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Hartshorne, Charles (1897-2000)

In the Army Medical Corps, 1917-1919.

In the Army Medical Corps, 1917-1919.

Included below are three perspectives on the life and work of Charles Hartshorne, from John Cobb, Jr., Gregg Easterbrook, and Herbert Vetter.

Biographical Introduction

Charles Hartshorne was born in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, the son of Marguerite Haughton and Francis Cope Hartshorne, clergyman. He entered Haverford College in 1915, leaving to join the Army Medical Corps for two years. He completed his college work at Harvard and took the Ph.D. in philosophy there. Among his teachers were R. B. Perry, W. E. Hocking, C.I. Lewis, H. M. Sheffer, and J. H. Woods. His dissertation was on “The Unity of All Things.”

Awarded a Sheldon Fellowship, Hartshorne studied for two years in Europe, mostly in Germany. Among the lectures he attended were some by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

On his return to Harvard, he spent three years as Instructor and Research Fellow. He and Paul Weiss edited the papers of Charles Sanders Peirce in six volumes (Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cambridge and Harvard University Press, 1931-1935). He found in Peirce a highly congenial spirit, and he appropriated many of Peirce’s concepts and arguments.

During one of these years he was assistant to Alfred North Whitehead, whose thought was also highly congenial to the vision he had been shaping on his own. He learned much from Whitehead, and one major contribution he made throughout his career was introducing students to Whitehead and expounding his ideas.

Charles and Dorothy Hartshorne, with grandchildren, Eleanor and Charles.

Charles and Dorothy Hartshorne, with grandchildren, Eleanor and Charles.

In 1928, Hartshorne accepted a position in the Department of Philosophy of the University of Chicago, where, except for a Fulbright appointment in Australia, he taught until 1955. Soon after moving to Chicago he married Dorothy Cooper. Dorothy Hartshorne played an important role as editor and bibliographer of his writings. They had one child, Emily.

During his years at Chicago, Hartshorne had a somewhat lonely role in the Department of Philosophy. Much of the time this was dominated by Richard McKeon. In any case, Hartshorne’s commitment to the construction of a new metaphysics and philosophy of religion was out of step with the general mood.

His influences at Chicago included theologians as well as philosophers. In due course, with little change in his teaching, he received a joint appointment in the Divinity School. He did much to shape what came to be called “process theology.”

Despite his personally irenic spirit, much of his work was polemical. Hartshorne argued on two fronts. Against classical theism he insisted that its views were neither coherent nor religiously satisfactory. He taught that the idea of divine perfection embodied in the tradition affirmed only one side of what is truly involved in perfection, that is, the element of immutability and absoluteness. But true perfection includes perfect relatedness and thus change. What remains changeless is God’s perfect responsiveness to all that is changing.

Hartshorne opposed the classical doctrine of omnipotence. In its clearest form this implied that all events, just as they occur, are determined by God. This tradition cannot affirm creaturely freedom or avoid depicting God as directly responsible for all sin and evil without inconsistency. Hartshorne taught, in contrast, that God creates the conditions that provide the optimum balance of order and freedom. Within the limits set by God, creatures determine the details of what happens. Much that occurs takes place by chance interactions of diverse decision-making creatures. This, too, expresses the divine perfection.

THartshorne bookhe other front on which Hartshorne argued was against the widespread loss of confidence in reason. This expressed itself in the dominant philosophical community as an abandonment of metaphysics and of constructive philosophy generally. In theology it led to fideism. Hartshorne showed that traditional arguments for the existence of God could be formulated cogently when the idea of God for which they argued was a coherent one. He gave special attention to the ontological argument in this regard. He insisted that either God necessarily exists or it is necessarily true that God does not exist.

These ideas were set forth in a series of books: Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature (Chicago: Willet, Clark & Company, 1937), Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (Chicago: Willet, Clark & Company, 1941), The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), and Reality as a Social Process: Studies in Metaphysics and Religion (Glencoe: The Free Press and Boston: Beacon Press, 1953). These books established Hartshorne as a major challenge to the dominant currents in both philosophy and theology and as the center of a small but vigorous movement.

Partly because of tensions in the Department of Philosophy at Chicago, Hartshorne accepted an invitation to teach philosophy at Emory University. As he approached Emory’s mandatory retirement age, he moved to the University of Texas, whose retirement policy was more flexible. He taught there until 1978.

Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne in 1981
Photo by Donald Viney.

During these years he continued to be a prolific writer. Creative Synthesis and Scientific Method (LaSalle: Open Court, 1970) concentrates less on his doctrine of God and thus offers a more balanced view of his position on a wide range of issues. His productivity has continued even past his retirement at Texas, including extensive assessment of the great thinkers of the past. Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983) is especially significant in this regard.

Although Hartshorne’s fame rests chiefly on his philosophy, he has also brought his philosophical views to bear in two scientific fields. Indeed, his first book was an original development of the theory that all the senses constitute a single affective continuum. His thesis may still prove useful to physiological psychologists. (The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934.)

He maintained from his youth an interest in birds, and on his extensive travels, he recorded numerous birdsongs. He taught that birds have a subjective life and are motivated by enjoyment of singing. He compiled extensive data supporting this theory and published Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.)

— By John B. Cobb, Courtesy of the Center for Process Studies, Claremont, California

A hundred years of thinking about
A philosopher soon to be rediscovered

Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne’s old-fashioned philosophy holds that life has purpose and truth exists.

“The reward for living is the living itself,” says Charles Hartshorne, and he should know, since he has been doing it for 100 years. The centenarian Hartshorne is an academic philosopher, an unsung hero of the culture wars. John Silber, chancellor of Boston University, puts Hartshorne among “the top 10” 20th-century American philosophers. Others have described him as the century’s foremost philosopher of theology. Yet Hartshorne is little known because his work violates perhaps the strongest postwar intellectual taboo: He believes God actually exists.

In the milieu of “postmodernism,” the general outlook dominant at top universities during the postwar era, few ideas have been less welcome than serious arguments supporting God. “No form of thinking has been more out of vogue in this century,” says Georae R. Lucas Jr., executive director of the American Academy for Liberal Education, a scholars’ group. That, however, may be changing. Increasingly, the most basic contention of postmodernism—that life is a meaningless accident—is coming under fire. Hartshorne’s specialty of “metaphysics,” or the search for higher truth, may make a comeback. Hartshorne’s own work may be poised for the sort of rediscovery that often happens a few decades after a great thinker’s death—except that Hartshorne is still alive.

Twentieth-century American philosophy has been largely dominated by dueling schools of thought:

Positivism recognizes only those concepts that can be empirically verified. It gets high marks for banishing the polysyllabic mumbo jumbo that plagued 19th-century philosophy, but it also defines the spiritual out of existence.

Analytical theory treats ideas as word structures divorced from any larger reality. Though internally neutral, analytical theory is often called on to support the “postmodern” philosophical contention that truths are only “contingent claims,” with nothing ultimately right or wrong.

• A currently unfashionable third school of thought is metaphysics, which holds that higher truths exist independent of culture or context. Because it contemplates transcendence, metaphysics has been scoffed at by postwar academia. Charles Hartshorne is among the few philosophers to have carried the torch for this idea.

In Hartshorne’s philosophy even somewhat unorthodox a gumptions about God lend support to contentions that creation has purpose and that pure truth exists. “Without God, how can we know what is true?” Hartshorne has asked. “Human beings barely know themselves, after all these centuries of inquiry. There must be a larger reality with a higher understanding of truth than ours.”

Reason and faith. Born in 1897 in a small Pennsylvania town, Hartshorne was the child of an Episcopal minister descended from Quakers. “No one in my family disbelieved in religion, and no one disbelieved in evolution, either,” he says. These two seemingly conflicting views came to inform Hartshorne’s work, most of which concerns the application of rationality to theological questions.

Charles Hartshorne

“It will eventually be acknowledged that women are wiser than men. The essential proof of female wisdom is that women commit far fewer crimes and antisocial acts.”

Though Hartshorne might have used his Quaker lineage to avoid the draft, he volunteered to serve in the war. That’s the Great War—Hartshorne is a veteran of World War I. After discharge, he studied at Harvard with Alfred North Whitehead, one of the last academic philosophers to be a celebrity. Just before the Depression, Hartshorne was hired to teach philosophy at the University of Chicago. There, he elaborated Whitehead’s late-in-life idea called “process theology,” which holds that God cannot see the future and therefore changes in response to human actions.

If the future could be known supernaturally, Hartshorne reasoned, then God would already be fated to do whatever brings about the foreseen: Even the Maker would lack free choice. But if the future does not yet exist, it is a non-thing, unknowable even to a deity. Working from the second assumption, Hartshorne concluded that a changing God is involved in an ongoing process of responding to humanity. This, he felt, could explain leading puzzles of theology, such as how the wrathful God of the Old Testament became the compassionate Maker of the Bible’s second half.

Using the logic of process theology, Hartshorne rejected unbelief as “an egotistic view that nothing can be larger than a human being.” He argued, “What we need is to make a renewed attempt to worship the objective of God, not our forefathers’ doctrines about him.” Such ideas simultaneously offended upper academia, where unbelief is often taken as a badge of intellect, and offended Christianity, by suggesting the Maker has defects. “It is amusing that many academic elites look down on process theology as too religious, when to orthodox religion Hartshorne is a radical,” notes Robert Kane, a University of Texas philosophy professor.

Charles Hartshorne

“The world has too many automobiles and televisions. Now the standard is there should be one car and TV for every person. This is not healthy for the environment or our souls.”

Completed work. During his career, Hartshorne wrote some 20 books and oversaw restoration of the thought of the 19th-century philosopher of logic Charles Sanders Peirce. Some of Hartshorne’s best work, including his Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, was not published until after he turned 80. His daughter, Emily Goodman, a New York attorney, says that when Hartshorne retired from teaching, he showed her several unfinished manuscripts squirreled away in various boxes and drawers. “He told me, ‘If I die, find someone to complete my work,”‘ Goodman says. “Instead, he completed it.”

Hartshorne had a second career studying Charles Darwin’s favorite topic, natural selection among birds. He acquired enough standing as an ornithologist that he could have been tenured in zoology, Silber of Boston University says. Hartshorne’s 1973 book Born to Sing, argues that some bird species have evolved the ability to appreciate melody and now warble partly for the sheer pleasure of it. “Musicians who have listened to birds believe this much more than ornithologists, who are terrified of being accused of anthropomorphism,” Hartshorne says. “Having studied thousands of hours of birdsong from around the world, I am convinced some species possess an aesthetic sense, however limited compared to ours. It is part of human egotism to believe that only we have active minds.”

Charles Hartshorne

“Too many intellectuals look down on religion and think it will go away. God is not going to go away. There are far more religious people in the world today than when I was born.”

His body now frail, Hartshorne rarely ventures from his house, which has the darkened feel of aging. He spends his days rereading his own work (“I admit this gives me pleasure, even when I find errors”) and writing letters to the editor on such favored topics as feminism (for), capital punishment (against), bicycles (for; Hartshorne never owned a car and became hopelessly lost on the few occasions he attempted to drive), red meat (against; Hartshorne attributes his longevity partly to vegetarianism), and pacifism (once for, now against: “Hitler made it impossible to keep believing in pacifism, which was one of the many terrible things he did to the world”). He says his main reflection on a full 100 years of life is that “we live in a century in which everything has been said. The challenge today is to learn which statements to deny.”Today, Hartshorne lives in a small house in Austin, Texas, where a live-in assistant cares for him. His wife of 67 years, the former Dorothy Cooper, died in 1995. She was a classically trained soprano, and Hartshorne cherishes memories of times he would sit in their living room and she would sing Mozart to him, alone. “I felt magnificently privileged,” he says.

Hartshorne does not shy from contemplating his own mortality. He takes what he calls a “modest but positive” view of death—that consciousness ceases to exist but each person’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences are “eternally and vividly remembered by God.” To memorize and honor everything that has ever happened is, Hartshorne thinks, God’s ultimate role, the infinite divine memory representing a reserve of metaphysical truth to which any person may contribute.

“I had a happy, idyllic, old-fashioned childhood,” Hartshorne says, his voice tired but not weary. “Go to the town where I spent that childhood, you will not find my happy hours there. Yet they remain definite constituents of a divine reality about which true statements can still be made. My happy childhood was a gift my parents and the world offered to God.” Someday Hartshorne’s thoughts will be understood to number among these gifts, too.

— By Gregg Easterbrook, Courtesy of U.S. News & World Report, February 23, 1998.

Not the Average Philosopher

For 20 years, my work as a Harvard chaplain was nourished by the new world view of Charles Hartshorne, the Harvard educated philosopher and scientist described by Encyclopaedia Britannica as “the most influential proponent of a ‘process philosophy’ which considers God a participant in cosmic evolution.”

Hartshorne no sooner left the army after World War I than he promptly earned, year after year, three Harvard degrees: A.B. 1921, M.A. 1922, Ph.D. 1923. This may be a University speed record. Graduate students may be surprised to learn that he wrote his 300-page doctoral dissertation, “The Unity of Being in the Divine or Absolute Good,” in 35 days. That ability to focus may help explain his legendary absentmindedness: a favorite anecdote has him finishing a sidewalk chat with a student, midway between his home and his University of Chicago office, and asking perplexedly, “Do you remember which way I was heading?”

After two years of Harvard-funded travel in Europe, Hartshorne became an instructor of philosophy, responsible for teaching a course, assisting Alfred North Whitehead, and tackling one other project. The department assigned him the appalling task of putting in order the roomful of jumbled manuscripts comprising the intellectual estate of Charles Sanders Peirce, founder of this country’s most distinguished philosophy, pragmatism. Hartshorne turned the material into The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. The six-volume set clearly revealed why William James and Josiah Royce regarded Peirce as “America’s greatest mind.”

Charles HartshorneBut Hartshorne is much more than a distinguished footnote to Peirce. Volume 20 of The Library of Living Philosophers is entitled The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, putting him in the company of Einstein, Russell, Sartre, Buber, and fellow Harvardians Whitehead, Santayana, and Quine. When I congratulated him on being selected for the library’s pantheon, he exclaimed with a smile, “The secret of my success is longevity.”

A truer secret of his success may be that he is an exemplar of a great new tradition created by a group I call the Harvard Square philosophers. Peirce, James, Whitehead, William Ernest Hocking, and Hartshorne share a unique vision of reality as social process.

The Harvard Square philosophers have created a new synthesis of knowledge far surpassing the medieval synthesis of Thomism and the modern synthesis of Spinoza. God is viewed not as a supernatural force breaking abruptly into history, but as the cosmic life of which our lives are a part. God is both humanity’s endless source of joy and the cosmic sufferer who shares our pain. When we die, there is no endless heaven or hell to which we are consigned: the contribution that our lives have made continues in the ongoing, deathless divine life. In this new cosmology, all creatures have some measure of free choice. The future is always, to some extent, open. Creativity is the very essence of our well-ordered world and our everyday experience.

Hartshorne’s contributions to this synthesis include what the Britannica calls “the definitive analysis” of panentheism (literally, “all in God”): “For Hartshorne, God includes the world even as an organism includes its cells, thus including the present moment of each event. The total organism gains from its constitutuents, even though the cells function with an appropriate degree of autonomy within the larger organism.”

Not only eminent secular scientists and philosophers, but distinguished Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist thinkers esteem Hartshorne’s work. Nor is their praise restricted to purely theoretical considerations. Recent scholars have declared that no philosopher has focused as profoundly as Hartshorne on the concepts involved in the ecological crisis, and that his work has important implications for bioethics. Other scholars praise his breadth — he has been called one of the few great Western philosophers to discuss and debate Eastern systems and ideas as philosophy. And still others are astounded by his energy and by his contribution both to philosophy and to natural science.

Dorothy and Charles Hartshorne

Dorothy and Charles Hartshorne birdwatching.

Hartshorne’s life was changed when, at the age of 16, he bought a pocket-sized songbird buide and a three-power field glass. His first boarding-school essay was on bird-watching. Thanks to years of travel, for teaching and birding, in Europe, Australia, India, and Japan, the philosopher has earned an international reputation as an ornithologist. He has discovered that birds sing not only to win mates and protect territory but also to experience the sheer pleasure of singing. His work indicates that some species sing not just one but fifty or more songs or phrases, and that some birds vary their songs for hours on end. He suspects he may be the first person since Aristotle to interpret philosophy in relation to ornithology, and when I last spoke with him, he startled me by declaring, “I think my great book is Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song.”

I once asked Dorothy Hartshorne, her husband’s superb editor over the years, to summarize his philosophy. “Love,” she said, “is the guiding principle of all life … all living organisms have at least an infinitesimal amount of freedom and responsibility … [W]e can consider a human life as being like a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we close the book, the story does not disappear. It continues, and likewise our contribution to others becomes a part of God’s life that goes on and on.”

— By Herbert F. Vetter, Minister at Large, Emeritus, The First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Harvard Magazine, May/June 1997, Volume 99, Number 5

A Note on Unitarian Connections

Charles Hartshorne was actively involved in the life of Unitarian churches for seven decades—in Chicago, Atlanta, and Austin.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Charles Hartshorne: A Biography, a book-length biography of Hartshorne

The Theology of Charles Hartshorne

The Biography of Alfred North Whitehead

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological MistakesAlbany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Hartshorne, Charles and William L. Reese. Philosophers Speak of GodAlbany, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000.


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