H is for Teleology

In Percival Everett’s re: f (gesture), the abecedarian poem Zulus contains a multitude of allusions to a variety of people, places, stories, and more. In sifting through these many references, one in particular stood out to me among the rest. The speaker states, “H is for horrors, / so full of them we dine, / for humanity, / on bent Kantian trees” (Everett 22). I had never heard of a Kantian tree before, so using the logic of my last blog post (Archive and Intertextuality), I took to my favorite archive–Google–to see what I could find.

“Kantian” refers to the ideas of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a Prussian philosopher from the Enlightenment Era. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, one of Kant’s works, “Critique of Teleological Judgement,” addresses the topic of teleology. Teleology comes from the Greek word telos, which means the “end” or the “purpose.” Some philosophers argue that all of nature and living things have a telos; essentially, these things have an inherent purpose or reason for existing. Kant was one such philosopher that supported this idea, claiming that “nature as a whole may be regarded as a system of purposes.” A “Kantian tree” would be a tree that possesses an innate purpose.

Immanuel Kant, a famous Prussian philosopher via Daily Times.

The word “teleology” stood out to me because in my Nature of Inquiry seminar with Dr. David Levy, my class at one point discussed teleology in relation to scientific inquiry. Dr. Levy brought up teleology as a means to compare modern science with early science. In early science, telos was always a factor in scientific discovery; early scientists consistently tried to figure out why something exists–what its most basic purpose was. In Nature of Inquiry, we used a tree for an example: one can study and observe a tree, figure out how it works, and find connections between it and other aspects of nature like the soil or a squirrel. The purpose of the tree in existing, however, is not easily answerable. In fact, in modern day science, questions of purpose are abandoned all together; scientists look for the “how” alone because the “why” is often completely subjective.

This subjectivity offers invitation for a variety of ideas about why something exists. Many times, these explanations are religious in nature. In the case of early scientists, the explanation more often than not came in the form of “because God (or the gods) willed it so.” This actually became quite problematic because when early scientists could not directly observe something, they often started with the telos and worked backwards, making assumptions based on what they believed was the ultimate purpose. For example, the planets and their orbits were very difficult to observe, but the assumed telos of space was that God had made it perfectly; it was representative of what Earth could have been like if Eden was not destroyed by the sins of Adam and Eve. Thus, for many centuries, mathematicians assumed that the orbits of the planets would be perfectly circular; if God had created it, it couldn’t be any other way. Because of these assumptions, it took much longer to discover the truth because scientists were consciously trying to get their calculations to fit with the telos, even though this wasn’t correct.

While thinking of all of this, I began to wonder if teleology could be applied to reading literature. In almost every English class I’ve been in , I have heard the question asked, “What is the author’s/poet’s/playwright’s purpose in doing such-and-such…?” Every time this question was asked, I was looking for the telos, the purpose of whatever work I happened to be studying. In considering the way telos became problematic in science, I think that maybe the constant emphasis placed on this question should be reconsidered.

While I will always support the process of trying to “figure out” a text and why the author wrote it, I think that sometimes this can let people get a little too far ahead of themselves. Just as the scientists presupposed circular orbits of the planets because of telos, perhaps those in literary studies can make too many assumptions or radical conclusions in attempting to satisfy what they consider to be the “author’s purpose.”

Throughout the semester, one of the things our class has discussed is how to appropriately approach a text. We’ve generally looked at two basic ways to do this: New Criticism and intertextuality. While I’ve often championed an intertextual, culturally and historically situated approach to reading literature, I feel that we should begin each reading with a New Critical approach. New Criticism looks at the plain “facts” of the literature, studying and observing only the techniques and devices used within the text. I think to avoid teleological assumptions, we should start here. If we immediately jump to the intertextual aspect, I think it’s easy to get lost in outside facts that might make a certain purpose seem obvious. I can think of many times when I’ve been given the historical context in which a text was written, and then I’ve assumed that the text must have to do with whatever big movement, war, issue, etc. was prevalent at that time. While this could be the case, this is not always true. By assuming the telos of the work automatically, it could really take away from the reading. I think we can learn from the scientific mistrust of assuming telos and apply this to literature; looking at outside knowledge can come later, but we must first look at the facts embedded in the literature itself.

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