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Home » Biographies » Charles Hartshorne: The Final Years

Charles Hartshorne: The Final Years

By Donald Wayne Viney

A Staggering Productivity

Hartshorne continued his remarkable productivity into his nineties. Whitehead’s Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970 (1972), a collection of previously published pieces, was followed by two shorter works that treat Whitehead in historical context: Aquinas to Whitehead: Seven Centuries of Metaphysics of Religion (1976), a succinct historical overview and defense of dipolar theism, and Whitehead’s View of Reality (1981), which he co-authored with Creighton Peden (Hartshorne contributed the first three chapters).

In The Logic of Perfection Hartshorne maintained that “Objectivity is not in the individual thinker but in the process of mutual correction and inspiration.” This ideal of objectivity was most nearly realized for Hartshorne personally in his eighth and ninth decades, during which he published dozens of articles, reviews, and forewords, and seven major books. In addition, he contributed to four books devoted to his thought, giving detailed replies to sixty-two essays by fifty-six scholars; his responses fill approximately one fourth of the pages in these books. In his late nineties, he gave editorial advice on the first published volume of his correspondence, that with Edgar Sheffield Brightman (2001). With good reason he expressed concern that philosophers might find it difficult to stay abreast of his writing.

Hartshorne's Insights & OversightsIn Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (1983) and Creativity in American Philosophy (1984) Hartshorne carries on a dialogue with the great European and American philosophers. His concern is not to report the history of philosophy but to see what can be learned from other thinkers about how to solve philosophical—and in particular, metaphysical—problems. Hartshorne never agreed with those who see the history of philosophy as a gradual fall from some era of greatness in the past. He never doubted that philosophers of the past have important things to teach, although they often do so by way of their mistakes. To suppose, however, that progress does not occur—that Aristotle, Aquinas, or Immanuel Kant would have nothing to learn from James, Whitehead, or Hartshorne—is unreasonable. According to Hartshorne, philosophy makes halting progress that is marked by false starts, blind alleys, and flashes of insight. The history of philosophy is a laboratory for testing the truth of ideas; which system of thought is nearest the truth is no more important than which philosophers have succeeded or failed in framing and answering particular questions. The book on American philosophy makes a special case for the importance of philosophy in the United States: “One might about as easily reach great heights in philosophy without benefit of the work done in modern America as to reach them in physics without using the work of modern Germans.”

Hartshorne also saw Eastern traditions as an essential source of philosophic wisdom.Philosophers Speak of God includes some of his views on Oriental thought as do his anthologized articles “Toward a Buddhisto-Christian Religion” (1984) and “Sankara, Nagarjuna and Fa Tsang, with some Western Analogues” (1988). Charles Hartshorne’s Concept of God and The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne include Hartshorne’s responses to various Hindu and Buddhist scholars.

Two of Hartshorne’s most accessible works are Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes(1984) and Wisdom as Moderation (1987). For the most part, these books are non-technical and were written with an intelligent but nonacademic audience in mind. Omnipotence came about as a result of conversations that Hartshorne had with two educated women who were troubled by what they considered absurdities in traditional ideas of God. The book discusses these absurdities and offers dipolar theism as a reasonable alternative. Wisdom as Moderation is a collection of essays, about half of which previously appeared in various periodicals. The main theme is that speculative philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics should avoid extremes and strive to preserve concepts that express a legitimate contrast. For example, indeterminism, unlike determinism, expresses the contrast between order and disorder. These short volumes present no new metaphysical doctrines; if anything besides style sets them apart from the rest of Hartshorne’s corpus, it is their practical wisdom. Hartshorne addresses within the framework of neoclassical metaphysics issues as diverse as abortion, illiteracy, near-death experiences, fundamentalism, animal rights, drugs (including nicotine and caffeine), nuclear arms, and even furniture size. Wisdom as Moderation has a chapter on the relationship between his work in metaphysics and ornithology.

Cover of Hartshorne's OmnipotenceHartshorne’s openness to new perspectives, even late in his life, was nowhere more evident than in his treatment of feminism. He regarded the movement to make abortion illegal as a remnant of male chauvinism. In The Darkness and the Light he says, “My sympathy for actual persons, including pregnant mothers, is far stronger than my sympathy for fertilized eggs.” Inverting the Aristotelian-Thomistic idea that women are incomplete men, he argues in The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, following the anthropologist Ashley Montague, that physiologically, men, not women, are incomplete: only a woman can provide life support for the unborn and milk for the infant. He also argues, in Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, that women are wiser than men, citing as evidence the fact that women commit far fewer crimes and antisocial acts. Finally, recognizing the male bias of traditional theology in speaking and conceiving of deity in exclusively male terms, he adopted inclusive language for God. For example, in Hartshorne and Brightman on God, Process, and Persons (2001) he said that, if given the chance, he would retitle his third book Our Vision of God. He says that in some respects the female rather than the male furnishes the best symbol for deity: the nearest approximation in human experience to the existence of human beings as part of the body of God (the universe) and of divine love is the relationship between the mother and the developed fetus.

Hartshorne published several articles on his life and thought, but the most complete account is his autobiography, The Darkness and the Light: A Philosopher Reflects Upon His Fortunate Career and Those Who Made It Possible, published in 1990. The title reflects the elements of his philosophy: “the darkness and the light” is from a poem by William Wordsworth that conveys the idea that bonds of mutual feeling among the creatures, the elements, and God unify nature. The reference in the subtitle to “his fortunate career and those who made it possible” points to the theme, reiterated throughout the book, that life is a gamble and that success or failure is as much due to good or bad self-management as to good or bad luck. The idea that chance is only a name for our ignorance or that there must always be a precise reason for what happens is, he says, “only ignorance posing as knowledge.” In the preface he calls the book “a celebration of life.” Anecdotes sprinkled throughout illustrate what he calls his “strange flair for preserving foibles and witticisms.”

The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne (1991), volume 20 in the prestigious Library of Living Philosophers series appeared in 1991. Hartshorne had contributed to eight of the previous volumes in the series—more than any other philosopher. As Hartshorne’s former student Cobb says, the philosophical community had recognized “a strange and alien greatness.”

Hartshorne’s wife, Dorothy, died on 21 November 1995 (b. 8 February 1904). The Zero Fallacy and Other Essays in Neoclassical Philosophy was published shortly before Hartshorne’s one-hundredth birthday. The editor, Mohammad Valady, selected both new and previously published essays to show the breadth of Hartshorne’s thought. The familiar themes are present: the metaphysical necessity of God’s existence, the emphasis on divine love over brute force, and the eminent ways in which God receives influence from the world. On the other hand, Hartshorne’s assessment of the specifically human contribution to the divine life now joins cosmic perspective with moral and aesthetic condemnation. Human beings’ destruction of the environment, penchant for driving other species to extinction, and cruelty to each other on a mass scale make the species the “bullies of the planet.” Hartshorne asks whether the placing of the “billions of other solar systems out of our reach” is a providential arrangement. Suggesting that it is “our very selves that we need to recreate,” he advises human beings to take their isolation in the vastness of the cosmos seriously and develop a sense of world citizenship. He criticizes the self-interest theory of motivation: “So, far from our valuing others only for their usefulness to ourselves it is in no small part for our usefulness to others that we value ourselves.” To be shut up in a “prison of self-interest” is, as the Buddhists have it, “Writhing in delusion.” A unique feature of the book is the forty-two page “Points of View: A Brisk Dialogue,” based on conversations Hartshorne and Valady had between 1986 and 1988. Hartshorne’s responses to Valady’s questions convey the charm of Hartshorne’s personality as well as his historical perspective, speculative boldness, and idiosyncratic assessments of other philosophers’ achievements.

The Zero Fallacy and Other Essays in Neoclassical Philosophy was the last of his major works that Charles Hartshorne lived to see published. He died on Yom Kippur, 9 October 2000.

Twentieth century philosophy was largely anti-metaphysical. Hartshorne stands apart from that tendency and in a tradition of those who have striven for a comprehensive vision of the universe that is at once rigorous enough to meet the demands of reason and rich enough to satisfy human beings’ emotional nature.

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