Entelechy is a philosophical concept stemming from Aristotle's metaphysics, and generally used to identify whatever it is that makes the difference between mere matter and a living body. Originally a notion merely concerning the actualization of some substances potential (and so a notion that easily fits into a naturalistic description of the world), in Leibniz's hands it came to denote a non-material, unextended, mind-like entity that is underlies the entire physical world. In each case, the driving thought is that something metaphysically distinctive must be present in living bodies.
Entelechy has been explained as non-material, non-spatial, teleological, order giving element. Hans Driesch (1867-1941) followed Leibniz in insisting that such a concept was necessary for the scientific explanation of biological phenomena. His concept of entelechy has been dismissed as untenable. His concept of entelechy may be, however, from today's perspective, comparable to information due to its quasi-real ontological status.
The term traces to the Ancient Greek word entelecheia, from the combination of the Greek words enteles (complete), telos (end, purpose, completion), and echein (to have). Aristotle himself appears to have originally coined the word. In Metaphysics Theta, Aristotle uses 'entelechia' (and 'energia') in contrast with 'dunamis' in discussing the distinction between "actuality" and "potentiality." One example used by Aristotle to illustrate the distinction concerns knowledge. A given person might have the potential to know something, and so can be described as a potential knower. Once he learns the relevant fact or skill, he is an actual knower.
Aristotle's most historically influential application of 'entelecheia' outside of his metaphysics is his claim in the second book of On the Soul that the soul is the form or actuality of an organic body that makes it alive. The idea is that the various organs that make up a living body only add up to an actually living creature when they are organized in a certain way (as a rather vivid example, one might imagine the assembly of the monster in Shelley's Frankenstein). At the same time, Aristotle asserts that the entelecheia of the body (the soul) is also, in a sense, the purpose of living things, and part of the explanation for their movement. The actions of animals are directed at preserving their particular arrangement of organs and the production of new animals with the same form. This naturalist picture is complicated, however, by Aristotle's suggestion in book three of On the Soul that some aspect of the soul is not a part of the body.
It is this latter suggestion that determined the usage of 'entelechy' in later philosophers. The great German metaphysician Leibniz (1646-1716) used the term to refer to unextended thinking substances (also called 'monads' in his later work). Leibniz saw himself as reporting the element of truth in Aristotle's account (and in the accounts of medieval Aristotlean-Scholastics such as Aquinas). Like Aristotle, Leibniz held that every organic body has a special relation to a specific entelechy—but whereas Aristotle predominately thought of this as the form of some body of matter, Leibniz saw the 'dominant entelechy' of a body as the unextended substance that most clearly perceived the happenings in the various parts of the body. Influenced by the then-recent discovery of the telescope, Leibniz claimed that all bodies (organic and non-organic) were in turn made up of smaller organic bodies, with each of the latter having a dominant entelechy. These entities were the metaphysical basis of the physical world.
Despite widespread popularity in a few decades of the eighteenth century, Leibniz's view gained no lasting followers. Nevertheless, an appeal to entelechies is found in the works of the German embryologist Hans Driesch (1867-1941), who held that living creatures must contain some metaphysical element not present in non-living creatures. While Driesh's view had less influence than even Leibniz's, the basic idea of some distinctive element that explains the behavior of all living things has a strong intuitive pull, and it is understandable why various powerful thinkers would be drawn to such a notion.
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