Where one man sorts out his thoughts in public



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Charles Hartshorne,” In E. Craig (Ed.), Rout-ledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2001.

Charles Hartshorne 

Daniel Dombrowski 


1 Life

Charles Hartshorne was born in the nine-teenth century and lived to philosophize in the twenty-first. He was born in Kittanning, Penn-sylvania, in the United States, the son of an Episcopal minister. Hartshorne attended Haverford College and then served in the First World War in France as a medic. After the war he pursued graduate studies at Harvard, where he received his doctorate in philosophy. While at Harvard he met Alfred North White-head – though contrary to a popular miscon-ception most of the major elements of Harts-horne’s philosophy were already in evidence by the time he became familiar with White-head’s thought. A postdoctoral fellowship took him to Germany from 1923–5, where he had classes with both Husserl and Heidegger, neither of whom influenced his thinking as much as Peirce, whose collected papers he edited with Paul Weiss. In 1928 he took a posi-tion at University of Chicago, where he re-mained until 1955. From 1955 until 1962 he taught at Emory University, then in 1962 he moved to the University of Texas at Austin, where he lived until his death. He never owned an automobile, nor did he smoke or drink alco-hol or caffeine. His wife, Dorothy, was as co-lourful as her husband and was often men-tioned in his writings.

2 Method

There seem to be three primary principles at work in Hartshorne’s metaphysics. First, he likes the use of systematic exhaustion of the-oretical options in treating philosophical prob-lems. This working principle is most apparent in his various treatments of the ontological argument, but it is evident throughout his phi-losophy. For example, he thinks it crucial to notice that regarding the mind–body problem there are three—not two! —options open to us: dualism, the materialist view that psyche is reducible to body, and the panpsychist (or psychicalist) view that body is in some way reducible to psyche if all active singulars in some way show signs of self-motion (see Pan-psychism). Hartshorne defends this third op-tion.

Second, he uses the history of philosophy to see which of the logically possible options have been defended before, so we can exa-mine in detail the consistency of these posi-tions and their consequences. Those logically possible options that have not historically found support should nonetheless be taken seriously. Hartshorne’s use of the history of philosophy often involves lesser-known views of famous thinkers (like Plato’s belief in God as the soul for the whole body of the natural world) as well as the thought of lesser-known thinkers, such as Faustus Socinus (see Socin-ianism) and Nikolai Berdiaev.

Third, after a careful conceptual and prag-matic examination of all the available options, an examination facilitated by a careful reading of the history of philosophy, the principle of moderation is used as a guide to negotiate the way between extreme views on either side. For example, the view of Hume that strictly speaking there is no personal identity, in that each event in ‘a person’s life’ is externally re-lated to the others, is equally as disastrous as the Leibnizian view that all such events are in-ternally related to the others, so that implicit in the foetus are all the experiences of the adult (see Leibniz, G.W. §7). The truth lies be-tween these extremes. This view relies on an asymmetrical conception of time for which later events in a person’s life are internally re-lated to former events, but externally related to those that follow them, thus leading to a position that is at once partially deterministic and partially indeterministic.

Only the first of these working principles supports the claim that Hartshorne is a ration-alist; the other two indicate that his overall method is a complex one that borrows from the rationalists and the pragmatists and the Greeks.


3 The existence and actuality of God 

Hartshorne rejects the metaphor that sug-gests that the chain of an argument for the existence of God is only as strong as its weak-est link. In its place he suggests that various arguments for the existence of God—ontolo-gical, cosmological, design, etc.—are like mu-tually reinforcing strands in a cable. He is especially intent on showing that Hume’s and Kant’s criticisms of the ontological argument of St Anselm are not directed at the strongest version of his argument found in Proslogion, chapter 3, where there is a modal distinction implied between existing necessarily and existing contingently (see God, arguments for the existence of §2). Existence alone might not be a real predicate, but existing neces-sarily certainly is, Hartshorne thinks. Contra Kant and others, Hartshorne believes that there are necessary truths concerning exis-tence. Because of the unintelligibility of abso-lute non-existence – to say that absolute non-existence in some fashion exists is to contra-dict oneself – he thinks it is necessarily the case that something exists; relying on the on-tological argument, he also thinks it neces-sarily true that God exists.

Further, Hartshorne’s detailed treatment of the argument from design is connected to his view of biology. An omnipotent God is hard to reconcile with all of the chance mutations and monstrosities produced in nature, but the gen-eral orderliness of the natural world is just as difficult to reconcile with there being no Order-er or Persuader at all. Belief in God as omnipo-tent is at odds not only with disorderliness in nature, it also yields the acutest form of the theodicy problem (see Evil, problem of) and conflicts with the notion from Plato’s Sophist (see Plato), supported by Hartshorne, that be-ing is dynamic power, so that an omnipotent being would ultimately have all power over others, who would ultimately be powerless. That is, any being-in-becoming has some power to affect, or to be affected by, others; and this power, however slight, gets in the way of a belief in divine omnipotence. By way of contrast, God is as powerful as possible, given the partial freedom of creatures.

Hartshorne’s quarrel with traditional philo-sophical theism concerns not so much the ex-istence of God, but rather its assumption that the actuality of God (how God exists) could be described in the same terms as the existence of God. A God who exists necessarily is not ne-cessary or unchanging in every other respect (e.g., in terms of divine responsiveness to creaturely changes). The logic of perfection has traditionally been misapplied in the effort to articulate the attributes of God, defined roughly as the greatest conceivable being. The traditional view of God is monopolar in that re-garding various non-invidious contrasts (per-manence–change, one–many, activity–passi-vity, etc.) the traditional philosophical theist has chosen one element in each pair as a di-vine attribute and denigrated the other.

Hartshorne’s logic of perfection, by way of contrast, is dipolar. Within each element of these pairs there are good features (e.g., ex-cellent permanence in the sense of steadfast-ness, excellent change in the sense of preemi-nent ability to respond to the sufferings of creatures). In each element in these pairs there are also invidious features (e.g., pig-headed stubbornness, fickleness). The task is to attribute the excellences of both elements of these pairs to God and to eschew the invidi-ous properties of both elements. It should be noted, however, that some contrasts are not fit for dipolar analysis (e.g., good–evil), since ‘good–good’ is a redundancy and ‘evil–good’ is a contradiction. The greatest conceivable be-ing cannot be evil in any sense whatsoever.

Hartshorne does not believe in two gods, nor does he wish to defend a cosmological du-alism. The opposite is the case. In addition to calling his theism dipolar, he refers to it as a type of panentheism, which literally means that all is in God by means of omniscience (properly defined) and omnibenevolence (see God, concepts of §8). All creaturely feelings, especially sufferings, are included in the divine life even if God as the mind or soul for the whole body of the natural world (see above regarding Plato’s World Soul) is distin-guishable from the creatures. Or again, Hart-shorne’s theism is neoclassical in the sense that he relies on the classical theistic proofs for the existence of God and on the classical theistic metaphysics of being as first steps in the effort to think through properly the logic of perfection, but these efforts need to be sup-plemented by the efforts of those who see be-coming as more inclusive than being. God is not outside of time, but rather exists through all of time. God’s permanent ‘being’ consists in steadfast benevolence exhibited through everlasting becoming.

God’s omniscience, on Hartshorne’s view, refers to the divine ability to know everything that is knowable: past actualities as already actualized, present realities to the extent that they are knowable, and future possibilities or probabilities as possibilities or probabilities. Knowedge of future possibilities or proba-bilities as already actualized is not an example of supreme knowledge, but is rather an exam-ple of ignorance of the (at least partially) in-determinate character of the future. This asymmetrical view of time, in which the rela-tionship between the present and the past is radically different from the relationship be-tween the present and the future, has implica-tions for Hartshorne’s theodicy: a plurality of partially free agents, including non-human ones, facing a future that is neither completely determined nor foreknown in detail, makes it not only possible, but likely, that these agents will get in each other’s way.

4 Axiology

Whereas Hartshorne views the cosmos as a ‘metaphysical monarchy’, with God as the presiding, but not omnipotent, head, human society is a ‘metaphysical democracy’, with each member an equal. This makes him a li-beral in politics, with ‘liberalism’ referring to the egalitarian insight that none of us is God.

Further, Hartshorne’s panpsychism (or psychicalism) entails the belief that each ac-tive singular in nature, even those that do not exhibit mentality, is nonetheless a centre of intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value. Hence Hartshorne’s metaphysics is intended to provide the basis for an aesthetic appre-ciation of the value in nature as well as for an environmental ethics where intrinsic and in-strumental values in nature are weighed.

Hartshorne was a published expert on bird song, writing specifically of the aesthetic cate-gories required to explain why birds sing out-side the mating season and when territory is not threatened (these two occasions for bird song being crucial to the behaviourists’ ac-count). His criticism of anthropocentrism is not only a part of his concern for God, but also for beings-in-becoming who experience in a less sophisticated way than humans. As be-fore, however, his axiology is ultimately theo-centric in character.

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