Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




This work examines the concept of function in both biological organisms and designed artifacts. Function is routinely attributed within both kinds of systems, yet it is unclear whether it can mean the same thing within each, and indeed whether function attribution within natural systems is legitimate at all. Function is typically understood to have teleological content; yet in true teleological causation, the end is somehow the cause of its own means. In artifacts the consciously envisioned design of an artifact is taken to be the cause of its parts and their roles. Yet in naturalistic science there is no prior design of organisms, and efficient cause works only in the opposite direction.

Three major approaches to function theory in contemporary analytic philosophy are examined in turn: etiological, systemic effects, and contributions. In addition a novel properties approach is proposed. It is seen that while the etiological approach promises to preserve an account of strongly teleological natural function, it is in fact unable to do so. The systemic effects approach, meanwhile, is found to not attribute function with adequate precision, nor to apply at all to contexts involving intention. The contributions account will be seen to require substantial modification to enable it to attribute function with sufficient discretion, including the necessity of distinguishing function performance from function possession, resulting in the novel Assigned Contribution theory. Finally, an entirely new approach to function informed by emergence theory is advanced. It is posited that functional parts are those whose properties not only serve the whole, but whose properties have been constrained by the whole of which they are a part.

The four approaches to function will be seen to themselves turn on four different interpretations of teleology. Ultimately, the choice of function theory will be seen to rest on whether non-intentional teleology is a coherent metaphysical possibility. If it is, the properties approach offers important advantages. If it is not, the Assigned Contributions approach is superior. Yet even in this case, the properties approach shows enough promise as a full theory of function to merit further development.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.