of the breakup of the four kinds of causes that in Aristotle’s metaphysics were inseparable from each other in any causal explanations. These four kinds of causes, as I said, don’t belong to the causation of something like separate pieces belong to a composite, so that one of them might sometime be missing. Rather, they are always woven together in the whole of any causal explanation, of which each of them expresses only a distinctive aspect of the "why" of a thing. Mechanical explanation and teleological explanation, and accordingly efficient and final causation, as Ross pinpointed, are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, just as energeia is the ontological foundation of dynamis and is thus prior to dynamis not only in definition, but also in substance [ousia] and time, final causation, as we will see in the rest of this section, is the hidden foundation of all causal explanation and thus of mechanism itself. However, as long as the authentic Greek understanding of the concept of causation [aitia], dynamis and energeia is not fully retrieved, and as long as the four kinds of causes are treated separately as if they were able to offer any explanation independent of each other, the efficacy and significance of final causation as the hidden foundation remain unrecognized and the introduction of a barrage of new terminologies such as teleomatic, teleonomic, goal-directed process, natural intentional system, just name a few, has not been able to clarify the issue but on the contrary runs the danger of bringing further confusions to the concept of telos and reducing the discourse on it to mere play of words.


Perhaps one of the most significant of these confusions lies in the equation of teleological phenomena with purposeful phenomena, or what Ernst Mayr called "goal-directed process:" "If ‘teleological’ means anything it means ‘goal-directed.’"[27] Although Mayr asserts later that " ‘goal-directed’, in a more or less straightforward literal sense, is not necessary the same as purposive,"[28] for the most of the time, he seems to understand the concept of "goal-directed" in its narrow and maybe strict sense of specific aim or target of purposive actions. It is on the basis of this understanding that he concludes "natural selection is never goal oriented. It is misleading and quite inadmissible to designate such broadly generalized concepts as survival or reproductive success as definite and specified goals."[29]


Whether the English word "goal" indicates necessarily something purposive, whether goals are always specific and never general and whether a stricter distinction between end-directed and goal-directed will serve to clarify the issue better, I will leave it for readers’ own consideration and judgment.[30] But it seems to me that Mayr’s understanding of teleological phenomena and his separation of efficient causation and teleological system[31] is missing the authentic meaning of the Greek concept telos. I mentioned in the beginning of last section the necessity to distinguish final cause as that for which and that toward which, or as purpose and as end.[32] The former is said of human beings and possibly animals, of beings with consciousness, while the latter is said not only of beings with consciousness but of inanimate things as well. Although the meaning of final cause has been mistakenly restricted to purpose in a great number of contemporary discussions, especially in the discussions on biology and evolution, for Aristotle, the proper meaning of final cause is never restricted to purpose alone, but includes also the end toward which somebody or something naturally moves or tends. Peirce views it as "a widespread error to think that a ‘final cause’ is necessarily a purpose." For "a purpose is merely that form of final cause which is most familiar to our experience." (1.211) Ross interprets the telos as end to be the "final cause in nature," which is "a structure common to a whole infima species, to which individual members of the species strive without conscious purpose to give a fresh individual embodiment."[33] Considered in this context, therefore, it seems to be fully justified to designate the process of evolution, as Ayala did, as teleological or "end-directed."[34] For "survival or reproductive success," while indeed not being specified goals of living beings, can well be viewed as the end toward which they naturally tend or strive for even if without any conscious purpose.


Peirce himself asserts that "evolution is nothing more nor less than the working out of a definite end. A final cause may be conceived to operate without having been the purpose of any mind: that supposed phenomena goes by the name of fate."(1.204) In fact, as Helmut Pape summarizes rightly, for Peirce, "laws of nature are final causes."[35] For example, "even gravity," Peirce says, "might without falsity be conceived as a final cause, since it certainly destines things ultimately to approach the center of the earth." (MS 682, 1913) Laws of nature, in other words, spells out the end or final state toward which all things must tend ultimately, and are thus none other than the fate or destiny of the things. The issue between mechanical and teleological explanations, therefore, is not whether all teleological explanations can be in one way or another be reduced to mechanical explanations – for even though such reductionism may seem provable in a great number of cases in which laws are treated as deterministic, it still fails to grasp the essence of the Greek concept telos and is thus putting the cart before the horse. Rather, final causation as laws of nature, as I’ve said, is the hidden foundation of all causal explanations, including mechanical explanations.


Mechanism claims that it can offer explanation of things only by dint of efficient cause.

The essence of efficient causation in its modern sense is force or power. For Aristotle, efficient cause is the "primary source of the change or rest," or the agent who possesses the force or power that is going to be excised upon all kinds of matter. In either of these two cases, efficient cause in itself has nothing to do with laws of nature. All mechanical explanations, however, presuppose some kinds of mechanical laws that it claims to be the laws of nature. All laws of nature, as Peirce demonstrates, are final causes. It follows that all mechanical explanations must presuppose already some kinds of final causes, and final causation is indeed the foundation of any mechanical explanation itself.


We can approach this issue from another angle. The essence of efficient cause is dynamis, potentiality or potency, in the sense of force or power. We have said that the two meanings of dynamis as force and as capability side roughly with efficient and material causation. Dynamis presupposes energeia, which is prior to dynamis not only in definition, but also in substance and time. As we will see, energeia, telos and laws of nature, in Peirce’s interpretation, speaks of in essence the different aspects of the same thing. In other words, actuality is only attained through the realization of telos and conformation to the laws of nature. Hence, it can be said that because energeia is the ontological foundation of dynamis, final causation as laws of nature is the foundation of all causal explanations, including mechanical explanation.


On the other hand, teleology in Peirce’s interpretation has a major difference from mechanism in that it does not espouse any deterministic or necessitarian doctrine that is usually associated with mechanism. Mechanism, in this sense, can be viewed as a teleology embracing pre-determined mechanical laws and thus a teleology presupposing a universe with fixed ends. Peirce argued strongly against such a doctrine of necessitarianism, and names his anti-necessitarian doctrine tychism, in the light of which there must be an ‘absolute chance’ in the universe and ‘at any time … an element of pure chance survives and will remain until the world becomes an absolutely perfect, rational and symmetrical system, in which mind is at last crystallized in the infinitely distant future."[36]


Mechanism associated with necessitarianism or fixed teleology has been rightly questioned and rejected by more and more scientists and philosophers nowadays as it fails to give satisfactory explanations to a wide range of natural phenomena that are characterized by irreversibility and thus only explainable through laws of probability and statistics.[37] Peirce’s Tychism, on the other hand, doesn’t indicate a universe dominated by absolute chance, a universe of chaos and disorder. As opposed to the view that there is only chance in nature, Peirce insists that laws and generalities are real, though these laws and generalities, contrary to the doctrine of necessitarianism, operate by final causation instead of by pre-determined presuppositions of efficient causation: "… the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature and for uniformity in general is to suppose them results of evolution."[38] Peirce describes this kind of evolution as a process in which a tendency of habit grows from pure chance and regularity from chaos, and asserts that "the idea that chance begets order … is one of the cornerstones of modern physics."[39]


Laws and generals, in this sense, are the final causes of evolution and the ends towards which chances would finally turn in the infinitely remote future. Peirce’s teleology, therefore, is "more than a mere purposive pursuit of a predetermined end; it is a developmental teleology."[40] Although Peirce used the term "developmental teleology" only in the discussion of the development of human personality, Hulswit has pointed out rightly that it is also "applicable to the idea of teleology in general: learning from the developmental aspect of our own human purposes, we can inductively infer that all final causes in nature are, at least in principle, subject to evolution."[41] It is on this inductive, or what Peirce describes as abductive inquiry of the evolution of the laws of nature and truth of reality that I will turn in the next section.


III. Final Cause, Continuity and Reality


The developmental teleology of Peirce is characterized by the continuity of the evolutionary process, and this principle of continuity is not only essential for Peirce’s developmental teleology and understanding of reality, but also for his pragmatism as a whole. Continuity, as Peirce puts it, "is an indispensable element of reality, and that continuity is simply what generality becomes in the logic of relatives, and thus, like generality, and more than generality, is an affair of thought, and is the essence of thought." (5.436) True generality, therefore, "is nothing but a rudimentary form of true continuity. Continuity is nothing but perfect generality of a law of relationship." (6.169)


This principle of continuity stressed by Peirce also sheds considerable light on some difficult issues in contemporary discussions on final causation. Mayr, for example, has objected that "extending the term teleological to cover also static systems leads to contradictions and illogicalities:"[42] "One runs into serious logical difficulties when one applies the term ‘teleological’ to static systems (regardless of their potential) instead of process,"[43] such as a torpedo in storage, the eye of sleeping person or a hammer.


But strictly speaking, no system is absolutely static but that everything is always already in the continuous evolutionary process toward its telos, toward laws and generalities. For example, it might appear that a torpedo in an ordnance depot has nothing to do with any final cause, say, hitting and destroy a target. But a torpedo qua torpedo, even if it is in storage and not used at present can never be really isolated completely from the past of its being made with a purpose of hitting and destroy enemy targets and the future of its being used to hit such targets, by which it will realize its telos. The present, in other words, is not an independent and isolated moment, but is always defined in the continuity of temporal process and thus can be never separated from the past and the future. The contradictions and illogicalities, therefore, don’t come from the application of the term ‘teleological’ to the so-called static systems, but from the isolation and fragmentation of the ways through which theses phenomena are approached and explained.


For Peirce, on the other hand, continuity means not only the continuity of the open-ended evolutionary process but also the continuity between subject and object. In Peirce’s view, "all phenomena are of one character, though some are more mental and spontaneous, other more material and regular"(7.570). Meantime, "The thought thinking and the immediate thought object are the very same thing regarded from different points of view"(6.339). I mentioned in the beginning of this paper that Peirce’s retrieve of the efficacy of final causation goes together with his criticism of nominalism. The real issue between medieval realism and nominalism, as Boler maintains, is "whether the similarity, regularity, or uniformity of events (or members of a group) is grounded ‘objectively’ or ‘subjectively.’"[44] That is, the issue is whether reality of laws and generals, as nominalism claims, exists merely subjectively in words or human minds, or whether they indeed have objective validity. Under Peirce’s synechism, however, when both subject and object are essentially united in the same evolutionary process of Idea or thought, the question is no longer whether laws and generals can have existence not only in human minds but also in external objects, but how to explain the reality of these generals and laws and on what this reality depends.[45]


Peirce’s answer to this question lies in the very maxim of pragmatism:


Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings we conceive the object of our conception to have: then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.[46]


In other places, Peirce explains the meaning of the pragmatic maxim in this way:


In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception (5.9). Now quite the most striking feature of the new theory was its recognition of an inseparable connection between rational cognition and rational purpose; and that consideration it was which determined the preference for the name pragmatism.[47]


Here, the whole of our conception of an object, that is, the rational recognition of the object, in fact, refers to the cognition of what this object is, i.e., the whatness or essence of the object.[48] The meaning of the maxim of pragmatism, hence, is that the essence of an object lies in its practical consequences and its relation to definite human purpose. The inseparability of rational cognition and rational purpose, in this context, spells out the essential connection between essence and final causation, that is, the essence of an object is none other than the fulfillment of rational purposes and ends.[49] Aristotle has long spelled out the agreement of essence with purposes and ends.[50] For example, in defining what a house is, Aristotle says, "those who say that it is stones and bricks and wood speak of what is potentially a house, for these are matter; those who say that it is a receptacle for sheltering animals or goods, or some other such thing, speak of the actuality [energeia] of the house."[51]


The definition of a house, which brings into light the form and essence of the house, thus, relies upon the purposes or ends the house is going to fulfill, for it is only in the fulfillment of these purposes or ends that the house finally achieves its actuality. We have pointed out that the word actuality, energeia derives from ergon, i.e. work or performance. The energeia of a thing, therefore, lies in its end as "standing in the work:" for "performance is an end, and actuality is performance".[52] Said in another way, everything in the world is moving toward an end, and this end is the actuality, which is at the same time the form or essence of the thing. That is, in the fulfillment of its end as "standing in the work," the thing finally stands in its essence and the idea of the whatness of thing comes into light.


Peirce’s pragmatism, which is based upon the essential connection between rational cognition and rational purpose, can be construed as a further development of Aristotle’s concept of essence. Peirce aims to grant the reality of form as the essence of a thing, but at the same time, he is strongly against a narrow formalism. In other words, Peirce won’t take forms as general classes or species that inhere statically in things, but instead as would-be realities that are to be reached through the fulfillment of rational purposes and practical consequences. In Peirce’s view, as Hookway summaries, the intellectual meaning of a conception or proposition always lies in the future.[53] By treating the reality of generals as a would-be, as ideals that are to be realized in the future, Peirce finally finds a way out of the traditional nominalism-realism paradox. Peirce sums up his criticize of traditional nominalism and realism as follows:


The nominalists say it is a mere [word]. Strike out "mere," and this opinion is approximately true. The realists say it is real. Substitute for "is" may be, that is, is provided experience and reason shall, as their final upshot, uphold the truth of the particular predicate, and the natural existence of the law it express, and this is likewise true. (3.460)


To say that laws and generals may be real for the present is to say that their real existences or specific actualizations are merely possibilities, though these possibilities, as Peirce stresses time and again, are real possibilities[54] that would be actualized in the future. That is, these generals would be believed in the final opinion of the community. From this "may be" at present to the "would be" in the future, meantime, lies the logic of abduction – the continuous hypothetical process which alone, among all logical inferences, is able to introduce new ideas and to lead through experimentation to the final fixation of opinion.[55] The maxim of pragmatism, as Peirce sees it, is a mere maxim of logic,[56] that is, the maxim of a logic of abduction, through which we are able to grasp the final meaning of intellectual conceptions and propositions, as well as the reality of ideas. The process of abduction, on the other hand, is a process of experimental verification.[57]  In "What Pragmatism Is", Peirce enumerates a number of essential ingredients of an experiment, but concludes "the unity of essence of the experiment lies in its purpose and plan, the ingredients passed over in the enumeration."[58]


The whole process of abduction, therefore, is governed again by final causation. "The elements of every concept enter into logical thought at the gate of perception and make their exit at the gate of purposive action."[59]  It is thus the rational purposes that are the ends of every stage of abduction, and in the fulfillment of these rational purposes the process of abduction moves toward higher levels of reality and generality. The process of abduction, hence, consists in the continuous fulfillment of a series of purposes and plans, at the end of which stands the regulative hope for the final cause as the reality of the generality or form of things to be believed by the ultimate opinion. The progress of abduction is thus none other than the evolution of the Idea toward its final reality and generality, in which the essence of things finally comes into light.










[1] T.L. Short, "Teleology in Nature," American Philosophy Quarterly, vol. 20, No.4, Oct. 1983, p.311.

[2] Aristotle, Physics, II, 3, 194b 24-35, Complete Works, Vol. I, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984). The other three kinds of causes discussed along with final cause are: 1) material cause, or that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists, like the bronze of the statue and the silver of the bowl; 2) formal cause, or the form or the archetype, i.e. the definition of essence, and its genera, like the relation of 2:1 of the octave; 3) efficient cause, or the primary source of change or rest and what makes of what is made and what changes of what is changed, like the father who begets a son. Other accounts of final cause by Aristotle can be found in Parts of Animals, I. 1; Metaphysics, I, 3, 7, VII, 7, etc.

[3] Aristotle, Physics, II, 3, 195a 3.

[4] W.D. Ross, Aristotle (London, Methuen & Co., 1949), p. 72. Some more examples of the agreement between mechanical and teleological explanation can be found in Arthur W. Burks, Teleology and Logical Mechanism, Synthese, vol. 76, 1988, p. 333ff. I disagree, however, Burks’s main thesis that "all teleological explanations can be reduced to efficient causes," and will address that issue in the second section of this paper.

[5] Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art, Off the Beaten Track, ed. & trans. Julian Young & Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002) p. 6.  (Bold added)

[6] All references of the type MS xx refer to Peirce’s manuscripts as listed in Richard Robin’s Annotated Catalogue of the Papers of Charles S. Peirce, Amherst, 1967. References of the type x.xx refer to the volume and paragraph number of the Collected papers of the Charles S. Peirce, 8 vols., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Vol. 1-6, 1931-5 edited by Ch. Hartshorne and P. Weiss; Vol. 7-8 edited by A. Burks, 1958. References of the type EP followed by volume and page number refer to The Essential Peirce, edited by the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998).

[7] Ross interprets this distinction as a difference between the final cause in art and the final cause in nature. Ibid, p. 74. Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book XII, Ch 7, 1072b2-3, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. II, trans. Jonathan Barnes, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1984.

[8] Peirce himself has criticized the failure of recognizing this distinction and thus the equation of final cause with purpose: "It is … a widespread error to think that a ‘final cause’ is necessarily a purpose. A purpose is merely that form of final cause which is most familiar to our experience." (1.211)

[9] EP II, p 120. (Emphasis added) Cf. "… force is compulsion; and compulsion is hic et nunc." (ibid., p 120)

[10] Aristotle, Physics, II, 3, 194 b30.

[11] Aristotle, Metaphysics, V, 12, 1019a 15ff: "Potency means: (1) the principle of motion or of change which is in a thing other than the thing moved or changed, or in the thing moved or changed but qua other; … (2) "Potency" also means the principle of being moved or of being changed by another thing or by the thing itself qua other."

[12] See note 2.

[13] A subtle distinction can be made here again between Aristotle and modern usage of the word. For Aristotle, dynamis as power or force has more emphasis upon the source of such power or force, say, the art of building or heat, but for power or force as the essence of efficient causation in its modern usage, the emphasis is clearly upon the power or force itself, say, the power or force excised through the art of building or by the heat. In a sense, however, the meaning of power or force and the meaning of source of power can be taken as one, just as dynamis as capability and dynamis as power is in a sense one, though in another sense, they are different from each other, as we have shown above. Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, IX, 1, 1046a 20-30.

[14] Granted, these two senses of dynamis were maintained in medieval philosophers, for example, in Thomas Aquinas, as passive potency and active potency. However, the emphasis on the meaning of passive potency seemed to be so great that the meaning of active potency became eclipsed and later forgotten. See Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, Vol 2 Bk 9 Lsn 1 Sct 1777, trans. John P. Rowan, Chicago, H. Regnery Co., 1961, p 656. Cf. An Introduction to the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. James F. Anderson, Chicago, Henry Regnery Company, 1953, p. 30.

[15] EP II, p 373.

[16] The close relationship between final causation and actuality can be seen more clearly through the concept of entlecheia, which Aristotle uses many times inter-changeably with energeia. Entlecheia is a compound of en and telos with echein ("to have" or "to hold"), and thus means literally "the having-itself-in-its-end." Cf. Heidegger, Ibid, p. 216ff; Aristotle, Metaphysics, IX, 8, 1050a 15-25.

[17] Some more detailed and also insightful discussion of the complementary relation between efficient and final cause can be found in T.L. Short, "Peirce’s Concept of Final Causation," Transactions of the Charles S Peirce Society, vol. 17, 1981, pp. 376-79 and in Menno Hulswit, "Teleology: A Peircean Critique of Ernst Mayr’s Theory," Transactions of the Charles S Peirce Society, vol. 32(2), 1996, pp. 188-91.

[18] EP II, p. 124. Emphasis added.

[19] EP II, p. 121.

[20] Cf. EP II, p 123

[21] For the coincidence of final, formal and efficient causation, see Aristotle, Physics, II, 7, 198a 22 – 198b 9; Ross, Ibid, pp. 74–5. 

[22] Cf. Heidegger, Pathmarks, p 217. Cf. Liddell-Scott’s definition of the Greek concept of telos: the fulfillment or completion of anything. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1968.

[23] See Aristotle, Physics, II, 1, 192b 10ff.

[24] Cf. Aristotle, Physics, Book II, Ch 1, Complete Works, Vol. I. 

[25] Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle (Grinnell, The Peripatetic Press, 1979), 1049 b 18ff.

[26] For a systematic exposition of the priority of energeia to dynamis in the context of authentic Greek experience, see Heidegger, Ibid, pp.215-222. See also Ross, ibid, pp.76-8.

[27] Ernst Mayr, Teleological and Teleonomic, A New Analysis, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 14 (1), 1974, p. 96. 

[28] Mayr, p. 106.

[29] Mayr, p. 96.

[30] For some discussions on the meaning of "goal" concerning Mayr’s assertion, see T.L. Short, Peirce’s Concept of Final Causation, note 8, p. 380; Menno Hulswit, p. 199ff.

[31] Mayr, p. 108: "Proximate and ultimate causes must be carefully separated in the discussion of teleological systems… The origin of the program that is responsible for the adaptiveness of the system is an entirely independent matter. It obscures definitions to combine current functioning and history of origin in a single explanation." 

[32] It is true that Mayr also enumerated these two meanings of telos, (Mayr, p. 105) but the meaning of end seems to have received little attention and the context of Mayr’s discussion, as we have already seen, makes a strong suggestion of the equation of teleological phenomena and purposive phenomena.

[33] Ross, Ibid, p. 74. Emphasis added.

[34] Ayala, F.J., Teleological Explanations in Evolutionary Biology, Philosophy of Science Vol. 37, 1970, p. 11, quoted in Mayr, p. 96.

[35] Helmut Pape, Final Causality in Peirce’s Semiotics and His Classification of the Sciences, Transactions of Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, fall 1993, p. 589. Emphasis added.

[36] 6.33. Emphasis added.

[37] See for example T.L Short’s discussion of this issue in his Peirce’s Concept of Final Cause, p. 371-3.

[38] 6.13. Emphasis added.

[39] 6.279. Emphasis added. Cf. 6.33: It would suppose that in the beginning – infinitely remote – there was a chaos of unpersonalized feeling, which being without connection or regularity would properly be without existence. This feeling, sporting here and there in pure arbitrariness, would have started the germ of a generalizing tendency. Its other sportings would be evanescent, but this would have a growing virtue. Thus, the tendency to habit would be started; and from this, with the other principles of evolution, all the regularities of the universe would be evolved.

[40] EP I, p. 331. Emphasis added.

[41] Hulswit, ibid, p. 197.

[42] Mayr, p. 105.

[43] Ibid, p. 107.

[44] John F. Boler, Charles Peirce and Scholastic Realism (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1963), p. 30; cf. 6.99, 6.377, 5.210.

[45] Cf. 6.12.

[46] EP II, p. 135. Emphasis added.

[47] EP II, p. 333. Emphasis added.

[48] Peirce often talks about objectivity and real external things. However, given the essential unity of subject and object, these terms seem to indicate something other than their usual meanings. (Cf. 8.12). Therefore, I use instead the word whatness or essence in this context, which I believe expresses more accurately what Peirce designates here. Essence, in Aristotle, lies in the form and telos of a thing, i.e., its eidos, and thus in Peirce’s language the general type the thing is going to embody.

[49] It might seem that Peirce’s language here fails to indicate a clear distinction between purpose and end. But given the context of the continuity between subject and object, the difference between purpose and end also becomes also in a sense less distinctive. I assume, therefore, Peirce’s term "rational purpose" has indications for both purpose in its ordinary sense and end. In my own discussion, however, I will still maintain this basic distinction, and use phrases such as "rational purposes and ends." 

[50] See for example W. D. Ross, ibid, p. 173. W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, VI (Cambridge, University Press, 1962-81) p. 106ff, p. 217. 

[51] Aristotle, Metaphysics, XIII, 2, 1043a 15-19.

[52] Ibid, IX, 8, 1050a 22-4. Here I disagree with T.L. Short who asserts: "For Peirce and Aristotle, no final cause is actual" (Peirce’s Concept of Final Cause, Transactions, vol.17, p. 369). It seems that for Aristotle, form and final cause are more actual than matter. In other words, in one sense, as is shown here, form and final cause is actuality itself, though in another sense, actuality can also mean the unity of form or final cause with matter, which is closer to "actuality" in its modern sense. Peirce’s position, as I will show below, seem to be very close to that of Aristotle’s. The issue, as I see it, comes from the ambiguity of the English word "possibility." T.L. Short also asserts: "A final cause is not a future actuality: it is a present possibility." (Teleology in Nature, p. 311) It is true that Peirce himself also says generals and laws are "real possibilities." But the word "possibility," which derives from Latin possum and is thus a cognate of the word potentia or potentiality, has two groups of meanings in English. On the one hand, it means potentiality, passive potency, or capability, from which comes the meaning of likelihood or logical possibility. On the other hand, possibility can mean "that which is possible," and thus the end or telos that is possible to be attained or realized. In this sense, possibility, though involves some more element of chance, agrees to some extent with Aristotle’s concept of energeia, actuality. It seems to me that it is this second sense of possibility Peirce is indicating when he uses the term "real possibilities."

[53] See Christopher Hookway, Peirce, p 240. Cf. 5.481-3; EP II, p 340

[54] Cf. EP II, p. 354ff.

[55] Cf. Ibid, p. 235.

[56] Ibid, p. 134

[57] Ibid. p. 235

[58] Ibid, p. 339ff. Emphasis added.

[59] Ibid, p. 241. Emphasis added.