Aristotle on “Nature Does Nothing in Vain”

Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 7 (2):246-271 (2017)
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Aristotle’s principle that “nature does nothing in vain” (NDNIV) is central to his teleological approach to understanding organisms. First, we argue that James G. Lennox’s influential account of NDNIV is unsuccessful. Second, we propose an alternative account that includes a natural state model. According to a natural state model of development, an organism will develop toward its natural state unless interfering forces prevent that from happening. Third, we argue that this account also fits Aristotle’s discussion in the Generation of Animals and can explain monstrosities in nature that at first sight seem to be counterexamples to NDNIV. Fourth, we take a broader look at NDNIV, arguing that it does not entail that all structures are teleological (since it accommodates the thought that by-products and some neglected items that Aristotle calls “tokens” are nonteleological), that it does not entail that there is only one function per organ, that NDNIV is not an anthropocentric principle, and that, perhaps surprisingly, the teleological structures of an organism can benefit others apart from the organism and its progeny. Finally, we argue that Aristotle endorsed an empirical justification of NDNIV wherein the principle is justified by its many successful applications.



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Author Profiles

Elliott Sober
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Paula Gottlieb
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Citations of this work

Aristotle and the Origins of Evil.Jozef Müller - 2020 - Phronesis: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy 65 (2):179-223.
Darwinian Functional Biology.Ginnobili Santiago - 2022 - Theoria : An International Journal for Theory, History and Fundations of Science 37 (2):233-255.

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References found in this work

Aristotle on teleology.Monte Ransome Johnson - 2008 - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Aristotle on meaning and essence.David Charles - 2000 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Aristotle’s “De Anima”: A Critical Commentary.Ronald M. Polansky - 2007 - New York: Cambridge University Press.

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