48. Entelecheia: Action Without Movement and Time

In his work Metaphysics, Aristotle makes an important distinction between two types of activities: those which do not have their end or goal (telos) within themselves and those which do (1048b20). Aristotle gives an example of one that does not: the activity of exercising to lose weight. This activity is not undertaken for its own sake but for the sake of becoming thinner. Thus the end lies outside the activity not within it. Activities which do not have their ends within them at every moment are actually to be classified as motions insofar as they are processional, that is, they are step by step processes which culminate in ends that were not present during these steps (like the process of building a house).

Conversely, the activity of seeing is complete at every single moment: when I look at a work of art I am not seeing as a means to greater goal or telos. In this activity “seeing seems to be at any moment complete, for it does not lack anything which coming into being later will complete its form…” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1174a15). Aristotle’s word for this type of activity is entelecheia (en, in; telos, end or goal; and echein, to have, to remain, to stay). This complex word seems to mean, as Joe Sachs put it, “continuing in a state of completeness, or being at an end which is of such a nature that it is only possible to be there by means of the continual expenditure of the effort required to stay there” (see his Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Aristotle: Motion and its Place in Nature” here). When we are thinking we are engaging in an activity complete at every moment. When we play music we are also engaging in an activity that is complete at every moment. The same goes for something as simple as taking a walk. We don’t start walking, and then begin walking more, and then reach, finally, walking; rather there is just walking in a continued state of completeness. If we were building a house then we would finally reach the house that was not present in any previous moment of building. Of course, we may be thinking about a problem; we may be playing a piece of music that has a beginning, a middle, and an end; and we may be walking to someone’s houseBut walking itself, thinking itself, and playing music itself are not motions that have their ends external to them: they are complete at every moment.

Now the really interesting point is that entelecheia, this active continuing in a state of completeness, cannot be understood in temporal terms. When there is motion, like there is in the process of building a house, there is a temporal sequence and one moves towards an external end until one reaches it. This end point marks the moment when the whole house appears. Prior to this whole appearing, we have parts of the whole: a roof, a foundation, a door, etc. But in an entelecheia there is a functioning whose end is consummated at every moment; one might say that the whole is always present. This relates to time as follows. For Aristotle, there is no time without motion and change; and the way we discern whether there is change is by seeing if a moment of an activity, say moment B, is different from another moment of that activity, moment A. Now, as we have seen, motion has its end outside it and so each moment prior to its realization will be different: we will, at one moment, have a house with a roof but not a door; at another moment a door, roof, and not a staircase; and so on. Thus the building of a house is in time. But with an entelecheia, we cannot discern any differences between moments of seeing itself, playing music itself, and thinking itself; all the moments are the same. This is why Aristotle, in referring to seeing, notes that “we are seeing and at the same time have seen” (Metaphysics, 1048b23). This means no change or motion can be discerned; and, since time depends on motion and change, an entelecheia co-exists with temporal processes but is not itself in time.

Why does this matter? Because sometimes it strikes us that everything we do is a mere means to an end. We work for money, get money to buy this and that, and buy this and that for, well, this and that. And so on. We sometimes feel that everything is a passing tone to another passing tone and that there is no rest in the sequence, no place to stop moving. But of course we don’t want to just stop and die. Rather, we want to be active but not move. And this is indeed possible if Aristotle is right about entelecheia. If he is right then we can be fulfilled in just walking, thinking and playing even if we don’t make it to our destination, a problem eludes us, or we don’t play to the end of the piece of music. Thus we see entelecheia provides a way to grasp how our lives are full of actions that can be complete at every moment. This is a consoling and beautiful thing to realize among so many motions which are on their way and will never get to where they are going.

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