Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne (born 1897) was one of the leading American developers and exponents of process philosophy. He also made significant contributions to the contemporary theological understandings of God, creation, suffering, and evil.

Charles Hartshorne was born in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, on June 5, 1897. His father, Francis C. Hartshorne, was an Episcopal clergyman and his mother, Marguerite Haughton, was the daughter of an Episcopal clergyman. Although in his own life not identified with a particular denomination, Hartshorne's religious background provided a definitive direction for his philosophical thinking. A serious youth given to much reading and reflection, he entered Haverford College in 1915. With the advent of World War I he became a hospital orderly in Normandy, France, and, as with many other participants in the war, the enormous toll in human lives and injury deeply upset him. Hartshorne returned from the war and entered Harvard, majoring in philosophy. He completed his undergraduate work in 1921 and in quick succession received the doctor's degree in philosophy in 1923.

There is a direct line between the philosophical system Hartshorne developed in his formative years and his mature thinking. William Ernest Hocking's metaphysics, Clarence I. Lewis's idealism, Ralph Barton Perry's ethics: the teachers and the courses at Harvard all influenced him. Fellowships allowed him to spend two years in Europe where he studied under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, leading exponents of phenomenology and existentialism, respectively. Returning to Harvard in 1925 he began the monumental task, along with Paul Weiss, of editing the papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmatism. This difficult task resulted in the publication of six volumes of Peirce's writings. At the same time Hartshorne worked as assistant to Alfred North Whitehead, who along with Peirce and Henri Bergson strongly influenced Hartshorne's thinking. It was Whitehead who was considered his intellectual mentor.

Hartshorne combined a capacity for brilliant philosophical analysis with an outgoing social nature. In 1928, after accepting a teaching position at the University of Chicago, he married Dorothy Eleanore Cooper. They had a daughter, Emily Lawrence. His prolific and distinguished publishing career began in 1929, and his first book, The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation, was published in 1934. He early on developed a pattern of lecturing and writing, both of which continued within the framework of a teaching career at Chicago (1928-1955), Emory (1955-1962), and the University of Texas (1962 to 1980s), along with visiting professorships at, among other universities, Stanford, the Sorbonne (France), Kyoto (Japan), and Goethe (Germany).

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky described two paths taken by young men in the pursuit of truth. The easier path involved immediate action, even to the point of sacrificing one's life. The more difficult path demanded years of tedious study which multiplied tenfold the ability to serve the truth. In Charles Hartshorne, one finds a person who chose the second path. He was the contemporary scholar who provided direction for the human community's search for self-understanding. What is it in the teaching and writing of Hartshorne that commands our attention?

Hartshorne was a pre-eminent philosopher and had a decided influence on 20th-century American thinking for several reasons. He was a shaper of the idealist tradition through his seminal works in process philosophy and theology, wherein all reality, God included, was seen in a state of eternal change and becoming. This process philosophy sharply challenged many of the fundamental ideas about the universe and God that had been the cornerstone of Western philosophy and theology.

Hartshorne developed a metaphysics—that is, a theory of meaning whereby we understand being, the universe, humans, and God. He thus provided an anchor for philosophy as it sought to gain stability in a period reacting to linguistic analysis and logical positivism. He also offered a challenge to the rapidly developing disciplines in applied ethics (e.g., business, engineering, and medical ethics) to press their arguments to more fundamental levels of philosophical and theological discourse.

He made a significant contribution to theology's never-ending quest to understand the nature of God. According to Hartshorne's "neo-classical theism, " God changes along with temporal creation and is enriched by it. All reality moves toward the future, but this future has no ending, just as the past had no beginning. The God of process thought shares creation in a most intimate way with creatures, for divinity moves from present to future in the closest of relationships with the cosmos in joy and sorrow, not in distant all-knowing omnipotence or static perfection. Hartshorne's theological reflections picture a God not caught up in solitary splendor, a notion prevelant in Christian thinking. This God is incapable of being truly loving. In one of his important works, Reality as Social Process, Hartshorne stated: "For to love a being yet be absolutely independent of and unaffected by its welfare or suffering seems nonsense." In Hartshorne's view, God-with-us, in the tragedies made possible or inevitable by freedom, should receive more attention from theologians.

Hartshorne summarized his own religious credo, a belief worked out in countless books, essays, and lectures: "I definitely believe in God, in divine love as the key to existence, in love for God as (ideally) the all-in-all of our motivation, and in love for fellow creatures as valuable and important, judged by the same principle of value-to-God as we should judge ourselves by" (Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes). This affirmation by a maker of modern philosophy gives contemporary society pause to think of how it understands itself religiously as well as secularly since we are all believers, a people which must come to terms with meaning and ultimacy even if that belief does not assent to divinity as traditionally understood.

Charles Hartshorne was a most prolific writer on theological and philosophical subjects throughout his career. He had the ability to translate complex abstractions into language which made his ideas available to the non-academic reader.

Hartshore retired from teaching at 80 years of age, and became Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. He also continued his active interest in bird song and published a book on the subject in 1973. He lived in Austin, Texas, and maintained an office on the university campus there. The University celebrated his one-hundredth birthday with him in 1997.


Further Reading on Charles Hartshorne

Eugene H. Peters, Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, (Pages 328-329) contains a detailed bibliography of Charles Hartshorne's publications, and of several secondary studies which explicate his academic theology and philosophy, to 1985.