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28 July 2001 | Draft

Entelechy: actuality vs future potential


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Presenting the Future (Part 3, 2001)


In order to take this exploration further it is necessary to focus briefly on the nature of the experience of the actuality of the moment in contrast with any sense of a potential future.

There is a curious contemporary interest in entelechy, a term highlighted by Aristotle that has now been taken up by the human potential movement -- and notably by Jean Houston through her Entelechy Institute ( Practices relating to this focus include: evocation of entelechy; opening to, affirming and talking to the underlying source/wellspring/ground of lived experience; a felt sense of good/fitting/appropriate timing in personal and social behaviour, both secular and sacred; a felt sense of good/fitting/appropriate spatial patterns; Subud latihan; Kitselman's E-therapy; Gendlin's experiential focussing.

Some companies concerned with human resource development have also taken up the term. The various interested parties have adapted understandings of its meaning to their particular ends. The idea of a form-giving agent in matter takes on a resemblance to some of the speculative modern notions of L-fields, morphogenetic fields, and scalar potential fields.

For example, Michael W. Dwyer of Entelics Research defines entelics as:

The design science of artificial systems which studies the structural and functional logic of those systems as actually implemented, as it appears to humans who interact with them and who are often components of them. Entelics is all about noticing, and taking seriously, the immediate reality or "actuality" of things, especially with respect to the designed environments in which people spend most of their lives. For official myths about how physical artifacts and social systems work, entelics substitutes people's real experience of them, the empirically verifiable here-and-now reality of how those systems function in practice. Entelics concentrates on the qualitative, combinatoric, and algorithmic aspects of systems that humans most readily perceive, with special emphasis on depicting essential logical structure and control mechanisms. Entelics leaves detailed quantitative analysis, where that is possible, to existing science and engineering specialties. It concentrates especially hard on interactions between system components which are currently designed in isolation from each other by independent groups of specialists. (

Entelechy is considered to be an inherent regulating and directing force in the development and functioning of an organism, the actualization of form-giving cause as contrasted with potential existence (with which future orientation is strongly associated).

"Derived from the Greek word for having a goal, entelechy is a particular type of motivation, need for self-determination, and an inner strength and vital force directing life and growth to become all one is capable of being. Gifted people with entelechy are often attractive to others who feel drawn to their openness and to their dreams and visions. Being near someone with this trait gives others hope and determination to achieve their own self-actualization." (Deirdre Lovecky, "Warts and Rainbows: Issues in the Psychotherapy of the Gifted", Advanced Development, Jan., 1990)

For Aristotle entelechy was effectively the "end within" -- the potential of living things to become themselves, e.g., what a seed has that makes it become a plant, namely actuality rather than what might later be fruitfully expressed. This example points to the fact that nature disseminates many seeds -- few of which survive to become plants. In the presentation of projects for the future, many humans are expected to dedicate themselves in the present to assist the few to achieve such benefits. The fundamental flaw in this logic has been highlighted by the social security funding crisis in which many effectively invested over decades on governmental promises that they would be assured of a safety net after years of such contributions.

Following Aristotle, some see the active reason part of the soul as providing humans with their highest purpose, namely their entelechy. "According to Aristotle, the purpose for which a thing exists and which remains a potential until actualized. Active reason, for example is the human entelechy, but it exists only as a potential in many humans" (Hergenhahn, 1997). Other definitions include:

The difficulty with such conceptualizations is that they detract from, and effectively denature, the experiential and operational dimensions that they purport to define. In fact there is a degree of inherent incompatibility -- even confusion -- between how entelechy may be understood in relation to any meaningful experience of the present actuality in the moment -- as contrasted with the future potential embryonic in that understanding. (cf David Bohm's sense of implicate). This lies at the root of the problematic (even paradoxical) relationship between the experiential present and the embryonic future.

The difficulty is that conscious understanding of the present moment can be very superficial -- as a kind of interface between any form-giving cause and the potential to which it may give rise. There is a more profound sense to actuality that is normally only accessible in altered states of consciousness -- and possibly to the unconstrained multi-dimensionality of childlike awareness. It is from the complex dimensionality of this higher (or deeper) order of understanding that the future is engendered -- manifesting the form that is embryonic within it. In these inadequate terms understanding both the present and the future is a challenge -- as is understanding their relationship at the present/future interface.

In considering what might be usefully understood by entelechy in relation to the present moment there is therefore a danger of simplistic conceptual closure as reflected in statements such as: "Aristotle referred to a process known as "entelechy" the perfect and the total realization of what was previously in a potential state". Or: "The ancient conception of entelechy was of development from what is potential to what is perfected and actualised. It was closely allied to that of an informing spirit." The argument of this paper is that by stressing such "development" the experience in the moment, of whatever can be understood by an "informing spirit", is sacrificed.

The physicists Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (Order Out of Chaos) have their own way of marginalizing the complexities of what might be termed the action of the creative spirit "selecting" in the moment. They naturally favour those complexities amenable to their theoretical approach:

It is tempting to speculate that the breaking of space and time symmetry plays an important part in the fascinating phenomena of morphogenesis. These phenomena have often led to the conviction that some internal purpose must be involved, a plan realized by the embryo when its growth is complete. At the beginning of this century, German embryologist Hans Driesch believed that some immaterial "entelechy" was responsible for the embryo's development. He had discovered that the embryo at an early stage was capable of withstanding the severest perturbations and, in spite of them, of developing into a normal, functional organism. On the other hand, when we observe embryological development on film, we "see" jumps corresponding to radical reorganizations followed by periods of more "pacific" quantitative growth. There are, fortunately, few mistakes. The jumps are performed in a reproducible fashion. We might speculate that the basic mechanism of evolution is based on the play between bifurcations as mechanisms of exploration and the selection of chemical interactions stabilising a particular trajectory. (

John Heron (A Way Out for Wilberians) offers a useful insight into the role of entelechy in his critique of the approach of Ken Wilber:

The problem here, it is important to note, is not with a theory of teleological forces, or entelechy, or chaotic attractors, or deep structures, or however one chooses to name it. The problem is the irreconcilable tension in Wilber's evolutionary theory between the unprecedented, undetermined, innovative, self-transcending emergence (1995: 47-8) of human holons and the predetermined linear actualization of their inbuilt spiritual code, entelechy or deep structure. The distinction between surface and pre-programmed deep structures does not resolve this tension; on the contrary it makes it worse by undermining human creativity with an account of its inescapable superficiality. The incoherence can be resolved by a deeper view than Wilber's: by holding that a person's, or a culture's, inner spiritual potential or entelechy consists of seeded patterns of possibility, the selection from and linear actualization of which is indeterminate and a matter of deep creative choice. The built-in code is not a linear programme, but a deep map of options, through openness to which our creative choices are made. We co-create our path with inner divine life impulse and the possibilities it proffers. This more coherent idea, incidentally, leads on to a theory of the valid diversity of spiritual paths, rather than to the assimilative totalitarianism of Wilber's system. (

[To Part 4]

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