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The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children.

Kelemen D.

Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park

16802, USA.

These studies explore the scope of young children's teleological tendency to

view entities as 'designed for purposes'. One view ('Selective Teleology') argues
that teleology is an innate, basic mode of thinking that, throughout development,
is selectively applied by children and adults to artifacts and biological properties.
An alternative proposal ('Promiscuous Teleology') argues that teleological
reasoning derives from children's knowledge of intentionality and is not
restricted to any particular category of phenomena until later in development.
Two studies explored the predictions of these two hypotheses regarding the
scope of children's functional intuitions. Using different methods, both studies
found that, unlike adults, pre-schoolers tend to attribute functions to all kinds of
objects--clocks, tigers, clouds and their parts. A third study then explored this
finding further by examining whether the developmental effect was due to
differences in children's and adults' concept of function. It found that both
children and adults predominantly view an object's function as the activity it was
designed to perform. Possible explanations for the developmental differences
found in the first two studies, and implications for notions of a teleological
stance are discussed.

PMID: 10384737 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

Cognition. 1999 Apr 1;70(3):241-72

Function, goals and intention: children’s teleological reasoning about

Deborah Kelemen

Department of Psychology, 441 Moore Building, The Pennsylvania State

University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

Available online 22 November 1999.


A fundamental aspect of adult thought is the ‘teleological’ tendency to assume

that objects exist for a purpose. When seeing an unfamiliar artifact or strange
anatomical part on an animal, the first question an adult will usually ask is
‘what’s that for?’ – a query that assumes that the object can be teleologically
explained in terms of its function. Current debate focuses on the origin and
scope of teleological thought, and its role in children’s emerging theories of the
biological world. The bias to view objects as ‘designed for a purpose’ probably
derives from children’s privileged understanding of intentional behavior and
artifacts. This makes children prone to a ‘promiscuous teleology’ in which
artifacts and natural objects of all types are viewed as existing for a function.
Because of this, I argue that we should be cautious about taking the existence
of an early teleological bias as evidence that there is biological understanding
that exists independently of a psychological construal of living things.