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As I said on my intro, I recently learned about the philosophy of autotelism where an entity or event has within itself its own meaning or purpose. To contrast, heterotelism is having an extraneous purpose alone, so it has value only if someone outside of itself assigns it. This determines that a piece of art could be its own reason to exist, without having someone outside of itself declare its usefulness or value.

Autotelism was part of New Criticism, an Anglo-American school of literary critical theory after World War I that insisted on separating the individual work from its historical or biographical context. I don’t agree with this perspective, I find that works of art should be evaluated in their relevant context, including the values and actions of their creators. For example, a genius might create magnificent work, but if they behave in way that is detrimental to others, their work cannot be divorced from the damage they have caused. At this point of the argument, it would seem that there is no such thing as an autotelic object; since it exists because a person created it, its value comes from that specific person and not from within itself. You could also argue that once the art has been liberated from the artist, it has an intrinsic value that others can access later on. This still requires that a person consume the art and assign it value, the object is incapable of assigning value to itself.

Taking the next step forward, let’s consider the person. I believe a sense of competence and fulfillment, and so happiness, can be found in striving to become autotelic.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi posits in his book Finding Flow that people who are internally driven and exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity are autotelic. In this case, being heterotelic means the motivating force of the person come from the outside world, such as comfort, money, power or fame. An autotelic person would then need few possessions and little fame and recognition because what they do is already intrinsically rewarding. This definition would have to be tempered with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where the basic requirements for living must first be met, such as safety, food and shelter. Once you have achieved these, you have obtained a certain level of stability and are now available to look for more ways to become happier. Will you focus on fulfilling other people’s definition of what “success” means, or will you look for that fulfillment within?

My own inspiration is this: I want to achieve an autotelic life because I feel it would be worthwhile. I would like to do this for myself, I’ve had glimpses of this type of fulfillment throughout my life and I want to grasp it more permanently. Care to join me?