Some Not Ungrateful But Perhaps Inadequate Comments About Comments on My Writings and Ideas

by Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne taught at the University of Texas where he was Ashbel Smith Professor of Philosophy. He had a distinguished career at several other universities, particularly the University of Chicago and Emory University. His most recent book, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, was published by Open Court.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 123-129, Vol. 21, Number 2, Summer, 1992. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Hartshorne responds to each of several authors, writing in Process Studies, who critique his writings.

This symposium is the 5th, in which I’ve been asked to comment on comments of other philosophers about me. To have Cobb’s frank, critical comments on my work is a fine reward for longevity. (see The philosophy of Charles Hartshorne by John B. Cobb, Jr. at When I passed my 80th birthday, I began saying longevity is my secret weapon. Like Plato (and I am as much a Platonist as anyone alive that I know about, provided reference is to the Plato, not so much of the Republic and other dialogues that are perhaps more Socratic than Platonic, but of the Phaedrus, Timaeus, Sophist, and Laws, Bk. 10), I believe that of all subjects philosophy requires maturity. I am still finding new conceptual connections and clarifications. The history of philosophy is its testing laboratory and it has had a very complex history which is fully intelligible only in relation to the history of science, also the history of the religions.

My use of psyche is partly with Plato in mind. No great philosopher has been more badly misinterpreted than Plato. He was himself somewhat confused, but he knew that what he could say was “only somewhat like the truth,” and this was what Aristotle did not know about himself, although — except in elementary formal logic, zoology, and prudential ethics and political theory — he too, was badly mistaken in some of his positions; in physics and philosophy of religion especially his influence has been calamitous. About mind or psyche, however, PL, as I like to abbreviate the great name, was sagacious. Burnet put things right when he said, the great platonic discovery was not the timeless forms but soul, that is, awareness, under which very definitely PL emphasized emotions. Even God is said to care about the creatures, not just to know about them. And the platonic criterion for the presence of psyche is self-activity, by which I take him to mean some degree of freedom from causal determinism. I think Plato knew that the other animals, especially the lower kinds, for instance insects, although of course self-moved and hence minded, are not intellectual, and live by feeling rather than thought. Plato even assumed that civilized humanity was preceded by uncivilized, more primitive societies.

Above all, Plato attributed the mind-body duality to God, of whom the body or soma is the cosmos of non-divine things. This body keeps changing by additions, as does the divine soul. So far I agree. Instead of psyche I can also say subjectivity. Whitehead’s “reformed subjectivism” is about what I mean by psychicalism. Cobb’s last sentence on p. 80 about mathematicians may not apply to all of them. The just preceeding sentence seems to mis-state my position. Of course there are both pure and impure possibilities, but no possibilities are as particular as actualities. Peirce was right on this. Possibilities are vague. Full particularization is creation, as Peirce and Bergson co-discovered. Always there is novelty, as well as partial repetition. God grounds, makes possible, both; the creatures add their own final self-actions. In their humble fashions they also create. Emergence is not an occasional thing but the universal of universals, or category of the ultimate. Plato would have loved to take this position and get rid of the supposed lifeless, inert, unfree, mindless matter. It’s the negativity of matter, not its spatiality, which is the error. The new subjectivism is the true positivism.

Concerning mind and matter, it was Peirce who corrected two great mistakes of Leibniz, his failure to allow for freedom as essential to mind, and his failure to make clear that, far from space being needed only to make matter possible it is mind that Descartes was cheating when he denied space to it. Peirce’s tychism or shancism opens the door to freedom; Peirce also gave the best statement ever made about why mind needs space. Wrote he: “My neighbor is he with whom I intimately react.” We need space because we need neighbors, some at least of which are friends, those with whom we interchange ideas, feelings. We also have possible enemies against whom we must be on guard. (So long as there are extremes of rich and poor, there will be locks of doors.) Leibniz had simply, and correctly, said that as time is the way there can be successive mental states of individuals, space is the way there can be coexistent individuals. All correct, but then LZ (for Leibniz) spoiled it all by trivializing and virtually contradicting the distinction between the symmetry of coexistence and the asymmetry of succession (time’s famous ‘arrow’); he did this trivializing in two ways, by his sufficient reason, his polite word for a specially complete kind of determinism, according to which it is just as necessary for A to precede B as for B to succeed A (my ancestors required my existence as truly as I needed theirs); also coexistence for Leibniz did not mean interaction, but the mere agreement between vast, or was it infinite, numbers of perfect, time-keeping clocks in divinely chosen correspondence with one another. It was all a superbly artificial mathematical puzzle designed by a mathematical deity to make the best possible over-all pattern in which there are no accidental details, no free choices which may conflict with one another. As a satirist said, our best possible world is one in which everything that happens is a necessary evil.

Peirce brought philosophy back to the real world or genuinely individual, fallible, localized choices, actions, with necessary antecedent conditions, and possible or probable subsequent outcomes, involving free choices in each momentary present. Ah, but about the present Peirce became another mathematician legislating for actuality; he decided that the presents in which actions happen are infinitesimally brief, with an infinite number in any finite time however short. In effect he rejected quantum physics before it became fact. In this he was all too much like Leibniz. In his probabilistic view of the future he was like quantum physics but in his continuity-ism, or Synechism, he negated the quantum idea. On what ground? I say, on no ground, but because of feeling. He becomes lyrical in writing about the beauties of mathematical continuity. His father Benjamin wrote similarly on the subject. He was also his son’s principal intellectual teacher.* Charles was even more of a genius in mathematics than Benjamin, as experts have noted. Neither man, however, had what Plato, also enthusiastic about mathematics, did have, a sagacious understanding of the difference between mathematical concepts and concrete actualities. No two things in nature, PL said, are absolutely equal; mathematical entities are ideals, not facts of nature. He would not have believed that human experiencing could have an infinite number of successive experiences in a second, and that the same infinity would also occur in a non-human animal. He was impressed by the variety of nature. Nor did he think the species of animals are eternal ideas; on the contrary he thought they were divine creations (in The Republic). Moreover individual animals have each its own self-motions.

Of course, as Cobb notes, my 16 or 32 options tables are open to challenge. Buddhists and Hindus of the Sankara stripe reject conceptual devices as irrelevant in relating oneself to Nirvana or to the highest truths; Bergson in his early period did so also. I am not impressed by any of these people on just this issue. On the other hand, monks of The Bengali School of Hinduism come closer to my position than almost any Western writer. They say that God is love, that love is consciousness of consciousness, or experience of experience, that God is not the absolute but is “more than the absolute,” also is not without becoming or dependence on ordinary individuals for the full divine actuality. This is a relatively modern Asiatic equivalent of process theism.

One can always retreat into mysticism but then one must also retreat into silence. Why keep trying to say what is unsayable? When mystics do talk they talk with concepts, and so did Bergson in his maturity. Language is conceptual; logic tells us how to use concepts responsibly. My big mistake, which a more mathematical person would have avoided, has been that my arrangement of a full table of the options in Creative Synthesis, the only book of mine that has it at all, is mathematically inelegant, which considerably reduces its power. The profession has scarcely begun to evaluate its importance.

A final remark about the apparent continuity of experiencing and the Whiteheadian (also in principle Buddhist) rejection of this. As a theist I explain this continuity as one of the ways in which our direct intuitions and the intuitions of God differ. All our intuitions are, as Leibniz said, confused or blurred, lacking in distinctness. Only God simply intuits what is there. Kant radically misunderstood all this in his theory of appearance and reality; he carried to the limit a tendency in Descartes of supposing that it made sense to posit an experience of just itself, that very experience. An experience is itself but does not experience itself, it experiences something else which has to be there. Even in dreams this is always true, as Bergson brilliantly shows. One dreams of being sexually, physically excited, and so one is, of being cold and so one is, of hearing a sound and on waking the sound is heard. In all these and many other ways I have confirmed Bergson’s masterly account. There are no experiences of just those experiences, and no mere dreams. Kant’s theory of Erscheinung completely hiding was erscheint is a myth we need to get rid of, along with the idea of mere mindless matter, which is also a myth. As I interpret Plato — when imagined in possession of our modern science, and at his mature best — all mind is embodied mind, but bodies consist also of minds on mostly subhuman, also sub-vegetable, but ever self-active constituents, and therefore above the zero of mentality. No such zero can be demonstrated. For the rest I will only reiterate my appreciation of Cobb’s reflections, which speak for themselves.

Mary Elizabeth Moore’s (see her article “Musings of a Psychologist-Theologian: Reflections on the Method of Charles Hartshorne at HYPERLINK l “”.) musing or reflections also speak for themselves. I think well of the Hopi, who by their contrary one-sidedness tend to help the rest of us correct our anti-temporal bias. In general the Amerindians, as I like to call them, had a sounder view of nature and even the great spirit than many a theologian has had, so far as I am concerned. I would say the same about Africans when not Christian or Islamic: they did not believe in Hell at all apparently, and apparently not in supernatural heavens either, which for me puts them above some of those who colonized and exploited them to their disadvantage.

Logic, in its modal aspect, as to which Aristotle was the great founder, shows the relationship between contingent or empirical and necessary or metaphysical truths to be thus: if P is a necessary truth and Q is a contingent truth, then the conjunction, P and Q. is a contingent truth. There can be no complete truth that is merely contingent or merely necessary. That I exist is a contingent truth, but it includes whatever necessary conditions there were for my existence, including the divine existence, unless all theologians are mistaken. The middle ground is in a way the inclusive ground. The tragic mistake was to suppose that the necessary truths were basically negations, that God is wholly, exclusively non-temporal, immutable, independent, etc. Worship of such unqualified negations is a gross intellectual kind of superstition, period. That is all I see in it. Aristotle invented this theology, he and Philo; it is not genuinely Platonic at all, in spite of Plotinus etc. Philo on this point was worse than Aristotle, who did allow God to think, though he prohibited God from thinking or caring about you or me and our thinking.

Marjorie Suchocki (see her article Charles Hartshorne and Subjective Immortality at like most of us, inherited an immense tradition that there ought to be justice. She is certainly right that our human notions of justice do not seem to be backed by the laws of nature as we know them and the way things happen on this planet. Waldo Emerson, as he liked to be known, tried to persuade himself that justice is done because “There is no chance, no anarchy.” “There is a system of compensations, every defect in one manner is made up in another. Every suffering is rewarded; every sacrifice is made up, every debt is paid.” When, however, his beautiful little boy dies he declares that nothing in his philosophy is of any help in his sorrow, and repeats this a year later. In short his theory was a bad guess about the nature of things. Emerson was not talking about posthumous compensations but those in life between birth and death.

Much suffering of people comes from the wickedness of others, as in child abuse, wife abuse, and many other forms of not loving a neighbor as oneself. We may try to prevent such things by legal means, using punishments and in civil cases monetary rewards to the mistreated. How well do these systems work? They are executed by human individuals, with all their weaknesses and even their own wickednesses. What is the remedy? Is it supernatural heavens or hells or purgatories? Will God be doing this supernatural punishing and rewarding, or will angels or devils be doing the work? I deeply fear we are not competent judges of how the cosmos — and God, as I use words, is at least cosmic — is or should be made or managed. How many Christians, I wonder, are aware that in the Book of Job there is much discussion about God and about human suffering and wickedness but not a whisper about heaven or hell, or anything of the kind? Nor is there in the supernatural voice from the whirlwind any affirmation that suffering is divine punishment or means of teaching us this or that. What Job is told is that he is in no position to tell God how a universe can or should be made or governed. He was not there when the Pleiades constellation was made, he does not know how it came to be that animals can feed their young. At this point I think of Darwin, who, according to those who taught me when young about religion, was the one who (with Wallace) gave the first factually based account of how the animals came to be. The account was not atheistic, so far as it was factual, and Darwin’s letters make it clear that he knew this. What he explained was not how there is cosmic order, with physical, chemical, astronomical laws; he assumed all that, and then explained how the emergence of living forms, vegetable and animal, could have occurred. His religious difficulty came from the kind of theology he found around him, its habit of identifying words in a book (written by human hands and thought by human brains) with the words of God, also from the habit of playing fast and loose with the dangerously ambiguous concepts of omnipotence and omniscience, and taking these more seriously than any definite affirmation of the freedom of creatures to make decisions that are their own and not God’s. In addition Darwin was handicapped by the determinism and materialism of the Newtonian era still not definitively transcended, though it was already beginning to show signs of giving away to something in principle different. In spite of Darwin’s phrase chance variations in animal and plant offspring which artificial selection made use of to produce domestic animals and plants, giving him and Wallace the opportunity to recognize natural selection as an important factor in the coming to be of animals and plants not artificially produced, Darwin himself could not quite believe the variations were produced by creaturely freedom transcendent of any fully deterministic causal laws. Multiple freedom means chance, for if A freely makes decision D1 and B makes decision D2, who or what makes the conjunction of the two? Obviously no one, it just happens. Offspring variations are chancy, there animal celluar, molecular, atomic-particle freedoms, strict determinism is not demonstrably true and is a problem not a solution for problems. Darwin would have been even greater had he been able to accept this. He was great and good as it was.

Dr. Suchocki is struggling with the tragedy inherent in the very idea of life as multiple freedom. Even with God, that is, supreme and cosmic freedom, whereas ours are only more-or-less-good and localized forms of freedom, the forms of life are all forms of freedom. Materialism and mechanism (determinism) are the twin traits of the absolutely dead, if there is such a thing. Life-ism, the real pro-life-position, denies that there is. By life meaning self-activity and at least sentience, feeling, the death of animals means only falling back to lower animal, vegetable, or sub-vegetable but still self-active and sentient levels.

There is something else. In ethics I take seriously the injunctions, Love God with all your being and the neighbor as yourself. Note that the first commandment here is the basic one, in the light of which the other is to be interpreted. How are we to love ourselves? In principle as we are to love our neighbor? And how is that? As valuable to God. Self-love is not the principle here. The principle is love (“God is love”); we are not to make bargains with God, such as, do this and we will do that! Job, Plato, and the Greater and lesser Commandments are my basic traditional assumptions, together with the new freedom in science to admit self-activity as the index of mentality or the psychical. I do add the Buddhist-Whiteheadian notion of actual entity, meaning momentary unit-experience with a finite and small number per second in the human case. If we do not distinctly introspect these units and seem to experience a continuum of experiencing this is because we are not God, and our intuitive capacities are of limited power. We intuit things always with details blurred, as Clerk Maxwell put it, like a swarm of bees seen at a distance.

Much of this may seem irrelevant or unnecessary in a response to Dr. Suchocki’s essay. I deeply sympathize with her grief that there is so much abuse of some people by other people, of women, children, minorities. It happens that my present circumstances are not very favorable to careful consideration of the details of her contribution. I do agree with her that God is conscious of our consciousness, or unit-instances of becoming. I take Whitehead literally when he says that these units by virtue of objective immortality, live everlastingly, but not literally when he says they perish. My John Locke seems less Whiteheadian than Whiteheads’s JL. I also take “their being cannot be abstracted from their becoming” literally. Yet it is not clear to me that this means they can enjoy God’s awareness of each of their experiences in those very experiences, for Whitehead defines prehension, or feeling of feeling, as temporally subsequent to its concrete data. Still he seems to accept telepathy.

One point in which I seem rather eccentric among philosophers is that I do not quite take literally what some do seem to take literally, namely unbearable pain. To feel the unfeelable is contradictory, so is to bear the unbearable. I say this contradiction is not to be taken as truth. This is one reason I reject the idea of Hell. Not even God can force creatures to go on living miserably. Animals can die from not wanting to live. There are known cases, loss of a mother, or other loved one, that result in refusal to eat, and death. Without the will to live there is little nondivine living. It is God who could not cease to have this will, and in a sense it is not a definite volition in the divine case but a common aspect of every possible divine volition. I hold that we creatures are born to want to live for a limited period but not to go on endlessly being ourselves in ever-new variations. We may say we want this but I hold (with Baine, Peirce, James) that mere sayings do not prove real belief, only corresponding behavior can do that, and in this case it is endless future behavior we are talking about, an infinity. Do those who assert this infinity really think through what this means? Only God fully knows any of us, not we ourselves. Our temporal finitude and our spatial finitude belong together. Charles Peirce said this in his twenties with superb clarity, except that finitude is in this usage an inadequate word; we are but fragments of the finite cosmos, which so far as we know is itself finite. (I have never accepted the hypothesis of a spatially infinite cosmos, and deny it makes sense. The merely infinite is the merely conceptual, Whitehead was perhaps first to say it: “All actuality is finite.”) Whitehead also speaks of each actual entity attaining its “satisfaction.” This too I take literally. Any experience is better than none, better, that is, for the person in question. It is not rationally for one’s own sake that one commits suicide, for being dead is nothing positive for the one who died. Indeed no person can be dead, as Shakespeare knew. A carcass is not a person; even when alive we are more than just our bodies, as Plato knew and said clearly. Plato also said, and we know why he did so, that after death we are reborn in new bodies. Many of us think he thereby weakened his position. In any case, that we require our bodies to exist does not prove we merely are those bodies. Requirement or inclusion is not identity, by any logical principle I know. I require my gene mixture but I am certainly not identical with it. Nor are identical twins, as two of my brothers have been, simply identical with one another, either in their minds or their bodies. The human psycho-physical system is the most complex entity which acts as a single agent on this planet.

Though it is not really better for any of us to be dead than alive, it may be better for the world and for God. We were not born to live forever and our proper time may be up. Fanatical attachment to mere life in human form is no saner than any other fanaticism. I deeply admire whales and elephants, and a person in a coma, or an early fetus, is less impressive by far to me. The history of fanaticism is dismal, a record of slaughter not just of fetuses but of persons in the full value sense. One-issue people are misfortunes for us all.

What we can do about the injustices in our society or on our planet is practical, partly political and partly by private individual or organized charity, though such organizations have, I suppose, their own politics.

David Griffin (See David Griffin, Hartshorne, God, and Relativity Physics has, since I first became aware of him, been one of my best readers who was not also a class student of mine. Unfortunately the problem he discusses are closely related to problems in physics so technical that my mathematical limitations, limitations of age, and the pressure of other unfinished projects nearer to my areas of competence cause me to leave them for others to deal with. I recently read a physicist who seemed to think even the Big Bang is not a settled matter, and I gather that Hoyle is still unconvinced. My new table of 16 (or 32) options in thinking conceptually about God yields an argument for just one of the 32 options so strong that I find it reasonable to hope that metaphysics and physics will between them find a way to solve the problems Griffin outlines with characteristic ability.

In conclusion I wish to express my appreciation to the other contributors and the Center for all they and it has done for so many people. For one example, thanks to one intercultural meeting it arranged I actually found out why Mahayana Buddhism came to be in Fa Tsang of the Hwa Yen tradition in 6th or 7th century China. Another example, it got John Hick, leading British Christian philosopher, to the Center and made him knowledgeable about Buddhism, and other non-English religions, with interesting results that I came to know about. Add Process Studies and Ford’s editing, how much has been made to happen!


* There is now a superb biography of Charles S. Peirce, with an excellent concluding essay on his thought by the historian, who is also a capable philosopher, Professor Joseph Brent, who has become a close friend, although I had not heard of him until a year or so ago. We seem to agree not only about Peirce but extraordinarily well about many important things. His book comes out from The University of Indiana Press this year — the press, blessed coincidence, which published my Born to Song; Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song, and will reissue it, also this year. Brent has been working on Peirce since 1935, only ten years after I began working on him. He and I are in some ways the two among the living who have had the best opportunities to know about Peirce and his world. He knows the complete Harvard manuscripts better than I do. They were added to after I left Harvard. We seem to have no important disagreement however. Where my impressions of CP, as I call him for short, disagree with his it is he who knows. This is particularly true of CP’s first marriage, of which I acquired an extremely one-sided view from a nephew who lived in the house of the couple at the time when the marriage was about to be ended by the husband. Both marriages were emotionally intense and tragically up and down in happiness and misery. The man and his loves were unstable psychically. CP’s troubles came mostly from his domineering father, who however got him his first and only long-lasting means of livelihood. It was a tragic but in the end richly productive life of a great genius who near the end of his life came fairly close to what I consider the central religious truths. At the age of 14 he stated the basic principle: Love is the foundation of everything good. In a poem I said much the same thing when a year or two older. Even Whitehead talks less about love than Peirce and I have. CP got it from his mother, not his father.