This article is about the concept of self-actualization. What is self-actualization about? What is self-actualization not about? What other words and concepts are synonymous or close in meaning to self-actualization?
KEYWORDS: Oxford English Dictionary, personal development, philosophy of religion, psychology, self-actualization, self-improvement, self-realization, spirituality.
Self-Actualization: History of the English Word
According to the latest (online) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first used by W. Pulsford in 1852, when translating a work by J. Müller into English, in which the German word “Selbstverwirklichung” (approx. “self-realness-making”; “self-making-real”; “self-realization”) was translated as “self-actualization” (OED Online 2019a).
However, it is interesting to note that in another entry in the OED Online, we find a much earlier usage. For if go to “self-realization” (OED Online 2019b), we see that Coleridge was first with using “self-realization” at around 1813-1815. And when he used that term, he uses the word “self-actualizing” to describe it.
Now, it could be that the Oxford editors thought that since “self-actualizing” is not a “straightforward” noun (such as “self-realization” or “self-actualization”), but either some sort of verbal noun (or gerund as part of a noun phrase) or adjective/adverb (or present participle as part of an adjectival phrase or adverbial phrase), they perhaps ruled out “self-actualizing” as a “proper” instance of the word. Or maybe they just forgot it.
In any case, it seems that Coleridge had already “honed in on” the two concepts “self-realization” and “self-actualization” (whether he thought of them as real synonyms, or not), even though he did not use “self-actualization” as a noun, at least not in writing.
Self-Actualization: Current Meaning and Usage
Although there are many varieties of self-actualization, it is fair to say that the term “self-actualization” is, in this day and age, mostly a term used in the field of (academic) psychology.
Self-actualization is the more “politically correct” variety of self-realization, as I understand it.
1. My restatement (paraphrasing) of the “self-realization” entry in SOED does not include the exact phrase “one’s own”. The reason for my paraphrasing of the text is, however, not just to avoid quoting the whole sentence of that entry, but also because I want to try to add value to it, in terms of making the original statement clearer.
2. The fact that I have used the SOED to try to come up with a general understanding of [the original meaning in the English language] self-realization, does not, of course, rule out the idea that self-realization, in a more “specialized” sense, might point to non-individual entities such as groups of people, organizations, and society. See for example Evans 1998, pp. 632-635.
3. In a more “specialized” meaning of self-realization, where the word “self” does not point to an individual human being, but to a group of people (an organization, an institution, a nation, or society in general), the individual presumably is trying to participate in the realization of a “higher good”, which then may benefit others. In this reading of “self-realization”, the individual then participates in self-realization not just for his or her own sake, but also for others in that group.
- Proffitt, Michael et al. (2019a) “self-actualization” in Michael Proffitt et al. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed Tue 3 Dec 2019. [Link to site]
- Proffitt, Michael et al. (2019b) “self-realization” in Michael Proffitt et al. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed Tue 3 Dec 2019. [Link to site]
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