Jonathan Rowson


Part 7: Entelechy - The Future Within Us. Philosophical and strategic reflections on Emerge.



There is an emerging field of inquiry and practice that has been coming into view for about five years now. This series of posts has been about trying to help that field recognise and mobilise itself. We share a sense of epoch, which is a time between worlds, with modernity apparently ending and who-knows-what beginning. Our method is potentially distinct in focussing directly on immunity to change, and traversing three different kinds of worlds – systems, souls and society. Our ethos is post-conventional which means, among other things, that we are future-making by disposition. Our resolve should be to get real, particularly with regards to ‘the impossible We’ that we expect to solve our problems. Our near term goal seems modest – the survival of open societies – but it is a precondition for the creation of positive futures. In this final post, it’s time to think about whether we can conceive of a future that is inevitably just collapse or authoritarian control to prevent collapse, or whether there might be ‘a third attractor’ – a future world that might inspire more than just survival.

Entelechy is a Latinised form of the Greek entelekheia, meaning actuality, and the etymology is ‘in telos’. Aristotle used entelechy to refer to “the condition in which the potentiality has become the actuality”. The term is used most often in metaphysics, the philosophy of biology and… life coaching. I am using it here to explore the Emerge field’s vision for civilisation. Asking after the world’s entelechy is not like asking for Heaven, which is inherently transcendent, or Utopia, which literally means there is no such place. The request is for a positive and coherent vision of a future, perhaps three generations from now and beyond, based on the potential of where we are. Is that too much to ask?
It might be. Back in 2013 I chaired an RSA event in London with one of my intellectual heroes, Robert Kegan. He spoke about “Bob’s big idea” – namely that the purpose of human longevity, of people living several decades after their reproductive years, might be related to the world’s need for profoundly new forms of perception and understanding (the self-transforming mind, or ‘fifth stage’ in his model). My first question to him was the following:
“What would it look like if it works? So, let’s imagine everything you say is true and that there is some sort of adaptive immune system response in the planet to increase our longevity so that we have more opportunity to develop a different (self-transforming, fifth) order of consciousness in greater numbers so that collectively we can solve the problems caused by the third (socialised) and fourth (self-authoring) orders of mind. If that’s all true, can you give us an idea of what that looks like at a governmental or economic level?”
Bob laughed, the audience laughed, I laughed, and no real attempt to respond to the question’s scope was forthcoming. We had a great lunch afterwards and all was well, but I remember feeling disappointed. These future-making questions may not have solid answers, but we have responsibility to make intelligent guesses. Our role as a species is not just to inhabit the world but to reconstitute and reimagine it. 
Providing a vision of the world in 50+ years is not a science-fiction challenge as such. We might be inspired, for instance, by the anarchist, Taoist and feminist alternative realities of Ursula Le Guin or Aldous Huxley’s Island, but those worlds did not arise historically from within our own. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future is closer in spirit to the task, but he describes the challenges relating to triage and transition rather than our post-transition world. Coming back to the time between worlds analysis, the question of entelechy applies mostly to the larger transitions (3,4,5) where life is relatively unrecognisable but still stems from our own, and that means worlds that may have different metaphysical premises too.

I heard a Rebel Wisdom podcast where Nora Bateson was asked what a desirable future looked like, and she said that was the wrong question. As a sense, vision is dependent on familiar images and inherently limiting. What matters more is how a desirable future feels, and she said it feels like vitality
That’s a great start, and what we might expect from a broadly ecological perspective. That’s the underlying spirit, for instance, of Jeremy Lent’s case for An Ecological Civilisation, which he says is fundamentally about a world that is informed by how life operates and one that seeks to be life-affirming. Some might argue GameB is doing the same thing, since their work stems from several decades of research in complexity theory and is about helping the complex systems inherent in life and ultimately resilient avoid being diminished by systems that are complicated and ultimately fragile. Solar Punk is an attitude rather than a fully worked out vision, but it also has a form of vivacity at its heart. It advocates expanding our imaginative capacity to create life that is in harmony both with nature and technology.
Vitality might work as a scientific premise on which to build the future, or perhaps an aesthetic one, but it’s not clear if it really provides moral or spiritual grounding beyond suggestive metaphors relating to balance, reciprocity and whatever flourishing means. To feel alive is great, but what is your vitality for
Some might say that’s up to us to decide, that we have agency to decide what matters. But remember, we need to get real about differences of worldview as a feature, not a bug, of a viable world. The Greek term Dunamis is closely informed by entelechy and it’s about the power that is not agency. That’s a more-than-human power. To respect that is to feel, as Rowan Williams puts it, that “we are not our own origin” and many feel any hope we have rests in reflecting further on what that means.

In what follows I try to explain what it means to me, and trust the reader to follow without fear of some kind of conversion. I simply think we can’t avoid discussing the issue directly when it comes to visions of the future – to put it crudely, some in the field ‘believe in God’, some don’t, and discussing what the terms mean only gets us so far. There is no way to avoid encountering this issue for the following reasons: First, many discussions of our planetary predicament are characterised by a misplaced presumption of secular liberal atheistic materialism, despite the fact that over 80 per cent of the world’s population identify as being in some sense religious. Second, as argued in Tasting the Pickle, there are two kinds of spiritual bypassing. The disposition to reduce political and psychological matters to spirituality is problematic, but so is being unable to think spiritually at all, and the latter has been a limiting condition of our social imaginary for decades now. Third, reckoning with our times means digging deep into whatever is best in us, and that includes all aspects of our cultural inheritance. As I think Lene Rachel Andersen would put it, we need the best of indigenous, pre-modern, modern and post-modern culture codes to have a chance of a successful transition through Metamodernity to life on the other side. 
In Ever Present Origin, Jean Gebser describes a new spiritual reality that will begin to arise in our times, as the mental/rational mode reaches its limits:

“A mere interpretation of our times is inadequate … This new spiritual reality is without question our only security that the threat of material destruction can be averted. Its realization alone seems able to guarantee man’s continuing existence in the face of the powers of technology, rationality, and chaotic emotion. If our consciousness … cannot master the new reality and make possible its realization, then the prophets of doom will have been correct. Other alternatives are an illusion; consequently, great demands are placed on us, and each one of us has been given a grave responsibility, not merely to survey but to actually traverse the path opening before us.”

I don’t know quite what Gebser’s prophecy means for the field in practice, but in his extraordinary essay on Blake’s view of Imagination in Aeon magazine Mark Vernon makes some related distinctions that help us further clarify the point:
“[Blake’s] vision for ecology is, therefore, not one of managed exploitation (Ulro), managed consumption (Generation), or even managed cooperation (Beulah), but instead one aimed at radically extending awareness of the ecologies of which we’re a part. [Eternity] means embracing not just the environments and organisms studied by the natural sciences but (Eternity) the divine intelligences appreciated by the visionaries, plus a panoply of gods, spirits and daemons that our ancestors took as read.”
In our field most visions of the future are a form of Beulah lamenting Ulro and Beulah rather than opening ourselves to the possibility of Eternity. This is a challenging point, because it amounts to asking for a kind of metanoia, as Brent Cooper describes it in his chapter for Dispatches. Such a transformative shift in perception may well depend on some version of The Flip, as Jefrrey Kripal puts it, in which we break out of the presumption that the world is primarily physical and develop ‘a new metaphysical imagination that does not confuse what we can observe in the third person with all there is’. These shifts of perspective stem from particular philosophical positions on how we know (epistemology) what is real/true (metaphysics) and what is of value (axiology) that have been meticulously argued by Iain McGilchrist’s new books The Matter with Things that Perspectiva were proud to publish last year. It’s a worldview in which science is shown to be consonant with consciousness, meaning, value and purpose as irreducible features of a life that is sacred. It is also a worldview that potentially shifts our relationship to time and causality, in ways that could be generative. My colleague Ivo Mensch is working on practices relating to ‘temporics’ and ‘imaginal causality’ to test the waters here.
In a more narrative spirit, The Fetzer Institute believes Love is the ultimate source of renewal in our times, and they are building a formidable multi-faith movement around this broadly theological premise that our shared sacred story stems from the primordial reality of love – perhaps the only kind of power that can save us from ourselves. From with the Emerge field, Zak Stein has written along similar lines about the need for a ‘return to Eros’. That metaphysics of ‘cosmo-erotic humanism’ includes a commitment to personhood, in which we don’t explain away human selves as an illusion of contingent interdependent arising, but view our unique souls and our scope to relate to each other as unique as the very source of the sacred. More politically, some believe that only the living presence of love has the power to overcome the depth of cultural polarisation that has taken hold. In practice that means the kind of demanding love that Paul Tillich and latterly Martin Luther King spoke of when lamenting the disconnection between love and power
I suggested part of our ethos is post-tragic, and I believe the kind of love we need today is best known through crying, a kind of aquatic epistemology. Those tears can be prompted by all sorts of silly things: a movie soundtrack, a poem, a memory, completely pouring yourself out in the service of others, a realisation, a timely compliment. But the upwelling I feel inside when something touches me deeply feels like contact with the very source of reality. It’s as if life’s meaning is held inside us in trust, grows through experience, and is released with interest in the currency of brackish water. I believe we need to allow those tears of recognition to fall and follow where they lead.
I am not sure how love ‘operates’ in a time between worlds, but in addition to a deeper commitment to moral equality and cooperation as a design feature of political economy and society, it also invites an education of the heart. That emphasis on the purpose of society becoming a learning endeavour inspires those who place their ‘big bet’ for the future on education, for instance with visions of a Global Paideia and/or Bildung.
Finally, if the future is not beautiful I’m not sure people will be drawn to it, or indeed fight for it. I cannot do justice to beauty here at the end of this series of posts, but given our prior emphasis on vitality I’ll note that the Irish Poet John O’Donohue describes beauty as “that, in the presence of which, we feel more alive.” I would also suggest that we see beauty in the dignity of humanity insisting on the best of itself, the beauty of becoming wiser, of emancipation, and not just in nature or in artistic artefacts. 
I’m thinking of the beauty of Rosa Parks staying in her bus seat. I’m thinking of the beauty of Nehru’s tryst with destiny speech on India achieving independence. I’m thinking of the beauty of the first South African Election after Apartheid as millions queued for hours to cast their first vote. I’m thinking of the beauty of The Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland when sworn enemies stopped killing each other and shook hands. I’m thinking of the beauty of the Paris Climate Agreement where people hugged in delight because it looked, just for a moment, that meaningful global cooperation on a matter of restraint might after all be possible. I’m thinking of the beauty of Zelenskyy posting a short social media video from the streets of Kyiv on the second day of the Russian invasion to reassure his people that there would be no surrender: “We are here”, he said. 
When I say ‘the future within us’ is our entelechy I mean a mixture of things, some quite metaphysical. But I’m thinking more generally of the untapped potential of the world’s people as a source of beauty that might yet enchant us. Think for instance of all the beauty inside half of the world’s population that is just getting started, the four billion or so that are currently under thirty, many of whom have yet to find themselves and make their way. “They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know” as Louis Armstrong once put it. But many of them are rightly angry about the economically and ecologically diminished world they have been left with. Where is beauty in that context? Where is justice in our entelechy?
There is more to say. You might feel technology is conspicuous by its absence here, but it is implicit in everything too. It’s just that I don’t think it’s where we should start when we try to reimagine the world. 
Instead, I suggest we should begin with our experience of vitality, our capacity for love and with our attraction to beauty, and through them, see what kinds of worlds we might together imagine into being.


Links to all the articles in this series:

Part 1. Introduction: Field-Creation.
Part 2. Epoch: Time between worlds.
Part 3. Method: Third order change.
Part 4. Ethos: Post-conventional.
Part 5. Resolve: Getting real.
Part 6. Goal: Survival of open societies.
Part 7. Entelechy: The future within us.
Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.