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The Teleology of Toy Story

July 15, 2012

While in his twenties, Steve Jobs became interested in Buddhism, traveling to India for seven months to study with a guru and meditating at the San Francisco Zen Center upon his return. “I have always found Buddhism, Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular, to be aesthetically sublime,” Jobs later told biographer Walter Isaacson.

The minimalism of Apple products owes much to Zen. And yet Jobs embraced other aesthetic principles less commonly associated with Eastern spirituality. A passage in the section of Isaacson’s biography on Jobs’ tenure at Pixar is particularly striking in this regard. Although Jobs presumably never studied Aristotle, Isaacson tells us that Toy Story was inspired by the belief that “products have an essence to them, a purpose for which they were made”—a belief that Jobs shared with Pixar cofounder John Lasseter. In Aristotelian terms, we could translate this as saying that products have a final cause or telos.

Aristotle argued that natural and human artifacts have four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. As summarized by Edward Feser in Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide final causality or teleology “is the end, goal, or purpose of a thing” and is “evident wherever some natural object or process has a tendency to produce some particular effect or range of effects. A match, for example, reliably generates flame and heat when struck, and never (say) frost and cold, or the smell of lilacs, or thunder” (17).

The similarity between Feser’s definition of final causality and the philosophy underpinning Toy Story is uncanny. According to Isaacson, Jobs and Lasseter believed that if a product had feelings

these would be based on its desire to fulfill its essence. The purpose of a glass, for example, is to hold water; if it had feelings, it would be happy when full and sad when empty. The essence of a computer screen is to interface with a human. The essence of a unicycle is to be ridden in a circus. As for toys, their purpose is to be played with by kids, and thus their existential fear is of being discarded or upstaged by newer toys. So a buddy movie pairing an old favorite toy with a shiny new one would have an essential drama to it, especially when the action revolved around the toys’ being separated form their kid.

To this, we might add, along with Aristotle, that man is a rational animal whose attainment of eudomonia depends upon the exercise of reason. The philosophy behind Toy Story is not merely similar to the philosophy of the Nichomachean Ethics; the two are identical.

Were Jobs and Lasseter closet Aristotelians? Almost certainly not. But apparently great minds really do think alike.

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