Systems Theory/Goal Structure (Teleological Behavior)

Four Teleological OrdersEdit

According to Quentin Smith (1981), the four teleological orders are the relations of one aim to another as (1) a “means to” it, (2) a “part of” it, (3) a “concretion” of it, and (4) as “subsumed” under it. These teleological orders interconnect three different types of aims: (1) ends, (2) goals and (3) purposes. Smith uses the term “ends” to refer to those aims that are directly pursued in voluntary actions. Ends are terms of one or both of the teleological relationships that we are designating as the “means to” relationship and the “part of” relationship. The ends that are terms of these relationships are either physical ends, mental ends, or interpersonal ends. 1. Physical ends are either to alter the physical structure of my surroundings (such as to saw a branch in half), or to alter and move my body for its own sake (as is the case when I engage in exercise). 2. Mental ends are not to change the physical environment or my body, but to “bring to my mind” ideas, images or memories. Examples of mental ends are “to solve a mathematical problem,” “to recall a person’s name,” “to read a poem,” and “to conceptualize in an accurate manner a vague insight.” 3. Interpersonal ends are to influence or affect the consciousness of another person. Goals are formally defined as aims that are constituted by two or more ends. The smallest scale goals are constituted by the fewest ends, and the largest scale goals are constituted by thousands of ends. Goals differ in essence from ends in that they are mediate aims of voluntary actions, whereas ends are immediate aims of these actions. An end is immediately and directly attained by an action: it is the volitional activity and striving that either are the end itself, or that bring about the end as their direct result. A voluntary action, however, cannot immediately attain a goal. A goal must be attained by a series of voluntary actions, such that they become attained only through the attainment of a series of complete actional ends. In this sense the attainment of the goal is mediate: it is mediated by the attainment of a series of actional ends. The explanation of this definition of goals involves a distinction of goals from complete actional ends. Complete actional ends differ from goals in two respects. Complete actional ends are such that: (1) they are continually posited from the moment they are willed by a volition until the moment they have been completely attained by the subsequent voluntary action. This entails that these ends (2) are pursued in a continuous and uninterrupted action and striving, such that I act and strive without intermission from the moment I will the end to be attained until the moment I attain it.


Goals, on the other hand: (1) are not continually posited from the moment they are willed until the moment they are attained. Rather they are posited as my aims at different times. The pursuit of a goal is interspersed with modes of behavior that do not aim at attaining the goal; these modes of behavior may be actions that aim to attain other goals, or they may be non-actional modes of behavior, such as passions, moods, periods of day-dreaming, sleeping, etc. (2) Corresponding to this discontinuous positing of the goal, the voluntary activities and strivings that aim to realize the goal are engaged in at different times. This definition of goals indicates that they differ from ends in the manner in which they are posited and pursued. They do not necessarily differ in their contents (although they usually do). This occasional similarity between their contents is apparent in the smallest scale goals and the complete actional ends. At one time I may pursue and attain one aim in a single voluntary action, and at another time I may pursue and attain a similar aim in two or three different actions. In the first case, since the aim is attained in a single action, it is nothing more than the complete end of this action. In the second case, it is the mediate aim of several actions: it is the goal to which the several actional ends are ordered. This distinction between ends and goals enables us to note a fundamental difference in kind among the various aims of actions. This difference is usually overlooked. For example, Sartre does not distinguish between the different kinds of aims we empirically desire. For Sartre (L’Etre et le Neaot; Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1943), “drinking a glass of water” and “conquering Gaul” are undifferentiated instances of the aims we can empirically desire. However we believe there is a fundamental difference in kind between these two aims. The aim of “drinking a glass of water” is achieved in a single and continuous action, whereas the aim of “conquering Gaul” is achieved by a vast number of such actions. The former aim is an end, the immediate aim of one action, whereas the latter aim is a goal, the mediate aim of a number of actions. The relation of goals to purposes is different in kind than the relation of ends to goals. Goals are neither “means to” nor “parts of” purposes, but “concretions” of purposes. Goals “make concrete” the “abstractions” that are purposes. Specifically, goals are the concrete determinations of undetermined instances of universals. It is the nature of purposes to be undetermined instances of universals, and it is the nature of goals to be the particular determinations of these instances. Whereas ends and goals constitute the unique individuality of our actions, purposes are the unconditioned meanings of our actions. They are the ultimate “reason” or “what for” of our actions. If it is asked why or “what for” a person is engaging in an action, the final reason he can give is that he is doing it in order to realize a purpose. While goals are the meaning of ends, in that ends are pursued for the reason that they realize goals, purposes are the meaning of goals, for purposes are the “reason why” we pursue goals.


If we consider this order and distinction between these terms and their relationships, then the order of things may be presented in the way similar to graph above. Once the purpose of the action is formulated in the mind of a person, he/she pursues the goal(s) required to be accomplished, in order to achieve definite (and desired) end(s), with ultimate result of fulfilling this purpose. Ends, goals and purposes, as they are interrelated by the four teleological orders, constitute a teleological structure of voluntary actions. According to this interpretation of goal structure, the goal is mediate aim of a number of actions. Hence, it consists of the series of actions intended to achieve proximal and distal effects. If we use Smith’s example, adapted from Sartre, aim of “conquering Gaul” requires series of actions. In order to achieve this military aim, Julius Caesar might have devised this series of actions: • Divide the territory into areas of responsibility between legions, in order to prevent communication of Gaul tribes. • Ascertain key terrain features that need to be controlled by legions, to establish camps and uninterrupted lines of communication and supplies for the troops, etc. These hypothetical actions of Caesar would represent the series of activities designed to achieve proximal effects. Distal effect of this series of actions would still be, of course, “conquering Gaul.” The structure above has five levels, each level being an interrelationship between some of these aims. The relationship between ends and other ends constitute the level that lies at the basis of this structure: the “part of” and “means to” order between ends is the irreducible foundation of voluntary and aim—directed action. Founded upon this basic level of the interconnection of ends, there is a second level consisting of the “part of” and “means to” relations between ends and goals. And upon this level there is based a third level: the “part of” and “means to” relations that connect goals to other goals. These relations serve as the foundation for a fourth level of this teleological structure: the “concretion” order that links goals to purposes. Upon this level there is built the uppermost level, which is the “subsumption” order that connects purposes to other purposes. The final purpose in this “subsumption” order is the empty purpose of “attaining some purpose.” This is the most general aim of voluntary action, and with it the teleological relationships terminate. Any phenomenon that is to become an aim of human action can only do so through being integrated in an immanent fashion within this interconnected teleological structure.


  • “Four Teleological Orders of Human Action” by Quentin Smith Published in: Philosophical Topics, Vol. 12, No. 3., Winter 1981, pp. 312-335.
Last modified on 20 November 2008, at 00:30