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Charles Hartshorne: The Austin Years

By Donald Wayne Viney

A Creative Metaphysical Synthesis

The most complete statement of Hartshorne’s neoclassical metaphysics is found in Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (1970). He rejects the understanding of metaphysics as a search for a reality behind the veil of experience, and he has little patience with dogmatism, special claims to insight, or the search for indubitable truths. He characterizes metaphysics as “the study which evaluates a priori statements about existence.” True metaphysical statements are non-restrictive, in that they exclude no conceivable state of affairs; they are existential, in that they describe the world, not in its contingent aspects but in its necessary features. True metaphysical statements are, therefore, in principle not falsifiable by any conceivable experience. Some philosophers argue that if no experience could count against a statement then the statement is meaningless. Hartshorne accepts verifiability by some conceivable experience, divine or non-divine, as a criterion for meaning in general; but he holds that falsifiability is the criterion only for empirical meaning. Metaphysics is similar to mathematics in that it deals with highly abstract concepts; but, unlike mathematics, its subject matter extends beyond quantity to include the qualitative dimensions of reality. For Hartshorne, the notion of empirical metaphysics is self-contradictory. Metaphysics is the study of concreteness as such—or somewhat paradoxically, “the study of the abstraction ‘concreteness’.”

Charles Hartshorne in 1981

Hartshorne in 1981

One might object to Hartshorne’s claim that no experience can count against the truth of a metaphysical statement by citing the statement “Nothing exists”: it is non-restrictive and existential and, therefore, seems to be a metaphysical statement; but it also seems to be refuted by experience. Hartshorne responds that “Nothing exists” is false not empirically, or as a matter of fact, but necessarily. According to Hartshorne, a negative statement can only be made true by some positive state of affairs. To say, for example, that there is no life on the planet Pluto is to presuppose the existence of Pluto. But nothing could make the statement “Nothing exists” true; it is a mere verbal formula describing no conceivable state of affairs. Therefore the old question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is bad metaphysics, for it presupposes that there might have been nothing.

Hartshorne maintains that metaphysical ideas have an inherent pragmatic value. They are not only universally applicable but also universally useful. He criticizes pragmatists such as James for failing to see that an idea that is good only for some purposes need not be true to be useful. But metaphysical ideas are categorically different: their pragmatic value is in their indispensability, not in their temporary utility. Furthermore, an ugly metaphysical truth is not possible: negative valuations suggest things to be avoided or prevented, but metaphysical truths can be neither prevented nor avoided; their only value is positive. The poet John Keats’s phrase “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is exactly correct where metaphysical ideas are concerned. It follows that extreme pessimism is pragmatically meaningless. This notion is illustrated by the story of the man who complains, “Would that I had never existed!” to which his companion replies, “Ah, but who is so lucky? Not one in a thousand.”One might object to Hartshorne’s claim that no experience can count against the truth of a metaphysical statement by citing the statement “Nothing exists”: it is non-restrictive and existential and, therefore, seems to be a metaphysical statement; but it also seems to be refuted by experience. Hartshorne responds that “Nothing exists” is false not empirically, or as a matter of fact, but necessarily. According to Hartshorne, a negative statement can only be made true by some positive state of affairs. To say, for example, that there is no life on the planet Pluto is to presuppose the existence of Pluto. But nothing could make the statement “Nothing exists” true; it is a mere verbal formula describing no conceivable state of affairs. Therefore the old question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is bad metaphysics, for it presupposes that there might have been nothing.

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