CHARLES HARTSHORNE: THE
EINSTEIN OF RELIGIOUS THOUGHT
By John B.
Cobb, Courtesy of the Center for Process Studies, Claremont,
the Army Medical Corps, 1917-1919
Charles Hartshorne was born in Kittanning,
Pennsylvania, the son of Marguerite Haughton and Francis Cope
Hartshorne, clergyman. He entered Haverford College in 1915, leaving
to join the Army Medical Corps for two years. He completed his
college work at Harvard and took the Ph.D. in philosophy there.
Among his teachers were R. B. Perry, W. E. Hocking, C.I. Lewis,
H. M. Sheffer, and J. H. Woods. His dissertation was on "The Unity
of All Things."
Awarded a Sheldon Fellowship, Hartshorne
studied for two years in Europe, mostly in Germany. Among the
lectures he attended were some by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.
On his return to Harvard, he spent
three years as Instructor and Research Fellow. He and Paul Weiss
edited the papers of Charles Sanders Peirce in six volumes (Collected
Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cambridge and Harvard University
Press, 1931-1935). He found in Peirce a highly congenial spirit,
and he appropriated many of Peirce's concepts and arguments.
During one of these years he was
assistant to Alfred North Whitehead, whose thought was also highly
congenial to the vision he had been shaping on his own. He learned
much from Whitehead, and one major contribution he made throughout
his career was introducing students to Whitehead and expounding
In 1928, Hartshorne accepted a position
in the Department of Philosophy of the University of Chicago,
where, except for a Fulbright appointment in Australia, he taught
until 1955. Soon after moving to Chicago he married Dorothy Cooper.
Dorothy Hartshorne played an important role as editor and bibliographer
of his writings. They had one child, Emily.
During his years at Chicago, Hartshorne
had a somewhat lonely role in the Department of Philosophy. Much
of the time this was dominated by Richard McKeon. In any case,
Hartshorne's commitment to the construction of a new metaphysics
and philosophy of religion was out of step with the general mood.
His influences at Chicago included
theologians as well as philosophers. In due course, with little
change in his teaching, he received a joint appointment in the
Divinity School. He did much to shape what came to be called "process
and Dorothy Hartshorne, with grandchildren, Eleanor and
Despite his personally irenic spirit,
much of his work was polemical. Hartshorne argued on two fronts.
Against classical theism he insisted that its views were neither
coherent nor religiously satisfactory. He taught that the idea
of divine perfection embodied in the tradition affirmed only one
side of what is truly involved in perfection, that is, the element
of immutability and absoluteness. But true perfection includes
perfect relatedness and thus change. What remains changeless is
God's perfect responsiveness to all that is changing.
Hartshorne opposed the classical
doctrine of omnipotence. In its clearest form this implied that
all events, just as they occur, are determined by God. This tradition
cannot affirm creaturely freedom or avoid depicting God as directly
responsible for all sin and evil without inconsistency. Hartshorne
taught, in contrast, that God creates the conditions that provide
the optimum balance of order and freedom. Within the limits set
by God, creatures determine the details of what happens. Much
that occurs takes place by chance interactions of diverse decision-making
creatures. This, too, expresses the divine perfection.
The other front on which Hartshorne
argued was against the widespread loss of confidence in reason.
This expressed itself in the dominant philosophical community
as an abandonment of metaphysics and of constructive philosophy
generally. In theology it led to fideism. Hartshorne showed that
traditional arguments for the existence of God could be formulated
cogently when the idea of God for which they argued was a coherent
one. He gave special attention to the ontological argument in
this regard. He insisted that either God necessarily exists or
it is necessarily true that God does not exist.
These ideas were set forth in a
series of books: Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy
of Nature (Chicago: Willet, Clark & Company, 1937), Man's
Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (Chicago: Willet, Clark
& Company, 1941), The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception
of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), and Reality
as a Social Process: Studies in Metaphysics and Religion (Glencoe:
The Free Press and Boston: Beacon Press, 1953). These books established
Hartshorne as a major challenge to the dominant currents in both
philosophy and theology and as the center of a small but vigorous
because of tensions in the Department of Philosophy at Chicago,
Hartshorne accepted an invitation to teach philosophy at Emory
University. As he approached Emory's mandatory retirement age,
he moved to the University of Texas, whose retirement policy was
more flexible. He taught there until 1978.
During these years he continued
to be a prolific writer. Creative Synthesis and Scientific
Method (LaSalle: Open Court, 1970) concentrates less on his
doctrine of God and thus offers a more balanced view of his position
on a wide range of issues. His productivity has continued even
past his retirement at Texas, including extensive assessment of
the great thinkers of the past. Insights and Oversights of
Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1983) is especially significant
in this regard.
Although Hartshorne's fame rests
chiefly on his philosophy, he has also brought his philosophical
views to bear in two scientific fields. Indeed, his first book
was an original development of the theory that all the senses
constitute a single affective continuum. His thesis may still
prove useful to physiological psychologists. (The Philosophy
and Psychology of Sensation. Chicago: The University of Chicago
He maintained from his youth an
interest in birds, and on his extensive travels, he recorded numerous
birdsongs. He taught that birds have a subjective life and are
motivated by enjoyment of singing. He compiled extensive data
supporting this theory and published Born to Sing: An Interpretation
and World Survey of Bird Song (Bloomington: Indiana University
A hundred years of thinking about
A philosopher soon to be rediscovered
BY GREGG EASTERBROOK
|Charles Hartshorne's old-fashioned
philosophy holds that life has purpose and truth exists.
Gregg Easterbrook is an editor of
The New Republic, a fellow of the Brookings Institution
and the author, most recently of "The Progress Parodx"
"The reward for living is the living itself,"
says Charles Hartshorne, and he should know, since he has
been doing it for 100 years. The centenarian Hartshorne
is an academic philosopher, an unsung hero of the culture
wars. John Silber, chancellor of Boston University, puts
Hartshorne among "the top 10" 20th-century American
philosophers. Others have described him as the century's
foremost philosopher of theology. Yet Hartshorne is little
known because his work violates perhaps the strongest postwar
intellectual taboo: He believes God actually exists.
In the milieu of "postmodernism," the general
outlook dominant at top universities during the postwar
era, few ideas have been less welcome than serious arguments
supporting God. "No form of thinking has been more
out of vogue in this century," says Georae R. Lucas
Jr., executive director of the American Academy for Liberal
Education, a scholars' group. That, however, may be changing.
Increasingly, the most basic contention of postmodernismthat
life is a meaningless accidentis coming under fire.
Hartshorne's specialty of "metaphysics," or the
search for higher truth, may make a comeback. Hartshorne's
own work may be poised for the sort of rediscovery that
often happens a few decades after a great thinker's deathexcept
that Hartshorne is still alive.
In Hartshorne's philosoph even somewhat unorthodox a gumptions about
God lend support to contentions that creation has purpose and that pure
truth exists. "Without God, how can we know what is true?"
Hartshorne has asked. "Human beings barely know themselves, after
all these centuries of inquiry. There must be a larger reality with
a higher understanding of truth than ours."
Reason and faith. Born in 1897 in a small Pennsylvania town,
Hartshorne was the child of an Episcopal minister descended from Quakers.
"No one in my family disbelieved in religion, and no one disbelieved
in evolution, either," he says. These two seemingly conflicting
views came to inform Hartshorne's work, most of which concerns the application
of rationality to theological questions.
Though Hartshorne might have used his Quaker lineage to avoid the draft,
he volunteered to serve in the war. That's the Great WarHartshorne
is a veteran of World War I. After discharge, he studied at Harvard
with Alfred North Whitehead, one of the last academic philosophers to
be a celebrity. Just before the Depression, Hartshorne was hired to
teach philosophy at the University of Chicago. There, he elaborated
Whitehead's late-in-life idea called "process theology," which
holds that God cannot see the future and therefore changes in response
to human actions.
If the future could be known supernaturally, Hartshorne reasoned, then
God would already be fated to do whatever brings about the foreseen:
Even the Maker would lack free choice. But if the future does not yet
exist, it is a non-thing, unknowable even to a deity. Working from the
second assumption, Hartshorne concluded that a changing God is involved
in an ongoing process of responding to humanity. This, he felt, could
explain leading puzzles of theology, such as how the wrathful God of
the Old Testament became the compassionate Maker of the Bible's second
Using the logic of process theology, Hartshorne rejected unbelief as
"an egotistic view that nothing can be larger than a human being."
He argued, "What we need is to make a renewed attempt to worship
the objective of God, not our forefathers' doctrines about him."
Such ideas simultaneously offended upper academia, where unbelief is
often taken as a badge of intellect, and offended Christianity, by suggesting
the Maker has defects. "It is amusing that many academic elites
look down on process theology as too religious, when to orthodox religion
Hartshorne is a radical," notes Robert Kane, a University of Texas
||"It will eventually be acknowledged that women
are wiser than men. The essential proof of female wisdom is that
women commit far fewer crimes and antisocial acts."
Completed work. During his career, Hartshorne wrote some 20
books and oversaw restoration of the thought of the 19th-century philosopher
of logic Charles Sanders Peirce. Some of Hartshorne's best work, including
his Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, was not published
until after he turned 80. His daughter, Emily Goodman, a New York attorney,
says that when Hartshorne retired from teaching, he showed her several
unfinished manuscripts squirreled away in various boxes and drawers.
"He told me, 'If I die, find someone to complete my work,"'
Goodman says. "Instead, he completed it."
Hartshorne had a second career studying Charles Darwin's favorite topic,
natural selection among birds. He acquired enough standing as an ornithologist
that he could have been tenured in zoology, Silber of Boston University
says. Hartshorne's 1973 book Born to Sing, argues that some bird species
have evolved the ability to appreciate melody and now warble partly
for the sheer pleasure of it. "Musicians who have listened to birds
believe this much more than ornithologists, who are terrified of being
accused of anthropomorphism," Hartshorne says. "Having studied
thousands of hours of birdsong from around the world, I am convinced
some species possess an aesthetic sense, however limited compared to
ours. It is part of human egotism to believe that only we have active
||"The world has too many
automobiles and televisions. Now the standard is there should be
one car and TV for every person. This is not healthy for the environment
or our souls."
Today, Hartshorne lives in a small house in Austin, Texas, where a
live-in assistant cares for him. His wife of 67 years, the former Dorothy
Cooper, died in 1995. She was a classically trained soprano, and Hartshorne
cherishes memories of times he would sit in their living room and she
would sing Mozart to him, alone. "I felt magnificently privileged,"
His body now frail, Hartshorne rarely ventures from his house, which
has the darkened feel of aging. He spends his days rereading his own
work ("I admit this gives me pleasure, even when I find errors")
and writing letters to the editor on such favored topics as feminism
(for), capital punishment (against), bicycles (for; Hartshorne never
owned a car and became hopelessly lost on the few occasions he attempted
to drive), red meat (against; Hartshorne attributes his longevity partly
to vegetarianism), and pacifism (once for, now against: "Hitler
made it impossible to keep believing in pacifism, which was one of the
many terrible things he did to the world"). He says his main reflection
on a full 100 years of life is that "we live in a century in which
everything has been said. The challenge today is to learn which statements
||"Too many intellectuals
look down on religion and think it will go away. God is not going
to go away. There are far more religious people in the world today
than when I was born."
Hartshorne does not shy from contemplating his own mortality. He takes
what he calls a "modest but positive" view of deaththat
consciousness ceases to exist but each person's thoughts, feelings,
and experiences are "eternally and vividly remembered by God."
To memorize and honor everything that has ever happened is, Hartshorne
thinks, God's ultimate role, the infinite divine memory representing
a reserve of metaphysical truth to which any person may contribute.
"I had a happy, idyllic, old-fashioned childhood," Hartshorne
says, his voice tired but not weary. "Go to the town where I spent
that childhood, you will not find my happy hours there. Yet they remain
definite constituents of a divine reality about which true statements
can still be made. My happy childhood was a gift my parents and the
world offered to God." Someday Hartshorne's thoughts will be understood
to number among these gifts, too.
Courtesy of U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, FEBRUARY 23, 1998
THE AVERAGE PHILOSOPHER
by Herbert F. Vetter,
Minister at Large, Emeritus, The First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Courtesy of Harvard Magazine, May/June 1997,
Volume 99, Number 5
For 20 years, my work as a Harvard
chaplain was nourished by the new world view of Charles Hartshorne,
the Harvard educated philosopher and scientist described by Encyclopaedia
Britannica as "the most influential proponent of a 'process
philosophy' which considers God a participant in cosmic evolution."
Hartshorne no sooner left the army
after World War I than he promptly earned, year after year, three
Harvard degrees: A.B. 1921, M.A. 1922, Ph.D. 1923. This may be
a University speed record. Graduate students may be surprised
to learn that he wrote his 300-page doctoral dissertation, "The
Unity of Being in the Divine or Absolute Good," in 35 days. That
ability to focus may help explain his legendary absentmindedness:
a favorite anecdote has him finishing a sidewalk chat with a student,
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 in Europe, Hartshorne became an instructor of philosophy,
responsible for teaching a course, assisting Alfred North Whitehead,
and tackling one other project. The department assigned him the
appalling task of putting in order the roomful of jumbled manuscripts
comprising the intellectual estate of Charles Sanders Peirce,
founder of this country's most distinguished philosophy, pragmatism.
Hartshorne turned the material into The Collected Papers of
Charles Sanders Peirce. The six-volume set clearly revealed
why William James and Josiah Royce regarded Peirce as "America's
Hartshorne is much more than a distinguished footnote to Peirce.
Volume 20 of The Library of Living Philosophers is entitled The
Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, putting him in the company
of Einstein, Russell, Sartre, Buber, and fellow Harvardians Whitehead,
Santayana, and Quine. When I congratulated him on being selected
for the library's pantheon, he exclaimed with a smile, "The secret
of my success is longevity."
A truer secret of his success may
be that he is an exemplar of a great new tradition created by
a group I call the Harvard Square philosophers. Peirce, James,
Whitehead, William Ernest Hocking, and Hartshorne share a unique
vision of reality as social process.
The Harvard Square philosophers
have created a new synthesis of knowledge far surpassing the medieval
synthesis of Thomism and the modern synthesis of Spinoza. God
is viewed not as a supernatural force breaking abruptly into history,
but as 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 that our lives have made continues
in the ongoing, deathless divine life. In this new cosmology,
all creatures have some measure of free choice. 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 Britannica calls "the definitive
analysis" of panentheism (literally, "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 constitutuents, even though the cells function
with an appropriate degree of autonomy within the larger organism."
Not only eminent secular scientists
and philosophers, but distinguished Protestant, Catholic, Jewish,
Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist thinkers esteem Hartshorne's work.
Nor is their praise restricted to purely theoretical considerations.
Recent scholars have declared that no philosopher has focused
as profoundly as Hartshorne on the concepts involved in the ecological
crisis, and that his work has important implications for bioethics.
Other scholars praise his breadth -- he has been called one of
the few great Western philosophers to discuss and debate Eastern
systems and ideas as philosophy. And still others are astounded
by his energy and by his contribution both to philosophy and to
and Charles Hartshorne birdwatching.
Hartshorne's life was changed when,
at the age of 16, he bought a pocket-sized songbird buide and
a three-power field glass. His first boarding-school essay was
on bird-watching. Thanks to years of travel, for teaching and
birding, in Europe, Australia, India, and Japan, the philosopher
has earned an international reputation as an ornithologist. He
has discovered that birds sing not only to win mates and protect
territory but also to experience the sheer pleasure of singing.
His work indicates that some species sing not just one but fifty
or more songs or phrases, and that some birds vary their songs
for hours on end. He suspects he may be the first person since
Aristotle to interpret philosophy in relation to ornithology,
and when I last spoke with him, he startled me by declaring, "I
think my great book is Born to Sing: An Interpretation and
World Survey of Bird Song."
I once asked Dorothy
Hartshorne, her husband's superb editor over the years, to summarize
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 ... [W]e 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."
Omnipotence and Other
Theological Mistakes by Charles Hartshorne (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1984).
Speak of God by Charles Hartshorne and William L. Reese (Albany,
NY: Prometheus Books, 2000).
Hartshorne online Biography
by Donald Wayne Viney
by Donald Wayne Viney and Randy Ramal
A New World View by Charles Hartshore, edited by Herbert F. Vetter.
Hartshorne was actively involved in the life of Unitarian churches
for seven decadesin Chicago, Atlanta, and Austin.