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An autotelic[1] is someone or something that has a purpose in, and not apart from, itself.


The word "autotelic" derives from the Greek αὐτοτελής (autotelēs), formed from αὐτός (autos, "self") and τέλος (telos, "end" or "goal").

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the word's earliest use in 1901 (Baldwin, Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, I 96/1), and also cites a 1932 use by T. S. Eliot .[2]


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes people who are internally driven, and who as such may exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity, as autotelic.[3] This is different from being externally driven, in which case things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force. Csikszentmihalyi wrote that an autotelic person doesn’t need things like wealth, fame, power, or entertainment because they experience flow in all areas of life. They don’t depend on external rewards. They are fully involved in living life. They are also more independent and less vulnerable to manipulation.[4]

A. Bartlett Giamatti characterizes sports, such as baseball, as autotelic activities: "that is, their goal is the full exercise of themselves, for their own sake".[5]

Yvor Winters quotes from Eliot's aesthetic theory including autotelic, and criticizes:

Art, then, is about itself, but this information does not help me to answer my questions, for I do not understand it. What, for example, would Pope or Dante have understood if this statement had been made to them regarding the poems which I have just mentioned? Or what can we understand with regard to these poems? About all we can deduce from such a passage is that the artist does not really know what he is doing; a doctrine which we shall find suggested and elucidated elsewhere, and which leads directly to the plainest kind of determinism.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  2. ^ Essays, I. ii. 24
  3. ^ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life; Robert E Quinn, Change the World, p 210, 272
  4. ^ Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p.l17,
  5. ^ Take Time for Paradise: Americans and their Games (1989), p. 16 and throughout
  6. ^ Yvor Winters, In Defense of Reason, p460 and thereafter.

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of autotelic at Wiktionary