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Entelechy (La. entelechia, from Gk. ἐντελέχεια, entelécheia) is, according to Aristotle, the condition of something whose essence is fully realized; actuality. In some modern philosophical systems it is a vital force that motivates and guides an organism toward self-fulfillment.


Classical Philosophy

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Entelechy is a philosophical concept of Aristotle that was later adopted by the biological thinker Hans Driesch. From én (in), télos (end, or purpose) and échein (to have), Aristotle coined it to signify "having one's end within", therefore, that something's essential potential is being fully actualised.[1] In Aristotle's Metaphysics, the concept is contrasted with enérgeia. Entelécheia has been seen as a fullness of actualization which requires an ongoing or standing investment of effort in order to persist, as opposed to the energeia which is the activity of actualization not necessarily completed. Often entelechy is associated with form, and potency is associated with material which potentially has the form. First entelechy is being in full working order (for example, the soul is the first entelechy of the body), and second entelechy is being in action. Motion or change can lead to an entelechy but also themselves can be seen as entelechies. Entelechy has even been seen as in some way perpetually "becoming itself" yet never reaching the goal of that "becoming" (and were it to do so, the entelechy would, by definition, cease to exist).

Something, for example wood, which is itself already actual, complete, and formed in its entelechy as wood, may be potentially something else, for example buildable into a house, and the entelechy of that potential for being built is the building process, the wood's being built into a house. By extension the building process is an entelechy of the wood too, though not of the wood just as wood, but just insofar as it is buildable into a house. The motion or change or process of change is the entelechy of the potentiality as potentiality (when still a potentiality). Once the buildable house is finished, "the buildable is no longer buildable," says Aristotle[2], and with the cessation of that potentiality for being built comes the cessation of its entelechy, the building process. The house builders move on to the next construction site and the next batch of wood. Actual things in a sense are processes, so that entelechy and energeia (activeness), though contrastable, tend to extend to the same things. Some processes seem perpetual, and thus sometimes an entelechy seems a becoming which never reaches that becoming's final goal.

An individual's life can in many ways be regarded as beholden to various simultaneous and overlapping entelechies, for example, the life trajectories imposed by the biological limitations, our mortality, the norms and expectations of family and/or society, and the individual's ego-ideal. Externally imposed entelechies and fantasized but unrealized entelechies can both be sources of frustration.

Societies can also be said to embody entelechies in their cultures; religious views, collective senses of entitlement, "mission" or "mandate" and even in their very languages. Societies/cultures sensing that their entelechial trajectory is reaching its terminus (i.e., sensing they are in decline) or that this trajectory has been deflected from its "proper" path by illegitimate forces - either internal or external - may exhibit violently irrational or even self-destructive reactions.


Medieval Christianity, in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, relied on Aristotle's entelechy, when it defined God as actus purus, pure act. This led to conflict with the Eastern Orthodox, who believed in uncreated essences, while the Western Christians maintained that energies and essences were of the same substance and that they were always created.

Modern Philosophy

In German Idealism, entelechy may denote a force propelling one to self-fulfillment. The concept had occupied a central position in the metaphysics of Leibniz, and is closely related to his monadology in the sense that each sentient entity contains its own entire universe within it. Entelechy is also referred to by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Mind.

In the biological vitalism of Hans Driesch, living things develop by entelechy, a common purposive and organising field. Leading vitalists like Driesch argued that many of the basic problems of biology cannot be solved by a philosophy in which the organism is simply considered a machine.[3]

Aspects and applications of the concept of entelechy have been explored by the American critic and philosopher Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) whose concept of the "terministic screen" illustrates his thought on the subject.

See also



  1. ^ entelechy - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  2. ^ See Aristotle, Physics, Bk. III, Part 1, Eprint. Note that the translators (R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye) tend to translate entelecheia as "fulfillment".
  3. ^ Mayr E (2002) The Walter Arndt Lecture: The Autonomy of Biology, adapted for the internet, on [1]

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