Coined by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE, entelechy, or entelecheia in classical Greek, originally meant “being complete,” or having the end or purpose internally. Two thousand years later, Leibniz found it necessary to reintroduce the term to describe the principle and source of activity, the primitive force, in his “monads,” or real, substantial unities. In the beginning of the 20th century, entelechy was again revitalized through the writings of Hans Driesch, who used it to point to an immaterial “thing” that distinguishes the organic from the inorganic. Today, entelechy has come to be associated with the largely discredited or defunct theory of vitalism in the philosophy of biology.
To understand Aristotle’s use of this term, it is necessary to see it in relation to two other terms: dunamis, often translated as “potentiality,” and energeia, which is sometimes translated as “activity,” sometimes as “actuality.” Puzzled by how one can correctly say something like “That is a human,” when pointing at an infant or newborn, Aristotle distinguished between a thing’s potentiality (dunamis), and a thing’s realized potentiality (energeia), that is, what it is or what it is doing relative to a particular potentiality. For example, there is a sense of “human” that is rightly predicated of an infant, since that infant has the potentiality to be a mature human being (i.e., a rational animal); likewise, to point to a human adult and say “That is a human being” is correct, since the thing one is pointing at—a human—has the energeia of being a human (again, it is a rational animal). Now, what exactly energeia is, and how it is to be distinguished from entelecheia has puzzled not a few. While Aristotle may have come to use the two terms interchangeably, at times at least, he seems to have used energeia to mean the internal activity that a thing has (in its primary sense, the internal activity of a living thing) when its potentiality has been realized, and entelecheia to mean the state of having that potentiality realized. As the Aristotelian scholar George Blair has put it, in a way they mean the same thing, insofar as the referent (say, a mature human) is the same; but entelecheia points to the fact that the human has “humanity” within it internally (as opposed to having it outside it as it would if it were an infant or a small child), and energeia points to the fact that the human has the internal activity of a mature human. For Aristotle, this means having the soul functions of a mature human (for example, self-nutritive, growth, reproductive activities, sensation and rationality).
In his attempt to understand what must be so, Leibniz postulated his theory of monads. We see around us composite substances. Insofar as these are compound, they are made up of simpler substances. What, then, are the simplest substances? What are the most simple things that exist on their own? They cannot be physical or corporeal things, for all physical things, insofar as they have extension are divisible and so are not, by definition, the most simple. Thus, Leibniz argued, the simplest substances must be incorporeal (without parts or extension), metaphysical points analogous to soul. But while they have no quantity, these most simple substances, or “monads” as he called them, must each have their own inner constitutions. If not, there is no possibility of an explanation for the plurality of perceptible phenomena in the world. Thus, each monad has a principle or source of its own distinctive activities within it, its own primitive force, energy, or activity. This principle or source is what Leibniz called a monad’s “entelechy.” Monads, then, are the ultimate constituents of compound substances. What we perceive are aggregates of these monads. Each monad has, with its entelechy, a corresponding passivity that limits its activities. Taken together, these active and passive principles result in what Leibniz calls “secondary matter,” “mass,” or “body” and as such is perceptible and resists penetration. What we call “substances” in the physical world, then, are these aggregates of secondary matter or body, which, in turn, comprise active force (entelechy) and passivity (what Leibniz calls “prime matter”). Each perceptible organic substance is a unity (as opposed to a heap or mere collection of monads), however, insofar as it possesses a dominant monad, the entelechy of which acts as the entelechy of the whole.
Both Aristotle and Leibniz come to speak of entelechy so as to make sense of the world. As such, for both, entelechy is a nonempirical concept. It is not something that can be discovered by experimentation or other scientific means, nor is it meant to explain causal events. For Aristotle, paying careful attention to how we use certain words can show us something about the world we live in and make sense of (i.e., there are natures or essences); for Leibniz, in order to make sense of compound substances and the orderliness of the universe, again, something like entelechies must exist. The starting point or question of Hans Driesch, however, was slightly different, as he wondered whether there are events that “cannot be reduced to otherwise known natural phenomena” but are “a law unto themselves and autonomous.” His answer, supported by both the results from his experiments on developing organisms as well as by argumentation regarding the compatibility of his ideas with chemistry and physics, was in the affirmative, and this led him to speak (descriptively, he believes) of entelechy as the natural constant and that which differentiates organic phenomena from the inorganic. In essence, his theory of vitalism is based upon two things: first, his observations of certain living creatures able to reproduce their heads and other limbs when cut off and, second, his arguments that the organic being as a whole has certain qualities that are not only not shared by its parts but also are not derivable or reducible to the qualities of any of the parts. What he means by entelechy is just that which the organic whole has that none of its physicochemical constitutents does. Today, Driesch’s entelechy and theory of vitalism are held in low repute, but the significance of the differences between the properties of parts and wholes continues to be debated under the title of “emergent properties,” “reductionism,” and “physicalism.”
- Blair, G. A. (1992). Energeia and entelecheia: “Act” in Aristotle. Ottawa, Canada: University of Ottawa Press.
- Schroder, J. (1998). Emergence: Non-deductibility or downward causation? The Philosophical Quarterly, 48, 433-452.