Telos and Teleology

Telos is a valuable but much misunderstood concept in the study and analysis of narrative, artistic practice and creativity, Victoria Alexander argues. Her insights can be extended to include design practice.

It is a mistake, Alexander continues, to assume that teleology implies an original, external cause, a prime mover or designer, that sets the whole machinery of the universe in motion. It is only when misunderstood in this way that final causality is said to be linear, consisting in direct cause and effect relationships, predictable, proportional and reductive, i.e. telos is understood in narrow functional terms.

For Alexander, telos, despite the variety of interpretations over time, has always involved the concept of chance. She argues that telos involves two distinct mechanisms, which she calls directionality (the maintenance of order) and originality (the discovery of new order).

Telic systems, Alexander contends, are formed according to mechanistic laws that arise spontaneously from disorder. In turn, law-abiding systems come to function in ways advantageous to them that are not predicted by those laws. These two aspects, emergent lawfulness and adaptability, make natural systems telic, which is to say progressive or creatively organised toward goals. In Alexander’s view only when activity involves both directionality and originality can it be called intentional, artistic or, indeed, designed.


Alexander, V.N. (2002). Narrative telos: the ordering tendencies of chance [Research paper]. City University of New York. Available from [Accessed 4 October 2015].

edited 4 February, 2019 by Allan Parsons

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