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Home » Biographies » Charles Hartshorne: Return to Harvard

Charles Hartshorne: Return to Harvard

Part 3: The Return to Harvard and the Influence of Pierce and Whitehead

by Donald Wayne Viney

Hartshorne was a member of the junior faculty of the Harvard philosophy department from 1925 to 1928. During this period he was exposed to the ideas of two philosophers who, more than any others, helped him refine his thinking: Charles Sanders Peirce, who had died in 1914 and whose papers Hartshorne was assigned to edit; and Alfred North Whitehead, who came from England to join the department at Harvard in 1924. Editing Peirce’s papers was a major undertaking that, Hartshorne says in “Some Causes of My Intellectual Development,” he considered an “obligation to the profession”; he had no intention of becoming a Peirce scholar. During this time he had a dream in which he was introduced to Peirce, who looked at him disapprovingly and said, “What makes you think you are competent to edit my writings when you don’t know science and mathematics?” In 1927 Paul Weiss joined him in the project. The papers were published in six volumes between 1931 and 1936.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

Hartshorne found kindred philosophic spirits in Peirce and Whitehead. Although he had briefly accepted psychological determinism after seeing a play in which a character seemed to be completely determined by certain drives, he abandoned it after reading William James’s “The Dilemma of Determinism” (1884). Peirce reinforced this rejection. Hartshorne was particularly impressed with Peirce’s theory that “time is objective modality.” Peirce did not think of time as a series of moments through which things pass or as a way of measuring change; he claimed that past, present, and future correspond to actuality, the becoming of actuality, and possibility, respectively.

Whitehead was also friendly to the doctrines of indeterminism and objective becoming. In contrast to Peirce and the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson, James had said that experience—indeed the universe itself—grows in “drops and buds”; Whitehead concurred with James and called the discrete units of process the “concrescence” (growing together) of “actual entities.” Hartshorne, too, stressed the atomicity of becoming, but he conceded that, with the exception of the deepest sleep, experience seems to be continuous rather than atomic. Thus, he accepted this view not as a description of experience but as the only account that makes sense of a world in process.Hartshorne found kindred philosophic spirits in Peirce and Whitehead. Although he had briefly accepted psychological determinism after seeing a play in which a character seemed to be completely determined by certain drives, he abandoned it after reading William James’s “The Dilemma of Determinism” (1884). Peirce reinforced this rejection. Hartshorne was particularly impressed with Peirce’s theory that “time is objective modality.” Peirce did not think of time as a series of moments through which things pass or as a way of measuring change; he claimed that past, present, and future correspond to actuality, the becoming of actuality, and possibility, respectively.

Hartshorne was not, however, willing to accept Whitehead’s theory of possibility—in this respect, he was more Peircean than Whiteheadian. Whitehead called pure possibilities “eternal objects” to stress their non-temporal character and their existence as distinct forms. According to Whitehead, when a leaf changes color in the fall the greenness of the leaf does not itself undergo any change. Hartshorne rejected this view, at least insofar as contingencies—possibilities that may or may not be actualized—are concerned. The particular shade of green of the leaf, he thought, does not haunt the universe eternally waiting to find exemplification; instead, it comes to exist simultaneously with the leaf. Hartshorne accepted Peirce’s view that possibilities form a continuum that, like a line, can be “cut” by novel actualities in an infinite number of ways. What existed prior to the leaf was not the possibility of its particular shade of green but only the possibility of its somehow being green. InCreative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (1970), he says that “possibilities are determinable not determinates.”

Hartshorne’s metaphysics allows for future ways that the actual world could be, but it denies the reality of fully determinate sets of possible worlds. According to Hartshorne, the idea of possible worlds destroys the contrast between possibility and actuality; a fully determinant possibility would be no different than an actuality. He calls the mistake of thinking of the future as a realm of real entities, rather than as generalities, “the fallacy of possible worlds.” In Hartshorne’s view, one should speak of “possible world states” instead of “possible worlds.”

Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead

Hartshorne found Whitehead’s concept of prehension particularly helpful. Whitehead said that the actualities of which the world is composed are related to each other by means of prehensions—indeed, the actualities are their prehensions. To “prehend” is to “grasp” or to take account of other actualities. Prehending is not limited to human beings: as nonhuman forms of experience exist, so do nonhuman forms of prehension. Every actual entity, including nonhuman ones, is related to the world by means of prehensions. The particular way in which each actual entity prehends the world, the how of its “grasping,” Whitehead called the “subjective form” of the prehension, by which he meant its affective tone. Thus, a prehension is a “feeling of feeling.”

In Creativity in American Philosophy Hartshorne calls the concept of prehension “one of the most original, central, lucid proposals ever offered in metaphysics.” The notion of prehension as a relation that necessarily involves emotional qualities coincided with Hartshorne’s conviction that we are related to the world by affective bonds. He also saw in prehension a way of understanding perception, including memory, and causation as two aspects of the same thing. If X prehends Y, then X perceives and is affected by Y. Further, the relation between X and Y is temporal—Y precedes X. The most concrete illustrations in human experience of these ideas are introspection and sensory awareness. Hartshorne rejected the idea that an experience could have only itself as an object: that is, what modern philosophers call “sense data” do not exist. Hence, in introspection one is aware of or “feels” previous states of oneself; in sensory awareness one is directly aware of the immediate past of the body, and through it, of the surrounding world. Hartshorne later drew the distinction between introspection and perception in terms of personal memory and impersonal memory, respectively.

Hartshorne said that his relation to Whitehead was more a matter of pre-established harmony than of intellectual descent. This is nowhere more evident than in Hartshorne’s theism. By the time he came under Whitehead’s influence, Hartshorne already believed that God, though existing necessarily, cannot be divorced from the temporal processes of the world. In his dissertation he refers to his “social view of the [Divine] Good” and says, “we hold it a contradiction to suppose a Perfect Being who determines all.” Like Whitehead, but independently, Hartshorne rejected traditional theism.

Hartshorne had, however, already adopted positions that distinguish his brand of theism from Whitehead’s. The most obvious is his defense of the ontological argument for God’s existence, an argument Whitehead rejected. Another difference concerns the proper analogy for the relationship of God to the world. In Adventures of Ideas (1933) Whitehead objects to the Platonic World-Soul analogy as the parent of “puerile metaphysics.” According to this analogy, God is related to the world somewhat as a person is related to his or her body. Hartshorne, on the contrary, enthusiastically embraced the analogy and claimed in “The Philosopher Replies” in The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne that Whitehead rejected it for “weak reasons.”

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