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Home » Biographies » Charles Hartshorne: Psychicalism

Charles Hartshorne: Psychicalism

By Donald Wayne Viney

Human experience provides the clearest example of the novel actualities that emerge in the “creative advance.” Of course, many nonhuman forms of experience exist. The title of Thomas Nagel’s article “What is it like to be a bat?” (1974) poses a meaningful, if unusual, question. Hartshorne takes the question a step further, generalizing beyond both human and animal experience and claiming that everything that is concrete has some degree of sentience or feeling. He says “concrete” because he does not mean to suggest that literally everything has feeling:

Of course tables do not feel; but it does not follow that there is no feeling in them. There is feeling in a flock of birds or in a swarm of bees, but the flock or the swarm feels nothing. So there can be feeling in a swarm of molecules, though the swarm does not feel.

The distinction between “concrete entities”—that is, individuals—and the wholes of which they can be parts allows Hartshorne to formulate an intelligible panpsychism, or as he prefers to call it, “psychicalism.”

Charles Hartshorne in 1991

Charles Hartshorne in 1991

An obvious objection to Hartshorne’s psychicalism is that attributing feelings to creatures with central nervous systems is one thing, while saying that molecules or atoms have primitive forms of feeling is quite another. Hartshorne responds to this argument, first, by noting that no conceptual or a priori criterion limits feelings to higher organisms: a brain may be no more necessary to feeling than lungs and a stomach are to oxygenating and digesting, as in one-celled organisms. Second, he points out that the only way the simplest entities could show themselves to have primitive feelings is by responding to stimuli, and in that case, “any evidence there logically could be for very low-level sentience there actually seems to be.” Psychic qualities are cosmic variables admitting unlimited kinds of instantiations ranging from the most primitive forms of feeling through the highly integrated and complex mental states that are found in some primates and large brained mammals to the mind of God.

Hartshorne’s psychicalism goes against the dominant tradition in philosophy that defined mind as a nonphysical substance. He argues that no non-question begging criteria exist for the total absence of mind. Being physical is not the same as having no mind-like qualities. Moreover, many qualities traditionally ascribed to minds have physical dimensions: feelings, for example, are located at various places in the body. He admits that higher order cognition, such as thinking, is not felt as a localized phenomenon (except, perhaps, in extreme mental exertion that results in headaches); but this fact does not constitute evidence that thinking is not a physical process.

Hartshorne offers psychicalism as an alternative to dualism and materialism. Dualism posits an autonomous realm of mind, independent of insentient matter. The interaction between mind and matter has long been an embarrassment for dualism; with the advent of an evolutionary worldview, the dualist is faced with the additional mystery of the emergence of mind from matter. Materialists face a similar problem: they assume that the only relationships that exist are among objects from which subjectivity is entirely missing. But experience, whatever else it may be, is a relationship involving a subject and its object—what the phenomenologists call “intentionality.” Explaining how this relationship is possible is the bane of materialism. Hartshorne argues that materialists are committed to a temporal dualism in attempting to account for the emergence of mind in the course of evolution. For Hartshorne, on the other hand, being a center of experience, and thus subjective, is part of what it means to be actual. On this view, what emerges in the course of evolution are not minds as such but only minds of varying levels of awareness. Hartshorne was fond of pointing out that the geneticist Sewell Wright, his friend and colleague at Chicago, shared his psychicalist view of nature.

Hartshorne follows Leibniz in believing that many errors are hidden in what philosophers deny: “with properties of which there can be varying degrees, the zero degree, or total absence, is knowable empirically only if there is a known least quantum, or finite minimum, of the property” as with Planck’s constant. To claim to know empirically that such a property is totally absent is to commit the “zero fallacy.” Hartshorne finds the fallacy committed in the denial of all creative activity in some causal processes, in the idea of matter devoid of all mind-like qualities, and in the notion of sensation stripped of all affect.

Sewall Wright

Sewell Wright, geneticist who agreed with Hartshorne’s view of nature.

Hartshorne offers psychicalism as an alternative to dualism and materialism. Dualism posits an autonomous realm of mind, independent of insentient matter. The interaction between mind and matter has long been an embarrassment for dualism; with the advent of an evolutionary worldview, the dualist is faced with the additional mystery of the emergence of mind from matter. Materialists face a similar problem: they assume that the only relationships that exist are among objects from which subjectivity is entirely missing. But experience, whatever else it may be, is a relationship involving a subject and its object—what the phenomenologists call “intentionality.” Explaining how this relationship is possible is the bane of materialism. Hartshorne argues that materialists are committed to a temporal dualism in attempting to account for the emergence of mind in the course of evolution. For Hartshorne, on the other hand, being a center of experience, and thus subjective, is part of what it means to be actual. On this view, what emerges in the course of evolution are not minds as such but only minds of varying levels of awareness. Hartshorne was fond of pointing out that the geneticist Sewell Wright, his friend and colleague at Chicago, shared his psychicalist view of nature.

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