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Home » Theology & Philosophy » Introduction to Charles Hartshorne: A New World View

Introduction to Charles Hartshorne: A New World View

Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne in 1981
Photo by Donald Viney

Seven Arts, by Herbert F. Vetter

Seven Arts, by Herbert F. Vetter

INTRODUCTION by Herbert F. Vetter

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

Charles no sooner left the United States Army after World War I than he was promptly awarded, year after year, three Harvard University degrees: A.B. 1921, M.A. 1922, Ph.D. 1923. Today’s graduate students may be surprised to learn that he wrote his 300 page doctoral dissertation, The Unity of Being, in 35 days. That ability to focus may help to explain his legendary absent-mindedness.

A favorite anecdote has him finishing a sidewalk chat with a student at a point 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 as a Sheldon Fellow in Germany, France, and England, he was appointed an instructor in philosophy, with responsibility for teaching a course as well as assisting Alfred North Whitehead and tackling one other project. The department assigned him the appalling task of putting in order the roomful of boxes of jumbled manuscripts comprising the intellectual estate of Charles Sanders Peirce, the impoverished founder of this country’s most distinguished philosophy, pragmatism, a mode of thought which has amply enriched our twentieth century world, but not its founder. The result was a Harvard University Press six volume set of The Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, publicly revealing in 1931 and 1932 why both William James and Josiah Royce regarded Peirce as “America’s Greatest Mind” to date.

Hartshorne himself is now much more than a distinguished footnote to Peirce. Volume XX of The Library of Living Philosophers is entitled The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, putting him in the company of Albert Einstein, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Buber, and fellow Harvardians Whitehead, Santayana, and Quine. When I congratulated Charles upon the Library’s selection of him for its pantheon of philosophers, he exclaimed with a smile, “The secret of my success is longevity.”

A truer secret of Hartshorne’s success may well be that he is an exemplar of a great new tradition created by a group which I call the Harvard Square philosophers. Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, William Ernest Hocking, and Charles Hartshorne share a unique vision of reality as social process. Perhaps some day scholars of the history of human thought will celebrate the universal wisdom displayed by their joint discovery.

What the Harvard Square philosophers have been creating is a new worldview, a new synthesis of knowledge far surpassing the medieval synthesis of Thomism and the modern synthesis achieved by Spinoza. Here God is viewed not as a supernatural force breaking abruptly into history; God is 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 which our lives have made continues in the ongoing deathless divine life. In this new cosmology, all creatures have some measure of free choice. Freedom is pervasive throughout the universe at all levels of reality. 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 Encyclopædia Britannica calls “the definitive analysis” of panentheism (literally meaning “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 constituents, even though the cells function with an appropriate degree of autonomy within the larger organism.”

The work of Hartshorne, whom I consider the Einstein of religious thought, is esteemed not only by some eminent secular scientists and philosophers but also by distinguished thinkers who are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist. Nor is high esteem restricted to purely theoretical considerations divorced from urgent issues of life.

Quincy Wright suggested in his classic two volume A Study of War (1942) that Hartshorne’s new philosophy of nature, described as theistic naturalism or naturalistic theism, is the type of religion needed for a peaceful world civilization “if only humanity becomes less reluctant to accept the new and abandon the old than it has been in the past.”

Various recent scholars have declared that no philosopher has devoted himself as profoundly as has Hartshorne to the concepts involved in the ecological crisis and that his work has important implications for bioethics. T. L. S. Sprigge at the University of Edinburgh offers a historical perspective: “Hartshorne has developed a metaphysical system which breaks fundamentally new ground. He has added to the great alternative systems of the universe.”

Other scholars praise him for his breadth—he has been described as one of the few great philosophers in Western history who have discussed and debated with Eastern systems and ideas as philosophy. Still others are astounded by his energy and his contribution to both philosophy and natural science. “What other nonagenarians have maintained his level of philosophical production?” asks Lewis Edwin Hahn, editor of the Library of Living Philosophers, referring to Hartshorne’s contribution to the philosophy of creativity as well as mentioning his avocation—he enjoys an international reputation as an ornithologist, being an expert on bird song.

Hartshorne’s life was changed when, at the age of 16, he bought a pocket-sized songbird guide and a three power field glass. Over the years of his world travels related both to his teaching and his bird song research in Europe, Australia, India and Japan, he became an authority on this form of music which is second only to that of human members of the animal kingdom. The philosopher discovered that birds sing not only to win mates and protect territory but also to avoid monotony and to experience the sheer pleasure of singing. They sometimes vary their songs for hours on end. According to his research calibrations, some species actually sing not just one song but fifty or more songs or phrases.

Hartshorne himself would like to be remembered as a writer. He is the author of twenty books and more than 500 papers. “I have written for later generations,” he observes. “I might have done better to publish less, but one thing I cannot regret is taking as much time and energy from philosophy as was required to make my ornithological book, Born to Sing: An Interpretation and Survey of World Bird Song, possible.”

When I spoke with him at his home in Austin, where he retired after long tenure at the University of Texas, Charles said that he suspects that he is the first person since Aristotle to interpret philosophy in relation to ornithology.

I once asked Dorothy, her husband’s superb editor over the years, to summarize the gist of 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. . . . We 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.”

Many other details about the life and work of this person I admire are available in the Hartshorne Archives at the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California. On one sheet of paper there, the eminent geneticist, Sewall Wright, drew the genealogy of Charles’s mother’s family—extending backward to Elder Brewster of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. When I found that historic genealogical detail in the Hartshorne Archive in Claremont, I also found hundreds of copies of his published articles which I had never seen before. My purpose in this presentation of his classic essays is to share some of this treasured wisdom with others who are eager to explore this new world view when it is presented in accessible form which does not require technical expertise in contemporary philosophy. Here then is a portion of the wisdom of Charles Hartshorne presented in his own words.

For encouragement of publication of this book I am indebted to the Hartshorne’s daughter, Emily Schwartz, and to the three helpful professors of philosophy whom she suggested as advisors concerning this project: William L. Reese of the State University of New York, and author of the classic Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion: Eastern and Western Thought; Vincent Luizi, a judge and lawyer as well as chair of the Department of Philosophy at Southwest Texas State University, and author of A Case for Legal Ethics; and Randall E. Auxier, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Illinois and editor of The Library of Living Philosophy, which includes The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne.

The visual symbols enclosed with this manuscript I designed when I found it helpful to employ color and geometry in order to describe my personal philosophy of life as influenced by the thought of Charles Hartshorne.

H. F. V.
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Series NavigationHartshorne: A New World View, Contents and Acknowledgements >>

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